The bogus logic of 'sustainability'

NEF co-author Saamah Abadallah

Did you know people in Haiti, Burma and Armenia are all better off than in Britain? And the Congo is happier than the USA? That’s what the London think-tank New Economic Foundation reckons in its second “Happy Planet” rankings. But even NEF admits that its “happiness” rating or HPI doesn’t really measure human happiness, and that it’s sacrificing truthiness for the publicity its reports can generate.

Like the notorious Carbon Calculator, the Happy Planet Index is an advocacy tool for limiting, rather than promoting, human health and happiness, and it too is based on the idea of an ecological “footprint”. This Neo-Malthusian concept was developed by population-control advocate William Rees, a professor at British Columbia University, and his splendidly-named pupil Mathis Wackernagel. The latter has since turned it into a successful consultancy business.

NEF uses older surveys where people expressed happiness, multiplies it by life expectancy, and divides it by the “footprint”. Factors such as crime, freedom, or infant mortality rates are not considered.

So not surprisingly, given this skew, the “Happiness Index” produces some very odd results. The last survey was topped by the Republic of Vanautu. The south sea nation has a population of just over 200,000 and an infant mortality rate of one in 20 – about 10 times that of the UK.

The authors urge industrialised economies urgently need to become more like the underdeveloped. In human terms, that would mean over 300,000 unnecessary child deaths in the UK each year. Such is the price of happiness, NEF argues.

NEF also frowns on India and China for improving the material welfare of their people. Accompanying the report is a spreadsheet which hindcasts the NEF “happiness” figure retrospectively. It tells us that since 1990, China and India’s “HPI rating” has fallen.

In the latest survey Costa Rica tops the poll, and Vanautu has dropped out completely. Jamaica ranks third, Columbia is at six, Bhutan (with 74 deaths per 1,000 live births) and Laos (89 per 1,000) is in the Top 20 – far higher than any OECD country.

It’s too bizarre even for some anti-capitalist environmentalists. Writing on his blog, the activist Derek Wall, author of Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-capitalist, Anti-globalist and Radical Green Movements observes that:

“Colombia comes in at number six on the index out of 143 countries… yet death squads commonly clear peasants from the land for biofuels. Doesn’t sound that good a place to me.”

“But maybe I am just one of those old fashioned left greens who worries about little things like human rights and the environment?”

Meet the Carbon Cult, Derek.

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How the middle classes' superstitions keep Africa poor and hungry

The man dubbed the “King of Climate Porn” achieved notoriety at the turn of the decade as the architect of the Foot and Mouth holocaust – which unnecessarily slaughtered seven million animals, and cost the country billions of pounds. But King astonished observers by saying something sensible last week – and he promises to do so again tonight.

Speaking at the British Association’s Science Week, King will say that the Greenies’ anti-science superstitions are causing unnecessary suffering in Africa. King blames “anti-poverty” campaigners, aid agencies and environmental activists for keeping modern farming techniques and bio-technology out of Africa. King tells the Times today:

“The suffering within [Africa], I believe, is largely driven by attitudes developed in the West which are somewhat anti-science, anti-technology – attitudes that lead towards organic farming, for example, attitudes that lead against the use of genetic technology for crops that could deal with increased salinity in the water, that can deal with flooding for rice crops, that can deal with drought resistance.”

King wonders why recent productivity revolutions in agriculture, which have been such a success in Asia and India, have not been implemented in Africa on the same scale. He concludes that the blame lies not with Africans, but with Western “do-gooders” who prefer Africans to remain picturesque and dirt poor.

An example he cites is the attempts of eco-campaigners Friends of the Earth to keep drought-resistant crops out of Africa.

He has a point.

“Where once there were ambitions for people in the third world to enjoy Western standards of living, now the voice of the voiceless instead celebrates the primitive lifestyles that the world’s poorest people suffer,” wrote Ben Pile and Stuart Blackman recently in a scathing critique of the charity Oxfam, called Backwards to the future.

Indeed, and the same middle-class superstitions that endeavour to keep Wi-Fi out of schools are used to justify keeping biotechnology out of Africa.

For example, Friends of the Earth continues to argue that modern seed technologies should not be used to make agriculture easier and more productive for poor farmers – even when this causes more ecological damage than the new technology. FoE’s most recent campaign against biotech means that subsistence farmers must continue to use seeds that require more fertiliser than GM varieties, and which need environmentally-destructive tilling.

Whatever it is that motivates these self-styled “Greens”, it isn’t a concern for the environment. Nor, despite claims to the contrary, is there any valid concern of “over-population”. The UN estimates global population growth to peak in the 2040s at 7.87bn, then decline, assuming modest development is permitted to continue. Not only does economic development mean fewer people, but it means less suffering: those fewer people are much happier.

Clearly, we can easily generate enough food to feed everyone on the planet and we have the means to ensure there’s less human suffering. Some people want that to happen – and some don’t. You’ll find many nursing their Malthusian or Eugenics prejudices under the banner of Greenery in the former camp – but it’s a refreshing surprise to find King in the latter camp, or at least edging away from the Greens’ death cult.

©Situation Publishing 2008.