The social benefits of peasoup fog

I just responded to a comment on my “10 reasons to reject global warming” post, and since I often get variations on these questions, I thought I’d turn that response, with minor edits and additions, into a separate post.

Progress or pollution, or progress and pollution?Here are the questions:

1) Would you risk the Earth for your carefree lifestyle?

2) I’m pretty sure you’ve seen heavily industrialized areas before (such as Beijing)…I promise you that that smog was not there before we humans got around to letting out excess carbon all the time. How do you propose cleaning up our mess? By sitting around watching TV all day? (Not that I’m saying that’s what you do, but you get my drift.)

Both questions involve fallacies of various kinds, so I’ll address them in some detail.

1) I’m not risking anything. Rejecting global warming orthodoxy — and a government-imposed “solution” to the “crisis” — doesn’t constitute a “carefree lifestyle”. It simply means a different view of the environment, and a different view on how to solve environmental problems. I don’t believe that the Earth is being risked. The Earth will be just fine. The environment has proven to be a pretty robust system, with a tendency to return to stable equilibrium, rather than a fragile system whose unstable equilibrium is easily disturbed for good. Besides which, there’s risk in anything, whether it’s planting a field of wheat, drilling a borehole shaft, building a house, taking a job, crossing the road. There’s also risk in not doing any of those things.

Surely one doesn’t go around asking people, “Would you risk your life to cross the road? Is it really worth your life to get to the other side?” Surely one doesn’t advocate laws that restrict road crossing only to people who can demonstrate that they have no alternative, have paid their road-crossing tax, have undertaken at their own cost a documented study of traffic conditions in the area so their road-crossing has the minimum possible impact, and undertake not to cross the road more than three times a day? (Insert gratuitous chicken joke here.)

2) Environmental pollution and global warming orthodoxy are not the same thing. Saying that carbon emissions cause smog is not the same as saying they cause global warming. Smog can be tolerated, dissipated, or minimised. Global warming, by contrast, is supposedly an irreversible catastrophe making life on Earth hard or impossible.

Not believing that global warming is a catastrophic crisis, or rejecting a government-imposed tax-and-regulate approach to it, does not mean one favours pollution, slash-and-burn agriculture, or not caring about the environment. There’s a difference between opposing modern environmentalism and opposing a healthy, sustainable environment or sensible nature conservation.

If I said the war on drugs isn’t working, would you ask me whether I favour mainlining kids on heroin? If I said I’m opposed to banning alcohol, would you ask me whether I want to die of cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease? Would you ask how I propose to deal with drunken bar fights and marital violence while alcohol remains legal? This question on pollution is just as absurd. The “drift” is irrelevant, and does not address any of the reasons why I claimed I don’t believe the orthodox dogma about global warming, its causes, and its solutions.

But let me address pollution, since it often comes up as a convenient way to change the subject from arguments about climate change. Pollution is something that people won’t tolerate when they can afford not to tolerate it. Look around the world: pollution is inversely correlated with prosperity. The richer people get, the less pollution they are willing to accept, and the more they care about the environment. They can’t get prosperous without some measure of pollution or environmental damage, but they also can’t get prosperous without giving some care to the sustainability of their economic growth. This is why the best way to ensure both health and prosperity, to ensure both economic growth and environmental sustainability, is to grant private property rights that ensure people will consider their land and environmental resources as assets to be wisely exploited for long-term gain.

London is a classic example. During the Industrial Revolution, Londeners bore the burden of air and water pollution, in return for remarkable economic development. Today, London’s air is cleaner than it has been at any time in the last four centuries, the streets are no longer covered in ankle-deep manure, starvation and plague are unheard of, and the average citizen lives three times as long and many times as well. Pollution was a temporary cost, which is not tolerated in a prosperous, successful society. In fact, the pollution peak came 120 years ago. It was since then, the most prosperous time of all, which saw the introduction of the fossil-fuel-burning motor vehicle, in which the majority of historic smog was eliminated.

The history of London’s infamous “peasoup fog” (adapted from Lomborg, 2001, p165)

Part of the reason is that our predominant fuels have contained progressively less carbon. We used to burn straw and wood. Then we burnt coal. Then oil. Then natural gas. Each contains less carbon than its predecessor, and there’s no reason to believe that this trend will stop.

It is also instructive to note that the most filthy industrial areas of all have been in regions where governments run industrial production on behalf of the people, instead of companies producing for private profit. Examples are common in former Soviet regions, for example — and indeed in China, to a considerable extent. Where there aren’t any property rights, or people are not free to wield power over their government or industrial organisations, that’s where things go badly wrong. That’s where people are unable to take care of their own wellbeing, and where people with no stake in society and the environment get to mismanage it however they please. To this day, the most serious environmental problems occur in regions where there aren’t any private property rights, and the tragedy of the commons is the rule. Think fishing, logging, hunting, for example.

So in short:

1) Irrelevant question, because both assumptions — that the Earth is at risk, or that the alternative to global warmism is a “carefree lifestyle” — are false.

2) I propose that people get rich enough to sit around watching TV all day. That way, they won’t tolerate pollution, will want a healthy environment, and can afford to invest in cleaner, more sustainable environmental resources.