Small ‘e’ Environmentalist

I know several people who, when asked their political views, claim to be “small ‘c’ Conservatives”. They do so because they feel they are genuinely conservative in the sense that they adhere to somewhat traditional values or the status quo, but it can also mean they support a conservative fiscal policy for government – in the sense that spending is kept under control, taxes kept within reason and budgets are balanced. They call themselves thus primarily to distinguish themselves from the more reactionary ‘Conservatives’ – be they neo-Conservatives or plain old right-wing nuts. Most of the ones I know are generally ‘pro-choice’, in favour of rights for gays and so on, and are strong advocates of small government – not to the point of Libertarianism or anarchy – but not full of make-work projects for bureaucrats and their friends either. The term is also used by people who adhere to conservative views, but aren’t a member of the Conservative Party (or Republican Party in the US), mainly because they believe those parties have been hi-jacked by the more extremist elements with whom they don’t want to be associated.

I often feel the same way about Environmentalism. As a movement it seems to have largely been taken over by extremists, alarmists, opportunists and hypocrites. Some of the extremists seem to have either a bizarre, utopian anti-capitalist or anti-western agenda, others are plain old racists in disguise. Still others stand to make a killing through Carbon trading and government subsidies; concern over the environment may be merely a cynical cloak for otherwise unabashed greed.

It takes a fair sized ego (perhaps even some sort of Messianic Complex) to think one can ‘save the planet’. Unfortunately, what I find common is what PJ O’Rourke once noted: there are a lot of people who would do anything to “save the planet”, except take a science course. The end result is a lot of politicking, shoddy science, more taxes, more proposed regulation, intrusiveness, calls for McCarthy-style witch hunts and show trials, irrational hysteria, and worse.

Disagreeing with them about anything brings charges that one is ‘killing the planet’ or doesn’t care about the future, or is right wing or a redneck or brainwashed by big business. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many people who care deeply about the world, but are alarmed by all the alarmism.

There’s no denying the importance of clean air and drinking water. I’ve been to Southeast Asia and seen how polluted the water is, and how smoggy the air around Southern China is. I’ve been to Eastern Europe and seen the impact that decades of lax controls had there on all the beautiful old buildings. Heck, I’ve been to Sudbury several times in my life and can recall quite well when the surrounding landscape resembled the moon and the whole area stunk of sulphur. I don’t think companies should be allowed to pollute the air or waterways, particularly in areas where people live, if there are other options.

I’m all for alternative energy sources, so long as they are genuinely efficient, and so long as they are suitable replacements for current energy sources. I’m not entirely convinced that any of them are apart from nuclear. I don’t think the massive subsidies being provided by governments is the right way to go about it either. The reality is that access to cheap energy has played a main role in enabling a productive surplus in industrialized countries, and it is ironic that this very same productive surplus, which has enabled nearly everyone to have access to the internet, the opportunity for higher education and escape from a life of chronic drudgery, including all the neo-Luddites who seem to think everyone should go back to subsistence farming (which is probably not what the really want, but they refuse to understand that that is the logical consequence if some of the crazier proposals they insist on were actually implemented.)

I’m appalled by gratuitous waste (particularly over-packaging and cheap disposable crap) but it’s really not my business what other people do or buy. Heck, as far as enviro-cred goes, I’m up there: I don’t drive, I don’t use pesticides or herbicides, I shop locally and eat mostly in season fruit and veg (mostly because it’s cheaper and tastes better), shop second-hand for most clothes and household items, look for quality over quantity and generally avoid being wasteful. But again, what other people choose to do is simply not my business. I think it’s silly to spend more on a car than some people pay for a house, I’ve never understood the appeal of a debt-financed lifestyle to keep up with the Jones’s. Don’t get me wrong – I’m quite happy to make fun of them – but I don’t think it’s evil, or wrong, it’s their life after all, not mine.

I don’t think the world is likely to end any time soon, or that the projected catastrophes will turn to anything. The entire concept of some ‘tipping point’ happening when concentrations of atmospheric CO2 reach 500 ppm are utter nonsense, considering CO2 is logarithmic, and that most of the scarier projections (not predictions!) are based on taking the most extreme interpretation of dubious computer models, not actual experiments or observation (which often contradicts the models).

What I find quite often as well is that Environmentalists often claim to want to save the planet for future generations, but seem quite comfortable ignoring the suffering endured by the already living. I’ve never quite understood the rationale of being so concerned about people who may not ever exist at the expense of those who are currently alive, except that they are really only concerned about their own kids and grand kids and so on. Other examples are even less comprehensible to me. Greenpeace are quite happy to try to shut down a little mine in Rosia Montana, Romania (Gabriel Resources is hardly in the same league as Alcoa or BHP Billiton) but I don’t see them demanding a clean up of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.

At the rotten core of some Environmentalists’ arguments is the notion of overpopulation. PJ O’Rourke, in his excellent book All the Trouble in the World had a chapter on the argument of world population entitled: Plenty of Me, Way Too Much of You. It sums up the attitude perfectly, implied but rarely admitted.

In a nutshell, any claim of ‘over-population’ is basically saying that some other people don’t have a right to live. Almost like the jihadi suicide bombers, there seems to be a deep-rooted hatred of life, at least human life. Or perhaps it’s just a modern form of ancient tribalism, somehow wired tightly into allegedly civilized brains.

This isn’t the same fascination that most of us share at one time or another in the face of huge natural disasters. There are many people who believe that world resources aren’t just finite, but will run out soon, and they want to be sure there’s enough for them and their friends and family and descendants. Of course, other people and their descendants are a threat to that. The idea of killing them outright (like, say, what the Germans tried, resulting in the Holocaust) is seldom advanced, so there are vague claims that more should be done regarding contraception, that laws should be passed limiting the number of kids people have…

Especially in the Third World. Forgetting for a moment that countries with high birth rates also tend to have high infant mortality rates. Forget too the actual fact that around the world birth rates and population projections are actually falling, and that it is widely agreed that the best way to reduce birthrates anyway isn’t through forced contraception or ‘family planning’, but educating girls. A lot of supposedly ‘over-populated’ areas actually have lower population densities than most of Northern Europe, and since the highest birthrates are still in the Third World, most references to forced contraception and so on refer at least implicitly to them. Heaven forbid they might want to immigrate to places where fertility rates are below replacement levels. Indeed, claims of overpopulation being a threat to the environment is the last area where one can be a politically-correct racist.

In addition, I find that many Environmentalists have an ideological agenda that has little to do with the actual environment and more to do with either perpetual fund-raising or with vague, puritanical notions of what people ‘should’ be doing. Take for example, the annual seal hunt in Newfoundland every year, which brings out the pictures of white baby seals, and boatloads of protesters. This annual hunt brings in around $14million for Newfoundland according to Global Action Network. Considering the number of well-funded Environmentalist groups who use this seal hunt as an annual rallying point, collectively they could easily just buy out all the fishermen – pay them not to hunt the seals – and be done with it. Heck, Paul McCartney could easily afford to himself. But it’s very likely that the various groups probably rake in more funds via brochures with pictures of cute baby seals being massacred, that they probably depend on the seal hunt more than the Newfoundlanders do.

Another problem with this flood of hysteria and disinformation spread so widely is that genuine environmental threats are drowned out. How many people just chuck old batteries in the garbage, for instance? And in some instances, what people think is the cause of a problem might actual be something different. An example is the cause of toxic algae in lakes – a new study recently showed phosphates, not nitrates to be the culprit. The wrong information can lead to costly solutions that end up being completely ineffective at best. Even scarier is the seemingly instant acceptance of the proposal to dump lime into oceans to combat an alleged problem of ocean acidification by various bloggers and media outlets. If you’re up on your latest global warming climate change scares, this is one of the latest. Never mind that the feasibility study on which this hare-brained scheme is based was funded by Shell (as in the Big Oil company Royal Dutch/Shell Group). I find it rather odd that none of the major ‘Environmentalist’ blogs made much of an issue of that fact, nor that they have anything but a positive view on the proposed scale of meddling.. Even if ocean acidification is really a major concern and the cause of it really is atmospheric carbon-dioxide, doesn’t mean that this or any other large scale operation to counter-act it would be a terribly good idea.

My last peeve has to do with the overuse of either “they” or “we” when referring to what ‘should’ be done. It’s always their over-consumption, or we should be shopping less, never declarations in the first-person singular. As The Onion jokes, 98% of Americans think others should use public transit. I often wonder about the motives of many of these people too. I get the sense that it has little to do with the environment at all, and rather more to do with egotism – with displays of righteousness and (moral) superiority over others – and as means to exercise control over the behaviour of others – dictating what car they should drive (if at all), how much they should shop, what they should eat, how they should think and so on. Being sanctimonious is fun for lot of people and almost nothing allows for wider array of opportunities for it than being an Environmentalist. Worst are the jet-set environmentalists – the Al Gores and Laurie Davids who live in mansions and have a luxurious lifestyle that is well beyond reach of all but the super-rich, but travel the world in private jets lecturing others to save electricity or change their lightbulbs. It’s a little difficult to believe there’s any looming crisis if even the most ardent proponents aren’t willing to make even minor lifestyle changes.

I’ll end with a pertinent quote from HL Mencken:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.

3 responses to “Small ‘e’ Environmentalist

  1. Umm, my modest proposal would be to put down that glass of Kool-Aid and follow your own advice to do a bit more science based research. I suggest http://www.paulchefurka.ca for a well reasoned and evidence backed start.

    We’ve already exceed global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. Global population is nearing 7 billion. Global carrying capacity is about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living.) We will get to that 2 billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily). It’s too late for any “us” vs “them” arguements or any belief that national boundaries will do much to help anyone. One of the key factors in this scenario is our sense of time. This is a slow motion crash that requires immediate action, a bit like trying to steer a supertanker that needs consistent input over the next 10 years to avoid a crash. That input is no more babies.

    (And it was oil that allowed us to get this far out on a limb, and peak oil has already happened.)

  2. Glass of Kool-aid? Do you know the source for that reference, because I do, having been alive in 1978. It refers to the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana (where I moved with my family two months after the event).
    Keep in mind the irony of applying this reference towards any ‘skeptic’. Drinking the Koolaid (actually it was Flavor Aid laced with cyanide or some other poison) was what was done by a religious cult that was convinced that the world was going to end.

    I’m not going to get into arguments about peak oil here, but it’s irrelevant to human population. Don’t forget that there’s plenty of coal for everyone for a very long time still :)

    Also, I think you need to finish high school and find out what ‘science-based research’ actually is. Hint: it’s not some flaky blog whose premises rest primarily on same things argued in the discredited Paul Ehrlich book The Population Bomb. The concept of a 2 billion (or any other number pulled from thin air) carrying-capacity is utter nonsense.

    Get this through your head: any claim of overpopulation is a claim that someone else does not have the right to live. This is the same attitude as murderers, as those who carried out the Holocaust, or Stalin’s massacres.
    You need to seriously think through the consequences of what any proposal that involves reducing 7 billion to 2 billion would actually require.
    The ONLY way to do that is through large-scale murder. The only way to really stop people from reproducing on such a large scale would be to kill them (since at the end, that is what any State Authority is based on – the ability to kill you if you don’t do as told).
    In addition, what do you think the environmental consequences would be if there were suddenly 4-5 billion people to be thrown in jail for ‘non-compliance’ or 4-5 billion bodies in need of disposal? This may strike you as absurd – I hope it does – since this is what you are proposing would lead to.

  3. note: one of the sites I linked to under the word ‘racists in disguise’ disagreed that focusing on ‘over-population’ in Africa was racist. Reading the blog further I see they are sexist too. I’ve removed the link and will replace it with another when I see one. The domain of the commenter was a rather crude word so it may be fake. However, any focus on ‘over population’ on an part of the world simply because it is poor is still racist at heart though most people would rather not admit to it and perhaps don’t even see that it is.

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