The Most Upbeat Scientific Facts You'll Hear About the Environment This Week

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In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner brings his listeners a special treat: an interview with Dr. Steven Pinker of Harvard University. He's a psycholinguist, award-winning researcher, and, according to Time magazine, one of the "100 Most Influential People" in the world today.

He's also the author of a number of books -- among them The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Language Instinct. But here's how Bill Gates described his latest, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress: "My new favorite book of all time."

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In this segment, Pinker talks about the environment, where the news is better than you might expect. Yes, global warming is real. And yes, it's a huge threat. But the progress being made on so many other environmental fronts should not be overlooked. And the path to a solution to our carbon addiction may require less of an anti-industrial push than some green leaders think.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 7, 2018.

David Gardner: Steven, I enjoyed your chapter on the environment. I learned a lot from it. Maybe the ultimate negativity magnet for a lot of people today. Can you summarize a few of your key points?

Steven Pinker: Yes. I consider our consciousness of the environment to be a kind of progress. A recent one. You only really start to see it in the '60s and '70s. Before that the world just seemed infinite and inexhaustible. But I distinguished two mindsets when it comes to the environment.

There's the what has become pretty standard hard-green view that industrialization was a mistake. Economic growth is unsustainable. There are too many people. We will inevitably ruin the environment. It's getting worse, and worse, and worse and there will be a dreadful day of reckoning unless we repent, and degrow, and deindustrialize, and return to a kind of abstemious harmony with nature. It's a bit of a caricature, but not much, and it embraces a range of people from Al Gore to Pope Francis.

The alternative, which very few people are aware of, is sometimes called eco-modernism or eco-pragmatism. If anyone is curious, Stewart Brand's manifesto, Whole Earth Discipline is a good place to start. There's also online a document called "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." And there are a number of other people. Ruth DeFries. Ted Nordhaus.

And here the idea is that economic growth has been good. Capturing energy to reduce entropy and enhance human welfare has been a boon to our species. It's allowed us to live longer. To emancipate slaves when machinery made it easier to pick crops than enslaving humans. It emancipated women from domestic drudgery. It emancipated children to go to school instead of work on farms. And a lot of what we value in life was made possible by the fact that we deployed energy to resist entropy and improve human welfare.

Now, a side effect of that is inevitably pollution, and we clearly have caused various forms of harm to species, to the environment, to the atmosphere. But that, itself, can be seen as a problem to be solved; mainly, how to derive the greatest human benefit with the least harm to the environment.

And that can be, and has been, accomplished with a combination of policy and technology: policy largely putting a price on harm to the environment so that people don't take advantage of the fact that they get to pollute the commons at everyone's expense because it's not coming out of their hide; and technology, ways of getting the same or more benefits -- travel, comfortable temperature, light to read by, etc. -- with less environmental harm. Now, this may sound to a lot of traditional, hardcore, green environmentalists, this is the faith that technology will save us, and it can never work.

But what I try to show in the chapter is that by a number of measures the environment is rebounding, and we can see it in any American city. There's less smog. There are fewer days in which you have to stay indoors. There's less purple haze. Waterways that were toxic and filled with sludge and dead fish have been reclaimed by many species and sometimes swimmers.

178 out of 180 countries that have been monitored for changes in the state of environment have shown an improvement, especially the affluent ones, because it costs money to enjoy human benefits without harming the environment. And I forgot to mention this in the list of good things that come with affluence, and one of them is environmental protection. It's really the poor countries that are the worst polluters.

Gardner: With all that said, global warming is not something that you dismiss.

Pinker: No. And in fact, there is one measure in the environment that has not shown an improvement and that is the greenhouse gases, in general. There are some positive hints. Inklings. We wouldn't want to call them trends, but every country, and the world as a whole, has managed to produce more output. More GDP per unit of CO2. That is economies have been decarbonizing in the sense of how much carbon do you have to emit to enjoy a dollar of GDP. Not enough to stave off the risk of harmful warming, but at least it shows that there isn't something inherent about modern industrial societies that just locked into flaming carbon.

I report what is pretty much a consensus among climate scientists, and geophysicists, and geochemists, and so on that business as usual will result in harmful outcomes with very high probability. That doesn't mean that we're locked into business as usual, and I hope we're not, and I lay out some pathways to decarbonizing the economy. But decarbonizing the economy is, I think, what we should aim for as opposed to the vain hope of reversing the economy and going back to before the Industrial Revolution.

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