Unnatural Oblivion

by Don Boudreaux on August 18, 2006

in Environment, Food and Drink, Hunger, Myths and Fallacies

Someone forwarded this article to me yesterday.  Its title is “Poverty and the Environment.”  Its author is Anup Shah.

When I read such stuff, I don’t know if I should chuckle or weep.  This article is so unscientific, so unhinged from fact, so devoid of serious argument, so unaware of the real case for global capitalism, that it is a comic spoof of itself.  But it also seems to be written by a serious, concerned person — and to reflect the opinion of many serious and concerned (if intellectually lazy) people.

The most glaring problem with this article is its unquestioned acceptance of the notion that the earth’s resources are fixed in quantity — so the more resources used by rich people, the fewer are the resources available for poor people.  It also assumes, in the spirit of a cartoon aimed at six-year-old children, that global outcomes are the planned results of masterminds — if the outcomes are good, the good masterminds (the superheroes) are ascendant; if the outcomes are bad, the bad masterminds are ascendant.

But the quotation that most caught my eye and made my head shake with bewilderment is this one; here Shah is quoting favorably from a book by Vandana Shiva, entitled Stolen Harvest:

The gain in “yields” of industrially produced crops is based on a theft of food from other species and the rural poor in the Third World.  That is why, as more grain is produced and traded globally, more people go hungry in the Third World. Global markets have more commodities for trading because food has been robbed from nature and the poor.

Talk about a fixed-pie view of reality.  Do people such as Shiva and Shah not realize that until very recently — roughly the past three-hundred years — the vast majority of the people in the world, as for almost all of human history, were routinely threatened with, and often actually victimized by, starvation?  Do people such as Shiva and Shah not realize that the earth’s population today (at about 6.2 billion) is nearly ten times larger than it was a mere 300 years ago (at about 625 million)?  Given that today at least one billion of us spend our entire lives without worrying one minute about whether or not we will have enough to eat, how can anyone seriously argue that the amount of food now available daily to each of the more than one-billion citizens of western, industrialized societies is “stolen” from people living in less-developed societies?  Is it even remotely plausible that the vast increase in the amount of per-capita food consumption for the entire world — a world today with ten times more people than were alive in 1700 — is made possible by our stealing this food from the mouths of earthworms and other species?

Do people such as Shiva and Shah not know of the vast literature that shows a powerful and positive relationship between economic freedom and increased living standards?  Are they unaware of the arguments (and, frankly, the data) that resources are augmented and largely created by human enterprise, rather than moved from point or person A to point or person B?

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Noah Yetter August 18, 2006 at 5:45 pm

"Do [they] not realize…"
"Do [they] not know…"

No, I really think they don't. My guess would be that they were not exposed to ideas like wealth creation and the gains from trade when their minds were young, open, and curious. By now they are too set in their opaque, distorted worldviews that you could not hope to win them over to any kind of sense without a miracle.

Eli August 18, 2006 at 6:52 pm

An Italian historian, Piero Camporesi, wrote a book entitled "Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe", of which the thesis is that in 16th century Europe, most people lived in a perpetual state of hunger that gave them hallucinations (there was also widespread use of actual hallucinogens). I, myself, like going to bed with a full stomach.

k hagen August 18, 2006 at 8:16 pm

Strangely enough, in side bar of the site, below the section links:

"Global Envision takes the global free market system as a starting point for reducing world poverty. Providing the poor with opportunities to improve their own lives is the catalyst for creating a more fair, hopeful, and stable future. We support economic development and responsible free markets as the most reliable and sustainable strategies for global poverty alleviation."


masonry August 18, 2006 at 8:19 pm

Another way of wording it for those "authors" would be: Show me a time when a current third world country had plenty to eat. Then explain to me the circumstances when they no longer had enough food.

In the very few examples when a nation went from "prince to pauper", I doubt any of those occurrences were due to western/capitalistic meddling. In fact, it's more likely to be the other way around. Take W. Germany, Taiwan and South Korea, Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore as exampes of what happens when western/capitalistic thinking is injected into parts of the world with direct cultural/historical comparisons. Did the South Koreans become wealthy by stealing from the North Koreans???? (That last part was almost too funny to type.)

John Pertz August 18, 2006 at 10:06 pm

So Anup Shah doesnt like the fact that world development is guided by politics however, his solution to the problem is even more politics? This whole idea that we can change bad government and make it better through more politicization is pure religon.

Rex Pjesky August 18, 2006 at 10:07 pm

The only thing missing from the article was a photoshoped picture of Bill Gates stealing a bowl of mush from a starving child while kicking a puppy.

Morgan August 19, 2006 at 9:55 am


Yeah, I was there when that happened. Shocking! The puppy just went flying.

GFK August 19, 2006 at 3:57 pm

I'm suprised the Anup guy holds to such a linear thought process. I expect that from people with liberal arts degrees, but this guy has a CS degree. What does he do when he needs disk-space? Steal it or buy a brand new hard-drive? Will that new hard-drive be appropriated from swole-belly ethopian children? Um, probably not.

What's also interesting is this quote from his bio:

from http://www.globalissues.org/about/who/

"Living and working in the US was an amazing experience for me. However, I quickly became concerned at what appeared to be rather poor quality mainstream media. International coverage appeared incredibly lacking and when available, very narrow."

We in the states hear this criticism from foreigners quite often and to some degree it's true, but there is one explanation I never hear. Maybe the average American just wants to mind their own business?

When I think of the headlines I see from Granma and various Arab papers, I can't help think the amount of "international coverage" in a country's media inversely proportional to the amount of personal freedom.

Abhi August 20, 2006 at 11:52 am

One of the … NO the biggest problem we have in India is people like these…

Aditya Dash August 20, 2006 at 3:17 pm

The education sector is yet to be opened up by the government in India. So it shouldnt be very shocking that such a view (zero sum view) is widespread.

asg August 20, 2006 at 6:27 pm

In my experience computer science people are among the most prone to holding idiotic views about all sorts of stuff outside their field. Their thought process goes something like:

1. I have achieved a high level of competence in a very difficult field, computer science.
2. That makes me competent in any field that I perceive to be less complicated or difficult.

rm August 20, 2006 at 7:02 pm

As a software developer, I unfortunately have to agree with asg. Some of the things that I hear in my office are down right frightening. What's scarier is that most of my co-workers are probably considered by their friends to be the 'smart ones' in their group, so their opinions actually carry more weight & voting power than most people's.

A few weeks ago, I spent an hour with 2 of the smarter guys in the office who were adamant that current gas prices could not be explained by supply & demand. One said "I took 6 semesters of college Econ, & if you don't understand that supply and demand always move together, you are very confused." Needless to say, at that point I WAS confused.

OT: Unfortunately, many CS types also seem to be the drivers behind the Intelligent Design movement. ARGH!

Allen August 21, 2006 at 12:31 am

I chuckled at how the author of the article tried to imply that a greedy timber industry was responsible for stripping trees from Bangledesh which then was responsible for all the flooding there. Apparently having a grossly overpopulated country (150 million people living in a country the size of Wisconsin) with most of those people living no more than 20 – 30 feet above sea level and that experiences monsoons during which 80% of the annual rainfall (80 inches or more depending on the area) occurs in a short period of time that also expereinces 2 or 4 typhoons every couple of years wouldn't happen to be a factor in those "increasingly devastating floods".

Anon August 21, 2006 at 12:14 pm

"Chuckle or weep" ?

Fortunately you have the option. As an Indian directly impacted by policy makers who hold the same prejudices and opinions that the author of this article does, the only option I have is to weep.

Russ Nelson August 22, 2006 at 4:29 am

rm: CS types are vulnerable to grand design theoretics because that is in fact what we do all day long. We design virtual worlds, so we (some of us) feel overconfident that we can design the real world.

shane August 22, 2006 at 7:24 am

Well,it depends uopon the sorrundings,some people realize earlier and some realize later.
Not all fingers are equal.

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