The Risk-Monger

With the Rio+20 Earth Summit coming up, we are about to spend a week hearing how awful we humans are. We will be enduring long tirades from bitter idealists about how humans pollute the planet, burn fossil fuels, litter plastics in the oceans, cut down forests indiscriminately and celebrate inequity and social injustice for profits and personal gain. Truly disgusting creatures we humans must be. But as we share this collective global remorse for our vile offensiveness, the Risk-Monger needs to ask: Can humans do anything right?

Don’t despair. Humans have done a lot that is right and good. As an antidote to the invectives about to be unleashed, I would like to remind ourselves of some of humankind’s greatest achievements in combating the threats from the one truly nasty scourge to our existence: mother nature. I believe that the narrative that nature is the victim of aggressive human oppression is a bit over-done by a band of clever story-tellers who have lost faith in humanity (clearly I am not welcome in Rio!). Environmental NGOs are campaigning, they argue, so that man can do what is right, but their political narrative is so biased towards man’s incapacity to be trusted to do anything properly (a pessimistic idealism?) that they will be unable to say anything positive about humanity at Rio. As an optimist, I celebrate our achievements, how humans have found solutions that have protected us, allowing us to live longer, better and healthier. To counter the negativism Rio+20 will produce, let us first celebrate what we have achieved.

  • Man’s greatest achievement, I believe, has to be hygiene. Since the 19th century, scientists have developed a string of cleaning and disinfecting products that have allowed humanity to thrive, extend their life expectancy and improve their quality of life. Germs and bacteria used to wipe out populations (through plagues, pandemics and bad luck with simple infections). Each time the WHO warns us that we are due for another pandemic like the Spanish Flu of 1919, I remind myself of how little they understand the impact of this great achievement I label generally as hygiene. Chlorine itself has been recognised by the UN’s IPCS as having a value that far outweighs any risks (should we be surprised then that environmental NGOs like Greenpeace have spent much of the last three decades trying to ban chlorine?).
  • In the early 19th century, Malthus warned us that soon we could not produce enough food to sustain our growing human population. Malthus had not anticipated another great human achievement, the rise of agricultural technology (with new seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and GMOs), that would meet this challenge six times over. Neo-Malthusians wander around the streets of Brussels (and soon Rio) expressing their sour grapes with claims that these technologies have actually made things worse (eg, higher CO2 emissions) and we would be better off if most of us had just died. See my blog on Population Matters where I could find no other word to describe these neo-Malthusians as but “morons”.
  • Life expectancy has grown steadily in the last century due, in a very large part, to the achievements of the pharmaceutical industry (the Risk-Monger himself would not be here today were it not for the daily cocktail of meds he takes). From penicillin to cardio-vascular medication to cancer treatments to vaccines and preventative medicines, the pharma industry have added decades to our livelihoods and delayed the aging process. As medical technologies and other great achievements like biotech and nanotechnologies improve the quality of our lives, I shake my head at mindless, anti-capitalist attacks levelled at the pharmaceutical industry (they bark at pharma’s business model until the next threat comes along … AIDS … H1N1 …).
  • We are told all of the time that water is our greatest challenge and scarcity and mismanagement will lead to grave, dire consequences for humanity. But I see so many examples of excellent water management technologies humans have designed in order to supply safe drinking water and sanitation to vulnerable populations, desalinisation methods to aid water scarce regions and water treatment systems to improve wastewater effluent. Were humanity not so effective in developing innovative water technologies, large populations would have been wiped out.

From great ships and infrastructure to light bulbs and laptops; from communications networks to food preservation technologies, we have solved great challenges through human genius and an optimism for a better tomorrow. So to the Rio humanity hatists, I can only say: Yes, humans can and have achieved so much that is right and good. That I can speak to my daughter on the other side of the world via my computer screen is a human achievement that still humbles me (due in gratitude to a large degree to the US military). Why are these negativists flying to Rio to bitch at us – couldn’t they just Skype in their bitterness and save some CO2?

True, many of these great achievements were developed by scientists who have profited very well from the fruits of their genius and companies have made money developing and marketing these discoveries. Through our selfish envy, should we really deny them this reward and then expect scientists to still help us live better, longer and healthier? The minute someone makes a profit, animosity arises. Perhaps this helps explain why the environmental activists have been so negative and why they are reluctant to acknowledge these great developments (groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace also campaign against industry and globalisation through their front group ALTER-EU).

So the meeting in Rio will be planet friendly and humanity hostile. So what! Try your best to ignore their tirades as misguided rantings (albeit with great communications budgets and theatrical skill) knowing that when they finish, they will go home and we will be able to celebrate the next 20 years of human achievement knowing that for any real threats nature throws at us, humankind will find a solution.

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