green and sustainable business

Less is more, more or less: Matt Ridley’s strange alchemy

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alchemyMatt Ridley, the UK author, journalist and member of the House of Lords, recently asserted in a Wall Street Journal article that the “world’s resources aren’t running out.” Well maybe, sorta. If you are into the mental gymnastics of conservative doublethink.

I could not let his piece pass without providing, shall we say, a different and more intellectually honest (I hope) viewpoint.

He asks: “How many times have you heard that we humans are ‘using up’ the world’s resources, ‘running out’ of oil, ‘reaching the limits’ of the atmosphere’s capacity to cope with pollution or ‘approaching the carrying capacity’ of the land’s ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.”

Ridley takes the view that this not happening, at least not at the crisis level that some believe is happening. He says we “burst through such limits again and again.” Excuse me, but there is a fixed amount of stuff—this is not an assumption! There is not an infinite supply of anything. Yes, we can use resources more efficiently and innovatively and even adjust our estimates of what is there and reachable upward as technology improves; we can make stuff last longer, but eventually it runs out.

Ridley, who says he was ecologist at some point in his life, explains the idea of niche construction: “people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way.”

Ok I’ll repeat: simply because you become more efficient, innovative and productive in using available resources—and clearly this is happening!—does not cancel out the fact that resources are indeed dwindling. So Ridley’s basic premise, while it’s probably attractive to some with certain right-leaning political and/or ideological biases, is at its heart intellectual sophistry: innovation creates new and welcome uses for resources and extends their life, but does somehow increase them without limit through some strange alchemy.

“I nowadays lean to the view that there are no limits because we can invent new ways of doing more with less,” he says. True enough—this is hardly an innovative thought—but doesn’t the idea of doing more with less mean there is, well, less?

Ridley’s article exposes himself and his purpose: it is basically a counter to ecologists’ contentions about climate change. He also talks about the “tribes” of ecologists and economists as if they are separate entities that are at odds with each other, especially when it comes to the environment. That’s another fallacy — there are plenty of ecologists who are also economists, and vice versa.

“Until about 10 years ago, it was reasonable to expect that natural gas might run out in a few short decades and oil soon thereafter. If that were to happen, agricultural yields would plummet, and the world would be faced with a stark dilemma: Plow up all the remaining rain forest to grow food, or starve. But thanks to fracking and the shale revolution, peak oil and gas have been postponed.”

This reasoning makes my head spin and mouth clench: Ecologists and economists alike might choke on the idea of fracking and shale oil as the agricultural and energy savior of humankind. For one thing neither technology is innovative; for another they assume continued long-term reliance on fossil fuel use rather than on the truly innovative approaches to energy production that are proven and available.

There’s an expensive downside to fracking and shale extraction that Ridley does not acknowledge at all: earthquakes, damage to the water table and property values, radioactive wastewater, air pollution, and in the case of shale and tar sands, pollution and continued reliance on dirty energy rather than innovative energy ideas.

“If I could have one wish for the Earth’s environment,” Ridley concludes, “it would be to bring together the two tribes—to convene a grand powwow of ecologists and economists. I would pose them this simple question and not let them leave the room until they had answered it: How can innovation improve the environment?” Awwwww! Isn’t that nice?

But where has he been? Ridley should take a look around: his question already has myriad answers, because solving the problem of climate change and the environment is perhaps the most fertile field of innovation occurring today.

Image: Alchemy (Fortes Pakeong Sequeira) by Pedro Ribeiro Simõe via Flickr




















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