My husband recently directed me to the article The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out written in the Wall Street Journal on April 25th, by Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist. He is a fan of that book, but knows I am not. This recent article was so obviously full of the faults I found with the book that it even swayed my husband into thinking the Rational Optimist is a little too optimistic and a little less rational then he should be.
I have to confess, I have not read The Rational Optimist, only excerpts my husband pointed out to me. Excerpts he chose to try and win me over to Dr. Ridley’s point of view, which they failed to do. That point of view is that things always get better. Society is progressing in an upward fashion, leading to better lives for people. This point is very true. Think about what life was like 2000, 200, or even just 20 years ago. Things are generally getting better. Technology and trade have helped the human race reach almost unthinkable progress. But that is not the whole story.
My issue is not with the upward trend of society. It’s the ignoring of the significant downward swings in that progress graph and what motivates us to make progress in the first place. Take the discovery that cholera was spread through contaminated water by John Snow in 1854. This was only discovered as a result of massive cholera outbreaks in London in the 1800s. Before large cities, cholera outbreaks didn’t warrant enough attention for anyone to bother solving the problem. It was only out of great tragedy that great progress was born.
The article in the Wall Street Journal claims much the same message; there’s no need to be alarmist about natural resources like oil running about because we’re always developing new technologies to either get more of that resource or we develop new resources. And yes, we have. We have developed fracking to help us get previously unreachable resources out of the earth. But failing to address any of the possible environmental concerns, like contaminated drinking water, is taking the rose-coloured glasses too far. Dr. Ridley seems to present the view that all technological advancements are beneficial. We once thought that about DDT. A great technological advancement that now we wish we had never used so liberally because of the environmental devastation that resulted.
Fertilizer is touted as saving grace by Dr. Ridley, bumping up food production in concert with pesticides and more intensive farming. The ill effects of all of these agricultural practices are completely absent from the argument. Fertilizer runoff is polluting waterways all over the world, chocking out aquatic life and shutting down fisheries. Pesticide poisoning lowers the life span of farmers in countries where safe practices are not used. Agriculture intensification causes soil degradation and a loss of natural biodiversity. These problems are happening now, and we can’t ignore the ill effects simply because they are an advancement and they increase crop production. Both sides of the coin must be augured.
Despite Dr. Ridley’s background as an ecologist, he points out his lack of understanding on what ecologists actually do by constantly referring to the scientists making claims of resource over-use and the consequences of those actions as simply ‘ecologists’. The science that Dr. Ridley brings up in his article is done by ecologists, geologists, climate scientists, marine biologists, agricultural scientists, entomologists, and more. Once again I found myself grimacing at his over simplification of the problem. His dismissal of the large body of scientists crying out for action is disturbing.
I too believe that humans will find a way to deal with some of the coming (and already here) problems, but I think great tragedy will have to happen first to motivate people to progress. And in some ways it already is. Crop failures caused by extreme weather are driving up food prices and causing riots in some countries. Antibiotics are becoming less effective and we have no alternative in the pipes. Residents in Alberta can’t drink their water because of a chemical leak from a nearby gas plant. And if I, as a scientist, want to try to help humans avoid some of the coming tragedies, I will, because that’s my job and that’s why I became a scientist.