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It’s Not Easy Being Green: Modern Environmentalism vs. True Conservation


The modern environmental movement is certainly well-intentioned, but we all know what the road to Hell is paved with. Modem ecological activism got its start with Rachel Carson’s brilliantly flawed book Silent Spring, and the mistakes just keep coming. The movement, for example, still follows Carson’s lead by strongly opposing the use of pesticides in farming. Unfortunately, banning pesticides would destroy huge chunks of the natural environment: mandatory organic farming worldwide would cut yields in half and force people to plow down at least ten-million square miles of today’s wildlife habitat to feed the richer, more populous planet of 2050. That would be a needless environmental sacrifice.

The world of 2050 will also demand more tree harvest to provide tomorrow’s homes and newspapers. If we planted just 5 percent of’ the wild forest area with high-yield trees, we would not need to log the other 95 percent of the forests at all. But the green movement opposes fast-growing trees because they’re “not natural.”

The Greens vs. The People

Too much of the Green movement has remained fixated on the idea of suppressing human numbers. The world’s population is stabilizing, thanks to the twin global trends of affluence and urbanization. Births per woman in the Third World have dropped from 6.5 to 3.1, since I began my professional career in 1959, and they continue to plunge. According to annual World Bank Reports, affluent countries seem to be settling at about 1.7 births per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births. The Green movement will not win broad public approval for forced abortion or other imposed population reduction techniques because the projected population peak is now 7.46 billion in 2040, according to the UN Population Division.

Too many Greens see poverty and primitive lifestyles as a plausible eco-solution. But the residents of Singapore or Shanghai will not voluntarily return to a life of stoop labor in the rice paddies. And it wouldn’t help the environment if they did: poor people have large families and bum lots of trees and coal. Yet greens are even trying to preserve low-yield, slash-and-burn farming. Subsistence farmers mean no harm, of course, but they have destroyed most of the world’s lost tropical forest. Loggers come in, harvest trees, and leave. Logged areas can eventually grow back. But subsistence farmers permanently clear the trees. Low-yield farmers remain the biggest threat to wildlife.

Food Challenge

Nothing against tofu burgers, but there simply is no global trend toward vegetarianism, and rising incomes in China, India, and elsewhere are driving the biggest surge in meat and milk demand the world has ever seen. Newly affluent Asians and South Americans are consuming more than five-million additional tons of meat and milk each year. Each calorie of high-quality protein requires two to five times as many farming resources as a calorie of grain.

In the already-wealthy countries, affluent urbanites willing to have only 1.7 children per couple demand that their kid(s) be the best-fed in history! They even demand that their pets get their favorite foods. Americans own approximately 110 million cats and dogs. A comparable number of pets for tomorrow’s affluent China would be 520 million.

Naturalists agree the key to saving wildlife is saving habitat. Fortunately, high-yield farming gives us a way to save habitat without depriving children of milk. If we had not raised the world’s crop yields since World War II with hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, tractors, irrigation pumps, and pesticides, we would already have had to plow down another fifteen million square miles of wildlands to obtain today’s food supply. Modern farmers are saving several million additional square miles of land through confinement production of chickens, hogs, and cattle. Modem food processing lets us grow high-yield crops and move them to wherever consumers choose to live, with minimal post-harvest losses. All told, the much-maligned modem food system has saved land equal to the total land area of the US, Europe, South America, and central Africa. Modem farming has also preserved wildlands that harbor more than 90 percent of the world’s wild species.

Over the next forty years, the increased demand for food will require that yields triple on every acre of good farmland. We can get some production gains by fully extending current First World technologies (such as low-volume pesticides and chemical fertilizers) to the Third World (especially Africa). We’ll also need to reach out for potential yield gains from biotechnology. For example, acidic soil has been cutting crop yields by up to 80 percent on nearly half the arable land in the tropics, and two American-trained Mexican researchers have developed acid-tolerant crops. Science magazine on 6 June 1999 noted that they have already inserted into tobacco, papaya, and rice plants a bacterial gene that codes for citric acid secretion. When the plant roots secrete the citric acid into the surrounding soil, the acid “captures” the toxic aluminum ions (which would otherwise attack the plant roots). Science also noted that researchers from Cornell University have used wild-relative genes to get 50 percent more yield in tomatoes and 30 percent more yield in rice.

Unfortunately, the Green movement has derived much funding by fanning the public’s groundless fears that pesticides cause cancer. (Lead arsenate did cause cancer, but that is the pesticide modern chemicals replaced.) Recently, the Greens have broadened their opposition to include all high-yield farm inputs. They now campaign against nearly every modern agricultural technology, including chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds, diesel tractors, irrigation, confinement livestock, and biotechnology in food. If the Green movement succeeded in mandating low-yield farming to serve 7.46 billion affluent people, much of the earth’s wildlife would be devastated.

The Greens’ blanket opposition to logging is likewise outmoded. Wood-saving technologies such as computerized saws, chipboard, and laminated rafters are allowing the US to obtain fifteen times as much usable wood and paper from each acre logged as in 1940. High yields help here too. America’s wild forests produce approximately three cubic meters of pulpwood per hectare per year; a Georgia yellow pine plantation produces fifteen cubic meters; and cloned yellow pine grown in coastal Brazil produces some fifty cubic meters per hectare per year. US plantations have achieved similarly impressive yields of loblolly pine, eucalyptus, and yellow poplars.

Plantation forests make fairly good wildlife habitat, but their real potential is in forestalling the need to log, let alone clear, the other 95 percent of the world’s forestlands. Similar advances will save water. Farming uses 70 percent of the water consumed by humanity, most of it in primitive flood irrigation, in which two-thirds of the water is wasted. Modern pumps, plastic tubes, soil-moisture metering, and microcomputers can raise water-use efficiency from 30 to more than 90 percent.

Toward Consensus?

The Greens remain locked in their minimalist, anti-population stance, opposed to high-yield agriculture and hence poorly positioned to support true conservation. Global warming has been the Greens’ highest priority for the past decade, though the lack of warming during the last five decades of rising carbon dioxide levels undermines the whole greenhouse theory, and the computers currently predict a “worst-case” warming of only 3–4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. That would simply recreate the best weather in human memory, the Little Climate Optimum of the tenth and eleventh centuries. So why the ruckus over global warming? Canada’s Environment Minister, Christine Stewart, recently told the Financial Post on 26 December 1998 that “No matter if the science [of global warming] is all phony, climate change [provides] the greatest opportunity to bring about justice and equality in the world.” Ms. Stewart apparently thinks that the First World should be as poor as Bangladesh.

Abundance or Scarcity?

The Green Movement has grown used to public approval. It generates billions of dollars in annual revenues and basks in the flattering floodlights of the media. It has saved the whales, greatly reduced industrial pollution in the First World, and eliminated lead from our gasoline and paint. But now they must move to the next level, which requires better analysis and a broader range of problem-solving possibilities. Eco-tourism and gathering Brazil nuts are not saving the rain forests.

The choice is between technological abundance or managed scarcity. To talk about living with scarcity while benefiting from abundance is a recipe for environmental catastrophe. The Greens must now shift from their original role of decrying pollution and looking for eco-villains, to the larger responsibility that faces conservationists in the next century: saving wildlife while at the same time feeding people. The sooner they join forces with scientists and farmers, the more land and wildlife we’ll all enjoy.

Dennis T. Avery is Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues and author of ‘Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic.’

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