Keeping the plough ahead of the stork

Eco-facts and Eco-Fiction
October 31, 1997

The environmental debate sometimes sounds more like a dialogue of the determinedly deaf. In 1983 I spent an evening in the public arena at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington discussing environmental issues with the foremost "no problem" protagonist, Julian Simon. He asserted that since I briefly warned in the late 1970s that a mass extinction of species was underway, I had produced not a further word of evidence or analysis. I sent him one of the three books I had in fact written, plus papers and popular articles. In 1990 I sent him some more, yet he made the same accusation in another public debate in 1992, and published it in writing (see review in The THES, January 6 1995).

We need all the environmental debate we can get. The issues are manifold, complex and vitally important. One would therefore like to welcome this book by a chemistry professor at Lakehead University in Canada. He has a formidable background in toxicology, occupational health and related fields. His book covers a variety of topics such as recycling, pesticides, health foods, pollution, biodegradation and electric cars, but alas it offers next to nothing on most of the big-picture problems such as soil erosion, desertification, water shortages, deforestation, ozone layer depletion and global warming. This might be acceptable from a chemistry expert who leaves other issues to other experts. However, William Baarschers's book is presented as one that will address questions such as "What are we doing to our planet? Will our species survive? Are we destroying other species with which we share the planet?" Yet there is no index entry for species, let alone mass extinction. Human survival receives only a mention in passing.

This is not to say there are not good aspects of the book. Baarschers is especially persuasive when demonstrating that certain materials are intrinsically harmful only when taken in excess. A marginal amount is generally acceptable, a larger amount is often not; hence the question, where is the borderline, and how do we deal with risk and its many uncertainties? We must recognise that we shall never achieve a pristinely clean planet, and even saints cause some pollution and waste. If it is issues such as these that catch your interest, then this book will serve you well.

But it falls sadly short of its professed aims. Early on it takes to task the famous Paul Ehrlich 1968 prophesy that the world would face famines and mass starvations: "The prediction was quickly shown to be incorrect, and international worries of a worldwide food shortage did not materialise." Since 1968 an average of 10 million people a year have died of malnutrition. How many would satisfy Baarschers that we have indeed witnessed mass starvations, albeit generally not in the form of Ethiopia-style debacles? Despite improved harvests in the last two years, the Food and Agriculture Organisation warns that reserve stocks of grain, which supply 70 per cent of calories worldwide, are still well below safety levels.

Others besides Ehrlich have shown that however much the plough has kept ahead of the stork in a few select years, the record since 1985 is one of lean years. Among the dozens of pessimistic pundits - all established scientists - are David Pimentel, Lester Brown and Albert Bartlett. Baarschers mentions none of them. Nor is there more than a couple of pages on global warming, the biggest threat to agriculture, which the author seems to think is of scant significance thus far. He might note the lengthy list of Nobel laureates, including economists, who have produced one resounding warning after another that we are already late in tackling this crucial problem.

Nevertheless, the book performs a fine function in showing that we should beware of confusing marginal values with absolutes. Ecologists can learn much from economists as well as the other way around, notably insofar as economists deal with what happens at the margin. If you want an apple and have none, then one is great. A second one might be al right too, but a third one would be of marginal benefit as compared with the first. You probably would not want to pay anything for a fifth apple. Save-species experts, take note.

The same applies to other values. We do not value human life as an absolute. If we did, we would require cars to drive at ten miles an hour or however slowly was required to ensure that nobody was ever killed again on the roads. We do not even value our own lives in absolute terms. If we did, we would never stir out of our houses into the risky world. Baarschers has done well to remind us that toxic substances become toxic only when we ingest them to excess.

It is a shame that his book is so patchy. He describes air pollutants in careful detail, and his assessments are as authoritative as one would expect from a scientist with his credentials. But why no mention of asthma and its pandemic proportions in many countries of the world? It seems to stem in major measure from house pollutants and vehicle emissions. It is not being alarmist to assert that asthma is an emergent environmental problem with exceptional economic repercussions. In Britain asthma is estimated to cost at least Pounds 2 billion each year, or Pounds 100 per household (possibly twice as much). Marginal analysis, anyone?

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow,Green College, University of Oxford.

Eco-facts and Eco-Fiction: Understanding the Environmental Debate

Author - William H. Baarschers
ISBN - 0 415 13020 4 and 13021 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 264

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