Have we filled the Earth?

Posted on March 1, 2013 at 11:11 am,

This is the next in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics according to the Bible. Today we’re looking at the second part of the chapter on the Environment, where Grudem does a stock-take of the planet’s resources. Before we look at this section, it’s worth noting that Grudem’s take on the economy (which was the previous chapter) depends on the conclusions he reaches here. Presumably he chose to put the issue he considers more important first, rather than putting the two chapters in their logical order.

The Theology

Grudem only spends a couple of paragraphs looking at the principles of this question. He believes that the command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28 to fill the Earth and subdue it suggests that the Earth has abundant resources that can be developed and that the Earth would benefit from this development, rather than being destroyed by it.

I have two problems with this analysis. Firstly, the command to “fill the Earth” implicitly suggests that it is possible for humanity to do so. And when that happens the planet’s resources could be close to breaking point. Secondly, there’s the impact of sin. Back in chapter four, Grudem pointed out that Christianity rests on the belief that human beings are sinners. If sinful people attempt to use the Earth and its resources, then at least some of their efforts will, inevitably, be destructive. Human sin is key to Grudem’s politics in other areas, yet he discards the possibility of it doing damage to the environment here.

Flawed Data?

Grudem’s figures in this 25-page section come mostly from a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. The book has been somewhat controversial. Grudem acknowledges the controversy, but just says that he is personally persuaded that Lomborg got the better of his critics. Since the accusations are very serious, I will list them here:

  • Fabrication of data
  • Selective citation (deliberately discarding data that doesn’t fit)
  • Deliberately misleading use of statistical methods
  • Deliberate misinterpretation of others’ results
  • Presenting data in a fraudulent way

Given the seriousness of the accusations, it’s probably wise to take the book’s numbers and conclusions with a pinch of salt. If Lomborg’s numbers are correct, then surely Grudem could simply have gone back to the original source and avoided the controversy. If they aren’t, then things are a lot less rosy than Grudem paints them.

Grudem is keen on using long-term worldwide trends, rather than short-term stories of disasters. He paints an overall picture that is incredibly positive. He believes that humanity will be able to live on the Earth enjoying ever-increasing prosperity, and never exhausting its resources even with a much bigger population than we have today.

He looks at statistics for world population, agricultural land, clean air, waste disposal, global forests, species loss, herbicides and pesticides, and life expectancy (I’ll deal with what he says about energy and fossil fuels in the next post in this series). I won’t be going into detail on each of these, but will highlight some of the issues arising from Grudem’s treatment.

Some problems are local

One thing Grudem gets right is to point out that some problems are localised. Even without desalination plants, there is unlikely to ever be a global shortage of fresh water. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be water shortages in some places. Water is expensive to transport long distances, and there are lots of places where people use more water than is available in their part of the world.

Quality of Resources

One thing he misses is that some resources are not equal. For example, when talking about growing food, he says that about 24% of the world’s non-ice surface is arable land, and that we only use about a third of it for growing crops. He claims that we could easily use the rest of it for doing just that. He doesn’t mention is that the land that is not being used is less fertile than the land that is, or that modern agricultural methods often do long-term damage to soil quality (which is why they need large amounts of fertiliser) and biodiversity. He also seems to place little or no value on other uses for arable land.

The Elephant in the Room

The biggest problem with this section, though, is that Grudem never talks about is consumption. There’s an oft-quoted statistic that if everybody lived a Western lifestyle we would need three planet Earths to support ourselves. Regardless of how accurate this is, it demonstrates that how much of the planet’s resources we use up depends at least as much on our lifestyle choices as it does on how many of us there are, or what technology can do. Discussing how many people the planet can support without talking about consumption is to completely miss the elephant in the room.

Conclusion

Grudem paints an incredibly rosy, but somewhat simplistic, view of the planet’s ability to support an ever-increasing and increasingly prosperous human population. This picture is pretty much a best-case scenario, and there are serious questions about the statistics it’s based on and some of the assumptions made. I don’t agree the Earth can support as many people, with as much consumption, as Grudem thinks. And I place more value on some of the things we would lose by doing so than Grudem does.

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