chapter  2
19 Pages


Despite the remarkable degree of consensus that exists amongst scientists about the environmental threats posed by modern civilisation, there are nevertheless some who argue that most, if not all, such dangers are illusory or exaggerated. This ‘cornucopian’ position is therefore, in an important sense, not environmentalist at all, and is in some cases financially supported and disseminated by anti-environmentalist industrial pressure groups. Free-market

economists and demographers are amongst its most outspoken intellectual proponents, arguing that the dynamism of capitalist economies will generate solutions to environmental problems as they arise, and that increases in population eventually produce the wealth needed to pay for environmental improvements. The key positive claim put forward by cornucopians is that human

welfare, as measured by statistics such as life expectancy or local pollution, has demonstrably increased along with population, economic growth and technological progress. They point out that, in the long run, the supposed scarcity of natural resources is belied by falling prices of food, minerals and commodities relative to wages; as a specific resource becomes harder to obtain, the price increases, leading capitalist entrepreneurs to search for substitute sources, processes or materials. The discovery of alternatives leads to a fall in price of the original material, such as the drop in real copper prices brought about by the widespread substitution of fibre-optic cables for copper wires. ‘Scarcity’ is therefore an economic, not an ecological, phenomenon, and will be remedied by capitalist entrepreneurs, not the reductions in consumption urged by environmentalists: ‘The fact is that the concept of resources itself is a dynamic one; many things become resources over time. Each century has seen new resources emerge’ (Beckerman 1995: 60). More people on the planet means more resourceful brains, more productive hands, more consumption and therefore more economic growth. The confidence of economist Julian Simon in the ‘virtuous circle’ of economic and demographic growth was such that he issued a standing bet:

Simon won one bet, with ecologist Paul Ehrlich, over the scarcity of mineral resources as measured by prices during the 1980s.

Ehrlich in turn has attacked Simon for ‘brownwashing’, which he describes as the use of spurious science to attack environmentalism (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1998). Alongside the claims of an endless cornucopia of wealth, growth

and commodity production, Beckerman, Simon and others bring criticisms of environmental ‘scare-mongering’, citing inaccurate projections of global cooling and worldwide famine made by some ecologists in the 1970s. They point to the acknowledged uncertainty in, for example, species extinction rates or global climatic modelling, and argue on this basis for inaction or, at best, further research. As Frederick Buell has shown, the antienvironmental right in the United States has depicted their opponents in any number of contradictory ways since the 1970s in order to discredit them: