Cornwall's Eden Project
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Hothouse of hate

If ignorance was the state of man in the Garden of Eden, then the much-hyped 'Eden Project' in Cornwall is living up to its name. The Eden Project is a none too impressive botanical garden that advertises itself as an educational project and a "stage where science, art and technology blend to tell the story of our place in nature". Instead of what's promised, visitors get a farrago of false statistics, economic gibberish and pseudo-science, all neatly contained in a second-rate terrarium.

The very first thing to greet visitors is a giant display of statistical ignorance drawn, I learnt, from a bit of Internet spam that's been doing the rounds for years. Virtually none of what it claims is true, and some of it is downright hateful. According to the display, “If we could shrink the Earth to a village with a population of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, there would be…”, followed by a set of absurd claims dressed up as facts, such as “21 would be European” (try 12), “70 would be unable to read” (actually about 16, off by only 54), “89 would be heterosexual, 11 would be homosexual” (reliable studies indicate between 2 and 4 per cent of males are homosexual), and so on.

Much more important, however, was the following: 'Six people would possess 59 per cent of the entire world's wealth and would be from the United States'. Now that can't be true for several reasons, the first of which is that the United States has only about 4.6 per cent of the world's population, not 6 per cent. Second, not all Americans are rich and not all non-Americans arc poor. Third, there is no reliable data available on shares of  “the entire world's wealth”. (As the World Bank puts it, “Unfortunately we don't have a standard way of defining wealth. Wealth requires an evaluation of all productive assets, which accumulate and depreciate over years.”)   Fourth, the data that we do have on gross national income by country indicates that the United States produces a bit more than 31 per cent - not 59 per cent - of aggregate world income.

Two things are notable about those figures. First, gross national income represents the production of value, not control over natural resources. Americans are disproportionately wealthy compared with other countries because they are disproportionately productive. And they are so productive because their institutions - courts, markets, property registries, and so on - work relatively well. The production of value is not a zero or negative sum game; increasing productivity in one country docs not decrease it elsewhere. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that increasing productivity for one group tends to increase it among its trading partners, as it means greater opportunities for the division of labour, greater reliance on comparative advantage, and richer consumers of imports from trading partners. Even more striking, there is a negative correlation between natural resource endowment and average income; countries richly endowed with natural resources (think oil, gold or diamonds) tend to have lower average incomes than less richly endowed countries, partly because parasitic thugs grab control of those resources and use the wealth to cement their dictatorial rule.  The wealth of nations is produced by human ingenuity and voluntary co-operation. It is not determined to any substantial degree by natural endowments. Wealth is not something that just happens.

Second, similarly disproportionate statistics could have been brought up about France (0.97 per cent of world population but 4.4 per cent of world income), Sweden (0.14 per cent of world population but 0.71 per cent of world income) and, indeed, any of the other productive and prosperous countries of Europe or Asia. The display that greets visitors to the Eden Project implies that the people of the United States have somehow grabbed control of most of 'the entire world's wealth', when the fact is that they produce nearly a third of the value produced worldwide annually.

What the Eden Project was putting on display is, quite simply, hate propaganda of the sort that has traditionally been manifested as anti-Semitism. It would be made more obvious if they had written instead a pseudo-fact like the following: "One person would possess 12 per cent of the world's wealth and would be a Jew."  In recent years American-baiting has become the favourite sport of small minds.

Interspersed throughout the rather poorly arranged botanical gardens were claims such as, “Around 90 per cent of futures contracts are on paper and don't involve coffee at all.” Quelle surprise!  Futures contracts involve trades of future coffee: that is, coffee that hasn't been harvested yet.   Even dumber, however, were claims that “Futures markets protect traders, but not small producers, from price changes.” Being able to sell next year’s crop at a guaranteed price today is of some benefit to a farmer, or he wouldn't do it. Futures contracts allow farmers to transfer their risk to people better placed or willing to handle it. Without such markets, prices would fluctuate far more, to the detriment of farmers.

When I was photographing the welcoming display of misinformation, a very friendly lady offered me a printed version of the text. I asked where the information had come from, and she said that “someone had seen it on the Internet” and so they'd put it up. Evidently no effort whatsoever was made to check the veracity of their claims. Even a quick check on an Internet search engine, such as google.com, would have found that what was 'seen on the Internet' was a hoax, a collection of urban myths even less credible than the stories of the alligators in the New York sewage system or the giant Peruvian rat that tourists thought was a dog. No doubt the “scientists” and “educators” at the Eden Project have also responded to all the email offers from the heirs of Mobutu Sese Sekou or Jonas Savimbi that offer to share £25 million with them, on condition that they first wire £15,000 to an offshore account. It was, after all, “on the Internet”.

Perhaps the Eden Project's Primary claim to fame will be that it provided the backdrop to much of the action in the latest James Bond cinematic thriller, Die Another Day. At least the pseudo-scientific rubbish in the film was more entertaining than that in the Eden Project.

By Tom Palmer Reprinted from The Spectator 22 Feb 2003

iGreen note

The Eden project's spokesman admitted the errors of fact when interviewed on the BBC's Today programme, and claimed they had been corrected.   Let us know if you see any more. 

 

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Last modified: February 05, 2006