Much of modern-day environmentalism is informed by a deep suspicion of capitalism and the human population growth it has supported. Groups like Extinction Rebellion are concerned that our future will resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape where mankind is often reduced to hunter-gatherer protagonists raiding supermarkets for tinned goods.
What is unclear is whether modern environmental campaigners think this prediction is something to be avoided or achieved.
Most environmentalist approaches demand a backpedalling on technology and running down population numbers. The logic seems to be that if we don’t accomplish post-apocalyptic nirvana ourselves, it will be forced on us through catastrophe.
This is a fierce contest of ideas. On the one hand, you’ve got the free-market capitalist approach that purports that international trade, advances in technology, and growth of increasingly prosperous human populations is the best way to avoid death and environmental impact. On the other hand lie essentially socialist approaches that want to ban free trade, reduce technology, and reverse the progress made since the industrial revolution.
One of the silliest examples of the latter is the trend for “foraging”: people living in the developed world not going to the supermarket to buy food, but instead walking along hedgerows and fields to pick up stray berries, nuts, and discarded microwave meals.
If we all reverted to subsistence living, the environmental damage of foraging and self-sufficiency would be savage. But this idea isn’t simply being fought among fringe activists or well-meaning young people. Out of sight for most of us, this choice is being contested fiercely within the EU and the UN, and they’re discussing the food we eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between.
There are two competing visions of agriculture dominating the agenda, and it’s not looking good for those of us who value freedom and prosperity.
Here the choice has largely been made: the adoption of a technology-phobic policy called “agroecology”, combined with heavy regulatory resistance to modern technologies under the “precautionary principle”.
Agroecology is a return to the farming techniques of yesteryear: rejecting mechanisation, hybrid crops, synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, and intercontinental markets.
Yet agroecology produces far less food and will lock the rural populations of developing countries into a permanent state of subsistence.
It will also have a big impact on developed countries. The Soil Association, a keen advocate of agroecology, boasts that the approach will reduce agricultural output by 35 per cent, forcing Europeans to adopt a more plant-based diet.
This is quite intense given that Europe already imports the equivalent of 35 million hectares of food from other continents, despite sitting on some of the most fertile lands on earth.
And yet farming crops without crop protection products such as pesticides will put the average household food bill up by £562 annually. In other words, it will cost more to eat poorer quality food.
Agroecology is not a viable way to feed the masses. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this.
The Green party emerged from the PEOPLE party, itself a response to Paul Ehrlich’s writings. The Population Bomb predicted mass famines and starvation in the 1970s through overpopulation.
The proposed solution? Let it happen. After all, it would be easier to achieve small, deindustrialised farming collectives once a billion people had died.
Fortunately, at the time, scientists chose technology to develop high-yield crops suitable for tough conditions. A billion lives across India and other food-insecure countries were saved in what has been termed the “green revolution”.
The same battle continues today. Agroecologists say this green revolution and industrialised agriculture has failed. They say it didn’t save enough people from starvation, despite extreme hunger levels globally being the lowest in history.
Environmentalists are right to recognise that our great leap forward with the industrial revolution had an environmental impact. Not only pollution but massive extinctions: especially around the 1860s with the arrival of rats to Australia, for example. But this is not a trend that has continued.
Extinction rates for species have reduced rapidly since, and as countries have industrialised, they have been able to exert greater environmental protections. In fact, the more prosperous a country is, the greener it can be. Indeed, by learning from the mistakes of our infancy, human beings can use technological progress to diminish the environmental impact of our large, sophisticated societies.
When it comes to the fight over agriculture, we should embrace technology, an idea that has been enthusiastically championed by Boris Johnson.
Agricultural technology, such as genetic modification, for example, offers us higher yield crops with less pesticide and land use. Opening up more land for woods, conservation, biodiversity and species protection.
Cutting-edge technology can strengthen indigenous species too. In the United States, scientists have created what Hank Campbell has termed a “genetically rescued organism”, a chestnut tree resistant to the fungus that arrived in America last century and destroyed four billion chestnut trees.
In the UK, chalara ash dieback, discovered in 2012, is set to devastate a staple of the British countryside and cost the UK economy £15bn.
Modern technology could support conservationists’ efforts to identifying trees resistant to the disease, even selecting and breeding a genetically resistant tree.
Technologically driven prosperity doesn’t cost the earth and means nobody needs to die. By 2050, the world will need to produce almost twice as much food as it does today to support a growing population. And yet, with modern technology, it may even be possible to do so on the same amount of land that’s currently used for cultivation. With agroecology, this certainly will not be the case.
Environmentalism is often anti-capitalism in disguise. It’s vital to be aware of that, because where anti-capitalism is adopted, poverty, deprivation, and death follow.