HC Deb 28 April 1972 vol 835 cc2018-30

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Kensington, North)

I wish to bring to the attention of the House the subject of the impact of our present policies on our natural resources and the environment. This is a large question to raise on a Friday afternoon because it amounts to little less than the question whether mankind can survive, a proposition on which doubt must be cast.

It is said to be fashionable to discuss this subject and to talk about ecology and the environment. The fact that it is fashionable should not deter us from assessing the real merits of the matter, bearing in mind that fashionable questions can be very relevant. I believe that it was fashionable to discuss the dangers of war breaking out in 1939. The fact that it was a fashionable and, therefore, derided issue did not make it any the less relevant.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the Press over the last 18 months or two years about the impact of population growth, economic growth and pollution on the prospects of the survival of the human race. More and more people are becoming aware that some of the courses we are pursuing, or are allowing to be pursued, are creating a very dangerous situation for mankind. As yet, however, there has not, as far as I know, been any discussion of the subject in Parliament, although there were a couple of speeches in the debate on the principle of our entry into Europe.

Although to raise the subject on a Friday in an empty House——

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Smethwick)

It is not empty.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I apologise to my hon. Friend and any other hon. Members. To raise the subject in a partially empty House on a Friday afternoon may seem to treat it without adequate respect, but I hope that today we shall at least start the discussion, and that further discussion will follow.

It was said in an article in The Times a few weeks ago that ecology seems to be discussed, when it is discussed at all, between the extreme pessimists who think that we have only 25 years left to live and the extreme optimists who think that we may have as many as 50 years left to go. When we look at how the experts approach the subject, we find very few real optimists who can see a prospect of our continuing our present policies and ways of life for more than half way through the next century.

The trouble is that the vast majority of people are not prepared to look at where we are going, and at the impact of what we do on our prospects of survival. For a very long time now we have seen living standards rising because of economic growth and the economic policies we are pursuing. The effects have been obviously visibly good, but good only for a minority—for the developed countries and for the present generation. We have to think of our children's generation and their children's generation. It is not only the present effect of what we do now. The question is whether what we do now will provide the possibility of survival.

It is obvious that one cannot pursue a policy of indefinite growth in a world whose resources are finite, without ultimately running out of resources. Many discussions have taken place recently. The optimists have poured scorn on some of the figures put forward by those who take a more gloomy view. We have had "Blueprint for Survival", and the arguments of that publication scoffed at in Nature. We have had Professor Meadows' book, "The Limits to Growth", and his arguments, if not exactly scoffed at, seriously disputed by Dr. Jeremy Bray, a member of my own party and former hon. Member for Middles rough, West.

But even looking at the arguments advanced by the optimists, taking into account all their scorn about attempting to provide precise mathematical models of what will happen, taking into account the fact that all the estimates made of world population growth have varied from year to year—and as those estimates are projections from the 1960s to the year 2000 and later there must be variations—all the figures that anyone who knows about the subject has prepared predict a very substantial increase in world population.

Dr. Jeremy Bray, who is counted an extreme optimist in this context, estimates that world population of the developing countries will have risen from its present figure of 2,500 million to 5,000 million by the year 2000, and that the population of the developed countries will have risen from its present figure of 1,000 million to 2,000 million, making by the turn of the century a world population of 7,000 million, nearly double what it is today. Dr. Jeremy Bray, taking the United Nations figures and projecting them, estimates that allowing for the changes for which we can hope—these are on the most optimistic estimates—there is a probability that by the turn of the next century the population of the developing countries will have doubled yet again resulting in a world population of about 12,000 million.

Looking only 25 to 30 years ahead, we must expect that the world's population will be twice what it is now. As a consequence of this change, there will be a very acute shortage of land. This is something about which we can do practically nothing, because the main increase in the population between now and the end of the century will arise because the age of death will have been put back, and no one would wish to change that. We do, however, need to adopt policies which we hope will drastically reduce the birth rate in the years to come just to ensure that the population does not increase even faster than Dr. Bray estimated.

One of the major questions is whether the world can possibly produce sufficient food to avoid an absolute disaster, whether we shall have the fertilisers and the phosphates to enable us to feed the very rapidly increasing world population. The Observer discussion on "Spaceship Earth" consisted of an argument between an optimist and pessimist. The optimist—Dr. Borlaug—said that one of the greatest needs at the moment is fertiliser. Professor Borgstrom, the pessimist, maintained that the situation for fertilisers and the prospect of there being sufficient fertiliser to provide for the world's needs was limited at the outside to about 30 years. Unless we can find an alternative for the phosphates which we are rapidly washing to the bottom of the oceans, we we shall not have enough materials to enable the world to provide what it otherwise could do of the resources of the world.

Minerals are disappearing rapidly. One can have arguments as to the size of the need and the rate at which minerals are disappearing—for instance, whether our resources of petroleum oils are 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, or 20 years, whether our resources of natural gas are, as Professor Meadows estimates, 20 years or less, whether it is not true that tin and tungsten will disappear within the lifetime of nearly all of us present at this time. But, whatever the argument, no one disputes that resources are finite and will ultimately be exhausted if we waste them.

As yet, we are doing very little to counteract all these developments. On the contrary we are expounding the advantages of economic growth. It is sometimes argued that for any one of us who enjoys a high living standard to say that we should reverse the trends, that we should seek to ensure that we do not have yet more rapid growth of the economy and that we do not have yet more rapid growth of the consumption of resources is, in effect, to say that we are pulling up the ladder behind us.

I do not believe that this is so. Although it is obviously prima facie the case that if we were to reverse the trends of economic growth now it would be the developing countries which would suffer, if we are to survive, and if indeed our children's generation or possibly our own generation is to survive, we shall have to move rapidly towards a completely different approach to the conduct of the world's economy.

The only circumstance in which we can expect to get the rest of the world, or indeed our own country, to accept that we should not expand our use of resources even further and that we should not go even further with economic growth is if we were in a situation of much greater equality than we are today. If we were able to say that everybody was sharing alike in prosperity and that everybody was getting a fair share of our resources, we could legitimately say that we were not going to expand the use of those resources even further.

I believe that the argument for equality both within Britain and between Britain and the world has become much stronger as a result of our awareness of the resources situation which is now increasingly being impressed upon us. We cannot say to the developing countries "You must have no more growth, but we will." That would be atrociously unfair. Such growth as there is must be concentrated upon those countries which are deprived at the present time.

Here I am embarking on even more controversial ground than I did in the early part of my speech, but I hope that we can agree that what is urgently needed is far greater concentration on the conservation of resources by fiscal changes which will ensure that the polluter pays—and here I pay tribute to the Government for having done quite a lot in this direction. But pollution is only the first and most obvious, and possibly the least important, aspect of what I am discussing. Pollution destroys the environment and the capacity of the world to produce the food to sustain the ecological systems. That is something that we must check, and we must make sure that resources are provided to ensure that it is checked.

That, however, is only the first step. We must also take the fiscal measures to ensure that we do not waste natural resources, and do not allow those resources that we have to be used up or washed away at the bottom of the sea and become exhausted in the various ways which modern industry makes so easy and profitable. We must also ensure that jobs are found in order to keep the rapidly increasing population of the world in employment, in a situation in which it can economically survive without continuing the increasing use of natural resources.

It is already immensely difficult to maintain full employment in Britain. One of the measures that we can take to maintain full employment and to counteract the steady tendency towards an increase in the use of natural resources is a deliberate shift of emphasis in Government policy towards service industries rather than production industries. We need by fiscal and Government measures to encourage people to re-cycle bottles, to build more houses rather than more cars, to build durable things rather than non-durable ones, to provide hospital, educational and other services rather than provide more consumable goods which are not seriously affecting our ultimate living standards but are rapidly destroying the means of survival.

Mr. Faulds

Would my hon. Friend not agree that an answer that I had from the Ministry the other day was extremely depressing in this context? When I asked about the re-use of industrially damaged chemicals and solvents, the answer I got was that market forces would provide the answer. Does not my hon. Friend find this answer evasive of the responsibilities of any Government?

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Indeed, this is an argument that has been presented by many people—that as tin runs out, for example, it will become more expensive and we shall switch to a substitute. I think the Government must accept that it would be better if we started looking towards avoiding waste of resources now. Even if that argument were valid, which I do not accept—there cannot be an infinite number of substitutes for tin—we should ensure now that we do not use it all up. We should take measures now to ensure that we have car hire systems rather than car selling systems so that people may have a car to use for holidays and weekends rather than that everybody should own a car and that our entire economy should be based on the necessity for everybody to have a car.

We should be looking now for measures to enable us to switch to conservation—this would require Government intervention—and we should be looking for measures to enable us to preserve resources rather than destroy them. We should be looking for the development of service industries and labour-intensive industries rather than labour-saving industries. I realise that, prima facie, that may appear to be the argument of a twentieth-century Luddite, but, at the end of the cycle begun by the Industrial Revolution, I feel that we have reached a point where our natural resources are being damaged or diminished to an extent which requires us to think in terms of greater use of labour rather than greater and greater use of natural resources.

I have raised some very large questions. I have been able only to touch upon them, but I hope that the Minister will be able to say that Government policy is at least alive to these matters and that we shall see changes in policy—there must be policy changes by both parties here; it is not a party issue in that sense—to ensure that we have a better chance not only of surviving but of providing the real essentials of good living standards for future generations rather than the increased production of goods which do not always improve living standards in a situation in which people have no room or opportunity to enjoy them.

4.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

If he has not tried to put all eternity into an hour-glass, the hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) has sought to put the whole of ecology and the environment into a 16-minute speech. He must forgive me at the outset if, in the 12 or 13 minutes left to me to reply, I do not attempt to deal with all the questions of conservation, population, pollution, recycling and the rest which he raised. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is need for a serious and balanced debate at the highest political and intellectual levels about some of the highly emotive concepts of the world environment which now engage public attention.

Some of the questions which we should examine in the House are these. Is it right to hold the view that diseases, starvation and conflict will inevitably follow, fairly soon, on the pursuit of economic growth, or is it on the other hand right to hope that our various social, economic and political structures are strong and flexible enough to adapt themselves to the changes which will undoubtedly develop? Is there any compelling necessity for controls on world population, and, if so, how and by whom are those controls to be exercised?

These are matters which my right hon. Friend and I hope to be discussing with other Government representatives at the Stockholm conference, but they have been brought into prominence in this country by the publication recently of a quite remarkable document "Blueprint for Survival". This argues that continued exponential growth in human demand for natural resources cannot possibly be sustained and that, unless stabilisation occurs before resources become too depleted or competition for them becomes too acute, there is grave risk of a worldwide social breakdown. To avoid this consequence, the authors suggest that there is need, first, to minimise the disruption of ecological processes; second, to conserve materials and energy; third, to stabilise human populations; and fourth, to maintain within that context a social system with freedom of choice and enjoyment for the individual.

I need not emphasise that there is some dilemma between freedom of choice for the individual and the need for State direction if the other aims of minimising disruption and conserving materials are to be secured. But this dilemma is the problem of all Governments and all free Parliaments—it is, indeed, what we are for.

Basic to the studies in the blueprint is the belief that five main elements—population, food production, industrialisation, pollution and the depletion of non-renewable resources—are all increasing exponentially. By putting together the five elements into one computer model, assuming certain relationships between them, and taking into account their exponential growth, those carrying out the studies have produced quite frightening predictions of the global problems with which mankind will be confronted over the next half century.

I also readily agree that the continued advance of science and technology must increase the ability of man to damage his habitat. That damage may vary from extermination of various world species to catastrophes like world-wide damage to plankton through contamination of the oceans, with the resultant destruction of fisheries and reduction in the conversion of carbon dioxide to carbon and oxygen. But with each scientific advance man is better able to see the results of his actions and if he is wise to combat them before they get out of hand. Our capacity to produce new substances is of course liable to run ahead of capacity to foresee their effects—this happened with DDT—but, on the other hand, the developed countries where those substances originated are now aware of the point and are devising protective mechanisms to operate in advance of serious damage.

The authors of the Blueprint have suggested a number of steps that they think necessary for this country. They propose a society with a stablised population, perhaps of 30 million in Great Britain, which would be organised in neighbourhoods of 500, represented in communities of 5,000, in regions of 500,000. It is argued that such a stable society would be to a large extent self-supporting and would make few demands for mobility because it would be socially self-contained. The individual would find satisfaction, and the mental and physical health of the community would be assured. I would be the last to argue with the authors in their attempt to postulate a stable society but the philosophy behind the proposals seems to be of G. K. Chesterton on the one hand and birth control on the other.

This thesis takes it for granted that we could somehow return to this bucolic state if only we had the will. In fact the sort of life envisaged in such a society was only ever possible for a tiny minority, and even that minority depended on the existence of a much larger population, living on the brink of starvation.

The hard reality is—and surely it is nothing for us to be ashamed of—that it is only modern industry and modern technology and modern fertilisers—the very economic growth which so many affect to despise—which has made it possible for the mass of ordinary people to have anything like a decent standard of life in this island. The real alternative to modern pesticides and complex industrial processes and all their consequences is not happy country-dwellers living in pleasant cottages as Brueghel painted them. The only alternative is the sort of mass misery we associate with the Bengal famines.

In attempting, and it cannot be more than an attempt, to comment on some of the points the hon. Member has made I would like only to offer to the House one or two broad perspectives as the Government see them. The first is that, contrary to rumour, we are not in this country losing the battle to protect our environment. I would not say we are winning it, but we are more than holding our own.

Some pronouncements postulate that it is already too late, that we are blindly heading into an environmental apocalypse, that the insects will die, that the ice caps will melt and that we shall all either drown in sewage or choke to death on sulphur dioxide. I do not dismiss these projections; I want to find out more about them. I am not complacent because there are dangers and anxieties, and none of us has any excuse to sit back. The facts are that our air is generally cleaner, our rivers on the whole a good deal less polluted and our industrial effluent and toxic wastes, though very much greater in volume and vastly more complex in character, on the whole less dangerous and less offensive than any of these things were 100 years, 50 years or even 10 years ago.

The second perspective I offer to the hon. Gentleman concerns the vexed question of growth on the one hand and a proper, indeed urgent, concern for the environment and the human condition on the other hand. If our population and pollution problem has become more acute though not necessarily more unmanageable in recent years, it is precisely because our rate of economic growth has been not too high but too low. For inadequate economic growth robs us of choice; it forces us to concentrate our limited resources so as to meet the demand for more, whether more houses, more schools or more help for spastic children. By doing so it deprives us of the means and opportunity to invest in something that is better. Far from saving the environment, economic stagnation can leave us insufficiently well breeched to protect it.

From my own experience in the Department when it comes to cleaning up rivers, reducing the number of slums or improving the condition of life, what we require are not fewer resources but more. Let no one imagine that the environment gains from a low rate of growth. The environment suffers along with all the rest. What we need is a new definition of the purpose of growth and the reasons for creating wealth.

That purpose will have more and more to do with the use of our increasing resources to build quietness into engines, to pour less and less toxic effluent into our rivers and seas and to pay the price—it will be a high one—of avoiding or clearing up industrial pollution as we go along.

My final point of perspective is directed more to those outside the House rather than those inside it who are passionately concerned about pollution but who sometimes do not stop to think of what is really involved. We know from our experience that fine words and grand generalisations cure no pollution. Nor for that matter does sweeping legislation. The job of doing what is needed to protect the environment instead of just talking about it nearly always comes down to the unglamorous details, to the public health inspector poking about in the cesspits and the incinerators, to the alkali inspector measuring the number of grains of dust emitted from a factory chimney and to pressing ahead with the work of the committee dealing with back-siphonage in sewers.

When I first came to the Department I was surprised to find myself responsible for such bodies as the working party on the design of sewer pumps. I have learned that when we are talking about pollution these are the places where the action is. It is here, not in the headlines, that we win the battle to protect the environment. I say to those who on occasions press the panic button that if we use scare tactics too often we divert too large a proportion of our limited and technical manpower away from the job of tackling the hard work.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having raised this wide subject and I shall study his remarks with interest. He will realise that in dealing with a subject so global—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.