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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy

Poor People in Developing Countries Suffer from the Worst Environmental Problems

The extraordinary thing about this excellent book is not its content as much as its source. Jack M. Hollander is a retired professor of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley. Although he has had an impressive career in the field of energy (he has more than 100 publications to his credit), in the past he did not differentiate his views from those of scientists who are pessimistic and even alarmist about the environment.

For example, a 1992 book Hollander edited, The Energy-Environment Connection, featured scientists such as Stephen Schneider, a well-known proponent of government control to slow down global warming, and John Holdren, who expressed alarm about the “folly of failing to stabilize world population.” Although it avoided inflammatory rhetoric, the book treated global warming as a severe problem and expressed pessimism about acid rain and air pollution.

Hollander has not repudiated his past work, but has shifted gears. It’s as though he sat down one day and completely rethought, without bias, the seriousness and extent of environmental problems. However it happened, he has come to the conclusion that poor people in developing countries suffer from the worst environmental problems: hunger, disease, and dangerously unsanitary water. Environmental problems in Europe and North American simply pale in comparison. “Reducing poverty throughout the world should be a top priority for environmentalists,” he writes.

The environmental crisis of poverty is the theme of the book, but another theme is inextricably entwined and almost more dominant. That is Hollander’s reassessment of the severity of environmental issues. For example, he doesn’t call global warming an imminent catastrophe. He says there are still many scientific uncertainties, and “if it turns out that human activity is adding to the natural warming, the amount will probably be small, and society can adjust to that as well, at relatively low cost or even net benefit.” In some circles, this is heresy.

Hollander is optimistic about reducing pollution from automobiles too. Already on the decline, this pollution is likely to disappear entirely, he says, as competition develops between the hybrids (electric and gasoline-powered cars) and cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. He predicts that the “worldwide deterioration of air quality that accompanied the rise of the automobile culture will be permanently reversed, and the world’s dependence on petroleum will probably be drastically reduced, as well.”

Nor does Hollander blindly support alternative energy, such as solar or wind power. He concludes that much effort to jump-start these alternatives is misplaced. The governments of such wealthy nations as the United States are subsidizing “large-scale renewable technologies for which there is little need,” yet ignoring solar applications that could help poor people in rural regions lacking electricity. He says that “poor countries have tremendous need for renewable energy sources, and a number of ingenious yet affordable technologies have been available for years.”

As these examples illustrate, Hollander has written a book that, like Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, offers upbeat views about issues usually treated as crises. Unlike Lomborg, Hollander doesn’t seem to be challenging the establishment. He is an insider telling it the way he sees it. Perhaps his moderate stance is one reason why this book hasn’t received as much attention as has the Danish statistician’s.

Hollander has made an effort to consider literature from both the doomsday and skeptical sides. I was, however, dismayed by his selection of a passage from Dickens’s novel Hard Times to illustrate air pollution in the nineteenth century. (“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it,” the passage begins). Dickens, a master of fictional exaggeration, is hardly a reliable authority on air pollution. I’m also a little surprised that Hollander is unaware of the growing literature (started by economists) surrounding the environmental Kuznets curve. This correlation between income and pollution shows that as countries become more wealthy their environments initially deteriorate but then become cleaner. Discussion of this would have underscored his point.

These are minor criticisms. Although it comes as no surprise to many of us that poverty is the environment’s number one enemy, at long last, thanks to Hollander, others may find it out too.