Columns / Discourse / May 18, 2011

Voice of Reason: Radical nonsense

This week’s column is prompted by the presentation given by Derrick Jensen last Thursday, aptly advertised as that of a radical environmentalist. Though I hold great faith in the Knox community’s ability to resist jumping on his doomsday bandwagon, I still feel a need to refute some of his more blatant falsehoods.

His key premise was that modern society is unsustainable and only a Stone Age-level of sustenance can, in fact, be sustainable. Though one is tempted to simply point out that in such a society, he and most of his audience would likely have died of cholera at age two and be done with it, this point deserves more serious attention, as it is the bread and butter of environmental Jeremiahs.

In one sense, he is correct, but modern society is hardly the first one humans have ever put in place that wasn’t built to last. Basing our lighting system off of whale fat was also unsustainable, but luckily for humanity, rational people realized that whale oil is not the only way to produce light, and switched us to electric light instead of plunging society into blackness as soon as the whales were all gone. In the same way, modern society is only unsustainable if no one invents anything ever again. All of human history refutes the idea that this is a real risk. Such inactivity can only happen in a world too busy fearing the future to work to make it better.

Though I lack a time machine to go in the future and disprove Jensen, I do have access to older predictions about humanity’s date with destiny. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote a bestselling book in which he asserted the 1970s would feature massive worldwide famine killing millions because of human overpopulation. Since then, the worldwide death rate has fallen consistently and worldwide hunger has fallen by half, according to UN figures, despite the Earth’s population rising by two billion. Ehrlich later asserted that resource scarcity would inevitably drive up prices for the basics of civilization. Economist Julian Simon then offered to make a bet, with Ehrlich picking five resources and then waiting 10 years to see what happened to their prices. As it turned out, all five resources dropped in price and Ehrlich mailed Simon a check.

The central flaw of Jensen’s line of thinking can be illustrated in a metaphor he himself used. Picture Earth’s resources as doughnuts. If there are one hundred doughnuts and three are eaten a year, at some point there will be no more doughnuts. Jensen asserted that everyone realized this, except (he sneeringly added) for economists, thus clarifying for the audience whether he understood basic economics or not. To extend this silly metaphor for the purposes of proving the central thesis wrong, as scarce doughnut-making ingredients were used up, the price of doughnuts would rise, and people would have great incentive to find other ways to make doughnuts (or switch to Poptarts). The worst-case scenario is a world of inferior doughnuts.

It works just as well with more pressing crises than looming doughnut shortages. Look at oil. If the world started to run low on oil, prices would skyrocket. There would certainly be plenty of pain associated with this, but eventually batteries would improve, liquefied natural gas would spread, biofuels would become cheaper and so on. The worst long-term effects would be inferior cars and more expensive fuel, and if the history of the automobile is any guide, chances are the cars will actually be better in the future and the fuel cheaper. As an astute Saudi oil minister once observed, the Stone Age did not end for lack of stones and neither will the Oil Age end from lack of oil.

This would all be easy to laugh at if extremists’ solutions were not so radical. Just as Ehrlich advocated cutting off food aid to some Third World nations, Jensen likely has his own Final Solutions. He did not choose to enlighten us with them, but based on his twin comments that Earth has too many people on it and that non-violence is overrated, I think most of us can put the pieces together. Again, I reiterate that I think the Knox community has the ounce of rationality to realize the sky is not falling, though it seems too late for Derrick Jensen.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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