14 October 2020

No Nobel for Greta – thank goodness

By Madsen Pirie

So, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme for its efforts to combat hunger and to prevent it being used as a weapon of war. They did not give it to Greta Thunberg, one of the favourites. This is quite right, too, since she did not deserve it.

Far from encouraging peace, she has spread discord and division. Far from making the world a happier, safer place, she has helped make people fearful and pessimistic. Along with Extinction Rebellion, she has peddled the notion that we all have to stop doing the things we enjoy, such as travelling and trading globally – to live narrower, more restricted lives that have less impact upon the planet.

Perhaps she’s right that if we all bought and journeyed locally, travelling to nearby villages by horse and cart, it might make a smaller footprint on the environment. When we did live like that, however, mothers died in childbirth, children died in infancy, people died of plague, and life for many was tragically short and squalid.

It was the Industrial Revolution and its wealth creation that made possible the advances in medicine, sanitation and science that have made better lives possible for so many. The notion that we have to stop modern industrial technology in order to save the Earth from extinction is as false as it is dangerous. The reality is that we have to use that modern industrial technology to solve the problems we face.

A plausible candidate for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize might be the Duke of Cambridge. Along with Sir David Attenborough, he has launched the Earthshot programme, which will give prizes for innovations and inventions that help solve environmental problems. Five prizes a year, each of one million pounds, are to be awarded for ten years to teams that produce novel ways of addressing issues such as climate and energy, nature and biodiversity, oceans, air pollution and fresh water.

This is exactly the right approach, just as Greta Thunberg’s is the wrong one. The aim is to stimulate ambition and innovation to explore and invent novel ways to help the Earth solve its problems. The result will be a huge stimulus to solutions involving technological change, rather than ones that require behavioural change. Instead of using the stick to bully people into living more simply, it will provide an incentive to help us live more cleverly.

It is technology that makes vehicles less polluting, that enables farmers to produce more food from less land, and that allows more of the world to enjoy less polluted water. And It will be technological innovations that give us clean energy, cleaner air, and make our oceans safer for marine life.

The idea that we all need to accept massive limitations on our lifestyles, and that the opportunities offered by the modern world have to be limited and closed off in order to avert catastrophe, is simply wrong. It is through advances such as those encouraged by the Earthshot prizes that we can step away from a dystopian future for humankind, and move into a cleaner and safer one.

The claim that no-one is listening or doing anything is also patently false. We are moving away from fossil fuels at a faster rate than anyone predicted. We are taking steps to secure cleaner air and cleaner rivers. The new prizes announced by Prince William and Sir David will accelerate that progress and bring the needed advances faster than would otherwise have been possible.

Now there are signs that the UK government is preparing a carbon tax, with industry, agriculture and transport all paying for their carbon output. This means that innovators will be encouraged to find new ways of reducing their carbon emissions by technological advances, without the heavy hand of government or the stamped foot of Greta forcing them to limit their activities. If they go ahead with that, then the UK government might well itself deserve a Nobel Prize.

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Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.