Eco-Catastrophism and Cloud Cuckoo Land

Washington, D.C., February 12, 2014 – As Valentines’ Day approaches, here’s a love note to the environmental movement. It has done so much over the past century-and-a-half to call attention to the assaults of modern, industrial society: Destruction of wilderness, attacks on vulnerable species; emissions of noxious chemicals into our air and water. The world is a far better place today, particularly in the developed economies, as a result of the work of the environmental movement, dating all the way back to John Muir (who died in 1914) and Gifford Pinchot (who died in 1946).

But let me offer a cautionary modern note. The modern environmental movement has a human tendency to vastly overstate its cases and causes. Many greens warn breathlessly that civilization as we know it is doomed unless we take immediate, draconian actions to reduce our assaults on Mother Earth.

I’ve witnessed the rise of environmentalism first hand. I read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as an 18-year-old in 1962 and attended the first Earth Day celebration in Washington on April 22, 1970. I’ve subsequently written for many environmental publications and worked on the professional staffs of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Friends of the Earth. I’m a dedicated hiker and bird watcher, and a small farmer practicing low-impact agriculture.

I don’t buy the underlying tone of today’s environmentalism.

Environmental activists are too often what Discover magazine columnist Keith Kloor calls “eco-doomers,” and I call “eco-catastrophists.” In their view, the sky isn’t just falling. It has already fallen in large pieces. We are headed to destruction. Paul Ehrlich, Jim Hansen, Al Gore, Bill McKibben quickly come to mind.

The implication of their messages is that unless the world takes unprecedented, wrenching, and entirely unlikely, globally-concerted actions to address the threat de jour, this planet cannot survive. Many argue that mankind must abandon the sins of modern civilization (variously electricity, meat-eating, vaccination, cars and airplanes, and genetically-modified organisms).

Discover’s Kloor, one of my favorite science commentators even when I (often) disagree with him on details and interpretation, cites a preposterous recent New York Times op-ed column slamming modern life. Kloor correctly concludes, “The problem that we are advised to confront is the very thing that has greatly advanced humanity in the last 200 hundred years: Industrialization. Indeed, the modernizing forces that shape our lives today are treated with contempt by many of the planet’s self-designated guardians.”

Today, the world, at least the developed part of it, is far better off than it was as recently as 50 years ago, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. Life spans are far longer. Infant deaths have declined dramatically and science has solved many medical mysteries. The air is cleaner, water is healthier, and worldwide, where the problems are still daunting, many fewer people live in abject poverty (less than $1.25/day adjusted for inflation).

There is much to be done to improve the global environment. Many more people must have access to clean energy (electricity); air that is less damaging to their health; potable water; affordable, universal telecommunications services; and more income. Those are priorities. To my mind, they are far more important than reducing global carbon dioxide emissions, for which the outcomes are far from certain. Global warming may be positive, as Bjorn Lomborg has observed.

Kloor correctly concludes that the real threat from  the incessant doom-saying of much of the environmental movement is the fixes they offer, “Which, if carried out in the developing world, really would lead to societal catastrophe.”

Among these extreme-green nostrums is the far-fetched notion that is possible within some foreseeable time period to completely or even largely replace conventional sources of electric generation – from coal, nuclear, and natural gas – with renewables such as wind and solar (God forfend that the definition might include hydro). That’s what Greek dramatist and humorist Aristophanes in “The Birds” describes as “cloud cuckoo land.”