Human security v. environmental activism

Expanded remarks by Paul Driessen, given in a debate at the International Affairs Symposium held at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon in April, 2008.

Does the exporting of our environmental policies to the developing world positively impact human security?

Well, as Institute for Sustainable Development program manager Oli Brown recently pointed out, there are many cases where it undoubtedly does. Some policies. Under certain circumstances. Depending on how you define human security.

Unfortunately, however, there are also numerous cases where such “exports” are anything but helpful. It is those policies that trouble me – for they wreak havoc on human security. In fact, they perpetrate and perpetuate poverty, misery, disease, malnutrition and premature death far too often. Those policies need to be re-examined and discontinued.

I’ve been a strong environmentalist and conservationist my entire life – but also a harsh critic of radical environmentalism, which often fails to pay sufficient attention to people, especially in poor nations. That seeming divergence reflects my background and extensive environmental and international experience.

I’m an Eagle Scout, with degrees in geology and ecology, and environment and resource law. I helped organize the very first Earth Day on my college campus, way back in 1970. A former Sierra Club member, I also hike, camp, cross-country ski and canoe. I’ve had government and private industry jobs, and now work for CFACT, the Congress of Racial Equality and other NGOs around the world. I write regularly about climate change, energy, environmental ethics and corporate social responsibility.

I grew up ten miles from the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. My home was also two blocks from a huge paper mill, and I saw and smelled its pollution firsthand. I joined the nascent environmental movement primarily to clean up our air and water. And we did it.

I’ve seen environmental devastation. But I’ve also seen the devastation of rampant poverty in African, Latin American and Asian communities. I’ve seen companies do horrendous things to habitats – and others do incredibly good things for people, communities and the environment. I’ve seen environmental groups accomplish tremendous good – and others pursue agendas that I can only describe as anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-people. We export those kinds of policies to poor countries at their peril, and to our shame.

As Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has said: “We have numerous problems, but limited human and financial resources. We have to set priorities. Climate change can wait. Human health can’t.”

Economist Milton Friedman also got it right: “Poor countries,” he said, “should not do what rich countries are doing now that they are rich. They should do what rich countries did to become rich.”

My grandmother offered this advice: “The only good thing about the good old days is that they’re gone.”

If policies reduce or prevent threats to vital elements of human security, we should export them. If other policies would prolong or worsen already horrid situations in developing nations, then exporting them would be counterproductive … or even unconscionable.

So we need to differentiate clearly between real risks and speculative risks … between immediate risks and those that are so far in the future that predictions are worthless. We need to focus on risks that present a clear and present danger to human life and security – threats that are substantiated, recurrent and costly, especially in terms of lives lost. We need to avoid focusing so much time, money, emotion and regulation on risks that are hypothetical … and based on false assumptions, political agendas, alarmist headlines, hysteria, Hollywood special effects or computer models.
Like Bjorn, I put global warming well down on my list of worries and priorities – and policies to prevent global warming near the bottom of what we should export to poor nations. Like literally hundreds of climate scientists, I believe the risk of catastrophic climate change is hugely exaggerated, and unsupported by scientific evidence.

So … what policies should we export?

Property rights and free enterprise – which Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto says will unleash the creative forces of millions of hard-working people … and turn trillions of dollars of “dead capital” into vibrant economies that generate prosperity, health, opportunity and security.

Drug standards and testing – to ensure that medicines are safe and effective … and we protect people from counterfeit malaria and AIDS drugs that prolong disease or even kill.

Honesty, transparency and accountability standards – for corporations, nonprofit groups, politicians and government agencies alike. In other words, truth in assertions, transparency in funding and spending, and accountability for policies and actions that result in poverty, disease and death.

Reasonable mining and drilling standards, and the best practices of responsible leaders in their industries – to help poor countries get the energy and minerals they need, while ensuring worker safety, minimizing pollution, and restoring any lands that have to be disturbed to extract the resources.

Reasonable air and water quality standards for factories and power generation facilities – to reduce pollution, while also ensuring that poor countries can generate the electricity, jobs and prosperity they need to improve people’s lives and security, and afford even better pollution controls in the future, as they become more prosperous and can pay for upgrades and better technologies. We need to apply the same environmental standards to state-operated mines, smelters, electrical power generators and factories, as we apply to privately owned and operated facilities.

Which environmental policies impair human security – and should not be exported?

#1. U.N.-style sustainable development. The UN originally said we must sustain and expand the resource base, so that people can build more prosperous, just and secure futures. Today, though, the concept is mostly used to block development, on the ground that some future generation might need the resources we want today.

Many sustainability policies delay or prevent all but small-scale development projects, and thus impair human security – even though future technologies, and thus future resource needs, cannot be predicted … any more than people living in 1950 could have envisioned today’s televisions, cell phones, jetliners and  computers scans … or what resources would be needed, when, and in what quantities, to manufacture them. SD proponents rarely ask: How long must a deposit, facility or project last to be “sustainable” – 10, 50, 100 or 500 years? Which costs and tradeoffs should be emphasized, and which ones ignored?

Bad policy #2. The precautionary principle. It too is used mainly to delay or prevent development, and only rarely to protect people against real, immediate, life-or-death risks. It focuses too much attention on the alleged, and often overblown or even imaginary, risks of using a chemical or technology. It often minimizes consideration of significant risks that the chemical or technology would prevent.

Bad policy #3. Policies that promote or mandate alternative or renewable energy – especially when they are also used to delay or block fossil fuel, hydroelectric and nuclear energy development.

Wind power is expensive, land and resource intensive, and unreliable. It can add extra power to an electrical grid. But it’s totally inadequate as a primary energy source for any country, rich or poor. Just generating enough electricity to power New York City would mean covering the entire state of Connecticut with towering wind turbines, Rockefeller University professor Jesse Ausubel has calculated. And the city would still need expensive natural gas-fired generators (and thus drilling for gas), to provide electricity every time the wind stops blowing fast enough to operate the turbines. 

Producing 7 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007 required corn grown on an area the size of Indiana – plus vast amounts of water, insecticides, fertilizers and petroleum. It has helped send corn and wheat prices soaring, and forced the World Food Program to ration aid, and millions more to go to bed hungry.

Ethanol puts food for hungry mouths into cars that should be fueled by oil that Congress and state legislatures have made off limits. It’s causing food shortages, deforestation and even riots over food.

Telling poor countries they must rely on wind, solar or ethanol condemns them to poverty and insecurity … and tramples on their energy and economic human rights. Such policies are unsustainable – morally, economically and ecologically … even when they’re promoted or imposed out of concern about catastrophic climate change.

Climate change has been real since time began. Twentieth century warming and cooling trends were not abnormal, air and ocean temperatures have been stable for nearly a decade … and there is no credible evidence that future warming will be driven primarily by humans – or be catastrophic.

Some computer models make such projections, via worst-case scenarios. But they are based on our still poor understanding of complex climate systems. They assume carbon dioxide is the primary cause of climate change. They fail to consider solar energy fluctuations, cosmic ray influences on cloud cover, the cooling effects of precipitation, or negative (cooling) feedbacks from high cirrus clouds.

They are notoriously unreliable, and unable to forecast events and climate shifts even one year in the future, much less 50 or 100. In fact, projections and scenarios generated by models are consistently at odds with actual observed changes and trends. Models simply are not evidence – and certainly should not be relied on as a basis for policies that would seriously disrupt our economy and human security.

The fact is, slashing CO2 emissions by 60 to 90 percent, in a quest to stabilize our planet’s unstable climate, would be a costly disaster. It would exact huge penalties on economic growth, jobs and human security – especially in poor countries. Cutting US carbon dioxide emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels would send us back in time to CO2 emission levels that America has not seen since 1905.

Some analysts claim the cost of preventing future climate disaster scenarios would be far lower than the costs they would impose on society. However, the scenarios are merely speculative, whereas the cost of “preventing” them would have to be paid today by families whose living standards and security would be impaired. In the case of the Stern Report, the authors emphasized only the lowest estimate for preventing the alleged disaster, though even that was $440 billion, and his other estimates were many times higher.

Imagine an institution like a college campus, hospital or even a city, without dependable, affordable energy. For lights, transportation, computers, heating and hospitals … water purification and sewage treatment … refrigerators to keep food and medicine from spoiling. For mines and factories that create products that improve, enrich and safeguard our lives. Without this energy, life, living standards and security as we know it would cease.

Now try to imagine life in Africa – where 95 percent of the people rarely or never have electricity. In many parts of Asia and Latin America, the deprivation is nearly as bad. Instead of switching on a light or appliance, millions of mothers and daughters spend hours every day collecting firewood and manure for cooking and heating fires. When the sun goes down, their lives shut down.

Instead of turning a faucet handle, they spend countless more hours carrying water from distant rivers and lakes … that are often contaminated by parasites and bacteria.

Instead of enjoying a modern kitchen, mothers and babies spend hours bent over primitive hearths, breathing polluted smoke from their fires.

The impacts on human health are hideous, intolerable and unnecessary.

  • Four million infants, children and mothers die every year from lung infections – caused by breathing the smoke, soot, bacteria and pollutants that are a constant fixture in their homes and villages.
  • Two million more perish every year from intestinal diseases, caused by unsafe water and spoiled food – due to a lack of electricity, refrigeration and water treatment.

And still, many environmentalists and politicians are saying climate change is the greatest threat facing poor countries – and using hysteria over climate change to forestall the construction of fossil fuel power plants. The Rainforest Action Network even attacks banks that want to finance fossil fuel and hydroelectric projects.

And former Earth Island Institute editor Gar Smith has the arrogance to say: “African villagers used to spend their days and evenings sewing clothing for their neighbors, on foot-peddle-powered sewing machines. Once they get electricity, they spend too much time watching television and listening to the radio. If there is going to be electricity, I’d like it to be decentralized, small and solar-powered.” 

It would be laughable, if it weren’t so perverse and tragic. Kenya’s Akinyi Arunga is right:

“Cute, indigenous customs aren’t so charming when they make up one’s day-to-day existence. Then they mean indigenous poverty, indigenous malnutrition, indigenous disease and childhood death. I don’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I wish our so-called friends would stop imposing it on us.”

Bad policy #4. The war on biotechnology. Around the world, millions of people face starvation. 800 million are chronically undernourished. Over 200 million children suffer from Vitamin A Deficiency. Up to 500,000 of them go blind from VAD every year. Millions die.

Biotechnology could be an important tool in the battle to end malnutrition, control plant diseases and improve agriculture in poor countries. It’s not a magic bullet – there is no such thing – and it’s not appropriate for everyone. But it could play a huge role, especially in combination with hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and modern farming practices.

Whether to use biotechnology should be a decision for Third World countries and farmers to make – without lies, scare stories and pressure from outside agitators like Greenpeace and Sierra Club … and without threats of trade sanctions by countries that already have plenty to eat.

Biotechnology can fortify rice and other plants with vitamins, to reduce malnutrition, prevent blindness and save lives. Genetic engineering can also produce plants that grow better in saline and nutrient-poor soils … fight off insects and viruses … replace crops devastated by disease and drought (papaya ringspot virus, cassava mosaic virus, eg) … reduce soil erosion, by allowing farmers to use herbicide-resistant plants and no-till farming methods … dramatically reduce the need for (and exposure to) pesticides … and eliminate dangerous fungal contamination like fumonisin that causes birth defects and death.

“Our planet has 6.5 billion people,” Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug points out. “If we use only organic fertilizers and methods on existing farmland, we can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2-1/2 billion people volunteering to disappear. And I don’t see environmentalists demanding that we plow under millions of acres of wildlife habitat, to feed everyone with organic and traditional farming.”

An African farmer told Congress of Racial Equality chairman Roy Innis: “By planting Bt cotton on my 15 acres, I was able to build a house and give it a solar panel. I bought a TV and fridge. My wife can buy healthy food, and we can afford to send the kids to school.”

Another one said: “The old plants would be destroyed by insects, but not the new biotech plants. With the profits I get from the new Bt maize, I can grow onions, spinach and tomatoes, and sell them for extra money to buy fertilizer. We were struggling to keep hunger out of our house. Now the future looks good.” 

Biotech seeds cost more. But they save farmers hundreds of dollars on pesticides, ensure that insects and diseases don’t destroy their crops, and reduce the time they have to spend in their fields. As one farmer noted: “With the old maize, I got 100 bags a year from my [40 acres]. With Bt maize I get 1,000 bags.”

That’s security – food, health and economic security. Why would we export policies that impair it?

“I appreciate ethical concerns,” says Kenyan plant biologist Florence Wambugu. “But anything that doesn’t help feed our children is unethical.”

That brings me to …

Bad policy #5. Paranoia about pesticides and DDT. Many Africans and disease specialists consider these policies to be worse than unethical. They view them as a crime against humanity.

“I’ve suffered high fevers for days, vomited until I thought I had no stomach left. It’s left me dehydrated, thirsty and weak. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell day from night,” Ugandan business woman and malaria eradication activist Fifi Kobusingye told me.

“My friend’s little child wasn’t able to walk for months because of malaria,” Fifi said. “She crawled around on the floor. Her eyes bulged out like a chameleon, her hair dried up, and her stomach was all swollen because the parasites had taken over her liver. Her family didn’t have the money to help her, and neither did the Ugandan government. All they could do is take care of her the best they could, and wait for her to die.”

Somehow, miraculously, she recovered. But Christine was one of 500 million people a year who get malaria. That’s more people than live in the entire United States, Canada and Mexico combined. The disease kills up to 2 million people a year – four times the population of Portland. Three-fourths are in sub-Saharan Africa. Ninety percent are children and pregnant women.

Malaria leaves many victims with permanent brain damage – or makes them so frail that they die of AIDS, typhus, dysentery or lung disease. It makes all its victims so weak that they can’t work, go to school, care for their families or cultivate their fields – for weeks on end. It’s a primary reason many Sub-Saharan countries are destitute, and many Africans have to survive on two dollars a day.

But in the face of this needless tragedy, Pesticide Action Network and other Green pressure groups promote policies that prevent the use of insecticides and DDT to combat this killer disease. They say families should rely on insecticide-treated bed nets and new ACT drugs.

Africa clearly needs nets and drugs. But it also needs the weapons these activists don’t want malaria victims to use. Africa needs the entire arsenal: larvacides to kill baby mosquitoes and insecticides to kill adults, DDT to keep the flying killers out of homes, nets to keep them away from sleeping people – plus education and sanitation … and drugs, doctors and hospitals to treat people who get malaria, despite all these efforts. Only comprehensive programs like this can defeat malaria.

Why DDT? Because DDT is the strongest and longest lasting repellant in existence. Spraying just a little on the walls of traditional mud huts repels mosquitoes for six months or more. It kills any that land on the walls, and it irritates those it doesn’t kill or repel, so they leave the house without biting.

No other chemical in existence can do this. It’s like putting a bed net over an entire house, 24-7-365.

Thankfully, the U.S. Agency for International Development and World Health Organization finally changed their anti-insecticide and anti-DDT policies. But tens of millions died before they did so – and many environmentalists are still spreading scare stories to prevent or discourage their use. In my view, that is lethal, unconscionable eco-imperialism. It continues to sicken and kill millions every year.

As Fifi says: “I lost my son, two sisters and four nephews to malaria. Don’t talk to me about birds. And don’t tell me the risk of using DDT is worse than the risk of losing a million African children every year.”

It’s easy to worry about speculative risks from using DDT and other insecticides – fifty years after we used them to eradicate malaria in this country. But we need to put ourselves in the shoes of people who still worry every day about the real risk that a mosquito will send them or their baby to an early grave.

To wrap it up …

We should export policies that improve human security and save lives – based not on the ideals, perceptions and concerns that come from living in countries that now are rich … but on the realities and priorities of poor families that still face hardships and risks that many of us can barely imagine.

These are the real stakeholders – the ones who have to live with the consequences of their decisions.
They want to develop … stop depending on trickles of foreign aid … become healthy and prosperous … and be able to protect and educate their children, protect their environment, and enjoy the freedoms and opportunities we often take for granted.

The best thing we can do is impart to them the wisdom, experience and policies we depended on to achieve our aspirations – by eliminating the poverty, misery, disease, pollution and childhood death that were once the hallmarks of life in the United States … back in the good old days.

Paul Driessen is a senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) and other international public policy organizations. He is the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death (www.Eco-Imperialism.com) and was editor of CORE chairman Roy Innis’s book, Energy Keepers – Energy Killers: The new civil rights battle.

Categories

About the Author: CFACT

CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.