Dear Owen Paterson, economic growth will not solve all the world's problems

On 20 September 2015, The Telegraph published an opinion piece suggesting that economic growth is the key to saving the planet.  Written by Owen Paterson, the former Environment Secretary, the article argues that the environmental movement was wrong: development is not a threat to our ecosystems but rather the cure.

Paterson argues that “ecomodernism” (decoupling humanity’s dependency on natural resources in exchange for technological advancement), will be vital to reduce our impact on the environment.  Technology has, of course, helped to limit fossil fuel usage through innovations in renewable energy technology such as solar panels and wind farms.  AgriTech has also assisted farmers in using less fertilisers through precision agriculture, which can reduce environmental pollution.  I am not denying that technology can, when used appropriately, significantly reduce our ecological footprint.  What I am concerned with is the blatant obscuring of facts to satisfy his argument.

Whilst we shouldn’t be quick to judge a Tory backbencher for advocating that economic growth is the solution to all the world’s problems, this article does raise eyebrows in its clearly inaccurate portrayal of the current biodiversity crisis. 

For example, Paterson claims that we use less fertiliser to produce more food.  In fact, in Asia, which has arguably seen more economic growth than any other area of the world in recent years, has been steadily increasing its fertiliser usage in the last decade.  It also has the highest emissions of agricultural ammonia than any other area of the world.  Therefore strong economic growth appears to be worse for the environment, not better.

Apparently, countries with the most economic growth have the “healthiest wildlife”, Paterson contends.  I am not sure if he means that the wildlife do not contract diseases as often, because he certainly cannot mean that wildlife populations are growing more rapidly in areas with the most economic growth.  Asia has seen widespread biodiversity decline due to economic activity – fishing and agriculture being particularly damaging, but economic growth has also spurred an increasing (and predominantly illegal) demand for wild animal products too.

Paterson has the audacity to suggest that climate change has not caused global havoc; I believe Californian readers may argue the opposite.  Polar bears too may also beg to differ, given that their populations have declined more than 30% in the last few decades partly due to shrinking ice caps and we are now beginning to see shocking images of dead or starving polar bears in areas where they were once healthy and abundant.

Whilst Paterson points out that wildlife populations in some developed countries have increased to levels higher than in the last few centuries, he fails to mention that wildlife populations globally have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s and that we are not only living through the world’s sixth mass extinction but that our actions (particularly economic activities such as agriculture) are the primary drivers.  Paterson also mentions that whale, seal and penguin populations are increasing, but neglects to point out that arctic vertebrate populations in general have declined by 26% since 1970.
According to Paterson, Britain now has more woodland than in the days of Chaucer.  Whilst this may be true, what he fails to mention is that we now live in a global marketplace and although the UK has taken measures to regrow its forests, we indirectly cause deforestation in Indonesia and South America by outsourcing commodities such as palm oil and soy bean.  In fact, the human footprint of our activities on the environment is clearly largest both in Europe and in areas with booming economies such as India and the Far East.

Paterson believes that only by decoupling humans from nature will we ever save the environment.  His examples of using coal instead of trees, oil instead of whales and chickens instead of wild meat ignore the huge impacts that coal, oil and meat production have on the planet.  Surely he cannot deny climate change and the integral nature of our dependency on fossil fuels as its main cause?  Has he neglected to read the countless research articles on the environmental effects of meat production and consumption?

The reason for developing nations having high environmental footprints, Paterson suggests, is because they haven’t “progressed” as the West have to live apart from nature (mirroring 19th century rhetoric where colonialists argued that developing nations were full of “savages” that haven’t achieved “civilisation” yet).  He ignores the fact that developed nations depend on developing nations for much of their production – food, minerals, timber and biofuels, to name but a few.  The developed world has shifted blame from themselves to the poorer nations when it is the appetite for consumption of natural resources by the West (and increasingly China) that has caused these environmental problems in the first place.

Whilst I agree with the principle that humans should decouple from environmentally destructive activities, this cannot be achieved by relying on technology alone.  We already know that much of the Amazon rainforest is cut down because of increasing demands for livestock production (which is closely tied with increasing economic growth).  We are already aware that we are dramatically overfishing many of the world’s oceans (again predominantly made worse by increased economic growth demanding more animal protein).  We are well aware of the polluting effects of agriculture and transport.  But rather than praying for a technological miracle, we also know how to reduce our impacts.

The developed world eats too much meat, which is bad for our health as well as the environment.  It won’t take a crazy technological gadget to reduce out meat consumption.  We also waste 30% of the food we produce, so we could dramatically cut agricultures environmental footprint by making sure we don’t throw away what we can use.  Obesity is a serious problem in the West (and becoming more of an issue in emerging markets) so rather than relying on chemicals and machines to produce more food (and then to fix our diet-related health problems down the line), we in the developed world need to consume less.  And rather than relying on nuclear power, we can dramatically reduce our energy bills by installing our own solar panels and being climate smart around the home.

So rather than pushing for more growth, more spending and more technology (which, combined, tends to be more environmentally destructive) we can save the world by small steps to behaviour change: buying more organic, wasting less food (try meal planning, for example), replacing some of your chicken with beans, cycling to work once a week and insulating your home.  And what’s more, these small steps are not only better for the environment, they can help save you money and your waistline.  And what could be better than that?


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