All posts filed under: Environment

Moving Away from Meat Means Welcoming the New ‘Flexitarians’

Author and animal-rights activist Jonathan Safran Foer recently argued in a New York Times essay that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a turning point in society’s attitude to eating meat. “Animal agriculture is now recognized as a leading cause of global warming,” writes Foer. “A quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based ‘meats’ have skyrocketed… Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door.” I agree the pandemic presents the best opportunity in a generation for animal-rights advocates to win over skeptics. But if and when vegetarian and vegan diets become truly mainstream, it will not be for the reasons Foer emphasizes. Foer provides three main rationales for rejecting meat: (1) “We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly,” (2) we can live “longer, healthier lives” without animal protein, and (3) many forms of animal farming are both cruel and unhygienic. These are valid arguments that …

Capitalism or the Climate?

Can environmentalism and capitalism sustainably coexist? An influential movement of climate activists view capitalism and environmentalism as antithetical. According to the title of an article in the Guardian, “Ending Climate Change Requires the End of Capitalism.” An article in Foreign Policy, meanwhile, is subtitled, “New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both.” And in her bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know.” These are just a few of countless prominent examples. This view dwells not just in newsrooms, but in the halls of government as well. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the 2019 Green New Deal resolution and surrogate to Bernie Sanders in the 2020 democratic primary, told a 2019 SXSW audience, “Capitalism, to me, is an ideology of capital. The most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the …

How To Think About Our Problems

As I travel around the United States, giving presentations on human progress, I am encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the audiences receive my message of the improving state of the world. Still, someone in the audience invariably asks, “What worries you?” That’s understandable. Our species has evolved to see the glass of human existence as half empty. To plan for problems ahead, such as droughts, was a better survival strategy than expecting an eternity of bountiful harvests. Here I attempt to outline different types of problems that we will face in the future and evaluate the degree of “alarm” with which those problems should be treated. First, consider known problems with known solutions. Global warming, for example, appears to be a problem that’s partly caused by excessive emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. A third of all U.S. CO2 emissions come from energy generation. But, much of that energy could be produced in a more environmentally friendly way with zero CO2-emitting nuclear power. Unfortunately, irrational fear of nuclear fission and excessive regulatory …

The Growth Dilemma

More is more and more is also different ~Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, 2005 For much of the last 70 years, economic growth has lifted the quality of life in Europe, North America, and East Asia, providing social stability after the violent disruptions of World War II. Today, however, many of the world’s most influential leaders, even in the United States, reject the very notion that societies should improve material wealth and boost incomes given what they believe are more important environmental or social equity concerns. This sharp break from the past is occurring as growth in Europe, Japan, and the United States has fallen to half or less of what it was just a generation ago, and while fertility rates are at levels not seen since the medieval era. This promises to create a tsunami of retired people whose retirements can only be addressed by economic growth. The combination of reduced real income, green-driven rises in energy and housing costs, and growing concern about pensions has sparked a new wave of …

False Humility Will Not Save the Planet

At the root of our climate problem, writes Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical Laudato Si, lies our human pride and arrogance: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.” Coming from a Catholic Pope, such sentiments are hardly surprising. For centuries, Christians thinkers have railed against pride as the first and worst among the seven deadly sins. But Francis is far from alone in his view. Many climate activists today, even though they don’t necessarily believe in a personal deity, share Francis’ diagnosis of our environmental worries. They too believe that our climate crisis is the result of human overreach and arrogance, of overstepping natural boundaries. Indeed, this secular environmentalist worldview comes with its own account of the fall of man from an original state of harmony with Nature. Once upon a time, humans lived as an animal alongside other animals, keenly aware of our proper place within a larger ecosystem. We enjoyed nature’s bountiful resources, but we were respectful …

Climate Change—Assessing the Worst Case Scenario

Does a thinking person today have a chance of figuring out what to think about climate change? On the one hand, we are told there is a scientific consensus that humans are changing the climate. On the other hand, the most pessimistic future scenarios strain our credulity. The most extreme example may be the retired professor who believes that we will all be dead by 2026. The activist group Extinction Rebellion is telling us that climate change represents “an unprecedented global emergency” and is calling for radical measures to deal with it. Such claims seem to be gaining ground and appearing with increasing frequency in the media. And according to a recent poll, nearly half of Americans believe climate change will result in the end of the world within the next 200 years. Even among the more optimistic, many find it prudent to consider the worst case, but have very little information to help them decide where to draw the line between farsightedness and fantasy. And I understand those who assume that even though some …

Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing

Terrible is the temptation to be good. ~Bertolt Brecht We often forget that contemporary Europe was not born, as the United States was, in the euphoria of new beginnings, but in a sinking sense of its own abjection. The crimes of the Nazis affected the entire Old World, like a cancer that had long been growing inside it. Thus, the European victors over the Third Reich were contaminated by the enemy they had helped defeat, in contrast to the Americans and Soviets, who emerged from the conflict crowned in glory. Ever since, all of Europe—the East as well as the West—has carried the burden of Nazi guilt, as others would have us bear the guilt of North American slavery and Jim Crow. It has left us sullied to the very depths of our culture. Isn’t this what the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire contends when he de-Germanizes Hitler and makes him the very metaphor of the white man in general? In 1955, in his Discours sur le Colonialisme, Césaire points to: [The] very distinguished, very humanist, …

War at the Tip of a Rhino Horn

Giraffe and zebra scatter as the shadow of our helicopter passes over Kruger Park. Treetops whip and hornbills fly away. We are low now, and begin to circle as nearby elephants trumpet in defiance. A Ranger called Neels pulls the starboard helo door open and leans out with his gun. Our headsets are full of chatter, and everyone’s in a hurry. It’s been a full hour since a local Ranger reported hearing the shot—a .458, popular among rhino poachers. By now, it’s likely the poachers already have cut the rhino’s face and taken the horn. And then we see it, between the Ironwood and Marula trees: a mother and calf. The mother is dead, but her horn is intact, the poachers having been scared off before we’d approached. The surviving calf, a young male, nuzzles his dead mother for protection from the helicopter. Rhino calves are known to stay by their mother even as hyenas eat her body from the inside out. This was at least the fourth such call received today by Rangers at …

The Bigotry of Environmental Pessimism

Democratic Presidential candidates and the New York Times rightly condemned the use of inflammatory words like “invasion” by President Donald Trump and Fox News hosts to describe the desperate people coming from Latin America to seek a better life in the U.S. Such language is irresponsible and may very well have contributed to the motivation of a man suspected to have killed 13 Americans, eight Mexicans, and one German in El Paso last week. In a manifesto he posted online before the attack, the suspect also used the word “invasion.” While they are at it, they should condemn the inflammatory rhetoric used by environmentalists, which also may have contributed to the motivations of the El Paso shooting suspect. The suspect justified his mass shooting of people in a Walmart by arguing that “our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country.” The suspect writes, “y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of …

Empiricism and Dogma: Why Left and Right Can’t Agree on Climate Change

As a climate scientist, I often hear puzzled complaints about the political polarization of the public discussion about anthropogenic global warming. If it is an empirical and scientific matter, such people ask, then why is opinion so firmly divided along political lines? Since it tends to be the political Right that opposes policies designed to address and mitigate global warming, responsibility for this partisanship is often placed solely on the ideological stubbornness of conservatives. This is a theme common to research on political attitudes to scientific questions. Division is often studied from the perspective of researchers on the Left who, rather self-servingly, frame the research question as something like: “Our side is logical and correct, so what exactly makes the people who disagree with us so biased and ideologically motivated?” I would put books like Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality in this category. Works like The Republican Brain correctly point out that those most dismissive of global warming tend to be on the Right, but they incorrectly assume that …