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Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress
Manchester University Press, 1995

An RDN comment on the 1995 reaction and some contemporary national broadstreet features and reviews. I've posted the broadsheet material because they are in archives not on open search (though available to library ticket holders, etc.)

The Independent, feature by Nicholas Schoon
The Independent, review by Nicholas Schoon
The Times, feature by Mat Ridley
The Sunday Times, review by Jonathon Porritt
The Guardian, feature by John Vidal

RDN comment
In 1995, Manchester University Press published my Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress. Fourth Estate had commissioned it but turned it down when they saw the first printout. It was then turned down by every academic and mainstream publisher I could think of. Finally, Richard Purslow (of MUP) said he very much liked the book, and that as a post-graduate student of environmental studies, he had been wondering when a decent text on the subject would come along.

You would not think so from the reviews, but my point all along had been to write a sensible, well-informed, well-referenced account of the realities of the human interaction with our planet. I wanted to make it clear how misguided and off-point I thought most green campaigning had been, but to do so in an unemotional way.

In 1995 there were as you will see below, two (and arguably three) other new books along sceptical "anti-green" lines. The books by Matt Ridley, Wilfred Beckerman and Gregg Easterbrook were all useful and excellent in their own ways. Earlier, Julian Simon (sometimes in partnership with Hermann Kahn) and John Maddox had written very important sceptical books. In 2000, Bjorn Lomborg was to produce a more limited but important statistical account in a manner long pursued by Robin Bailey.

I will immodestly say that LOMP had a quality of its own. It looked at the green case from technical, ecological, sociological and cultural points of view. And it looked at the case for progress from similar perspectives.

It doesn't matter, but I was bitterly disappointed by the book's reception. It sold only 2000 copies. The real shock was to come well after the reviews. Though there has been an academic industry in environmentalism, and it is the underlying subject of many courses, LOMP never succeeded in gaining a university audience. There are two possibilities. Either, the book is a poor text, or the teachers of these course are poor guides.

Several reviewers mentioned that I was "funded by ICI", the chemical company, and that I must therefore have been biased. I'll just repeat that they funded a few months' work in what was a multi-year project. Their funding amounted to far less than my usual source of funds: borrowing from my bank and very nearly going bankrupt in the process. (Oh, and ICI absolutley insisted on having no infuence over the work, as I of course spelled out in the book.)

Feature: End not nigh, says an old ecologist
The Independent on Sunday
by Nicholas Scoon
19 February 1995

'The Greens are robbing us of the pleasure of living'

THE Green movement is about to receive a broadside in the shape of a damning book by one of its most informed insiders.

Richard D North, the former editor of a pioneering Green magazine, Vole, argues that environmentalists have debased debate and made a major contribution to the West's self-doubting, pessimistic culture of contempt and blame.

He says they have repeatedly distorted the truth, exaggerated mankind's threats and damage to the environment and, again and again, got it plain wrong.

The Greens are not taking this lying down. One of the first things they point out is that North, who was the Independent's environment correspondent for four years until 1990, was paid several thousand pounds by ICI, world- wide maker of chemicals, while he was writing the book.

"The book must have been seriously compromised by that," said Chris Rose, programmes organiser with Greenpeace. He finds it peppered with "feckless, specious rhetoric" and condemns it as "an exercise in cynicism".

But the 48-year-old author, described by one leading Green journalist as "the Paul Johnson of the environment", and whose colourful career has sometimes been blighted by severe money worries, declares his industrial sponsorship openly in the new book, Life on a Modern Planet - a Manifesto for Progress.

"I'd rather take ICI's money than Greenpeace's any day," he said. "ICI produces products people want in a heavily regulated environment. Greenpeace churns out an extremely skewed vision of the world in a totally unregulated environment."

The book sets out to debunk many of the threats which Green organisations have given the highest of profiles, and pooh-poohs some of their most successful campaigns. Thus. . . whaling would have ended without the Green campaigning which led to a moratorium, because the great marine mammals were becoming so rare. North says the whalers would have given up or gone broke, allowing whale populations to recover.

On tropical rainforests, North points out that "very few people have found much use for it as it stands . . . and large areas could be used perfectly well for other purposes". He accepts that the jungles contain a vast diversity of millions of plant and animal species, some of which could form the basis of important drugs and other useful products. The answer is to ensure that the 10 per cent of the forest richest in biodiversity is kept pristine.

His main theme is that people have every reason to be optimistic about the future. The earth's population is almost certain to reach 10 billion halfway through the next century (it is 5.7 billion now), and our main preoccupation should be with growing the global economy to ensure decent life chances for the majority of those people.

Attacks on the Green movement so far have come mainly from right-wing economists who lack understanding of the science underlying many environmental concerns. But North has been immersed in the issues for nearly 20 years, and his enemies do not dispute that he has read widely and deeply, travelled extensively and spent hundreds of hours talking to experts.

He accepts that there are severe environmental problems such as over- exploitation of soil, forests and fresh water. But these are almost all confined to the developing world and they can be solved.

The Green movement, he says, is guilty of sapping the West's faith in itself and in progress, and thereby actually harming people's quality of life. "This is the cheap, easy dissidence of the well-governed, and it contributes to a destructive culture of contempt," he said during one of the brisk, circular country walks he takes around his Herefordshire home almost every day.

"They encourage people to feel alienated in a culture which has achieved so much. I like the West, I admire it, I believe in the Enlightenment.

"We've allowed ourselves to be robbed of the pleasure of living in the modern, industrial world and much of the pleasure which comes from the natural world. We've been made to believe that only wilderness represents true, beautiful nature when most of the world is a manscape. But nature can co-exist with man and still be beautiful and exciting."

He rejects the argument that environmentalists have to exaggerate to get anything done. "The one thing we have here in Britain which we can share with the world is a high quality of debate, of good-tempered, fair- minded argument. I'm fed up with the shrieking."

Always a sceptic, North became a critic of the Greens, especially Greenpeace, after talking to civil servants and scientists from universities, government and industry.

Leading environmentalists and Third World development experts will debate his arguments at a seminar in London on 9 March.

Chris Rose of Greenpeace said: "There is a deep and well-founded belief that Western industrial society is doing serious damage to the world and that's not how people want the planet to be. They really don't want ozone holes, air pollution, vanishing hedgerows, and Greenpeace is an expression of that." of the world in a totally unregulated environment'

The Independent's review
Life On a Modern Planet by Richard D North Manchester University Press
The Independent
Nicholas Schoon
10 March 1995

Greenpeace et al probably won't welcome this book, but the rest of us should. At last the case against the green movement is being argued, convincingly and very readably, by someone from the inside who knows his stuff rather than a passing politician or right-wing economist.

Richard D North is quite wrong, however, in his central but never explicitly stated message - that overall the greens have done more harm than good. This tract is one long, intelligent, provocative and very useful mistake which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand "the debate."

There is the occasional attempt to shock, to be seen to be politically incorrect. My favourite example: "The one characteristic which we can be sure of in Stone-Age cultures is that they have not had one important new idea since the Ice Age."

But if you want fun cynicism la PJ O'Rourke, don't bother with this. It is an earnest, discursive book, chock full of references. Apart from chapter seven, devoted entirely to the chlorine industry, it is saved from dullness by a turn of phrase, a literary niftiness which long-term Independent readers may still remember - he was the newspaper's first environment correspondent.

North exposes the near-universal misconception that nature is fragile and delicately balanced. It is often in a natural state of flux and is extraordinarily tough and opportunistic, which is why it is quite effective at exploiting humanity and the massive environmental changes we have made.

He makes us face the fact that the really important, life-and-death environmental problems are in poor countries. The West already has the technology and the wealth to tackle pollution and find substitutes for finite natural resources, but in the Third World a lack of clean water and clean air, of fuel wood and fertile soil, are everyday killers of millions.

Green groups prefer, however, to channel much of their campaigning energy into minor threats to Westerners with the world's best healthcare and longest lifespans, or on exciting but less immediate threats such as man- made global warming.

The unique selling proposition of the Greens is that we live in a unique age - for the first time man-made environmental problems are becoming global rather than local. Our population and technologies for exploiting nature have reached a point where natural limits stand to be breached and the resulting waves of destruction could affect us all. North doubts this, claiming that technology can extend the limits. North is an unashamed cultural imperialist, a celebrant of the Enlightenment. "The Third World is crying out for much which is at the heart of Western civilisation," he writes. "The poor of the world have a greater need of Western industrialists than of Western green dissent."

His mistake is to misunderstand how central and valuable that dissidence is in our society. He may sincerely believe that Industry, Science and Government (the capitals express his reverence for them) are more sincere and effective environmentalists than the green campaigners themselves, but he will have to excuse most of the rest of us.

Criticism and dissidence are cheap and easy in a democracy and the campaigners have rarely been the first to identify a genuine environmental problem. But, often in alliance with an equally irresponsible media, they have started pushing and kept pushing on issue after issue until government and industry have been forced to act. What better, more recent example could there be than the scaling down of the roads programme?

Environmentalists clamour, exaggerate, quote selectively and question the good faith of their opponents - just like any other group of serious campaigners facing serious opposition. North seems surprised and hurt that they should behave in this way, and yet he is doing pretty much the same thing. Life on a Modern Planet is itself a welcome exercise in dissidence against fashionable green-ness.


Beware of the greens who cry wolf
Matt Ridley
The Times
25 March 1995

The past month has seen the coincidental publication of three books critical of environmentalists. Richard North's Life on a Modern Planet, Wilfred Beckerman's Small is Stupid and my own Down to Earth have been seen in some quarters almost as a concerted backlash. We have become the anti-greens.

This is horribly misleading. I think of myself as an environmentalist, and from North's and Beckerman's books, it is clear that they do too. That is why we share a revulsion at the hijacking of environmental issues by extremists who seem prepared to tell alarming fibs to get attention and market share in the competitive world of green charity. We also believe that regulation, state interference and centralisation are often the problem, not the solution; and that growth and technology are often the solution, not the problem.

Consider just a few of the dire predictions of environmentalists that have not come true. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, a still respected eco-guru at Stanford University, wrote: "The fight to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." Sixty-five million Americans would die of famine in the 1980s, he predicted. Per capita food production has risen; famine deaths have fallen steadily and those that do occur are caused by wars, not population pressure. Did Mr Ehrlich apologise?

In 1974, virtually everybody except the journalist Norman Macrae said the world would effectively run out of oil before the end of the century. Proven reserves of oil are now larger than ever before. It will run out one day, but fleets of alternative fuels are queueing up to take its place. Did anybody say they were wrong?

In 1976, three books predicted an imminent ice age and demanded immediate action to stave it off. The author of one, Stephen Schneider, has become a leading apocalyptic on global warming instead. He said in an unguarded moment: "Scientists should consider stretching the truth to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination... we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have." He did not say: "I was wrong..."

In 1983, virtually everybody agreed that one-third of the trees in German forests were "dying" from acid rain. Not only did far fewer die, but a ten-year American study concluded that acid rain was not even at the top of the list of problems facing forests. Did the greens admit their error?

These are just the global scares we have been subjected to. On local ones, the greens have an even worse track record. The seals of the North Sea were supposed to be dying from pollution in 1989; they were actually suffering from a viral epidemic aided by high population density. The Braer oil spill last year was supposed to do irreparable damage to the wildlife of Shetland. Richard North and I were the only journalists to predict (correctly) that the effect would be minimal. Greens say that it takes extreme statements to wake the public. Yet on none of the issues I have mentioned did green organisations begin the debate. They merely leapt on to bandwagons once they were moving. The truth is that the hyperbole is needed in a market competition for funds. Whether the issue is ozone, climate or ivory, moderate organisations have repeatedly seen their more mendacious rivals collect large windfalls of attention and donations, and have turned radical in response.

Scientists are also herd animals. On global warming, the attempt to silence doubters has reached such a point that no less a figure than the Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, tried personally to discredit a global-warming sceptic, Fred Singer, by calling a television network and suggesting that Mr Singer was in the pay of industry and should not be interviewed. The network, to its credit, merely reported Mr Gore's intervention and interviewed Mr Singer anyway.

Do the means matter if the end is virtuous? Alarmists appeal to the "precautionary principle" better safe than sorry. Yet, as Beckerman argues, if we always acted to avoid the slightest risk, however uncertain, we would never get out of bed.

It is the imperviousness of the greens to such arguments that leads some to suspect them of the hidden motive to reinvent socialism. I think that, like all conspiracy theories, this is overdone, but it is nonetheless noticeable how reluctant most greens are even to consider environmental solutions that change the incentives for private individuals rather than impose government regulations. Empire-building bureaucrats love greens for this reason: they can rely on them to send work their way.

The nationalisation of wildlife in Africa, for instance, is dressed up as a protective measure. It is demonstrably the reverse, because while it gives jobs to the bureaucracy it removes incentives for local people to tolerate wildlife. Kenya banned hunting (ie, nationalised game) in 1976; since then it has lost 85 per cent of its elephants. Zimbabwe privatised wildlife in 1975; since then land devoted to wildlife has almost doubled in acreage. It is the same in this country. It is the Government that has made a mess of things by subsidising farmers, foresters and old, heavy industry, and by regulations that stifle innovation. Even by criminalising pollution in the 1960s, the Government effectively made it free (so long as each polluter did not exceed a certain threshold). Had it instead enabled the civil law to work cheaply so that we could sue polluters, or had it created a market in expensive pollution quotas, water and air pollution would be far less today than they are.

I am an environmentalist. There are issues I wish we would take more seriously, such as asthma, plastic litter, the decline of frogs and the loss of untouched rainforest to government-encouraged development. But I wish greens and lawmakers would try to devise real solutions that work with the grain of human nature, rather than whizzing round the world to glamorous conferences crying wolf about impending apocalypse.

The Times's review
Reasons to be cheerful?
Jonathon Porritt
The Sunday Times
12 March 1995

Life On A Modern Planet: A Manifesto For Progress by Richard D North, Manchester Univ Press Pounds

Surprise, surprise: the world is not coming to an end. We can all rest easy knowing that the apocalypse is postponed and dismiss those pesky green doom-mongers for daring to suggest otherwise. That is the central message of Richard D North's manifesto for progress. And a fine, timely and uplifting message it is. The modern environment movement is indisputably over-endowed with melancholics reacting to Martyn Lewis (with his campaign for more good news) as a subversive alien. There is insufficient recognition that things are changing for the good and that they will change even faster if business people, politicians and academics received a little more encouragement, and a little more truthfulness, from environmental activists.

North gives us much of that "good news" on population, food production, pollution, new technologies and so on. He directs our attention to what he calls "the literature of hope", highlighting books and papers which show just how many reasons there are to be hopeful about the state of the earth. He rightly comments on the resilience of natural systems, the inventiveness of free markets, the unexplored potential of the human spirit. All in the engaging, upbeat style of one of the best environmental journalists of the past decade.

If that was what this book was all about, it would be great. But it isn't. It is actually about North's loathing of the modern environment movement, with all its exaggerations, distortions, blinkered dogmas, spiritual deficiencies and inchoate romantic fantasies. There is so much vitriol around that I felt I should have been wearing gloves to turn some of the pages.

This is, of course, highly entertaining. And some of it is both useful and fair. It's refreshing to see "the fundamentalism" of some environmental organisations (who see a conspiracy behind every consensus and a cop-out in every compromise) addressed head on. Environmental organisations do, indeed, occasionally get it fantastically wrong. And the adoption of a priori moral judgments (ie, recycling is good, incineration is bad) which then remain beyond the reach of reason, let alone new evidence and new technology, does nobody interested in the environment any favours at all.

But, for one who spends much of the book extolling the benefits of weighing that evidence, making balanced judgments and using reason rather than emotion, North's own failure to live up to the standards he asks of others may jar. His readiness to generalise pejoratively about "the greens" is apparently limitless, and he studiously sets up a series of green Aunt Sallys so that he can devote pages to blowing them out of the water. Thus all greens are attributed with certain views and slogans espoused in reality by a very small minority.

For example, he claims, "self-sufficiency, the battle cry of green thinking since the 1970s, is not something one can find anywhere in the human record outside the mythology of desert islands and hermitages". It is not something one can find in the vast majority of green literature where the emphasis is far more on self-reliance (doing as much as one reasonably can using one's own resources) rather than self-sufficiency (using only one's own resources). In this way, North plays up a host of "myths" about environmentalism in exactly the same way that he excoriates environmentalists for playing up myths about big business and government. The motivation of individual environmentalists is constantly parodied and belittled if they're not hippies, they're outright hypocrites. The contribution of non-governmental organisations to increasing general awareness and improving environmental policy is systematically overlooked. And the fact that the vast majority of the positive ideas and solutions (which North would have us believe sprang from him) sprang, in fact, from the organisations he so enthusiastically reviles, inevitably makes one question his motives. There is such an arrogance about all this, such a lack of generosity, that one's attention is constantly drawn from the more serious defects in North's analysis. While he is undoubtedly right to challenge the often woolly values of the green movement, he himself seems content to go on subscribing to the kind of individualistic materialism that turned the 1980s into a crass celebration of green self-interest. And, while he is equally right to look to the business community for much of the human and financial capital we shall need to effect the transformation to a more secure world, does he have to do it quite so uncritically?

Harsher critics than myself have suggested that he has simply sold his intellect to international capitalism in that the book was sponsored by ICI and does indeed contain a lengthy panegyric about the miraculous properties of chlorine and a host of assorted chemicals. And it is true that the impression he seeks to convey is of business people and politicians far-sightedly and impartially weighing up the facts and acting with the utmost responsibility entirely unprompted, of course to do right by the environment.

However, it is not international capital that North has sold his intellect to, but dear old Pangloss. Whether it is on nuclear power, biotechnology, soil erosion, deforestation, global warming or any other contemporary environmental issue, he remains resolutely optimistic. The irony is this: so am I, and so are many environmentalists who now share his joy in the creativity and potential of our own species. His core argument (that solutions to all our environmental problems are out there waiting to be deployed) is absolutely right, which is why I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone looking for an antidote to the residual gloominess of so many of the greens.

But he over-eggs a delicate pudding by traducing both the motives and achievement of the greens, and by ignoring the fact that we shall have to campaign just as vociferously to see those solutions implemented as we have to see the pace of environmental destruction slowed. Progress is indeed possible and sustainable but not without continuing struggle and not with Pangloss as our patron saint.

Guardian feature
Apocalypse postponed Until now the greens have held the high ground in the battle over the environment. But a small, shrill group is challenging their orthodoxies. John Vidal reports on the Greenlash
John Vidal
The Guardian
16 March 1995

The end is not nigh. Relax. For 25 years we've been hoodwinked by false and dangerous prophets of ecological apocalypse, seduced by the siren calls of alarmists, peddlars of future gloom and the psycho-babble of myth-makers predicting the imminent end of life as we know it and telling us to change our ways.

Public, media, politicians and policy-makers have all naively marched to the drum of hysterical millenarians and been told to fear global warming, cooling, meltdown, famine and dire forecasts of resource crisis. Problems? What problems, global or local, cannot humankind sort out?

So run some of the more extreme arguments of the "Contrarians" - a small but shrill group of largely New Right US scientists, politicians, economists and industrialists whose arguments until now have mostly been articulated in Britain by the Institute of Economic Affairs and the likes of John Redwood and Teresa Gorman.

But they are intellectually buttressed this month by three more sophisticated British writers: Wilfred Beckerman, a distinguished but retired Oxford University economist who worked for the World Bank and on the 1974 Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution; Richard D North, a former environment correspondent with the Independent and the Sunday Times; and Matt Ridley, scientist nephew of Lord Ridley and a Sunday Telegraph columnist. Their books variously "blow a whistle on the greens", argue that concern about the planet "doesn't require modish pessimism", and offer "a contrarian view".

For a multitude of political, philosophical, egotistical and academic reasons, the contrarians broadly seek to regain the high ground that they see liberal/left environmentalism now occupying or threatening to colonise in the post-Cold War 1990s. Their eccentric voices are generally valued as much-needed checks and balances by the more sensible environmentalists but are predictably vilified by others.

The full venom of "Greenlash" - the environmental backlash - is spat out at the pseudo-scientific scare stories made in the late 1960s and 1970s and at the environment groups who began life on them.

With hindsight the media-friendly "doomster" prophecies - a new ice age, exhaustion of natural resources, population meltdown - seem as quaint now as political and scientific forecasts of bright confident mornings, nuclear power providing free electricity and communism sweeping all before it. Here the contrarians are on certain, if cheap, ground.

More recently they have turned to trying to deconstruct the vast, still-growing academic edifice of "global warming" which they see as the mother of all disaster theories. But as even the professional climatologists will not say when it may happen or what it will entail, the contrarians find the punchball flabby. It's easier with holes in the ozone layer (yes, they're there but so what? they ask) and statistics suggesting pollution is rising ("tosh").

If contradicting disaster theories is the bedrock of contrarianism the fertilisers for the new ideological debate are the liberal/left obsessions: development, social justice, equity, values, human rights, morality, new economics, and ethics. The US contrarians, via industry lobby groups and coalitions of ranchers, industrialists and small farmers like the Wise Use Movement, argue that environmentalists interfere deeply with personal liberty. They see fancy green ideas like "inter-generational justice" and "environmental rights" spreading into the upper reaches of western, and especially global, governance.

Having just about squashed the old green heresy of "no economic growth" they must now grapple with new Hydra-headed ideological monsters like the "precautionary principle" and "sustainable development". The professional contrarian equates these with dressed-up socialism, woolly liberalism or, worse, an emerging new post-humanist morality. They all muddy the pure waters of the brave modern world of free-market economics which they mostly espouse.

Wilfred Beckerman smells moral and ethical injunctions everywhere. He is not against protection but is incensed that society's "proper objective" - what he defines as "highest feasible welfare" - should be usurped. He writes: "Environmental issues should be given proper place in the conduct of policy, but this can be done without elevating 'sustainability' to the overriding criterion of policy."

The fact that sustainability by any definition is barely on any political agenda escapes Beckerman, but it does not stop the utilitarian Balliol polemicist going genially ballistic: "The definition of a straight line does not imply that there is any particular moral virtue in always walking in staight lines . . . Most definitions of sustainable development incorporate some ethical injunction without any recognition of the need to demonstrate why that ethical injunction is better than many others that one could think up."

Equally, he dismisses John Gummer's (and, yes, God and Prince Charles's) injunction that we have responsibility to behave as stewards for future generations as little more than a "top-level value judgment". In a chapter of his excellently titled book, Small Is Stupid, he argues (not unlike World Bank economist Laurence Summers, who wanted the world's poorest to be sent as much toxic waste as possible on the grounds that they did not live very long) that it is "far from obvious" that future generations should have any rights whatever. "How long is that time period? How much capital should we leave intact for future generations?" he asks. It could mean the end, say, of mining, he concludes.

But ethical and moral questions increasingly consume the contrarians. Kent Jeffreys of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute sees capitalism as a pure, almost mystic reconciliation of God and Nature. It is, he says, a "moral force, flowing naturally from respect for human liberty . . . there is a spiritual aspect to capitalism.

"The environmental debate has become a moral argument within the Family of Man. The birds and the bees have yet to inform us . . . of those sacrifices they are willing to make in return for human survival. No viral democracy has voted to adopt a non-aggression pact with humanity . . . to put it more bluntly: should we save the whales or should we sell them?"

The answer from all contrarians - on surer ground with economics than with morals or ecology - is sell them, on the basis that all life is there for man's use. "No croc, no hornet, no weed," argues Jeffreys, "has foresworn interference with human life. Only man can reason, so only man has the moral right to choose his own environment." It is Jeffreys' ultimate ethical choice.

Michael 't Sas Rolfes, director of Afreco Investments, like most rampant contrarians (come in John Redwood), believes Nature should be privatised where possible - not necessarily for mankind, but for its own protection. Rolfes argues that environmental problems only arise where the free market is restricted by political interference.

Nature, he says, needs man. Look at the animal kingdom's true success stories - the domesticated cow, the chicken and the pig. And then compare their numbers to those of the wild rhino, gorilla or tiger - down to a few hundred or less when left to themselves. QED.

North follows a tortuous path in debunking old green shibboleths, coming up with what former environment secretary Chris Patten calls "a sunburst of rational optimism". Describing himself as "post-socialist and post-Luddite", North is unabashed in his praise for industry.

North equates "western" with "progressive" and, in brief, believes that western goodies - genetic engineering, nuclear power, new technologies, free trade (not forgetting rigorous science, social responsibility, democracy and transparency) will provide for all. In time.

Yet he can be as politically innocent as some of the greens he lambasts: "If we have, say, half a billion hungry people," says North, "and lots of food around, we will work out a way of getting the food to the people if we want to." Most statistics suggest there are already 1.3 billion destitute people who almost everyone would like to see with a full belly, Richard.

While North, Beckerman and Ridley usefully expose many of the worst green cliches, only the former qualifies the rampant excesses of the American extremists, and is prepared to countenance the "precautionary principle" - the notion of taking action to prevent something dangerous - like, say, global warming - happening.

But for Beckerman (a "mere economist . . . trying to control his natural instincts for a slanging match") this is intellectual nonsense: "{The precautionary principle} is constantly invoked as if it meant that as long as there is the remotest possibility of serious harm in the distant future, we should take drastic action now when it is very expensive and may soon be found to be unnecessary," he says.

And, like all political parties, no contrarian - least of all Beckerman - sees much problem squaring even exponential economic growth with a healthy environment. He ritually pulls out the chestnut that the worst threat to the environment arises from poverty in the Third World - an assertion easily disproved.

But the high priest of professional contrarians is Julian Symon, economics professor at Maryland University. Symon has so long battled the "dark forces of false prophets" that he has now demonised all environmentalists, raising them to the level of Old Testament figures (Isaiah, he says, was a typical environmentalist in his concern about world and national affairs and the way he went round barefoot and naked).

"The environmental prophets," wrote Symon recently in World Future's magazine, "seize on every calamity - for instance Exxon Valdez - as proof of our sinful ways. And like the biblical prophets these doomsayers accuse us of an excess of worldliness, and especially of enjoying the benefits of wealth."

Symon's is an old agenda, as "Luddite" as those whose he would criticise, say environmental thinkers who increasingly put prophecy on hold as they move into new social and quality-of-life arenas.

But the prophecies still roll out, if not these days from environmentalists. This week Cornell anthropologist David Price postulated the imminent collapse of the Earth's human population in a few years' time. Applying the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the world's population explosion, he concludes that human multiplication is only possible because of fossil fuel resources. As they are fast running out, so energy-gorged homo sapiens will inevitably perish.

"Human beings are fulfilling their destiny," says Price. That deep roar echoing round the jungle of western ideas comes from Symon and the contrarians.

Life On A Modern Planet by Richard D North (Manchester Univ Press); Small Is Stupid by Wilfred Beckerman (Duckworth); Down To Earth by Matt Ridley (Institute of Economic Affairs/ Sunday Telegraph).

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