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Channelling the Malthusian Roots of Climate Extremism

In a prank orchestrated by a fringe group called Lyndon LaRouche PAC, a woman stood up at a town hall event hosted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on Thursday night, and declared that humankind needed to eat babies to prevent climate change.

Speaking with an accent reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, the woman said, “We’re not going to be here much longer, because of a climate crisis. We only have a few months left. I love that you support the Green [New] Deal, but it’s not going to get rid of fossil fuel. It’s not going to solve the problem fast enough.” She added that Americans should “start eating babies” and “bomb Russia” as preliminary steps to save the planet.

Ocasio-Cortez reacted passively, and later tweeted that the woman may suffer from a mental condition. But it was a prank, which might have been obvious to anyone familiar with Jonathan Swift’s famous 1729 satirical essay, A Modest Proposal—in which he argued that the problem of poverty in Ireland might be alleviated if the poor sold their children to the rich for food. “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled,” he wrote. “And I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

Progressives and environmentalists are dismissing the prank, noting that it appears to have been carried out by a pro-Trump political action committee dedicated to the rehabilitation of eight-time presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, who has promoted the view that 9/11 was an “inside job,” that global warming isn’t real, that black people didn’t really create Jazz music, that the Beatles were created by the “British Psychological Warfare Division,” and dozens of other conspiracy theories.

But whatever the discredited nature of the source, the substance of prank itself was a brilliant send-up of the apocalyptic and Malthusian character of today’s environmental extremism, and the hypocritical nature of those who advocate for it.

Environmentalists insist that developing nations adopt renewable energy sources, enhance energy efficiency, and adopt a low-energy lifestyle—even though no poor nation can develop without high levels of energy consumption. So while the Norwegian government produces natural gas in Mozambique and Tanzania, it is simultaneously participating in a European push to prevent those same countries from building their own natural gas power plants.

Climate extremists also have successfully pressured the World Bank and other financial institutions to reduce financing for poor countries seeking to expand their energy production. In 2014, for instance, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, sought to cut off U.S. development funding to poor nations seeking to build hydroelectric dams, on the basis that such dams have a “negative impact” on river ecosystems. “If Senator Leahy is so adamantly against hydropower,” wrote a development specialist, “let him show his commitment by first turning out the lights of Vermont.”

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that rests heavily on the idea that poor nations can grow rich while using radically less energy. “Pathways compatible with 1.5°C that feature low energy demand,” IPCC officials said, “show the most pronounced synergies and the lowest number of trade-offs.” The IPCC also repeated a debunked claim that poor nations can “leap-frog” rich nations with solar panels, batteries and energy efficiency, and promoted “bio-energy”—the use of wood, dung and ethanol—fuels that are not only uneconomical, but also happen to come with their own hugely negative environmental impacts. In truth, energy consumption is as tightly coupled to per capita GDP today as it was when today’s rich nations were themselves poor.

Perhaps the greatest hypocrisy is for people like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Swedish student climate activist Greta Thunberg to seek to shut down nuclear power plants while claiming the end is coming from climate change. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed the closure of Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York, which will be replaced with natural gas, while Thunberg attacked nuclear energy on Facebook as “dangerous.” And yet nuclear energy provides the majority of carbon-free electricity in the United States and over 40% of total electricity in Sweden.

The most doctrinaire and apocalyptic forms of modern “environmentalism” are simply a repackaging of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, the 19th-century British economist who thought that there were too many poor people out there—particularly poor Irish people—and that the ethical thing to do was let them die. “Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits,” he wrote, “and court the return of the plague.”

Unlike Swift, Malthus was no satirist. He was making a utilitarian argument: If we let the poor reproduce they would just end up creating more suffering in the future. (Indeed, the British government and media used Malthus’ ideas to justify the policies that led to mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1849.) The LaRouchian protestor who spoke at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s thursday event channeled Malthus’ horrifying logic faithfully. And in a more polite form, environmentalists channel it themselves when they urge that poor countries shoot themselves in the foot economically so that the world might be a greener place.

After World War II, prominent American progressives drew on Malthus’ ideas to oppose development aid and nuclear energy, and promote coerced sterilization. Cheap energy, prominent scientists feared, would lead to overpopulation, deplete scarce resources, and destroy the environment. Humankind “would not rest content until the earth is covered completely, and to a considerable depth, with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots,” the chemist Harrison Brown wrote in his 1954 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future.

Anti-humanist ideas came full bloom in Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1969 Sierra Club book, The Population Bomb, which depicted poor people in India as animals “screaming…begging…defecating and urinating.” Two decades later, the United Nations seemed to embrace elements of neo-Malthusianism in a report called Our Common Future. Rather than move to fossil fuels and nuclear, the UN experts opined, poor nations should instead use wood fuel more sustainably. And “wood-poor nations must organize their agricultural sectors to produce large amounts of wood and other plant fuels.” (Ironically, the lead author of Our Common Future was Gro Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, a nation which just a decade earlier had become fabulously wealthy thanks to its abundant oil and gas reserves.)

Malthusian hysteria has become embedded in all sorts of extremist sects. Indeed, two recent mass shooters—one in El Paso, Texas, and the other in Christchurch, NZ—echoed some version of the apocalyptic rhetoric of Malthusian environmentalists. Yet Malthusian environmentalists are preaching a debunked creed, for their prophet wrongly predicted that famines and resource scarcity would become common features of a densely populated world. Instead, technology has outpaced increases in population and consumption—so that today we face the prospect of reducing the total amount of natural resources (including land) required to sustain us.

The power of Swift’s original parody was that it motivated readers to consider the values of the person proposing such schemes. This week’s hoax may have a similar effect when it comes to the most extreme forms of environmentalist rhetoric. Indeed, the hoaxer wasn’t wrong when she said that a Swedish scientist really had floated the idea of eating the human dead as a means to help save the planet.

If we are to believe Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that humankind has only 12 years left to save civilization from climate change, then surely the truly more modest proposal of operating today’s nuclear plants while pursuing the French and Swedish model of building standardized nuclear power plants, would be warranted.

In seeking to calm the woman, Ocasio-Cortez said, “One of the things that is very important to us is that we need to treat the climate crisis with the urgency that it does present…Luckily, we have more than a few months.” For once, she sounded like a voice of reason. It would be nice if she—and her fellow environmentalists—made it a habit.

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.

Featured image: ‘La Grande Famine,’ an 1847 illustration published in the Illustrated London News.

Comments

  1. Great article. Demonstrates just how much of our climate debate is undergirded by failed ideologies, and flawed thinking. The only reasonable response to the very real, but over catastrophised, concerns over AGW, is climate capitalism. There also needs to be a serious rethink as to whether Government has the methodological structure to implement real top-down action on climate change, when it possesses none of the iterative problem-solving abilities of the market.

    A good example of this lies in the completely divergent levels of achievement on climate change by sector, within the UK. Generally, on power, the record is good, as the use of coal has declined precipitously over recent years, in favour of hydrogen rich gas fired power stations. Every indicator would tend to suggest that we are on course to hit the goal of eliminating coal by 2025. We are building nuclear power stations, but not enough of them. There are also ongoing projects to convert disused quarries into water storage facilities, in order to better capitalise on peaks and troughs of energy supply vs demand.

    But on transport, the situation is a complete mess- with Governments schizophrenic solution ranging from a public transport policy that can only be described as erratic, park and ride schemes that are too expensive (with too many workers), parking restrictions that make it difficult (but never impossible) to park near your work and some of the highest petrol prices in the world. Against this backdrop, despite all the innovations with EVs, fuel efficiencies with petrol cars and a systemic switch to smaller cars on the basis of economy, our emissions from transport have only dropped 3% from peak. And Government isn’t going to do anything useful about it soon, given the example just across the channel, with the yellow jackets.

    By now, every mobile phone should have a location registry feature built-in, that ride-sharing companies can data-mine, to match people who travel to and from similar locations, at similar times. Companies should stagger their workers hours, to avoid congestion, save travel times, offer employees more flexibility and give customers the option of contacting human service, outside 9 to 5 times. There should be convenient and secure cycle, moped and motorcycle banks dotted throughout city and town centres so that employees and shoppers face only a two minute walk to their destination, at the end of their journey.

    By now, Government should have stepped in to tell the Transport Workers Union that the workforce needs to be cut by 50% within ten years, and another 50% within ten years after that. Because the only way to make rail and bus economical over distances is to drastically reduce the employee levels per mile travelled. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will lose their jobs, but it does mean reallocating workers to expand infrastructure. For some, it might mean early redundancy, more work at existing pay levels, or unsociable hours.

    In agriculture, there are plenty of sensible solutions out there, that can be used to incentivise the public good of the nations wildlife, but the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has been a millstone to conservation efforts. With only an 11% set aside for fallow land, pollinators can be protected, preserving the borders of fields and footpaths is another good idea, provided Government is able to find money from elsewhere in their budget, to pay for it. I’m lucky enough to have a hedgehog as a frequent visitor to my back garden, but they, like the birds and the bees, are sadly on the decline.

    The biggest controversy that Western Governments face is that there really is no more money to be had from the system, without taxing the working and middle classes substantially. Now, it might be possible to tax more corporate allowances as benefits in kind, introduce a very small Tobin tax, or tighten loopholes on offshore Tax Avoidance, it might even be possible to make carbon pricing an even more efficient mechanism for allowing companies to make more money, by being more efficient, but their is a definite shortfall in the infrastructural money needed to shift wholesale energy production to the type of base load sources that are not intermittent- like nuclear and hydro.

    Only sovereign spending can address nuclear at scale, because private finance doesn’t like the risk profile of nuclear, without contractually guaranteed high energy pricing to offset the risks, up front. Only Government can wade through the host of local and environmental concerns, to build the type of large hydro projects we really need and veto the opposition, with the concerns of the greater good. And, of course, money needs to shift from the subsidy of existing systems like solar, towards innovation.

    One idea I had recently, was resurrecting the M & S brand reputation for durable, high quality clothing. In the past, they made a lot of money by using innovative testing on fabrics to ensure that M & S clothes lasted. It’s one the things David Attenborough called for, after all, in recent impassioned plea for greater action on climate change- the idea of buying fewer, better clothes. And it seems like the actual making of clothes, is something that British workers don’t want to do- with most British brand domestic manufacturers reliant on EU workers.

    So why not resurrect all those old machines for testing fabric durability, stitching, etc, and modernise them? Reduce the number of technicians that are required to operate them and then send them out to the developing world- where most low-cost manufacturing is located, along with a few trainers to set up the skilled processes needed to maintain high-quality standards. If M & S could resurrect their old standards under the ‘Green’ banner, I for one, would be happy to buy from them. The high quality stitching required on such garments, would probably guarantee the jobs of people in economically precarious situations, against the inevitable slump in demand this would generate. With minimal effort, it might actually be possible to build fair trade principles into the process, from the outset. You see- climate capitalism, rather than backdoor socialism…

  2. Hi Geary

    Good post, but there’s a few things that you mention that are already being done.

    That’s largely because redeveloping public transportation in an already developed and urbanised country is hugely complicated. Take HS2 as an example: the cost of the trains and the railways and the material is itself negligible in the total cost and time of the project. It’s the legal battles (essentially haggling about price) to buy up each parcel of land out of North London to Birmingham at a fair price that’s taking so long and is costing the government so much. When a little terraced house in London has a market value above a million pounds, it’s not hard to see why the project costs reach their current level and there’s large delays. In my opinion, it is better that we live in a society where private property rights are strongly defended, even if transport projects cost a lot, than a society that rides roughshod over property but gives you a couple extra train routes. Think of hitchikers guide to the galaxy as an example.

    I think you’re seeing the transport policy as erratic largely as a result of the fact that different places need different solutions. Transportation isn’t a philosophical issue that admits a nice simple logical solution. Instead its a connected set of practical problems, each with their own constraints. I think that’s why you’re seeing the government talk a lot about bus services in the north when you might prefer trains, as they are much more flexible and easier to deploy than trains. Ultimately the buses need to offer value for money, which is what I feel they are currently lacking.

    As for EVs - there’s a time lag issue. Just because a new technology has appeared, doesn’t mean every household can afford it just yet. This was Macron’s mistake in roughly saying “let them buy Teslas”. I think you will see more people buying EVs when they come down to 10-15k pounds. Right now a model 3 is 30k, so affluent upper middle class people can buy it, although it is no longer just for the super rich. But one problem with EV is that many people rely on off street parking, and so can’t put a charging station in front of their house. It’s then a competition to park them at the nearest public charging station, which disincentives buying one in the first place. All this to say, it’s gonna take quite some time for them to become the norm. Self charging hybrids offer a middle ground, but they are really only good if you are doing both motorway driving and town driving. If you only do town driving, you quickly deplete the battery, and then the added weight of the generator makes the car less efficient for stop start driving on the fuel engine. So it would have better to buy a smaller lighter petrol car dedicated to that purpose. If you only do motorway driving, you really never get much usage of the electric motor, which makes it redundant. Thats why self charging hybrids aren’t that attractive to most commuters.

    The case of France is very illuminating. The reason for the levels of violence of the yellow vests on this particular issue is largely the result of previous environmental policy. Throughout the mid 2000s until diesel gate in 2015, the French government was asking people to switch to diesel instead of petrol, on the basis it supposedly emits less C02. It was even offering subsidies to buying a new diesel car. Now, given most people don’t buy their cars new, it’s not hard to see how this is basically a way of getting everyone to subsidize the upper middle classes new car, and at the same time subsidise the French and German car industry (which were the biggest proponents of diesel). Given that diesel cars are more expensive over their lifetime than petrol, it was a bitter pill to take but largely the car fleet in the country did become diesel heavy.

    Meanwhile, France spends a huge amount of money on public transport…for people in Paris. The whole system is set up so that rural communities and small towns (which are generally poorer) basically pay twice for their transportation, once in taxes and again for their cars, while relatively rich Parisians get theirs for free. Then, dieselgate happened, basically showing that the French environmental policy was completely misguided. In 2018, they wanted to increase taxes on diesel, which would have the biggest impact on the smaller towns (supposedly to spend on things beneficial to rich people?). And then Macron imagines people can just drop down 30k to buy an EV overnight to avoid the tax. It shows just how disconnected they are from the financial realities of the people.

    Meanwhile, Paris has consistently rejected the idea of instead putting an emissions charge zone for Paris, as has been done in London, on the pretext that … it’s unfair on the poor. It seems to me a bit rich (pun intended) to think of the poor only when it aligns with the interests of the rich.

    Quite honestly, I have a lot of sympathies for the yellow vests (although I don’t like their tactics and levels of violence). The problem is too often that transportation policy can be deeply unfair based on wealth and geography. It’s very often a tax on poor rural towns to fund the richer big cities. In the UK, everyone pays a bigger share of the cost of their own transportation, which is a lot, but at least I’m glad it’s fundamentally more just.

    That’s exactly the trap that describes France. I think that the high taxation, high public spending has made transportation in France worse, and has poisoned the relationship between towns and cities. For the UK, I think the better way forward is to allow local councils to set their own transportation policies, so that local taxation is spent on local services… which is exactly what Boris Johnson was talking about in his Manchester speech earlier this year. Quite frankly, the current government has the best transportation policy I’ve heard in my lifetime, it’s a shame that parliament is the obstacle to doing anything.

  3. Very well argued response. Highly informative. On the park and ride issue, I think the price setting was based on the erroneous idea that making park and ride fees too cheap, would disincentivise public transport, further afield. What did you think about my M & S idea? Got the idea from a recent documentary on the subject- I still buy the melting middle chocolate puddings that were featured in the programme.:slight_smile:

  4. If we are going to begin eating children, Thunberg would be a good start.

  5. “Instead, technology has outpaced increases in population and consumption”

    It does not follow that failed predictions in the past insure that similar predictions will never be right. Some of these predictions are better thought of as warnings, and sometimes the warnings have been heeded, thus the ‘prediction’ failed precicely by succeeding in changing behavior (CFC’s).

    Looking at the world as a whole, there is no doubt that, so far, Malthus has been wrong overall – there has been much starvation but not global famine – but can that never change? Pinker gives us much good news indeed, but there is also bad news and I won’t bother with a list. And one does have to wonder if infinite growth is possible. The monkeys are clever and they are lucky too, but will that luck never run out? A genuinely ballanced discussion would be good.

  6. I believe it has been shown that the richer people get the less environmental damage is done. And while the ideas put forth in the comments sound reasonable and practical the idea that the masterminds of our various political classes can nudge us to our better selves is frightening. As the author shows the new Malthusian (as the song says) are the same as the old ones.

  7. Absolutely. She’s all gristle- too tough

  8. “Could he have known that later generations would be able to fix simple air nitrogen into fertilizer and, thereby, increasing yield levels 10 fold or over? Of course not! “

    “…( at the cost of the landscape, soils, nature ,insects and birds, and what else??)”

    Herein lies the problem with Malthus and his progeny. All their assumptions of doom are based upon stagnant technology and hence destined to fail. Of course one day they will be correct but it may take 4 billion years.

  9. I agree with @Farris. Malthus absolutely should have predicted that there would be advances in technology that would solve the problems he foresaw, and those who assume our current technical challenges are insurmountable should not be counted on for accurate predictions. But we also shouldn’t take perpetual growth for granted, as @RayAndrews cautions. Our system is far more delicate than we might imagine, given how stable society has been the last few decades. A large-scale war that disrupts trade, particularly in primary resources, would be a rude awakening, but assuming the West wins we could end up better off by the end of it (with a more developed domestic resource industry and a free China, for instance).

    The bigger long-term risk is if the US goes socialist. As long as we have economic growth, we have technological progress, and we can rise to the challenge posed by climate change and life in general, but if the world leader in innovation sabotages its economy, our chances of innovating our way out of our problems drops like a stone.

    Barring this doomsday scenario, I see no reason why technological progress will not facilitate easy adaptation to the slow-moving (on human timescales) changes in climate. And we’ll ultimately be better off, hopefully averting another glacial period, opening up significantly more resource-rich habitable space than we’ll lose, and making the planet overall a much more pleasant place to live.

    Ironically, eco-Malthusian predictions are only a likely outcome if we implement eco-Malthusian solutions.

  10. There are currently two types of Malthusians or Doomsdayers.

    The first type, often called a survivalist, hoards can goods and other non perishable foods, has a water purification plan stockpiles firearms and ammunition and frequently has a bunker or safe space. He has the courage of his convictions. He is proactive. He believes the end is coming and is preparing for it. He is usually considered and eccentric.

    The second type likewise preaches that the end is at hand and he too has a plan. His plan is for others to: conform to his beliefs, enact legislation he deems necessary, spend money and resources according to his dictates and follow his prescriptions to the letter. In exchange for this compliance he promises to prevent or forestall the impending doom. He is usually considered a sage.

    Could it possibly be that we have those to labels confused?j

  11. What has been missing from our collectivist dominated education system are parables like “The boy who cried wolf”. We are evolutionary developed to take heed of warnings when danger threatens. So those that warn us of danger are giving a boost in terms of status in a community. The parable tells us what happens if we do not examine the truth of what the doomsayers says and compare it to the reality of what actually happens. None of the predictions of the catastrophists have come true. Paul Ehrlich and his ilk have a predictive success rate of precisely zero The common thread of all catastrophists is the control that they demand is necessary to “save” us. The agenda is control and the useful idiots like AOC are trying to climb the hierarchies that they say they hate so that they can get power over others because that is the end goal.

    It is all about power. None of it is about the environment.

  12. It does not follow that failed predictions in the past insure that similar predictions will never be right.

    True enough. However, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on the Malthusians. Those who say that technology will solve our problems cannot prove it, but at least they have history on their side. The Malthusians have been utterly, embarrassingly wrong. Yes there has been much global misery, but the trend lines are inarguably going in the right direction.

  13. I’ve been thinking a bit about the extinction rebellion crowd and how to reconcile them with the fact that actually, in western Europe, there have already been major gains on carbon emissions. In the UK we have gone from a total of 800k tons of co2 emitted in 1990 to 470k in 2017, according to the OECD data (freely available on the web, and I highly recommend you spend some time there). Similar results are seen in most European countries.

    Since most of our countries are already pursuing some form of climate policy which is already giving good results, why is there this sudden outbursts of climate extremists?

    Perhaps part of the answer, beyond what is mentioned in this article, is that these are the kind of people who have a need to feel rightfulness and a sense of superiority over others. What they want the most is to be recognised as such by others. Therefore, what threatens them the most is that the policies currently adopted are already working quite well, which means they wont get any credit for it. Ultimately, it seems that they are trying to center the issue around themselves in order to pose as those who found solutions, instead of the huge numbers of scientists and engineers, businessmen and the rest of us who actually make the real progress in society. They want to be the ones who said “we are your saviours, we told you so, yadda yadda” despite the fact that we are all 10-15 years into effective environmental policies.

    In fact, in the rare instances that these types of people get power, they make terrible decisions. As when the greens in Germany got all nuclear reactors to shut down in 2011 in the wake of Fukushima, at which point Germany went back to burning coal for power. But, hey, at least they averted the potential disaster for a tsunami hitting a power plant in Baden Wurttemberg. Righto.

  14. “I’d say that ten examples of overly pessimistic predictions would be worth it if the eleventh pessimistic prediction was entirely justified and if action was taken in time to forestall it. “

    Respectfully disagree Ray. If a doctor warned someone he was risking heart disease and a soothsayer warned that same person he is in danger of developing cancer. How should that person commit his resources to forestall doom? Should he commit them equally and potentially risk wasting resources or should he commit resources based upon which scenario satisfies the burden of proof?

    One must be careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Would it be a violation of climate changes ethics for a coal fired power plant to provide electricity to the research project that ultimately devises a clean, safe, plentiful alternative to fossil fuels?

  15. Heh! I can’t prove you’re wrong. I just think the bulk of the evidence (i.e. history) suggests severe pessimism is not warranted. Of course specific civilizations rise and fall, and there are myriad reasons for that, including black swan events which, by definition, cannot be predicted in a meaningful way. But the Malthusians, and I lump the global warmists with them, are talking about the end of global human civilization. That, I think, is highly unlikely to happen in the way that the pessimists are telling us. Global warming? Not a chance. We can adapt. Mass starvation? No way. You know what could do it? An asteroid strike. An humongous solar storm that wiped out all our electronics could put a pretty big dent in civilization. A global pandemic could potentially be pretty ugly. All of these things are being studied and addressed (perhaps not as intensely as I’d like). But they don’t fit the “mankind is the guilty party” narrative and so you don’t see activists staging mass protests promoting hardening of our electrical infrastructure or an asteroid defense system. You do not use the words, but the “precautionary principle” seems to be implied by your argument. I do not subscribe to it because, despite the superficial common sense appeal, it is really a Luddite’s appeal for paralysis. Roll back technology, it’s too dangerous! No thanks. Whatever risks modern technology has created, they pale in comparison to life without them. A hundred years ago, a smart phone would be seen as miraculous. Two hundred years ago, it would (literally) be considered magic. Nobody can possibly predict what technology will bring 100 years from now, but it’s reasonable to expect that it would seem as mind-blowing to us as a smart phone would have seemed to our great grandparents. Yet we are supposed to pretend that none of our current problems will have been solved and we’re all doomed. I don’t buy it. That said, I do hope we harden our electrical systems, develop a planetary defense, and invent better anti-virals! But preparing for potential catastrophes is not the same as ditching progress because we are afraid of the hiccups that come along with it.

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