The tiny minds of environmental ‘prophets of doom’

December 17, 2012

Crowley-Brian-LeeLOGOOTTAWA, ON, Dec. 17, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Are human prosperity and well-being an illusion, bought at the expense of Nature? Human beings add nothing to the world, on this view, and subtract everything. But however much this view may appeal to, say, the apostles of environmental doom and gloom, the opponents of the oil sands and fish farming and pipelines and biotechnology, it is wrong.

Human beings add something crucial to the world: their intelligence. And the history of humanity has been one of the successful incremental application of human intelligence to the problems of nature and humanity.

It is not that we do not face problems. We do. But identifying our problems is only the first step to solving them. We must also look at the mechanism we have successfully used to solve every one of humanity’s significant challenges since time began: our minds.

The wealth of humanity comes from mixing natural and human capital (our knowledge and experience) in differing proportions, and as natural capital becomes scarce in one context or another, we invent ways to sustain it, supplement it or replace it. Regrettably, however, the problems almost invariably arise before the solution is conceived. Indeed, the problem is usually the cause of the solution’s emergence. But that means that human progress is inescapably a matter of faith: faith in the power of reason to solve our problems even when we cannot foresee what the solution will look like.

It is therefore a startling presumption to say that because we can identify a looming problem, global warming say, but cannot yet see how to solve it that we must therefore abandon our way of life – use less, consume less, eat less, procreate less, travel less, expect less – or we will destroy ourselves.

The pessimists claim science backs up their view of humanity’s place in nature. The veil of intellectual respectability in which the prophets of environmental doom and gloom like to drape themselves relies on the prestige of science for its credibility. They then propose to use science as a guide for re-ordering human activities in accordance with their estimation of the number of people the planet can support (‘carrying capacity’).

And yet the power of science lies not in the passive observation of what is; science offers tools to the human imagination to discover ways of surmounting problems. Because of science and imagination, the carrying capacity of the planet is not fixed, but is hugely variable, depending on the leaven of human intelligence that we can add to it.

Unavoidably, however, the solutions to our challenges emerge unpredictably. So in the absence of precise knowledge of the scientific and technological solutions to our problems, do we abandon hope and settle for shrunken hopes and aspirations, or do we press on, seeking the prosperity that will allow us to do more with less, and create the technological marvels that will carry us through?

We should choose to carry on. Here’s why.

Our stock of knowledge is exploding at an unprecedented rate. In cutting-edge fields, such as computer science or nanotechnology, the total amount of knowledge doubles every 18 to 24 months, while the whole body of human knowledge doubles roughly every 15 years. One half of everything that is known today was not yet known in 1998.

We as individuals are therefore condemned to ignorance. Our brain’s capacity is relatively fixed, while the knowledge known by all human beings collectively is expanding exponentially.

With minds so limited, and knowledge so vast and variegated, you and I are condemned to see a narrowing slice of what is known at the same time as humanity has never had access to more knowledge

What does this all mean about sustainability and our relationship with Nature? That we should be deeply skeptical about the claims of people who refuse to see the humanity adds something to the world: its own intelligence, and that that intelligence has repeatedly allowed it to surmount every significant challenge, often to our own amazement.

We should be less inclined to accept that our rich way of life is to be junked simply because someone with a specialist’s view of a tiny piece of human knowledge cannot see whence will come the solutions to today’s problems. The solutions will come from unexpected quarters for unforeseeable reasons at unpredictable times. They always have and there is no reason to doubt that they will again. Unless we give up the search.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, Troy Media and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, with links to their web site, MUST be credited.


3 Responses to "The tiny minds of environmental ‘prophets of doom’"

  1. susanmaugustine   January 9, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I guess I’m just one of those tiny-minded prophets of doom but I assure you as a scientist (check out some population dynamics if you like equations) that the last time I checked, the human species was still governed by the same laws of science with respect to nature as other animals. 
    As such, if the exponential growth of the human population is not curbed by humans, it WILL be curbed for them and through some very unpleasant, but eventually inevitable, scenarios.  
    If you truly believe that human intelligence is so different from and superior (whatever that means, i.e. what value judgments are being assumed. Superior HOW or in what respects?) to that of other animals, I would challenge you to better inform/educate yourself as to the VALIDITY of your species-specific narcissistic point of view. 
    A great place to begin would be to read the N.Y. TIMES  Bestseller WHEN ELEPHANTS WEEP by Jeffrey Mouuaieff Masson. That is, if your so much larger and superior mind is OPEN enough to do so.

  2. frish   December 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    While humans add so called “intelligence” to the planet, your confidence that our historical success will be mirrored going forward is flawed.
    The problem is no longer one of kind, it’s one of degree.
    Quick prehistory lesson – humans obtain technology and begin to breed with higher rates of success in general. 
    Technology generally was formulated to assist in fighting other humans (and to feed us etc.)
    Groups driven to the periphery had to then overcome new obstacles the environment presented.
    Over time, this ability to overcome nature’s boundaries let the Inuit (Eskimos)  survive in the snow.
    Incremental technological steps put them there.
    As you say, knowledge has never been better, more widely distributed, and more quickly increasing and improving, and the strategy worked before, we simply need to throw more minds and money at it and technology will win the day.
    What you either fail to consider, or flat out deny, is that we no longer overcome natural boundaries, now we’re OVERWHELMING natural limits!
    The risks to humanity stems from several sources: 
    Climate Chaos – due to human pollution (from our technology)
    Oceanic Dead Zones due to fertilizer – from farm technology
    overfishing  – Ocean fish were never a large portion of the human diet in the prehistoric past, just how much “harvest” can we take of a resource we’ve never impacted or grazed on before?  Other things were eating those fish, etc.
    over logging – rainforest biodiversity is crucial to the interconnected web of life
    food monoculture – our risk, from eating only 20 or so items world wide is huge
    Also, we have NEVER understood the consequences of our supposed technological advancement, the true costs of petroleum for example, so what you consider our great technological progress is really what’s put us behind the 8 ball. 
    Agricultural runoff destroying the oceans in precisely the places where the most diversity exists (shallow continental shelfs and reefs, estuaries, etc.) is a great example, sure we have cheap food, but the long term costs of destroying fertile coastal acreage is not included in the pricing model!!!
    Here’s the $64000 question.
    Is humanity capable of both understanding what is happening currently, and, then apply FURTHER knowledge on what will do no harm but will ALLOW FOR humanity’s FUTURE.
    You suggest MORE OF THE SAME (technology, human ability to organize, etc.) to somehow get us out of the hole we are in!
    As individuals we are fairly “intelligent” yet this doesn’t translate into groups of humans acting with wisdom.
    I highly doubt humanity can get our collective stuff together in order survive the chaos we have already introduced.
    It’s a highly interconnected and dependent on each other world, from Life’s point of view.
    We’re destroying those interconnections (species are going extinct at a higher rate than ever observed!) far more quickly than our knowledge of the connections grows.
    I am, and have been since 1964, convinced of the folly of the human experiment.
    I believe the human race will cease within 100 years or sooner (few agree with me, so far…hurricane Sandy was a drop in a bucket compared to what we’ll be experiencing!)…I choose to have no children.
    Then I found this, the 5th most radical environmental movement.
    It’s the moral answer, bring as few people into the world as possible, to reduce the numbers that will suffer at the end.
    I’m a volunteer, you can be too!

  3. EmmettLBrown   December 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Whether human prosperity, well-being, and nature are expenses to be written off, the intent to oppress the masses by exerting control of economic means and un-environmental health through corrupted food supply and fossil fuels, it is not good business.  How do we solve economic and energy problems?  Do we embrace the new at the expense of corporate influence and executive privilege, by finding ways to integrate such improvements?  Or, do we resist and eradicate change to utterly destroy any measure of knowledge, power and wealth that is exerted by doomsayer environmentalists and competing start-ups?  What right does one economic player have over another to say it is unjust to proclaim whether the Earth and its people are being affected?  Rather, it is a higher law that the people have the right to voice and seek restitution – whenever corporate powers have been and are creating harm, especially on a global scale.
     For, who are we to believe more: the environmentalist who is genuinely concerned and overreacts, or paid-for so-called “scientific research?”  According to this article’s author, it seems we should rely on, and even trust, the prosperity and technology gained from fossil fuels and other antiquated ways of industry.  As if to say that our collective intelligence, including that of those who wish to remain in power over the health and wealth of humanity, should be content with the way things are, and entrust our future to those who have done nothing to abate these harms but instead perpetuate them.  Does this sound logical?  It is not.  Rather, it is to be opposed at every turn, by kicking, screaming, and flailing about, ridding ourselves of content and faith in man, until we break free of such nonsense – knowing it leads to our slaughter.