Here’s a charmer of a quote from the comments section of the article I linked the other day about how a new catalyst enables highly efficient production of hydrogen from water:
Ok why do under developed nations even need power honestly? Can’t they just stay under-developed forever?
I’d like to think this is a joke. Unfortunately, even if it is a joke, it reflects a belief that is held in all seriousness by far too many people: to wit, that there is a case to be made for depriving less developed societies of economic and technological development. The argument begins with the assumption that such development is inherently harmful to the planet. We can’t even afford for the developed world to continue to be developed, the thinking goes. We certainly don’t need any more societies joining our matricidal ranks, toxifying the planet, contributing to mass extinctions, and paving the way for some final, cataclysmic end.
A supporting set of assumptions derive from a highly romanticized view of primitive cultures. Some 18th-century romantic primitivists touted the idea of the Noble Savage, which held that people living in a “state of nature” are not only happier than, but morally superior to, their civilized brethren. And this idea is with us even today. While the phrase “Noble Savage” doesn’t get too much play these days, there are apparently no shortage of individuals who do not doubt for a second the veracity of the scenes depicted on their souvenir Avatar beverage cups from Burger King.
This Noble Savage argument is a sop to the first argument. Since we know that economic and technological development represent nothing but bad news for the planet, and since we know that primitive peoples are healthier, happier, more attractive, and nicer than we are, it woud be wrong even to think about subjecting primitive people to our way of life — even if they think they want it. After all, we know better than they do — they’re a bunch of primitives! (Conveniently, the certitude that they are wiser than we are extends to virtually every subject except this one.)
All right, so let’s deal with these arguments.
1. Economic and technological development cause massive damage to the planet and their proliferation will only cause more damage.
Well, yes and no. There is no question that, historically, human success has come at the expense of many other members of the ecosystem. We’ve done a lot of damage. But that isn’t the whole story. Dirty technologies have enbabled the development of cleaner technologies. Unsustainable practices have set the stage for sustainable ones. In a very real sense, it is human success which has empowered the environmental movement.For the first time in the history of the planet, members of one species are taking steps to prevent the extinction of other species, looking for ways to mitigate and repair damage to the environment, and even talking about one day bringing other species back from extinction.
These astounding trends are the result of economic and technological development. Non-developed cultures may “live in harmony” with nature, but they don’t attempt any of this proactive stuff.
2. Primitive cultures are better off staying primitive.
We’ll leave the assumed moral superiority of primitive cutlures alone. I don’t believe that it is a given (far from it), but let’s take it as a given that primitive cultures are as nice as (or maybe even a liitle nicer than) developed ones. The part of the argument I want to deal with is the part that says that the material well being of people who live in such cultures is as good as or better than what we enjoy.
Anyone who truly believes this to be the case ought to put on a loincloth and move into a grass hut on a riverbank somewhere. Live the rest of your life — or even a few months — without the benefits of modern food production, sanitation, health care, shelter, clothing, communications, and entertainnment…and then come back and tell the rest of us how much better it is. If you really believe it is better, good for you. Back to the hut with you, and thanks for doing your part to help fix the planet.
But if you don’t think it’s better, and in fact you find such a life to be harsh beyond description and not something you want to endure yourself, then please refrain from glibly subjecting other people to it.