Earth Day: an apology for poverty

Every year, 22 April marks International Earth Day – a day set aside for the celebration of our planet’s fragility and the condemnation of those pesky humans who inhabit it. And, as it does every year, Earth Day 2016 played out like a misanthrope’s wet dream.

This year, Earth Day coincided with the toothless Paris climate agreement coming into force. Unfortunately, the self-congratulatory world leaders responsible for the agreement weren’t too busy to hop off their private jets and treat us to a barrage of eco-authoritarianism. We were reminded of the dangers of fossil fuels and the importance of transitioning to renewables. Not one of them addressed the fact that it is only thanks to the wonders of the fossil-fuelled industrial revolution that flying around the world is even possible.

Likewise, the right-on classes spent the day lamenting the coal-powered human progress which has afforded them their comfortable lifestyles. We were essentially told, as we have been time and time again, that the Enlightened values of unfettered growth and opportunities for all represent an ever-growing threat to the wellbeing of our planet. These miserable musings are nothing new – they’re just a 21st-century rehash of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who argued as far back as 1798 that the growth of economies and populations should be limited to prevent the collapse of society. 

As the elites revel in neo-Malthusianism, they help to ensure that the global poor stay poor. By taking part in the Earth Day misanthropy-fest, comfortable environmentalists further demonise the coal-powered growth the developing world needs. They ignore the poverty-busting effect cheap coal has recently had in Asia, where millions have been lifted out of poverty. While people in the Global South are crying out for an industrial revolution of their own, we in the developed West sit back and chide them for daring to dream of a coal-powered future.

Rather than revelling in the misery of Earth Day, we should be celebrating the vast achievements of our species and looking forward to a brighter future. We should reject such outdated misanthropy, and look instead to one of Malthus’s most prominent critics – economist Ester Boserup. Boserup argued that we should be aiming to control the planet, rather than the other way round. She famously stated that ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. Eco-warriors should heed her words.

Instead of limiting human progress to solve environmental issues, we should be helping everyone on the planet live better lives. By unleashing humanity’s full potential, rather than restricting it, our chances of combating the gravest threats to our existence are maximised. Let’s cast off the neo-Malthusians and fight for prosperity for all.

George Harrison is a writer and student.

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