Posted by: bmeverett | June 9, 2011

Friedman Watch 6-8-11


I haven’t written about Tom Friedman for a while, but he hasn’t published many columns as bad as the one in the June 8 New York Times entitled “The Earth is Full”. Mr. Friedman is offering up several of the standard fallacies that plague our discussion of environmental issues.

Here’s the first fallacy. Mr. Friedman claims that we’ll be asking ourselves a few years from now:
“How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once? ‘The only answer can be denial,’ argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur…”
The use of the word “denial” in this sense can be traced back to Freud, who defined it as a situation in which a person faces a fact so painful that his mind cannot accept it. In other words, the views of the Climate Change Community (CCC) are so obvious and so correct that disagreement is evidence of a psychological flaw. No room here for legitimate differences of view among intelligent, thoughtful people. Just as in the old Soviet Union, off to the loony-bin for dissenters, who would otherwise prevent the really smart people from getting their way. I’m sorry, Mr. Friedman, but your superior intellect does not free you from the need to convince other people that your views and proposed action plan are correct.

Here’s the second fallacy. Mr. Friedman quotes Paul Gilding again, this time paraphrasing the Chinese Environment Minister (there’s an oxymoron if there ever was one):
“the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies”
The key phrase here is “given current technologies.” “If-Then” statements are useful but dangerous. The statement “If you break your arm, then you should go to the hospital” is useful. The statement “If you spot a Tyrannosaurus Rex in your neighborhood, then sell your house and move” is not useful, because the “if” part is absurd and not worth considering. The latter statement, while technically correct, is a singularly unconvincing argument to sell your house and move. At a time when technology is accelerating at an unprecedented rate in every sphere of life, why on Earth should we use current technology as our benchmark for understanding human limitations?

By this definition, the Earth has always been “full”. In 10,000 BC, there were roughly 1 million human beings on the planet. Given agricultural, medical and other technologies available at the time, that was about all the planet could handle. In 1700, the population of London was about 500,000, and the city was a complete mess. Filthy air, open sewers, disease, crime, plague and catastrophic fires were prevalent. London now has a population of about 8 million, and the city is dramatically cleaner and safer – all because of technological improvements. If Mr. Friedman had been alive in 1700, he would undoubtedly have demanded a halt to population and economic growth, arguing that London could only get worse, given current technologies.

Here’s fallacy number 3:
“We will realize, [Gilding] predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less.”
This view assumes that the stresses on our environment come primarily from over-consuming Americans who insist on buying things they don’t need. The richest countries in the world – North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia/New Zealand – have all achieved substantial environmental improvements in the last century. Their air and water are cleaner. Their cities are much more livable. Poverty is at such low levels that obesity, once the hallmark of wealth and success, is now rampant among the poor. The US has gained forest lands over the last 100 years.

One of the reasons that Climate Change has become so popular among environmentalists is that it is the last issue where rich countries are doing poorly. Unlike air and water quality problems, there is a broad correlation between carbon emissions and GDP. We know that air pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides and particulates have measurable adverse health effects. The same is true for water pollution. Carbon dioxide, however, has no known health impacts and is generally benign if the global warming hypothesis is wrong. If there is no catastrophic man-made global warming, then the argument for limiting living standards evaporates.

The world’s real environmental problems are centered in developing countries, particularly China, India and Brazil, where people are rich enough to create a significant environmental footprint, but not yet wealthy enough to spend significant resources on environmental mitigation. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2010 the US had a per capita income of about $47,000 per year. China’s per capita income was about $7,500, while Brazil’s was $11,000 and India’s just over $3,000. It is more than likely that these countries will start caring more about the environment as they get richer. If they remain at their current living standard, however, their environmental footprint will remain disastrously high.

Mr. Friedman’s article is the first time I have seen an argument in favor of sloth and self-indulgence as virtues superior to hard-work and productivity. He should try his argument about “working less and owning less” on an Indian peasant unable to feed his family. According to an article in the July, 2006 edition of Washingtonian magazine, Mr. Friedman lives in an 11,400-square-foot house, valued at about $10 million, on 7½ acres. I don’t begrudge him his wealth, which he has earned legitimately, but he needs to be careful here. In April, 2011, the average home in the DC area was valued at $350,000, so Mr. Friedman could reduce his local real estate holdings by more than 96% and still have an average living standard in Washington. He might consider doing that before he tells the rest of us to limit what we own.

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