The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise lays bare a conundrum of our times. How is it that so many of us loathe resource extraction (e.g. the cutting down of trees for timber, or the mining of ores to produce metals), yet we absolutely adore the products that are subsequently made from these resources? We are up in arms when our forests are under threat, or companies want to start fracking 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 as short-sighted as they are hypocritical. And unfortunately, many environmental organisations fall victim to a parochial, not-in-my-backyard attitude. Rarely, if ever, are decisions regarding resource extraction coupled to consumption patterns. The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise is an eye-opener in that sense. Once you think about it that way, it’s mind-boggling that nobody ever asks follow-up questions when a decision is taken to, for example, not cut trees down in a forest. The kind of logical follow-up questions such as “If we don’t cut down these trees, will we then 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 entirely logical consequence of not asking these questions 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. According to Bowyer, we instead need a more holistic, system-wide way of thinking that addresses all these issues, asks all these questions. Only then, once we have considered the global impact of our actions and our wants and needs, have taken into account all the trade-offs, can we make rational decisions. And that could mean, you know, consuming less.
The other elephant in the room that Bowyer confronts, thank god, is overpopulation, a problem that has had me transfixed for the last twenty-odd years. In my opinion, it is the root cause of all our environmental problems. You see, 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. Geoffrey West also talked about this in the recently reviewed Scale. Sure, Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, The Club of Rome et al. are thought of as a bunch of downers by many. And the details of their predictions and forecasts may have been wrong, as our ingenuity and technical prowess have so far saved the day and 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. If you are one of those people who thinks that there is no way we could ever run out of, say, oil and we can keep on growing forever, you don’t understand the consequences of exponential growth. Seriously, go back to school, because your education has failed you.
Part 3 of the book, titled Resource Realities, 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. Especially Asia is hard at work to catch up. I have often pondered these two co-occurring factors myself. But there are other things I hadn’t even considered.
“If you think that we can keep on growing forever […] go back to school, because your education has failed you.”
Obviously, things like cement, aluminium and steel are not just pulled out of the ground like that. We mine ores and refine those. Basic economics dictates that we first mine ores of the highest quality (i.e. those containing the highest concentration of minerals of interest), or those most easily accessible, or both. And we have. Globally, ore quality is dropping for many minerals. Our supply of minerals is both finite and effectively non-renewable (the geochemical cycles that produce some of these play out over millions of years, and others are not produced on earth at all, as far as we know). This means that, already, to keep producing the same amount, we will need to mine more ore. But we won’t need the same amount. We will need much more. So we have started exploiting resources that were previously uneconomical (underneath the seabed for example). The same is true of fossil fuel reserves. This 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 his excellent book Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet. 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, with a straight face, that we’re not facing a 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, for example, overfishing and fish size (see my review of Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries). This is why we need historians.
“[The] phenomenon known as shifting baselines […] is why we need historians.”
But, you cry, what about recycling and renewable energy? Bowyer has a thing or two to say about those as well. Recycling, too, costs energy. And most things cannot be recycled endlessly. The quality of the resource recycled (e.g. wood fibres) decreases with the number of cycles so that constant addition of virgin material is required. More importantly, some elements are used in such trace quantities (e.g. certain metals in computer components) that it’s not economical to recover them. And, I would add, certain compounds cannot be retrieved. Surely, just like you cannot unfry an egg, certain chemical reactions that produce compounds we desire cannot be reversed. Entropy doesn’t run that way. 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, something which West’s Scale talked about when discussing technological paradigm shifts in its final chapters (side-note: this has only served to fuel further growth, both in consumption and population, something with both upsides and downsides). But all our future techno-fixes rely on technology that relies on a dwindling supply of minerals, and, increasingly, 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: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age if you want to know just how dependent our technology sector has become on these.
And then there is the issue of pollution that comes with extraction. Naysayers will claim that we have enough to go around for a long, long time, but there’s a difference between physical availability and the level of pollution that accompanies their extraction that is deemed acceptable. Some resources might be better off left in the ground.
“[…] all our future techno-fixes rely […] on a dwindling supply of minerals”
A book like this wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t offer a way forward, and the last two chapters outline what might be done to bring about meaningful change. A lot of this will revolve around confronting consumption, but Bowyer also stresses we should rethink legislation around domestic resource extraction and confront 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 quite US-centric, and, given his background, a lot of his examples are specific to the forestry industry, but his message rises above this all. The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise purposefully covers topics concisely rather than exhaustively, as explained in the preface. As such, this thought-provoking book is both easily digestible and accessible. It is easy to recommend this as an essential read for 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.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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