Economic Growth over Environmental Protection for Developing Countries
[Updated July 2, 2015]
Two Lincoln-Douglas topics for the Stoa league
Resolved: In formal education liberal arts ought to be valued above practical skills.
Resolved: Developing countries ought to prioritize economic growth over environmental protection.
The Stoa league offers this description of the growth vs. environment topic:
The National Speech and Debate Association used a version of this resolution in early 2014 and it was a great success. Economy vs Environment has been a constant struggle throughout the history of civilization; examining it in developing countries raises the stakes significantly and creates some interesting challenges. On one hand, more than a billion people are battling malnutrition. Economic growth is a matter of life and death to them. On the other hand, environmental damage is becoming increasingly serious. Negatives can point to dramatic global issues like climate change, renewable energy, waste disposal, drinking water, endangered species, and the list goes on. Debaters will get the chance to get up-close to tricky economic issues like poverty relief, wealth distribution, and foreign investment. This is a well-balanced and very rich application-focused resolution.
This topic offers students an opportunity to research the economics and ecology of environmental claims. Among the many interesting ideas, values, worldviews and realities to investigate, consider these:
• Economic growth and environmental protection go hand and hand. When poor, Taiwan was an environmental disaster, with polluting factories, and the general havoc of an impoverished but fast-expanding economy. Once a certain level of wealth was achieved ($7,000-$10,000 annual family income), more resources were spent to reduce pollution and clean up the environment. Similar story in the U.S., where smog was common across U.S. cities even in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I used to see the pollution over Seattle in the 1970s. And swimming was banned in Lake Washington because it was a sewer for the fast growing surrounding population. One website describes the pollution levels:
The growth of suburbs around Lake Washington led to an increase of untreated sewage dumped into the lake. By the mid-1950s, water in Lake Washington was so polluted that swimming was impossible. Wallis T. Edmondson, a professor of zoology at the University of Washington, sounded the alarm that Lake Washington was becoming eutrophic or dying, in ecological terms, because sewage accelerated the growth of blue-green algae that stripped the waters of life-giving oxygen. Fewer and fewer creatures could thrive in the anaerobic waters. During the hot summers, mats of rotting algae washed ashore along with sewage, poisoning beaches and polluting the air.
At Seattle citizens grew wealthier more civic engagement pressured politicians to invest in Lake Washington cleanup. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on sewage treatment plants and storm sewer systems (so heavy rain wouldn’t overload sewer lines). Before long Lake Washington pollution was clean.
• Economic development usually increases pollution and environmental degradation at first, but as prosperity increases, with cleaner factories and rules or regulations to reduce pollution, ecosystems improve (following the “environmental Kuznets Curve”). Here is beginning of EconLib.org entry on Environmental Quality:
There are many different measures of environmental quality, and most of those in use show that environmental quality is improving. For example, from 1970 to 2000, concentrations of carbon monoxide, a pollutant, fell by 75 percent in the United States and by 95 percent in the United Kingdom. From 1975 to 2000, nitrogen oxides declined by 35 percent in the United States and by 40 percent in the United Kingdom. The percentage of beaches in Denmark not complying with local or European Union regulations fell from 14 percent in 1980 to approximately 1 percent by 2000. Between 1969 and 1994, DDT and PCB contamination of fish fell by more than 80 percent. Indeed, it is difficult to find measures indicating that environmental quality is deteriorating in countries enjoying relatively high incomes.
• In Julian Simon’s book The Ultimate Resource and Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, economists and statisticians have marshalled the empirical data to support environmental gains around the world. This Economist story from 2002 looks at Lomborg’s early work.:
One by one, he goes through the “litany”, as he calls it, of four big environmental fears:
• Natural resources are running out.
• The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.
• Species are becoming rapidly extinct, forests are vanishing and fish stocks are collapsing.
• Air and water are becoming ever more polluted.
In each case, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom is wildly exaggerated. Known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals have risen. Agricultural production per head has risen; the numbers facing starvation have declined. The threat of biodiversity loss is real but exaggerated, as is the problem of tropical deforestation. And pollution diminishes as countries grow richer and tackle it energetically.
In other words, the planet is not in peril. There are problems, and they deserve attention, but nothing remotely so dire as most of the green movement keeps saying.
Nor is that all he shows. The book exposes—through hundreds of detailed, meticulously footnoted examples—a pattern of exaggeration and statistical manipulation, used by green groups to advance their pet causes, and obligingly echoed through the media. Bizarrely, one of Dr Lomborg’s critics in Scientific American criticises as an affectation the book’s insistence on documenting every statistic and every quotation with a reference to a published source. But the complaint is not so bizarre when one works through the references, because they so frequently expose careless reporting and environmentalists’ abuse of scientific research.
• So all this add a layer of complexity I think to the LD resolution as worded and explained. The topic can offer students an opportunity to research and contemplate the conflict as promoted by mainstream environmental organizations. But also students will be able to consider the deeper concerns that good intentions by environmentalists often get caught in foundation fund-raising and corporate lobbying. Ethanol subsidies are one example. Turning corn to Ethanol to mix with gasoline was long a goal of environmentalists wishing for “sustainable” fuel. Corporate agriculture got onboard seeing ethanol mandates would push corn prices up, plus bring profits to farmer-owned ethanol refineries. Folks wishing for “energy independence” also liked the idea of “homegrown” fuel. Later it turned out that ethanol mandates and subsidies have been harmful for the environment (consuming more energy to produce than gained), driven food prices up around the world, plus lowered gas mileage and harmed many engines.
• For value debaters, especially in a Christian home school league, there is another level of research into the origins of long disputes between economic growth and the environment. Consider the ways environmentalism is a sort of religion for many people. But economic growth can be seen as a sort of religion too.
•Robert H. Nelson, in his 2010 book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, notes that the leading scholars of both twentieth century welfare economics and the environmental were Presbyterian ministers who invested their religious visions into these movements.
Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original “state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.” (From detailed summary here.)
Allowing environmentalists to fund their environmental values in the developing world has often led to disaster (but the developing world is also littered with failed projects promoted by economists and funded by foreign aid).
The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.
The religious side of welfare economics later clashed with environmental enthusiasts:
Economic religion exerted greater influence over public policy for most of the twentieth century, but in recent decades the clout of environmental religion has grown rapidly. In response, disciples of economic religion have attempted, rather apologetically, to bridge the divide. One such endeavor has been to try to measure the “existence value” that people attach to wilderness that is kept off limits from human encroachment, rather than conserved for future production and recreation, but this approach is untenable. Efforts to reconcile economic religion and environmental religion are doomed to fail so long as they uphold fundamentally opposing values.
On the “False Gods of Economic Salvation” in The New Holy Wars:
Part I explores the basic tenets of economic religion, highlighting its areas of disagreement with environmental religion. Economics, although it claims to be value-free, relies on value-laden assumptions that are seldom stated openly and rarely examined. These tenets are shared by competing economic religions across the spectrum, from Marxism to the Progressive economists’ “gospel of efficiency” to the neoclassical mainstream of today. Chapter 1 briefly reviews the underlying theological logic of economic religion and its large influence on government policy over the course of the twentieth century.
So… lots to think about!