Acton Commentary

The 'Living Planet' Is Not So Alive After All

It seems that the never-ending stream of alarmist reports being issued by environmental groups never cease. The latest by the World Wildlife Fund, the “Living Planet Report: 2002” was accompanied by a press release boldly asserting, “humanity’s footprint is crushing the earth.” If such a comment wasn’t already enough, the “Living Planet Report” predicts in the usual dire fashion that human development will surpass the Earth’s “biological capacity” by 2050, causing “severe ecological backlashes undermining future population and economic growth.” While comments made in such an extreme fashion should provoke only a smirk from reasonable people, it is important to point out the very serious and erroneous anthropological and economic convictions that are at the foundation of this report. For it is these foundational convictions that serve to motivate the draconian environmental measures the “Living Planet Report” suggests.

A proper understanding of human anthropology is essential to the formation of sound environmental policy. How one understands man’s role within creation is vitally important. For the purposes of policy analysis and formation, it makes a great deal of difference if man and his efforts are viewed as productive, altruistic, and additive to creation’s abundance or if you view him primarily as a consumer, external to creation and its resources. The “Living Planet Report” clearly takes the second view, recommending policy prescriptions that liberally use phrases like “sustainable development”, “sustainable production systems”, and to the true heart of the matter, “controlling population growth.” Such a framing of environmental policy prescriptions ignores the fundamental insight offered by noted economist, Juilan Simon: “Man is man’s greatest resource.”

This neglect of Simon’s seminal insight is evident in the definition and the interpretation of the definition of sustainable development employed by the report. Sustainable development is defined as “improving the quality of human life while living in the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.” The phrase “carrying capacity” implies a certain anthropological and economic worldview that is quite at odds with Simon’s common sense insight. Such a phrase first and foremost overlooks the fact that most of creation’s resources are only resources in relation to man, because man has applied his ingenuity to make them useful—for the purposes of human life. Secondly, human ingenuity constantly expands the realm of the possible. For example, before modern antibiotics were developed, it was quite common for people to die of simple maladies, such as diarrhea. Another example is the use of biotech foods—foods genetically engineered to produce greater yields, higher nutritional content, and resist disease, thus preventing famine. In the use of just these two items of human ingenuity as applied to creation’s raw materials, the planet’s “carrying capacity” is greatly increased. Sadly, in many places of the world, were the rule of law does not protect the work of the entrepreneur and selfish charlatans rule the land, many people are still denied access to modern medical and other technologies that would improve living standards.

In the foreword to the report, Dr. Claude Marin offers a few places suffering the greatest environmental degradation. These include the tropical forests in Brazil and Indonesia, the ecological devastation of the Black Sea, the Aral Sea, and Lake Chad. These examples are telling, due to the fact that most of these places are a part of nations that are still struggling with the implementation of private property rights, rule of law, and economic liberalization. What this report fails to provide is the other side of the matter—those nations that have their governmental and economic systems firmly moored in the principles of private property rights, rule of law, and economic liberalization have seen dramatic and consistent improvements in environmental quality over the past three decades. These improvements are not in spite of human development; they are because of human development.

Those nations offering protections to entrepreneurs and businesses through the enforcement of contracts and the protection of private property understand that “man is man’s greatest resource” and the human ingenuity expands the realm of the possible, rather than assuming that there is only so much to go around for everyone. One does not get the impression from the “Living Planet Report” that the planet is living at all, but rather, is in the final stages of a terminal illness. Such a view is the inevitable and logical conclusion of those who believe the pie is only so big and that only a certain predetermined number of people are able to get a piece of it.

Such convictions, however, are not to be lightly dismissed. The fact of the matter is that millions of people throughout the world long for the greater quality of life that accompanies economic development. The policy prescriptions offered by the World Wildlife Fund in the “Living Planet Report” rest on the assumption that more human development is, at best, not desirable, or at worst, dangerous to the planet. If such a vision of man’s role on the planet serves at the basis for future policy prescriptions, the liberty necessary for the vigorous economic development of impoverished nations will be greatly diminished. Should these nations fail to develop economically, then further environmental degradation is not only possible, it is likely. In considering the worldview adopted by the “Living Planet Report” one rightfully wonders if the living planet isn’t so alive after all.