In 2003, the late Dr Michael Crichton, a best-selling author with more than 200 million books in print including Jurassic Park and State of Fear, was asked what he thought was the most important challenge facing mankind. He explained: “The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age it takes on a special urgency and importance. We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we're told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems.”
Daily we are inundated with doom and gloom assertions dressed up as fact, that mankind is destroying the planet. Left unchallenged they can all too easily become part of a prevailing belief that human life itself is the enemy… needing to be controlled by bigger and more prevailing governments. That is not to say that environmental concerns are not valid – of course they are – but they must be based on science not extremism.
Among the more common beliefs that masquerade as fact is that the world is becoming grossly overpopulated, that man-made global warming is reaching a catastrophic tipping point, and that industrialisation will create a peak oil crisis and deplete the earth’s reserves.
The reality is that such predictions border on science fiction. As the former Science and Technology Editor of the Economist, Matt Ridley points out in his best-selling book The Rational Optimist there is no global population crisis. While the notion that the number of people on the planet will continue to rise uncontrollably to create an over-population crisis has been embraced by the environmental lobby, since the 1960s the rate of increase in the global population has been in decline. While the causes are complex, it appears that as living standards improve and infant mortality declines, people voluntarily have fewer children. And thanks to technology and innovation, instead of food supplies running out they have increased. Humans are now healthier and living longer than ever before. That is not to discount the fact that there are still many people facing famine, but ironically, the responsibility often lies with corrupt political regimes. Once people gain access to running water and electricity, their living standards will gradually improve.
A glaring example of how faulty activism can materially affect social well-being is evident in the United Nations’ campaign against man-made global warming. The UN has not only convinced governments around the world to convert precious food resources into inefficient bio-fuels, but they have also successfully persuaded them to impose energy restrictions on their populations, creating hunger and fuel poverty – all in the name of preventing a cataclysmic environmental Judgement Day. The fact that the predicted ‘tipping point’ has not occurred and that the Earth appears to be doing just fine has not discouraged these activists. They, like most species on Earth, are displaying a remarkable ability to adapt to suit their own self-interest: they are now claiming that every inclement weather event is an adverse effect of mankind’s presence on the planet. On the silver screen such a development would be comic, but unfortunately in the world of politics even fantasy necessitates a bureaucratic ‘solution’, and our emissions trading scheme is a fine example of a mechanism designed to slow New Zealand’s economic growth by driving up the price of electricity and fuel.
In spite of each D-day for peak oil passing unnoticed, claims that the world is running out of resources continue on unabated. Perhaps the new report from Harvard University, that shows that around the world there are huge volumes of conventional and unconventional oils still available to be developed, will not only convince the doomsayers that global fuel reserves are secure, but also, thanks to technological advancements, that fuel will continue to get cheaper and more plentiful.
Even once reputable media outlets now appear to have fallen into the trap of reporting propaganda as though it were fact. This failure to fulfil their fundamental watchdog role, of presenting unbiased information and promoting a balanced debate, is undoubtedly a factor in their declining audience numbers. It is not just the media that are contributing to this situation, but politicians and political lobby groups as well – there is power in scaremongering, especially for doomsayers who predict cataclysm… unless we do what they say!
The non-fictional account of the state of the planet is that it is not in danger. The earth is not running out of resources – innovation is creating new reserves. Humans are not getting sicker and poorer – each new generation is healthier and living longer than the generation before it. Sure there are endless big challenges that need to be addressed – but that is how it has always been and always will be.
The reality is that if mankind is under any threat at all, it is the threat posed by the doomsayers against the free market and the virtues of self-interest. It is these two powerful forces that are largely responsible for mankind’s continual improvement in living standards.
These ideas were first described by the legendary economist Adam Smith as an invisible hand. In The Wealth of Nations, written in 1776, he outlined the principle in the following way: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” In other words, by trying to maximise their own gains in a free market, individuals can harness their own ambition in a way that provides benefits to society as a whole.
This blending of self-interest and problem solving is the great strength of the free market. Few activists understand this, hence their addiction to catastrophic scenarios. The market place is a servant to its consumers. When the free market is utilised, millions of minds and billions of dollars are marshalled to satisfy consumer needs and wants, and to overcome their problems. However as Adam Smith noted so many years ago, there must be something in it for them – they must be able to personally profit from the benefits they are providing to consumers. Those who seek to condemn the free market and self-interest, risk destroying the very thing that is making our lives better.
But the pursuit of self-interest is not only seen in commerce. The Olympic Games is a great example – striving for a gold medal is a hugely powerful motivating force for athletes, and the end result of all of their hard work and dedication, not only leads to enormous success for themselves, but for their coaches, their clubs, their sport, their family, their community, and the whole country! Politicians love it too as it offers them good news stories from which they can justify the multi-millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money that they spend on sports funding.
The invisible hand of self-interest works in almost every area of human endeavour – researchers striving for breakthroughs, such as finding a cure for cancer, are not only pursuing their personal ambition to solve a major problem facing humanity, but they know that success would bring fame and increased research funding. Politicians striving for publicity always have an eye on the polls and getting re-elected. The union movement wants to sign up more workers and increase their funding base. Environmental activists like Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Society hope to gain followers and more importantly their donations. The media runs sensational headlines in order to attract a bigger audience to improve their ratings and therefore advertising revenue. The United Nations uses its inter-governmental networks to impose its political agenda on nations to become more relevant as a governing body.
Political agendas are now deeply embedded in our schools, in government institutions, in academia, the media, and many other areas of our lives. The challenge is to recognise what is going on and not be swayed. As H. L. Mencken, the influential American journalist and writer put it: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”.
Muriel Newman is the Founder and Director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research (www.nzcpr.com)