Thursday, July 2, 2015

Matt Ridley: Technology, consumerism and the pope


Why are people so down on technological progress? Pope Francis complains in his new encyclical about “a blind confidence in technical solutions”, of “irrational confidence in progress” and the drawbacks of the “technocratic paradigm”. He is reflecting a popular view, held across the political spectrum, from the Unabomber to Russell Brand, that technology, consumerism and progress have been bad for people, by making them more selfish and unhappy.

But however thoroughly you search the papal encyclical (a document that does at least pay heed to science, and to evolutionary biology in particular), you will find no data to support the claim that as people have got richer they have got nastier and more miserable.

That is because the data points the other way. The past five decades have seen people becoming on average wealthier, healthier, happier, better fed, cleverer, kinder, more peaceful and more equal.

Compared with 50 years ago, people now live 30 per cent longer; have 30 per cent more food to eat; spend longer in school; have better housing; bury 70 per cent fewer of their children; travel more; give more to charity as a proportion of income; are less likely to be murdered, raped or robbed; are much less likely to die in war; are less likely to die in a drought, flood or storm.

The data show a correlation between wealth and happiness both within and between countries and within lifetimes. Global inequality has been plummeting for years as people in poor countries get rich faster than people in rich countries. The vast preponderance of these improvements has come about as a result of innovation in technology and society.

So what precisely is the problem with technology that the Pope is complaining about? He cannot really think that life’s got worse for most people. He cannot surely believe that the dreadful suffering that still exists is caused by too much technology rather than too little, because surely he can see most of the suffering is in the countries with least technology, least energy, least economic growth, and most focus on ideology and superstition. Do Syria, North Korea, Congo and Venezuela have too much consumerism?

“Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle . . . can only lead to violence and mutual destruction,” says the encyclical. Really? Only? If you hear of an atrocity in a shopping mall, do you immediately think of consumerism or religious fanaticism as the more likely cause? There is no mention in the encyclical of the suffering caused by fanaticism, totalitarianism or lack of technological progress — of the four million who die of indoor smoke from cooking over wood fires, for example.

Yet the Pope is exercised about the dangers of genetically modified food, for although he admits, “no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings”, he thinks “difficulties should not be underestimated”. This in a world where golden rice, a genetically modified cereal fortified with vitamin A, could be preventing millions of deaths and disabilities every year, but has been prevented from doing so entirely by fierce opposition from the environmentalists the Pope has now allied himself so closely with.

The Pope has latched on to the wrong end of the environmental movement, the reactionary and outdated faction that still thinks like the Club of Rome, a group of grandees who started meeting in the 1960s to express their woes about the future in apocalyptic terms and blaming technology rather than lack of it.

Having been comprehensively discredited by history (their prediction was that by now we would be mired in ecological horror), they are still dispensing misanthropic gloom.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber was the only scientist at the launch of the papal encyclical. He is a member of the Club of Rome.

Technological progress is what enables us to prevent child mortality; to use less land to feed the world, and so begin reforesting large parts of the rich world; to substitute oil for whale blubber and so let whales increase again; to get fossil-fuelled electricity to people so they don’t die of pollution after cooking over fires of wood taken from the rainforest.

“Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way,” says the Pope. Personally, I would rather speed up the stunning and unprecedented decline in poverty of recent decades.

Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published the Times.

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