Science, the Greens and the Environment

By Hodgson, Peter | Contemporary Review, November 1992 | Go to article overview

Science, the Greens and the Environment

Hodgson, Peter, Contemporary Review

THE leaflets distributed by the Green Party during the recent election have drawn attention once more to a set of beliefs about the present dangers to our environment and the policies needed to avert them. Essentially the same policies are advocated by many bodies concerned with environmental matters. In a sense we are all green now. Few would dispute that we should preserve the beauties of the countryside and ensure clean, unpolluted air. The difficulties begin when we start to think what we can do about it. Immediately there arise conflicts of interests: we do not like motorways and traffic fumes, but we want to keep our own cars. We do not like power stations and power lines, but we want electricity. Unfortunately, unspoilt countryside and clean air cost money, and how much are we prepared to pay?

The environmental organisations have no doubts about what has to be done. We must improve energy efficiency and reduce energy demand. We must develop the renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and reduce our dependence on the polluting fossil fuels. Since this will not happen of its own accord, there must be subsidies for the one and carbon taxes for the other. Finally, all nuclear power stations must be shut down. This mixture has great emotional appeal, and indeed contains much that is sensible and desirable. It hides, however, a series of complex problems that need to be seriously studied and debated. Its unthinking application would certainly lead to disaster.

The basic trouble is that it is all on the level of hopes and desires, with no detailed figures of costs to separate what is practicable from what is not. The unwary reader might assume that this has all been done behind the scenes, and that we are just given the essentials of the needed policies. Unfortunately, as far as I have been able to discover, this has not been done. If the advocates of these policies are questioned it rapidly becomes clear that they have not done their sums. It is worse than this: they seem not even to know what it means to study these questions scientifically. At best, they have consulted some sociologists specialising in energy matters, yet they are markedly reluctant to seek genuine scientific advice. Not only do they not know, they seem not to want to know, or even to know what knowing actually means. This is an alarming situation. These matters are extremely important for our health and even for our survival. If we do not make at least roughly the right decisions we and our children will suffer severely. Presumably the environmental organisations also want the right decisions to be made, but they seem unable to understand that careful scientific analysis must precede decision-making.

What does this mean? Consider energy efficiency. Obviously it is good to increase efficiency. But what does efficiency mean, and how much does it cost? For example, we could replace an old machine by a new one that makes more things per hour and emits less smoke. However it costs money to do this, and will the expenditure ever be repaid by increased production? If not, the cost of the product will have to be increased, and this might put the factory out of business, and throw people out of work.

It is obviously desirable that we must reduce energy demand. For years now the total world consumption of energy has been rising rapidly, doubling about every fourteen years. Clearly this cannot go on forever. Even if we could build the power stations to meet the growing demand, we would ultimately be choked by the pollution, if we keep to fossil fuels. So how can we reduce energy demand? Exhortation is no good. The only obviously practicable way is to increase the cost. This will not stop the waste of energy on luxury sports like powerboat racing but it will reduce the amount of winter heating that old people can afford. Just increasing the cost will reduce demand, but it is far too crude. Some form of differential tariff s might do the trick, but they need to be very carefully thought out.

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