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Through Green‐​Colored Glasses: Environmentalism Reconsidered

By Wilfred Beckerman
About the Book

“We should not be taken for a ride by the environmentalist movement’s predictions that we are one the verge of environmental catastrophe,” writes Wilfred Beckerman in Through Green‐​Colored Glasses: Environmentalism Reconsidered, a sequel to his widely acclaimed In Defense of Economic Growth, which originally appeared in 1974.

Beckerman explodes a number of myths currently advanced by radical environmentalists, including the assertion that natural resource depletion is imminent, and the never‐​ending claims regarding global warming. He contrasts those supposed “threats” to the environment with the very real ecological problems that face Third World countries and concludes that economic growth is the only way those areas will be able to develop the technology and wealth needed to handle their problems. In addition, he insightfully discusses the question of what society owes future generations.

Beckerman believes the argument regarding natural resource depletion is “flawed in every respect.” It is “at variance with the whole of historical experience, and it takes no account of the way that societies adapt to change in the demands and supplies of materials.” Defending his position, he cites numerous examples of how the market has dealt with temporary resource shortages, such as the development of synthetic rubber during World War II and the creation of plastic as a replacement for various metals.

While acknowledging that global warming “has to be taken seriously,” Beckerman maintains that it is “no cause for alarm or dramatic action.” If dramatic action were taken, the effects on human welfare would be horrendous—even more horrendous perhaps than the effects of global warming itself. “With the global‐​warming problem,” Beckerman writes, “society is faced with the choice between (i) accepting some remote and unquantifiable possibility of sharp climatic change in the longer run with possibly severe economic effects and (ii) certain economic and social catastrophe if draconian policies are adopted to avoid it.”

The ecological problems of the Third World, Beckerman contends, are a direct result of the low level of economic development those countries have achieved. They simply have not produced the technology necessary for environmental protection, nor have they accumulated the wealth to buy it from abroad. And to do either one, they must first industrialize and grow—paradoxically, the exact thing that many Western environmentalists lament. He writes, “The best — and no doubt the only — route by which these countries can overcome their appalling environmental problems is to become richer.”

One of the most vexing philosophical problems facing those who write on the environment is what, if any, moral obligations society has toward future generations. Is it necessary, for example, to leave the environment completely unaltered, or even approximately so, as many environmentalists argue? Beckerman contends that such a proposition is overly simplistic and narrow in focus. While it is conceivable that we could leave posterity a relatively unchanged environment, doing so would be too costly, not only to us, but to future generations as well.

Beckerman leaves the reader with the following thought: “Above all, we should not be panicked into the sort of drastic action urged on us by many environmental activists… In short, the message of this book is that we have time to think. What is needed is the will to do so.”

About the Author

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and a former member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

What Others Have Said

“…[its] arguments are piercing.”
The Economist

“Environmentalists tempted to ignore Wilfred Beckerman’s latest book had better think again…Beckerman has written a thoughtful book as well as an entertaining one.”