Poverty's Environmental Assault
It is my honor today to interview Dr. Calvin Beisner, the founder of the Cornwall Alliance, an organization committed to Biblical earth stewardship and economic development of the world’s poor.
ANDREW: Dr. Beisner, thank you for taking time out of you busy schedule to talk with us today. When people use the term conservation today, I can’t help but feel that they aren’t exactly saying what they mean. Where did the concept of taking care of the environment come from?
CAL: Thanks, Andrew, it’s great to talk with you again, especially on such an important and foundational concept. Before the gradual development of capitalism from the 14th through 18th centuries, the harnessing of fossil fuels instead of human or animal muscle for energy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the understanding and implementation of such economic principles as comparative advantage, division of labor, factory systems, humanity’s relationship with the natural environment was largely one of fighting for survival. In hunter-gatherer and subsistence agricultural societies, powered almost entirely by human and animal muscle, labor and land productivity are necessarily very low, making the provision of such basics as water, food, clothing, and shelter very precarious, resulting in high rates of under-nutrition, malnutrition, disease, and premature death. Therefore, average human life expectancy at birth hovered around 27 to 28 years everywhere throughout human history until the 19th century and then rising from place to place in response to economic development driven in partly by the substitution of high-density, readily portable hydrocarbons for low-density sunlight (converted into calories by photosynthesis to fuel human and animal muscle) and wind and run-of-river hydro, none of which is easily portable, and partly by the adoption of the economic institutions of private property rights, entrepreneurship, free trade, limited government, and the rule of law.
In subsistence societies, nature conservation is hardly a concern—conservation of one’s own and one’s family’s life is the primary concern. Those preoccupied with putting food on the table, clothes on the back, and a roof over the head cannot put high priorities on protecting nature from harm even if they want to. Those for whom those basics plus basic health care, transportation, education, and the like have become routine are able to prioritize nature preservation—and, delivered from the fear of nature as something uncontrollable, are also more likely to have the desire to do so.
ANDREW: Once man got a handle on the basics of survival, how did the concept of conservation change over time?
CAL: The increasing independence of humankind from the vagaries of nature from the 18th century to the present has both freed people to care about and equipped people to care for nature better than before. Not only increasing scientific understanding of how ecosystems work and their interdependence but also increasing ability to afford protective measures results, wherever these happen, in our improving our natural environments. The picture is not of unmixed blessing, however. People’s ability to control nature has been abused, resulting in needless harm to ecosystems and in some cases the extinction of certain species, as well as in risk to human health through pollution. Some people responded to such abuses by generating what became known as the conservation movement, with roots in the 19th century, its intention being to balance care for the natural environment with meeting human needs.
In the mid-20th century, some in the conservation movement began embracing not conservation but preservation as their principle, subtly turning from conservation’s balance toward preservationism’s focus on keeping nature untouched by human hands—or returning it to “pristine” condition (though it is impossible to know what that is or to justify valuing it above some conditions affected by human action). Increasingly the preservationist movement morphed into the environmentalist movement, which tends to value nature over people and to see people fundamentally as consumers and polluters, rather than as producers and stewards (the common vision of them in conservationism), and therefore to view people and their economic systems (at least those above subsistence agricultural level) as an inherent threat to nature.
Yet others have argued, as I would, that though pollution increases in early stages of economic development and industrialization, it then peaks and falls, the benefits to human health and longevity in the early stages clearly outweighing the risks (as shown by declining mortality and rising life expectancy), and pollution levels wind up lower after development than before—a concept called the “environmental transition” or the “environmental Kuznets Curve.” As I survey the current scene in the West, anti-industrial environmentalism impedes the improvement of both human and natural welfare by impeding economic development at the same time that it encourages the growth of increasingly intrusive government, which itself impedes freedom and economic productivity. In the developing world, resistance remains strong to this aspect of environmentalism as people remain focused on the more basic problems of reducing childhood mortality and rates of disease and premature death.
ANDREW: As we progress through the stages of economic development we congregate more and more, eventually creating cities and urban centers. In fact, right now over half of the world population lives in urban areas up from a third 50 years ago. Is this trend of urbanization opposed to or symbiotic with conservation?
CAL: Urbanization brings both risks and benefits to nature conservation. As Edward Glaeser argued in The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, cities can be of tremendous environmental benefit by concentrating and enhancing human productive activity and residence, thus leaving more habitats available for nonhuman species. Though they can also concentrate pollution, their very concentration of people and of the wealth they produce also provides the means to minimize the pollution and even to turn much pollution into resources.
ANDREW: I see the value of cities, though I don’t like living in them myself. I love living in the country. Looking into the future, and apart from forcing everyone to live in cities like sardines, how do we preserve natural beauty while providing for an exponentially increasing population?
CAL: The greatest threat to the natural environment and its beauty comes not from large numbers of people or from their prosperity but from poverty, as Jack Hollander argued in The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy. Improved agricultural methods, assisted by the natural fertilizing effect of rising atmospheric CO2 concentration (estimated to have added $3.1 trillion to crop yields from 1960 to 2012 and forecast to add another $9.8 trillion by 2050), allow us to provide plenty of highly nutritious calories for a population two to three times larger than the current roughly 7 billion without having to cultivate significantly more land, leaving natural ecosystems unthreatened—something that would be impossible under primitive agricultural practices or in a world depending largely on wind, sun, and sun-through-vegetation for its energy. Further, there is no reason to think the exponential global population growth that has characterized the last two centuries will continue. Population grew very slowly—indeed imperceptibly from century to century—throughout most of human history. Exponential growth on a global scale began only in the late 18th century, and not everywhere at once but from place to place as economic development took off, first reducing mortality rates and later reducing fertility rates.
In all developed countries (with the possible exception of the United States, but that is driven primarily by fertility rates among recent immigrants), fertility rates are already below replacement levels, and they are falling rapidly toward them in developing countries. This means the once exponential population growth rates of developed countries moderated and then flattened, and in some population is already shrinking. It is likely that global population will peak around 2050 and then begin declining, first slowly and then increasingly rapidly, as below-replacement-level fertility rates spread around the world in response to economic development. The truth is that a clean, healthful, beautiful environment is a costly good. Wealthier people can afford more costly goods than poorer people, which implies that a wealthier world will better protect natural beauty than a poorer world. (That has been confirmed by observation, comparing the environments of wealthier countries with those of poorer ones.)
ANDREW: Thank you once again for fielding my questions. Your comments reveal this topic to be for more nuanced and interdependent than most give it credit for. I hope this brief exchange encourages our readers to continue to study how to care for the creation that God has given us dominion over without neglecting those who are made in His image.
For more in-depth understanding of Dr. Beisner’s perspectives, see:
Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate (1997)
Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (1990)
What Is the Most Important Environmental Challenge Facing American Christians Today? (2008)