Chronic worrywarts are the enemies of a cleaner future

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

In The Future and Its Enemies— The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress, a book published shortly before the millennium, author Virginia Postrel decried widespread pessimistic attacks on humanity's future. The list of pessimists, she observed, was long and contains some strange bedfellows.

For example, despite their ideological differences, right-winger Pat Buchanan and left-winger Ralph Nader both oppose freer trade. Right wing “nativists” and left wing environmentalists dislike immigration. (They do so for different reasons: nativists dislike diversity and the more extreme wings of the green movement see humans as fundamentally destructive). Traditionalists and urbanists both decry big box stores and the growth of suburbs, the former for sentimental reasons and the latter because suburbs are aesthetically boring.

On the other side, theorizes Postrel, stand optimists. They favour an “open-ended society where creativity and enterprise… generate progress in unpredictable ways.” This is where “dynamists” such as “entrepreneurs and artists, scientists and legal theorists, cultural analysts and computer programmers” thrive.

This basic divide has likely always existed in human civilization, between the operationally conservative types who fear change and those who rush headlong into it.

These days in Canada, almost every proposed development is met by someone, somewhere, who claims the sky will fall, or NIMBYists who resist change in their neighbourhood, and others who oppose every entrepreneurial activity that might disrupt the status quo.

More cheerfully, some Canadians seek to create new opportunities, expand the economy, hire more people and provide opportunities. They might even—gasp—argue that governments are better off and have more revenues (without raising taxes) when entrepreneurs are allowed to flourish.

These dynamists might be an entrepreneur who wants to imitate Steve Jobs or a “tree-hugger” who wants a better environment. But their common strand is that they think humanity’s best days are in front and not behind of us.

As an example of the negative nabobs consider how opposition to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil has been a cause celebre for some, despite its relative safety and the fact it has occurred for decades. In Atlantic Canada, some provinces may benefit from more jobs and increased tax revenues if fracking were more widespread but the negative naysayers are full of fear and misinformation.

A recent review in the journal Science observes: “Since the advent of hydraulic fracturing, more than one million hydraulic fracturing treatments have been conducted, with perhaps only one documented case of direct groundwater pollution resulting from injection of hydraulic fracturing chemicals used for shale gas extraction.”

This opposition to progress, even environmental progress, is evident from another example.

When some Treaty 8 First Nations oppose the proposed Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia because a) they assert they have not been consulted enough or b) believe they possess a veto or c) because some traditional hunting areas will be affected, they fall into the oppositional mindset described by Postrel. They are also in love with a romanticized, pre-industrial past.

Enter Liz Logan, chief of the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, who told one media outlet in Vancouver recently that there would be “adverse effects on our way of life.” Logan instead recommends wind power and geothermal energy as an alternative to already clean hydro power. (Problem: wind power and geothermal power cannot yet replace the plentiful and relatively cheap power from hydro-generated electricity.)

Earth to Logan: pre-industrial life, whether before or after European contact, was not an idyllic Garden of Eden.

In AD 1000, the average lifespan for everyone (the “West” and everywhere else) was 24 years. In 1820, the average lifespan in the West was 36 years compared with the average of 24 years in the rest of the world. By 2002, lifespans had lengthened to 79 years in the West with a 64-year lifespan in the rest of the world. Pre-modern life, as Thomas Hobbes described it in another context, was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish—and short.

When people demand perfection, they sacrifice real progress that can be made, including on environmental matters. A dam that produces electricity is obviously far less carbon-intensive than coal-burning electricity plants. Ergo, chronic worrywarts are not only enemies of the future but enemies of a cleaner future as well. Postrel was on to something.

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