Ironically the most significant barrier to developing and implementing a viable environmental strategy appears to be the environmental debate itself. It has long left its home territory of science and ventured into the less predictable public arena of green groups, corporate interests, and public watchdogs. Politicization of environmental issues has lead to a degree of polarization among various interests that seriously interferes with objective scientific evaluation of the key issues. Yet it is precisely that type of critical analysis that is crucial to preserve the global environment. It is certainly not a case of merely doing something "for the environment" to make us feel better for having been sympathetic to the plight of the ecosystem but of consistently contributing to what is really needed to protect the biosphere.
The key environmental caution articulated by Malthus back in 1798 certainly remains valid today. Critics and skeptic environmentalists have repeatedly pointed out that Malthusian predictions have never materialized as yet. The population has indeed increased as predicted, with the overall affluence improved globally, but quite contrary to Malthus's expectation, we have more than enough food to feed the masses. But also, we have so far been running ahead of Malthus in a race where our advantage has been technical innovation. Technology has certainly not run out of steam, and the promise of coming days of new cheaper energy sources and alternate abundant (even perhaps) renewable materials are certainly credible from a technical vantage point. The crucial issue, however, is one of timing. Can humanity maintain the advantage it presently enjoys, approximately matching the rate of depletion of the current set of fossil fuel energy and material resources given our rate of progress in developing the next set of replacement resources and technologies? Specifically, can the petroleum energy reserves (now known and yet to be discovered) last long enough for us to develop, for instance, practical cost-effective fusion energy or to make the breakthrough in efficient harvesting of solar power? Can we stretch our strategic metal resources far enough until better manufacturing technologies no longer dependent on these can be discovered and developed? Can these goals be achieved at the rate needed without causing global environmental ills such as climate forcing? That is the relevant articulation of Malthus's caution.
A reasonable answer to these questions is that we do not know for sure but are justifiably optimistic. Our estimates of the longevity of available natural resources crucial to life as we know it are woefully inadequate because we do not know the full extent of reserves or the rate of depletion reliably. We know even less about the rate of relevant technology breakthroughs in the future. Therefore, we cannot know which of these is the faster process, but we should be convinced of the need to run ahead of Malthus at all future times. Most would agree with this conclusion but differ on their interpretation of what "running ahead" means in practical terms. Two schools of thought, the progeny of the aforementioned polarization of the community, are evident in the literature.
Some, including scientists, have adopted a somewhat narrow vision of the task at hand. In this vision, achieving economic development and global affluence is counterbalanced by environmental damage and loss of resources. The logic of the position assumes that humanity draws upon a constant resource pool and the two activities are therefore mutually exclusive. Thus, slowing down development (and therefore our economic well-being) becomes synonymous with environmental preservation. Implicit in the argument is an unreasonable and premature rejection of the promise of technology.
Others propose that we should live as we have been living, continuing to boost the energy intensity of our life-styles, focusing on economic development and the social well-being of the global citizenry. It is, they argue with some credibility, the economic development that invariably fuels and facilitates high levels of environmental stewardship. We, the hare, are so far ahead that the Malthusian tortoise can hardly hope to catch up with us. The enormous power of technology will save us each and every time, substituting resources, cleaning up the environment, serving its master unfailingly (until perhaps humanity faces entropic death of the system at the very end of our days!).
The consumer, using the powerful tools of his or her voting right in a democracy and his or her enormous collective pocketbook, endorses one or the other of these groups. Issues relating to the environment, however, are complex enough to lead objective unbiased scientists to debate for years with each other. The lack of time, resources, and inclination of the general public to study environmental issues and come to educated conclusions defers this important task to governments, educators, and activists. The public therefore tends to vote on perceptions, listening to the loudest voice with articulate claims repeated most often.
Both camps are wrong in their rather extreme interpretation of what the "race against Malthus" really entails. Truth of the matter is that we cannot guess the timing of needed future innovations. Prudence therefore dictates that we consume at a rate to maximize the chance of such technologies emerging in a relevant time scale. For instance, shale oil reserves do exist, and even with present-day technology is likely to be extracted to provide oil at less than twice the today's cost of oil. To therefore argue that we are free of any energy problems in the short or the long term is simplistic. Environmental cost of producing and using shale-derived oil is an integral part of this solution and needs to be considered as well and be reflected in the cost of that oil. In studying scarcity, no commodity can be considered in isolation; the sociopolitical impact of using the resource and how it impacts availability of other commodities in an international scenario of anarchic states need to be taken into account as well. A particularly dangerous line of reasoning, which appears on the surface to be somewhat persuasive, is that if the "cost" of (foreseeable and known) damage to the environmental is less than the (estimated) cost of repairing the damage after the fact, then it is best to ignore the problem. This logic reflects a lack of appreciation of the interrelated nature of the environment and how damage to any single facet of the environment can have far-reaching effects on others and the global ecosystem as a whole.
It is equally simplistic to argue that since economic growth means using resources, we should slow down growth to conserve the resources. It is after all the communities with more disposable income that are able to practice environmental stewardship at the needed level. Innovations that would save the day are likely to come from industry looking for better ways to produce and market energy.
An appropriate balanced strategy would be a two-pronged one: (a) conserve resources through waste prevention, reuse, and recycling of resources where the energy savings and externality considerations warrant it, and (b) provide incentives and otherwise facilitate innovation pertinent to key environmental issues within academia as well as private industry. The present course we are on likely overemphasizes the former and is inadequate in the latter. We rely heavily on the free-market mechanism for stewardship of the commons and for timely innovations. Free markets are well known to operate poorly when it comes to protecting the commons. They do well in promoting target innovations that can help the environment, particularly with incentives and rewards to promote the activity. However, being market driven, their innovative effort will not always be equitably distributed over the landscape of urgently needed environmental innovations. Regulatory mechanisms alone do not elicit corporate environmental interest and fall short of exploiting the full capability of the technical prowess of the establishment to benefit the environment.
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