Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
21 Nov 2017
Written for Paperback
The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise lays bare a conundrum of our times. How is it that so many of us loathe resource extraction, yet we adore the products that are made from these resources? We protest when our forests are under threat, or companies want to frack in protected areas (a current concern in the UK), and when we successfully halt these things, the results are invariably hailed as a victory for the environment. Except that they aren’t.
Bowyer contends that most of our environmental policies and decisions are short-sighted and hypocritical, with many environmental bodies having a NIMBY attitude. Rarely are decisions regarding resource extraction coupled to consumption patterns. This book is an eye-opener in that sense. Once you think about it that way, it’s mind-boggling that nobody ever asks logical follow-up questions when a decision is taken to, for example, not cut trees down in a forest, such as “If we don’t cut down these trees, will we decrease our consumption of timber and paper accordingly?”, and “If our trees are not going to be cut down, then were is the raw material for the timber and paper we need going to come from?”, and “What damage is going to be inflicted in other countries as a consequence?”, and “Isn’t shipping raw materials and products half-way around the world causing extra pollution?”. The consequence is that developed countries have shifted the burden of resource extraction to developing countries where environmental regulations and oversight are lacking, while smugly maintaining a pristine environment at home. Bowyer thinks we need to addresses all these issues and questions. Only once we have considered the global impact of our wants and needs, have taken into account all the trade-offs, can we make rational decisions. And that could mean consuming less.
The other elephant in the room that Bowyer confronts is overpopulation, a problem that has had me transfixed for the last 20 years. In my opinion, it is the root cause of all our environmental problems. In principle there is nothing wrong with the Western lifestyle and environmental footprint. The Earth could easily support a 10 or 100 million of us living like this. The exact number isn’t the point. The point is that there is a limit. Malthus et al. are thought of as a bunch of downers by many. The details of their predictions and forecasts may have been wrong, as our ingenuity and technical prowess have so far bought us time. But the basic tenet stands: our world is finite. Debates keep raging over whether or not we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. I think we have, and I’m not alone in thinking so. But even if we haven’t, populations can’t keep growing indefinitely.
Part 3 of the book is very enlightening in laying out just how intricate this problem is. Sure, it is well documented by now that raised living standards and a better position of women in society have led to declined growth rates. But our absolute number is still increasing. Plus, an increasing fraction of that population wants to live our consumer lifestyle. And there are other things I hadn’t even considered.
Obviously, things like cement and steel are not pulled out of the ground like that. We mine and refine ores. Basic economics dictates we first mine ores of the highest concentration, and/or those most easily accessible. Globally, ore quality is dropping for many minerals, so to produce the same amount we need to mine more ore. But we won’t need the same amount. We will need much more. Same for fossil fuel reserves, which is how tar sand exploitation and fracking have become economically viable. Partially we have run out of the easily accessible, cheap sources, partially these can’t meet the increased demand.
One hard limit Bowyer surprisingly doesn’t mention is that of Energy Returned Upon Energy Invested, which Ugo Bardi discusses in Extracted. Producing energy costs energy. As long as there is a net gain, all is well. But with decreasing ore qualities you will eventually hit a point where producing a certain amount of energy costs more than you gain, at which point it’s game over.
Take all these interacting factors into account and then try to tell me that we’re not facing resource crisis. We might already be in the middle of it. These declines are gradual, playing out over multiple generations, and each successive generation is intuitively inclined to take the then current state of resource availability and environmental degradation as the norm. This phenomenon is known as shifting baselines and has been well documented for overfishing. This is why we need historians.
But what about recycling and renewable energy? Bowyer points out that most things cannot be recycled endlessly, as quality decreases with the number of cycles so that a constant addition of virgin material is required. More importantly, some elements are used in such trace quantities that it’s not economical to recover them. As for renewable energy; all these require complex equipment (e.g. wind turbines and solar panels) that require yet more minerals and metals to produce, need to be maintained, and have a limited lifespan.
We have been incredibly inventive and have made huge technological advances, but all our future techno-fixes rely on a dwindling supply of minerals and rare earth elements. These are a group of exotic chemical elements that, though quite plentiful in absolute terms, rarely occur in concentrations that are economically exploitable (hence the name). I recommend Abraham’s The Elements of Power if you want to know just how dependent our technology sector has become on these.
A book like this wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t offer a way forward, and the last two chapters outline how to bring about meaningful change. Bowyer argues this will require confronting consumption, rethinking legislation around domestic resource extraction and confronting overpopulation, and urges us to find a way to prosper in the absence of (economic) growth. Addressing these will be uncomfortable, painful even, and those in power will no doubt shy away from them as they equate to political suicide. But, one way or another, change will come. We can be the architects of that change now, or eventually let it overwhelm us.
Bowyer’s book might be US-centric and his examples specific to the forestry industry, but his message rises above this all. It purposefully covers topics concisely, as explained in the preface, making this thought-provoking book easily digestible and accessible. It is easy to recommend this to those interested in resource extraction, environmental issues and sustainable development. However, in pointing out the blind spots and hypocrisy in our attitudes towards consumption and environmental protection, this book is deserving of a far wider readership.