Do you want your green “light” or “dark?”

Sept. 6, 2010

We interviewed Jeremy Rifkin at a science teacher’s convention back in the 1990s. Rifkin, a leading proponent of green lifestyles, is a spellbinding speaker. He claims to be an important consultant to many European countries. And indeed many have adopted some of his recommendations. One of the most important is his advice to ban genetically modified seeds. He explained the green agenda this way:

“We have to develop a green life style … Only six percent of the world’s population lives in this country yet we’re using a third of the resources of this planet as we are responsible for 28% of the global warming…. Every statistic I’ve seen says we are going to run out of fossil fuels. Deforestation has become uncontrollable, much worse than we predicted just five years ago … we are going to have to learn that the more we consume the less resources are available on the earth for other human beings and other creatures.”

Not all greens would agree 100% with Rifkin but I think it is fair to say that most do hold similar views. Let’s examine the green movement that is popular today, its virtues and its vices.

What I would call “light” green is valuable, even critical for life yesterday, today and tomorrow. One of my heroes, Buckminster Fuller, often promoted what he called a “world game.” The idea was that we should work hard, long, and creatively to find ways to bring 100% of the world’s people to a decent standard of living with the bare minimum of environmental damage. In other words all the world could be rich and it could be a sustainable rich. I agree.

Another current guru of green ideas, Amory Lovins, founder and president of the Rocky Mountain Institute, told us in an interview a few years ago that “I don’t use the term energy conservation because to about a third of Americans it means privation, discomfort, curtailment, doing without. What I’m talking about is doing more with less by using energy in a smarter way that saves money.” Again, I wholeheartedly agree.

“Conservation” of energy is questionable but conservation of wilderness and care for our air, water and land are admirable goals of “light” green proponents. I consider myself one. This kind of conservation, of course, means  honest and meticulous work to prevent pollution and to make our air, water and soil as healthful as we can. It also means protecting wilderness areas and doing all we can to prevent species extinctions.

If a green lifestyle means all of the above it merits our enthusiastic support.

On the other hand there is a “dark” green side that does not. In the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column a few years ago the writer claimed that “everyone agrees that if the rest of the world were to live as we do in America, it would be a disaster.” I don’t agree. And neither do a lot of other people who have more knowledge and expertise than I do. On the contrary, we hold with Bucky Fuller, Amory Lovins and Abraham Lincoln that it should be a goal of all right-thinking people as Lincoln once said “that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

“All” to me means all U.S. citizens but also all world citizens. And having an “equal chance” means being rich enough to go to school, eat well, travel widely, be free from disease and violence and in general to have a lifestyle at least as rich as the one most Americans (most, not all of course) enjoy today.

To get there one of the most crucial tests is whether we can keep learning to do more with less (light green), or try instead to do less with more (dark green). There is a big difference.

Start with the most important need of human beings, food. For many centuries, for many millennia, famines and malnutrition have plagued humankind. People have starved to death or suffered crippling malnutrition all through human history. Many still do. But today few people in the industrialized world of Western Europe, Japan or North America suffer from malnutrition or starvation. How did we get so lucky?

The answer is not luck, nor is it as complicated as some make it out to be. We got there by virtue of the scientific and the industrial revolutions working in an environment of free-trade and a predominantly capitalist economic system. Free-trade means competition and win-win transactions. Both sides win in free-trade and world society as a whole gets richer, more prosperous, and less prone to famine, malnutrition, violence and disease.

In feudal times all over the world (and in primitive pre-civilization times) economic transactions were mostly zero-sum ones. If I gain more land, gold or serfs you have to lose land, gold or serfs. Society then had some high points and heroes, but on the whole it stagnated and 98% of the people had to make do with famines, malnutrition and disease. So much so that the average life expectancy was less than 35 years (even for the elite).

Translate that history into today’s “dark” green movement and it should give us pause. Activists like Paul Ehrlich, Michael Moore, Jeremy Rifkin or the New Yorker writer quoted above would have you believe that the world is still a zero-sum place. “The more we consume, the fewer resources are available on the earth for other human beings and other creatures.” If a few people get “obscenely wealthy,” the rest of us will be poor. Wealth and resources to “dark greens” are like a big pumpkin pie. If I get a bigger piece, you will have to be satisfied with a smaller one. And the more people there are, the smaller piece each can have.

A common corollary is the belief as stated by Rifkin and others that we are rich because we have stolen resources from poor countries or at the very least we use way more than our share. Some today claim the 2% at the top are rich because they have taken advantage of the 98% at the bottom. The answer usually proposed is some kind of socialist system to control population size and to share the wealth. Unfortunately this solution only too often results in sharing the poverty.

If we really did live in zero-sum world society today, the only moral thing to do would be to cut back drastically and dramatically on our Western life styles. At a minimum that would mean using many fewer resources, having fewer children or none, stop wasting so much wealth on gadgets and luxuries. It would also mean living in smaller houses, discouraging suburban life, buying food only from local farmers, restricting the import of food and goods from other countries, using public transportation more and private vehicles less. It would also mean we should travel less, restrict or abandon free-trade, discourage competition, put moratoriums on oil exploration, mining ventures, nuclear power construction and genetic crop use, increase government control and in general bring down our standards of living so that the rest of the world can have a few more resources. Maybe then they could eke out a decent living too.

Bringing down our standard of living is not politically popular so even the most fervent of dark greens rarely promote this part of their agenda. They also do not want to point out that the unfortunate and unplanned result of all of these cut backs mean fewer jobs, smaller profits, reduced incomes, lower GNP, more recession, slower progress in developing countries, reduced ability to provide pensions and health care, and in general a reduced standard of living for all.

I say hogwash. We do not live in a zero-sum world today. Or at least we don’t have to.

In 1850 the U.S. had a population of around 30 million people, over 80% of them small farmers, most of them dirt poor. Each farm could feed itself and maybe half a person more. Today the U.S. has a population over 300 million people with only 2% of them farmers. And yet the 300 million people today are much better fed, much healthier and much richer than the 30 million people were in 1850. The average life expectancy has grown from around 40 years to over 70 years. Each farm today can feed itself and a hundred persons more. Where did all that extra food and wealth come from? It certainly could not have been stolen from the poor countries of the world. They have never had any extra food or wealth. They still don’t.

The answer is that our plentiful supply of food and wealth came from the first principle of “light green” economics, doing more with less. We have expanded the soil acreage in this country by very little. We have the same amount of water and sun. But we have used those natural resources with much greater efficiency. We have done a lot more with a lot less.

In the case of farms and food production, the new abundance came from many things: using tractors instead of horses; electrifying farms; adding factory-made fertilizers to the soil; turning to larger more mechanized farms; finding better ways to irrigate; developing and using new genetically improved seeds; breeding new varieties of farm animals; inventing and using better insecticides and herbicides that kept weeds, insects, molds, mice and other pests from siphoning off as much food as they did for centuries past; vastly expanding cheaper and faster transportation so that our diets can be more varied and if one region has a drought, food can be imported from regions with a surplus; and vastly improving communication, including education, advertising, and most recently high-tech computerized equipment.

The “dark” green movement often opposes many of these do-more-with-less technologies. They raise strong objections to genetic engineering of plants, animals and microbes. They decry the use of chemical factory-made fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Some support Locavare, eating only foods produced in a few miles of the local farmer’s markets. Many demonize supermarkets, fast food outlets and importing lamb from New Zealand, blueberries from Chile, oranges from Florida or vegetables from California. Many oppose the damming of rivers and using the water for irrigation. They are often scornful of the “green” revolution that has brought such dramatic increases in food to poor countries. Some of the more radical even propose going back to horses instead of tractors. Most “dark greens” also actively (and effectively) promote anti-chemical and anti-plastic biases. They advise instead using only “organic” foods and “natural” products. (Can any food can be non-organic? Can any product can be unnatural?)

Organic foods may or may not be more flavorful and environmentally benign. The evidence is weak. Natural cosmetics, shopping bags, furniture, clothing and what have you may or may not be more energy efficient and environmentally benign. The evidence is weak. What is certain is that organic and natural are more expensive, doing less with more. And were this organic/natural view to become the dominant one in the modern agricultural and industrial world, quite a few billion people would starve to death and quite a few billion more would be condemned to malnutrition and zero-sum poverty for the foreseeable future.

One bizarre example. A few years ago the African country of Zambia was having one of its periodic droughts and millions of people were on the verge of starvation. The President of Zambia had received tons of grain from the U.S. that would have prevented mass starvation. He declined to use any of it because he thought that some of it may have come from genetically modified crops, a belief that dark greens had convinced him was bad. The result–millions of his citizens felt first hand the horror of dark green ideology.

Summing up, in so far as “green” means protecting the environment and doing more with less, what I would call “light green,” I think we are on solid progressive ground and I say go for it. It is the way we have progressed in the past and it points the way to future progress.

I’m going to let the late Marion Clawson have the last word. Dr. Clawson was the head of the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior and spent his life studying and administering our nation’s natural resources. He had retired from his work as a forestry researcher with the foundation Resources for the Future when he gave us an interview.

“Well certainly there is an enormous amount of popular interest in and stimulated by the media in the gloom and doom.  Go back to Malthus and you can go back even earlier than that, population is growing, how are we going to feed them, yet the fact is food supply has increased as fast as population has increased we have more often had surpluses than not, but I don’t think the answer lies in us cutting, well, I think we could cut back on waste, and I think there are more efficient ways of using resources, but the probability is that the rest of the world is going to move up.

“Today half the world is poor and half the world is rich, 300 years ago all the world was poor, 300 years from now all the world could be rich by today’s standards, and I think that is the answer.  We have always been interested in this answer at Resources for the Future and I called this cautious optimism.  Sure there are problems, there are always problems, this is what challenges you, but we think that we can solve the problems, we think that the picture as a whole is favorable and good, we think that contrary to many, life today is a lot richer and better than it was a generation ago.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. The best summary (and expansion) of this edition is my own new program, Resources, Populations and Climate Change. As the old Chrysler salesman, Lee Iacocca, used to say “if you can find a better program, buy it.”

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