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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Prosperity is the friend of wildlife

Rich Idaho looks after biodiversity better than poor North Korea

I am on holiday in the Idaho Rockies, in a house on the edge of what is in winter a fancy ski resort, the streets of which are clogged with sports cars, massive SUVs and even the odd Hummer. The shops offer all the extravagances a pampered plutocrat needs: from pet grooming to art galleries. Sent to buy bagels, I was faced with a bewildering ten different kinds.

Sounds like I am complaining? Read on.

From the patio of our house can be seen a constant procession of wonderful (and remarkably tame) birds, attracted by the effect of the the suburb's sprinklers in the usually dry landscape. Squirrels come to the trees; garter snakes to the wall; butterflies to the flowers. In the crystal stream at the bottom of the hill, wild rainbow trout rise to caddis flies and dippers, martins and sandpipers snack on huge stoneflies. In the woods along the valley are moose droppings and signs of the occasional black bear.

My point? Well, the book I have just finished reading here is "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick, about the lives of six North Koreans in the city of Chongjin before they defected to the south. They lived free from the evils of consumerism, indeed in the late 1990s they were so free of consumerism that their children or parents starved to death before their eyes. They never faced the paralysing agony of choosing between bagel brands, indeed for a lot of the time they ate meals based on stewing grasses and the husks of corn cobs. They had few possessions at all, let alone SUVs. Their pets needed no grooming, because they had been eaten. And they lived as locavores off the land, in all its organic purity, recycling their waste so that the local farmland stank of 'night soil'. All around Chongjin by the 1990s the wildlife had been trapped, the wild plants picked, the grasses cut for food and even the bark of trees stripped to make flour.

How's this for local-sourcing?

They devised traps out of buckets and string to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over their balconies to snare sparrows. They educated themselves in the nutritive properties of plants. They reached back into their collective memory of famines past and recalled the survival tricks of their forefathers. They stripped the sweet inner bark of pine trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of flour. They pounded acorns into a gelatinous paste that could be molded into cubes that practically melted in your mouth. North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals...on the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand and filled buckets with seaweed.

Sounds like the ideal way of life as preached by much of the western environmental priesthood, does it not? Yet between 600,000 and 2 million died of hunger. The wildlife was devastated. Pollution was terrible.

When the subjects of Demick's book reach China they are amazed not just by the human prosperity --one finds a bowl of white rice, a luxury she has not seen for ages, and then realises it had been left out for a dog -- but by the biodiversity, too. They marvel at the lush forests:

On the other side of the river, there was a place where the trees still had bark and the cornfields weren't guarded by guns. The place was called China.

There is something terribly wrong with the standard litany we recite about the environment. It just is not true that extravagant western lifestyles come at the expense of nature. The more I see of the world, the more persuaded I am that human prosperity is actually good for wildlife, because it leads to investment in things that boost biodiversity. Things like productive farms and sewage treatment and well stocked stores and fossil fuels and lawn sprinklers and bird feeders and sport fishing lobbies and national parks. Things that make it unnecessary to use the local forest as a source of fuel, the local valley as a source of food and the local stream as a dump for waste. Things that value a moose as something other than a meal.

The oft repeated recommendation of the environmental movement that we live more locally, live off the land, live with fewer choices, fewer inputs, fewer resources and fewer possessions would in fact result in devastation not just for human life but for wildlife too. Going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.

One day, in the mountains of North Korea, birds will be abundant and tame again, streams will be clean again, deer will refill the woods - but only if the people get rich enough to get their food through trade from choice-crammed bagel stores rather than from the land.