Rationality and Global Environmentalism
Science vs. Scientism

My great-grandfather Eduard--who had the fine judgment to make America his home--is still vividly reembered in the family lore. He was, among other things, a very modern man. His opinions--he had many of them--were typically progressive, sometimes strenuously so. He had studied at Heidelberg University, then one of Europe’s better-known centers for research in the natural sciences, and ever after fashioned himself as a champion of knowledge, reason, and critical inquiry.

He also had a particular theory about automotive transportation: he was firmly convinced that the horseless carriage, running as it did off a volatile and highly inflammable fuel known in this country as gasoline, was a contraption liable to explode at any moment, suddenly and without warning.

He lived long enough to see his theory put to the test. The mass-manufacture of passenger cars took place during his lifetime. As it happened, in America during the Roaring Twenties there were really very few instances of spontaneously exploding automobiles -- actually, to the best of my knowledge, none at all. Even so, to the end of his days he traveled by car only under protest--and only if the gas tank was left as close as possible to empty, since that condition, in his estimate, lowered the probability of vehicle detonation. My great-grandfather’s arguably somewhat eccentric relationship with the internal combustion engine did not, I would submit, make him any less modern a man. Quite the contrary: one might instead see in his perspective something quintessentially modern- or at least, representative of our modern era. We might even say that, in his own modest way, he was a sort of modern pioneer. For the very sort of reasoning that shaped his own individual behavior towards the automobile now promises to be embraced on an immense scale, guiding or more accurately, misguiding--the actions of national governments around the world. It is the sort of reasoning that gave rise to the recent global climate agreement in Kyoto, Japan. It is a style of reasoning that has inspires much -perhaps most government activity involving what we now call the "global environment." This reasoning sails under the flag of "scientific knowledge," but that is a false flag.

Two generations ago, the Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek offered a penetrating examination of a peculiarly modern version of "the abuse of reason:" a syndrome he labeled "scientism." "Scientistic" thinking, as Hayek described it, garbed itself in the trappings of science (including the jargon of science) while neglecting, ignoring, or even defying the approach to the pursuit of knowledge that is at the very heart of the scientific method. Although Hayek then was particularly concerned with the misapplication within the social studies of models and paradigms that had been derived from the physical sciences, "scientism" also nicely captures the outlook of our new "global thinkers," so busily engaged today in saving the planet through far-reaching demographic and economic therapies.

Just as my forebear offered seemingly technical explanations to justify his premonition of exploding jalopies, today’s "global thinkers" bring a pretense of science into combat with systems that obsess them--systems which they nevertheless ultimately do not understand.

In fairness to our contemporary "global thinkers," we must note that the systems they worry about appear immeasurably more complicated than the mechanical motor. The interplay between demographic change, economic change, and environmental change looks extraordinarily complex at the national level, and still more difficult to apprehend when the whole world is the unit under consideration. But a scientific approach to these issues would be alert to the limits of available data, to the potentially conflicting interpretation of existing observations, and perhaps above all, to the possibility that facts and knowledge at our disposal might allow us to test--and thereby falsify some of the theories or hypotheses that we currently entertain. To a perplexing degree, however, the most ardent proponents of far-reaching global action in the name of the "global environment" also seem to be the very "global thinkers" least willing to examine critically the scientific evidence that purportedly necessitate the policies they recommend.

When my great-grandfather adopted what the philosopher Karl Popper once termed "immunizing tactics or stratagems" for protecting his cherished theory against falsification, the result was, in the main, mild entertainment for the relatively small circle of people who knew him. By contrast, when the modern state subscribes to an ambitious agenda for the "global environment," and employs those selfsame "immunizing tactics and stratagems" to protect its supposedly rationally established policy priorities, the results are likely to be neither amusing nor harmless.

Think for a moment about the spectacle at Kyoto. The hundreds of delegates who assembled there were instructed by their governments to work on a treaty that would commit countries to controlling or reducing their emissions of so-called "greenhouse gases" in the years just ahead, in the name of preventing a significant bout of "global warming" by the end of the 21st century. For a moment, put the fine points of their negotiating instructions aside: consider instead the scientific constraints under which they labored!

For one thing, there is the unresolved dispute among specialists as to actual temperature trends in our atmosphere over the past several decades: depending upon whose data one uses, we can suggest that the atmosphere has been warming--or cooling--or both. For another thing, there is the evident uncertainty about the impact of changes in atmospheric "greenhouse gases" on atmospheric temperatures: suffice it to say that researchers in this realm have yet to devise models that would accurately predict the past, much less the future. To confuse matters further, the likely impact of so-called "anthropogenic," or man-made, emissions of "greenhouse gases" on concentrations of these compounds found in the atmosphere remains a matter of some imprecision, given our limited current understanding of the capacities of what are called "carbon sinks" (forests, oceans and the like) for absorbing the carbon dioxide emitted into the air.

Even estimates of anthropogenic emissions--from a theoretical standpoint, perhaps the least vexatious of the issues just raised--are more than somewhat problematic. In the judgment of the researchers who devised the method now commonly used for calculating the amount of CO2 emissions from human use fossil fuels, for example, the global margin of error for their estimates for any given year ranged up to plus or minus 10%. These are, however, global margins of error, which by their nature reduce the margins of error on estimates for subsidiary components--such as, for example, emissions at the national level.

Forget, for a moment, about the chain of presumptions needed to link a given level of "greenhouse gas" generation by a specific population to a particular change in global temperatures in subsequent years: the negotiators could not even be confident that the country targets they eventually set for changes in emissions will exceed the margins of error on current production!

Let me be clear: the theory of an anthropogenic impact on global temperatures is inherently plausible, and that with further research it should eventually be possible to specify the dynamics of any human contribution to climate change--if this theory is in fact validated. In an existence so very full of uncertainties, moreover, it would be unreasonable -- indeed, hazardous--to demand the stewards of the public weal stay their hand until the very last scintilla of doubt over some pressing policy issue were finally erased. A number of measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions could be broadly implemented today--but such measures, as the Economist magazine carefully pointed out, derive their merit from the likely expectation the present value of their benefits exceeds the present value of their costs. No such claim can be made by the conferees at Kyoto, whose activities, if successful, would dictate a radical and expensive reconfiguration of global patterns of economic activity that might (or might not) affect the climate in a way that might (or might not) protect the quality of life on this earth. The approach to knowledge revealed by the policymakers currently gathered at Kyoto is thus, to use Karl Popper’s taxonomy, "nonscientific"--and fundamentally SO.

The Kyoto conference, of course, is not the first instance in which international policymakers have approached problems of the global environment from a fundamentally nonscientific bent. Think back, for example, to the Cairo Population Conference (ICPD) of 1994. There, delegates from over 170 countries signed on to a 20 year "Programme Of Action" for curbing world population growth. The "Program"--which called, for, among other things, a quadrupling of expenditures on family planning services in low-income countries--set as its target the containment of world population in the year 2015 to under 7.5 billion people.

Now, never mind that a generation of studies on the subject have persuasively suggested that the subsidization of modern contraceptives can be expected to have at most a minor influence on the desired or completed family size of parents. Even if the Cairo agenda were somehow successful in actually shaping the world’s future population trends, the conferees who endorsed that document lacked--as do we all--any corpus of serious research to suggest that the world would be better fed, better schooled, or just generally better off in the year 2015 with the population totals the "Programme of Action" preferred rather than with the higher totals it dreaded!

Some commentators have suggested that advocates of "scientistic" solutions to problems of the "global environment" were simply adherents of a special secular faith. Upon reflection, that may not be quite correct. That formulation blurs the important distinction between religion and magic. What we see at work today in Kyoto, and in the U.S. State Department, and in many other seats of self-styled "global thinking" might better be described as the sway of a secular superstition.

In his book on the decline of magic in pre-modern England, Keith Thomas recalled the source of magic’s powerful allure: "As an alternative to helpless impotence, the savage falls back upon the substitute activity of magical ritual ... By its agency he is converted from a helpless bystander to an active agent."

Thomas further observed that "the role of magic in modern society may be more extensive than we yet appreciate."

Indeed so: when the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs reportedly insists that "overpopulation" is the root cause of the ongoing atrocities in Bosnia (a place, by the way, where fertility levels were subreplacement even before Tito’s death); when the Executive Director of a United Nations Agency warns Congress that a $ 200 million cut in annual U.S. population aid will mean an additional 17 to 18 million Third World pregnancies per year; when the Vice President of the United States writes of an impending "environmental holocaust without precedent," and justifies the ambitious international program he wishes enacted over global population growth and economic activities as part of a "larger war to save the earth," we must pause and take note.

Some critics might write these outbursts off as mere expressions of a pure and simple millenarianism, but the authors of those declarations are actually demanding something more of us. It is not for us to accept their worldview: they want us to clap our hands and believe.

The affection such "global thinkers" demonstrate for towering new edifices of worldwide economic and political controls, through which their good works would be enforced, can be explained diversely. But one aspect of their predilection may be understood in terms of the deep and abiding appeal of magic, even to the modern man. After all: the "substitute activities" to which Keith Thomas referred must be convincing to the followers of the cult--and those activities may seem all the more convincing and real if they are made to entail real and demonstrable sacrifice.

Some time ago, I participated in an unclassified intelligence community conference on environmental degradation and national security in post-Communist Europe -- research, it was intimated, that had been requested by the very highest levels of the administration. As everyone knows, the Soviet-Bloc governments bequeathed an appalling environmental legacy to their successors: dying forests, poisoned water, and filthy air all figure in this dismaying tableau. At one point a medical specialist at this conference reviewed the array of health risks these Eastern European environmental problems could pose to local populations, and his prognosis sounded dire indeed. But I wasn’t sure I had understood him correctly so I asked a question. Which would, I inquired, have a greater anticipated impact on mortality and morbidity in Eastern Europe in the years ahead: a "silver bullet" that somehow redressed all of its environmental ills this very moment--or a 20 percent reduction in the local incidence of cigarette smoking? He waved his hand impatiently. "The smoking, of course," he replied. Then he stopped, took a breath, and went on to explain why that wasn’t a very good question.

In fact, the question was highly pertinent. For what we might call the "micro-environment" matters greatly to the well-being of each and every person on our planet. What is more, we not only understand the factors that shape this "microenvironment" far better than the forces at play in the so called "global environment": we can craft policy interventions for it that offer with some confidence the promise of a significant human benefit at a less significant human cost. Too often, our new "global thinkers" appear to be unable (to invert the cliche) to see the trees for the forests. If they would only pay more attention to the "micro-environments" in which our billions of fellow humans lived, they might glean a rather different impression of our current "environmental condition"--and of the "environmental challenges" lying immediately before us.

Although meaningful worldwide data for a number of "microenvironmental" indicators are now available, three of these indicators may be especially relevant.

The first is nutritional availability--a potentially critical factor, one might say, in any person’s "microenvironment." Although national and international data on population and food supplies are far from perfect, the trends they outline are unambiguous. Between the early 1960s and the mid 1990s, there has been a major and indeed historically extraordinary improvement in the human diet. Changes in dietary availability in low-income countries appear to have been particularly dramatic. According to estimates by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), per capita caloric supplies in what are conventionally defined as the "developing countries" rose by fully 30 percent over that period.

Yet, even those numbers may understate the scale of change. For those figures attempt to measure only crude caloric availability. They take no account of the shift in these places toward higher cost calories (dairy products, meats, fish, fruit and the like) that constitutes an obvious, if unmeasured, improvement in the quality of diet. Likewise, they do not adjust for the improvements in storage and refrigeration that have increased the proportion of caloric "supplies" that poor people can actually use as food. No less important, they take no measure of the advances in public health that have permitted vulnerable populations to metabolize an increasing portion of the foodstuffs they possess: curing a case of cholera, for example, can "save" a stricken child as much as 600 calories of food energy each day.

Mass hunger has not yet been ridden from the earth, and nutritional progress in some regions--most especially, subSaharan Africa-has been distressingly tentative. At the same time, we can be fairly confident that we understand the general components necessary for instituting a framework that will elicit sustained--and self-sustaining -- nutritional advance almost anywhere in the world.

Access to safe drinking water also qualifies as a major "micro-environmental" concern. Here data is more problematic, not least because of the often subjective nature of what is counted as "potability." Yet despite such acknowledged uncertainties, global trends are again unambiguous: the quality of drinking water available to human populations looks to have been steadily and markedly improving. (One of the reasons for this improvement, incidentally, has been the rapid urbanization of "Third World" populations--a tendency the U.S. State Department, in its recently released document on "Environmental Diplomacy," apparently views with some alarm.)

World Bank estimates, while hardly perfect, may nevertheless be illustrative. In the very poorest countries, the Bank believes, over 70 percent of urban populations had access to safe water; the figure was much lower for rural populations still under 50 percent--but even so half again as high as it had been a decade before. Perhaps most notably, if the Bank’s figures as accurate, over five-sixths of South Asia’s city dwellers, and fully four-fifths of its rural folk, now have access to safe drinking water. (Remember: "South Asia" is the designation that includes India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.) Clearly, there is still enormous room for improvement. But once again we know what needs to be done here, and generally, how to do it.

A final factor that bears self-evidently upon the quality of the "micro-environment," and relates to the factors just mentioned, is health and mortality. To assess the quality of any "micro-environment", after all, is to presuppose that there are human beings around to experience it. We have reasonably reliable data on global mortality trends over the past half century, and what they detail is a veritable global explosion--of health and longevity. Between the early 1950s and the early 1990s, according to the estimates of the U.N.’s Population Division, life expectancy at birth for the "less developed regions as a whole"jumped by over twenty years--that is to say, by more than half. Over that same period, infant mortality is estimated to have dropped no less remarkably--in the "less developed countries" as a whole, for example, levels are thought to be over three-fifths lower today than they were forty years ago. In all, the medical innovations, technological advances, and economic/ commercial developments that so many of the new "global environmentalists" seem to view with such ambivalence have fomented a revolution in survival chances for individual members of our species. This is a signal and tremendously heartening change in the overall human "micro-environment." It is a change, in fact, that a humane and scientific environmentalism would appreciate and celebrate.

Unfortunately, international data on health and mortality today point to the emergence of very serious "micro-environmental problems" in different regions of the world. For the first time in the modern era, in fact, hundreds of millions of people live in countries which, though technically at peace, nevertheless find their local life expectancies falling. In subSaharan Africa, by the estimates of the U.N. Population Division, life expectancy was probably lower in the early 1990s than it had been in the early 1980s in over half a dozen countries and that tally does not include the gruesome special cases of Liberia and Rwanda. In the former Soviet Union, the so-called "transition process" has coincided with the most massive public health reversals ever to beset modern industrial societies outside of war. The situation is perhaps most acute in the Russian Federation, where an upsurge of "excess mortality" may have claimed nearly three million lives since the final collapse of the USSR.

These "micro-environmental" setbacks confront us here and now. Unfortunately, the "global environmentalists" and "environmental diplomats" who are so alert to the interconnectedness of the world in other contexts have been uncharacteristically quiet about them. Much still remains mysterious about these new human health crises. How we should go about addressing them, however, is no mystery. The work that lies before us in this realm will doubtless be difficult, but it will also be pedestrian. We will not need magic to accomplish it.

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