Re: Antienvironmentalist data?

From: Robert Bradbury (
Date: Thu Jan 13 2000 - 08:11:16 MST

On Wed, 12 Jan 2000, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:

> I seem to be laboring under the impression that Western civilization
> does less damage to the environment, per capita, than your average Third
> World country.

Perhaps true, but we are constraining ourselves under environmental
regulations to deal with the problem of stealing from the commons.
Once we got to the stage where our industry/agriculture etc. were
causing "serious" negative health impacts, the political forces
started to drive back the pollution & waste of resources.

In contrast, countries like Russia or perhaps India and some
African nations, where there is a lot of land per capita, you have
a lot of room to pollute into before the back-pressures become
significant. There are many areas in Russia that are environmental
disaster areas. If you have high population concentrations, e.g.
Mexico City, the back pressures get stronger much sooner.

> Unfortunately, I can't remember where I got that
> impression from. I recall that Western farming is much more efficient,
> requiring less land for more output;

Well, this gets done by providing more secondary inputs, e.g. fertilizer
for agriculture.

> I recall that the massive
> forest-clearing needed to produce Third World farmland is not good for
> the ecology;

True in tropical countries, where the topsoil is thin and easily washed
away in the tropical rains. At that point you have depleted the nutrient
base that it took many thousansds of years to build up and must resort
to applying secondary inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, etc.) to getting
any kind of yield.

> and I recall that poorer countries have much higher rates
> of population growth. However, I still don't know what the actual
> figures are for actual "damage" to the environment with respect to
> Western civilization and Third World countries.

It would depend alot on what "class" of environmental degradation you
are talking about: air (low except in cities or when considered on a
global basis), water (high in cities, less high but significant in
agricultural regions), toxic contamination (high near refineries,
mining, smelting operations), etc.

There was, I believe a recent article, perhaps in Science about the
problems that the use of coal is causing in reduced agricultural
productivity in China (due to diminished light availability).
So we are getting to the point where the third world countries
are becoming aware of the negative feedback caused by environmental
> I'm looking for figures on things like pollution produced and waste
> produced, not, say, energy consumption. Presumably you can consume ten
> times as much energy for a tenth of the environmental cost if you use
> nuclear energy instead of burning wooden logs.

Depends whether & how you factor in the costs of mining the uranium,
storing the radioactive wastes, vs. planting more trees to absorb
the excess CO2. These apples and oranges comparisons are hard to do.

Sorry, I can't give you more than that, but I'm in an information
impoverished personal environment currently. I'd say a good place
to start would be a typical "annual" almanac. You can get country
productivity figures from that and probably make estimates as to
the environmental damage that results.


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