All posts filed under: Environment

Plastic Pollution is a Real Problem—and It Won’t Be Solved by Straw Bans

The presence of plastic in our oceans has been a growing problem for decades. But only in recent years has it found its way into the public consciousness. In one well-publicized case last year, scientists in Spain discovered the washed-up body of a sperm whale that contained 29 kilos of plastic—a grim intestinal haul that included dozens of plastic bags and a fuel container. On Midway Atoll, a dead albatross chick was found with a stomach full of brightly covered plastic junk, which the bird’s parents had collected and fed to her, imagining it to be food. In a recent study of 102 sea turtles, spanning seven species, every sampled specimen was found to have swallowed plastic material of some kind. Plastics represent only one component of pollution, of course. But the durability of discarded plastic products presents a special challenge. This quality, which makes plastics so useful to consumers, has turned them into a unique menace to the entire natural environment. As the examples above illustrate, plastic often is mistaken for food by fish, …

The Right Needs To Grow Up On Environmentalism

Mentioning the environment to a conservative is liable to elicit a similar response that mentioning political correctness would from a left-winger: a slight raising of the eyebrows, a slight exhalation of breath and, perhaps, a folding of the arms or tapping of the feet. It smells—it positively stinks—of out-group affiliation. The environment? That’s what those dreadful latté sipping, lentil eating, flip-flop wearing leftists talk about. Are you sure you’re in the right place? It did not have to be this way. Up until the later decades of the twentieth century, attitudes towards the environment did not fall along tribal lines. Conservationists, like President Theodore Roosevelt, were often conservatives. As environmental causes, like the campaigns against DDT and air pollution, gathered storm in the 1970s, however, conservative were dismayed by the apparent tendencies towards big government and internationalism in addressing them. A 1970 letter to William F. Buckley from his National Review colleague James Burnham, unearthed by the assiduous researcher Joshua Tait, also expresses deep concerns regarding threats to free enterprise and a “snobbish elitism…with the …

Population and Policy—A Rejoinder to Szurmak and Desrochers

I cannot imagine an event that could cause a ship to founder. Modern ship building has gone beyond that. ~E.J. Smith, captain of Titanic In a recent essay in Quillette, I criticized the one-sided view of global development in the Roslings´ Factfulness. In their response, Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers (hereafter S&D) whose new book Population Bombed! is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the UK’s most high-profile climate denier group, disparage my critique by branding me an “eco-pessimist,” and present themselves as clear-eyed optimists. This dichotomy is a poor guide to analysis. Captain Smith of Titanic was obviously also an “optimist.” Were his critics mere “pessimists”? Three aspects of the S&D-paper require particular scrutiny: 1. The Contradictory View of Technological Development S&D argue that market economies will fix all negative side-effects of technological development spontaneously because of the commercial value of the effluents. This claim ignores all the research and policy-making related to external economics, where the cost of emitting hazardous substances is negligible for the producer but dire for society.1 If the LA or …

The One-sided Worldview of Eco-Pessimists

This essay draws in part on the authors’ new book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change (Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018). The Pull of Environmental Narratives In his critique of Hans Rosling’s optimistic take on the human condition (which Rosling co-authored with son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund),1 Christian Berggren scolds the late professor of international health for ignoring negative trends and for dodging the “preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime” as well as the risks inherent to “continued global population growth.” As Berggren further argues in the longer paper on which his Quillette essay is based, the Roslings illustrate the philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s apocryphal statement that “You do not see with your eyes; you see with your interests.” In this, he claims, the authors of Factfulness failed to present “the world and how it really is.” Are Berggren’s critique and worldview any more accurate? His facts and positions are squarely in the lineage of thinkers such as Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), William Vogt (1902–1968) and Paul …

Do Parents Make a Difference? A Public Debate in London

On Monday in London’s Emmanuel Centre a debate took place that pitted two Quillette contributors—Robert Plomin and Stuart Ritchie—against two “experts” on child psychology—Susan Pawlby and Ann Pleshette Murphy. The motion was “Parenting doesn’t matter (or not as much as you think)” and we knew from the outset where people stood thanks to the format adopted by Intelligence Squared, the company that organized the debate. The ushers asked people to vote for or against the motion on their way in and then again at the end, the idea being that the “winners” would be the side that persuaded the most people to change their minds rather than the side that got the most votes. Which was just as well for Plomin and Ritchie since only 17 percent agreed with them at the beginning of the evening, with 66 percent against and 17 percent saying “Don’t Know.” Would they be able to level that up a bit over the course of the next 90 minutes? Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, went …

Forget Nature Versus Nurture. Nature Has Won

A review of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are by Robert Plomin. MIT  Press (November 2018) 280 pages. In Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are Robert Plomin makes the case that genetic differences cause most variation in psychological traits – things like personality and cognitive abilities. The way your parents raise you, the schools you attend – they don’t have much effect on those traits. Children are similar to their parents, but that similarity is due to shared genetics, rather than shared family environment. Obviously the thoughts in your head, the facts you know, are not the same as your great-great-grand-father’s – we learn those things. But how easily you learn those facts, how well you remember them, how optimistic or pessimistic you are – those are largely set by your genes. Almost every psychological trait has significant heritability, even political leanings. To a significant degree, you’re either born a little Liberal or else a little Conservative, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan. And to the extent that your personality is not set by your …

Danger’s Deliverance

We encounter dangerous things and seek to get rid of them, often for good reason. But what about when doing so makes the world more dangerous? Consider, for example: Parents who refuse to vaccinate create disease epidemics that harm children, including their own; School programs that teach children to “just say no” to alcohol and drugs backfire by undermining the distinction between use and abuse; Universities that encourage “trigger warnings” to protect supposedly fragile students may make them more fragile and vulnerable to anxiety and depression; Nations fearing the dangers of nuclear power turn to energy sources that result in premature deaths from air pollution; Efforts to prevent nations like North Korea and Iran from getting nuclear weapons have given those nations greater motivation to acquire one. While these behaviors are very different from one another, they stem from a view of danger as something to be eliminated rather than utilized. This is a problem because what makes things dangerous can also give them their power to save lives. Why do we struggle to see the positive …

The Limits of Expertise

“People are sick of experts.” These infamous and much-derided words uttered by UK Conservative parliamentarian Michael Gove express a sentiment with which we are now probably all familiar. It has come to represent a sign of the times—either an indictment or a celebration (depending on one’s political point of view) of our current age. Certainly, the disdain for expertise and its promised consequences have been highly alarming for many people. They are woven through various controversial and destabilising phenomena from Trump, to Brexit, to fake news, to the generally ‘anti-elitist’ tone that characterises populist politics and much contemporary discourse. And this attitude stands in stark contrast to the unspoken but assumed Obama-era doctrine of “let the experts figure it out”; an idea that had a palpable End of History feeling about it, and that makes this abrupt reversion to ignorance all the more startling. The majority of educated people are fairly unequivocal in their belief that this rebound is a bad thing, and as such many influential voices—Quillette‘s included—have been doing their best to restore …

The Case for Sustainable Meat

I. Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics Meat, we are told, is bad for the planet. It causes global warming, destroys forests, diverts substantial proportions of the world’s grain for feed, all to produce meat which only wealthy Westerners can afford. The iniquity of the situation led George Monbiot to declare in 2002 that “Veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue.” Monbiot later recanted but, since then, we are told with increasing regularity that to save the planet we must radically reduce our consumption of meat. In the face of what seems to be universal agreement on the sins of meat eating, is there really a green argument for meat? I think there is, and I think we should be talking about it. Not only is the public discourse heavily one-sided, but the anti-meat message risks destroying the very environment is claims to be protecting. Let’s start with one of the most repeated statistics used to argue for reduced meat consumption: the claim that 100,000 litres of water …

The Ethical Case for Conservation

The conservation of nature is an ethical imperative. Every sentient being’s welfare – human or non-human – should be taken into account in our moral considerations. As a young conservationist enthralled by the natural world throughout my life, it is thrilling to see these ideas becoming commonplace. It is now easy to hear them voiced in one form or another in almost every discussion regarding the use of natural resources, deforestation, meat consumption, trophy hunting, or any other topic that touches animal welfare or environmental issues. In spite of the immense challenges conservation still faces, this development is evidence of a positive cultural revolution, and heralds the moral advancement of our global society. However, part of the reason these ideas spread so quickly is that they proliferate like memes. That means that while they run fast, they often run shallow. When asked if a given forest should become a reserve, or if we ought to gather resources to aid an endangered species, many people fall back on assertions about the intrinsic value of the entity …