The Cornucopians' Foolish Optimism

JONATHAN POWER

April 17, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- The Cornucopians are marshaling their forces. They have only six weeks left before the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro opens its doors to the biggest environmental jamboree the world has ever seen. Six weeks to persuade us that we mustn't let ourselves be bewitched by the green fairies into believing we are about to be incinerated by ultraviolet rays, washed away by rising tides and bereft of wonder drugs as the rain forests are cut to ribbons.

The Cornucopians, convinced by two centuries of proven post-industrial revolution abundance, capacity for adaptation, human ingenuity and, not least, the wonders of the price mechanism's ''invisible hand,'' tell us that there is nothing going wrong that can't be righted, given a little more time, calmer emotions and a deeper trust in the mysteries of the market place.

Nothing could be more unsophisticated, short-sighted and harmful to the planet.

It is true that, for two centuries, the Malthusians have been proved wrong. Every time they cried ''wolf,'' something turned up that not only kept things going, but took us on great leaps forward.

Yet never in the history of the industrial revolution has planetary life been under attack on so many varied fronts. Many resources are becoming scarce, the chances for substitutes are diminishing, and our creative impulses are hitting more and more dead ends.

We used to have time to adapt. Now change is so rapid there's barely a moment to make all the necessary social, economic and technological adjustments. The world's population is, today, so large and so interactive that the global city, more than the global village, is the norm of our existence. Consumerism has never had such momentum. The middle class of once-impoverished India is now as numerous as Britain's and France's put together.

Goods are being digested in quantities that a bare 20 years ago were considered inconceivable. Entire countries are deforested in a few decades. A region's topsoil can disappear in a generation. Critical ozone depletion can occur in as little as 20 years.

Not long ago a benign climate, productive seas and soils and -- not least -- human inventiveness seemed infinite. Every myriad process of nature was there for the unraveling. But do human beings any longer have the mental capacity to understand the complexities of life and to anticipate all the consequences of rapid economic advance?

The proponents of the virtues of the market mechanism -- price rises warning us we have gone too far, too fast -- overlook that prices depend for their effective functioning on intricate and stable institutions, social relations and, above all, on shared understandings among a minority class. They overlook how the slow evolution of the last 200 years allowed social ingenuity to produce the complex legal and economic climate in which technical ingenuity can flourish. If we now start to overload the social and political fabric we can be sure that ingenuity will not survive on its own.

If this is true for the more industrialized societies it is even truer for the new industrializing countries and the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Market-driven adaptation to resource scarcity is most likely to succeed where capital, know-how and markets have been interacting for generations. Yet the countries with the most serious environmental problems are India, China, Mexico and Brazil, and the former communists. For them lack of funds, expertise and industrial tradition makes adaptation more cumbersome and laggard. Meanwhile, air pollution on some days practically shuts down Mexico City, and Eastern Europe lives with the constant threat of nuclear-plant disaster. Nuclear fall-out and food contamination threaten to overspill into Western Europe and North America.

The Rio conference, it appears from the confusion of preparation -- who will pay, who won't? Green Fund or Greed Fund? Will George Bush go or won't he? -- is likely, at best, to be only a canvas on which to paint the first cave paintings of modern man's attempt to depict the outlines of his predicament. But recognition is the beginning of wisdom. After Rio, anything is possible.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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