Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Monbiot's Big Problem

Environmentalists face an impossible problem, according to The Guardian's George Monbiot. On the one hand they are pointing to catastrophe, the end of non-renewable resources, so we should cut back. Yet new resources keep appearing. So, maybe we have reached "Peak Oil." Meanwhile there is "tar sands, shale gas and coal." The predictions of catastrophe keep getting put off.

On the other hand, environmentalists are trying to get us to cut back, and people just don't do that.

In east Africa, for example, I've seen how, when supplies of paraffin or kerosene are disrupted, people don't give up cooking; they cut down more trees. History shows us that wherever large-scale collapse has occurred, psychopaths take over. This is hardly conducive to the rational use of natural assets...

All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project. I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognise the contradictions we confront. But even that could be a tall order.

Of course, for a skeptic like me, it is the environmentalists that are doing the magical thinking.

First of all, the very word "non-renewable" is dicey. In the strict sense, everything is non-renewable. Wood is very non-renewable because on current energy consumption levels, we would cut down every tree on the planet in a couple of years to burn wood for energy. Oil is non-renewable because, obviously, there is a fixed amount in the planet. Nuclear fission is non-renewable because there is a fixed amount of fissionable material on the planet. For that matter, wind and hydro are non-renewable, but only on a time scale of billions of years.

In other words, "non-renewable" just means that we'll have to come up with a better idea some time in the near future. But that is the story of human life. When things can't go on forever, they stop, and humans think up another way to live. When environmentalists point to catastrophe, they are merely telling us that, sooner or later, we are going to have to adapt to new circumstances. Of course we will! That's what humans do.

Also, we humans have really been doing something about "trashing an ever greater proportion of the world's surface." An example I like to rehearse was told to me by a German in 1989. Germany had a real problem over pollution along the Rhine, he said. Every time there's an industrial spill we get a fish kill and a huge media feeding frenzy. What people didn't realize is that 30 years before there were no fish kills because there were no fish in the Rhine!

We should be careful of all catastrophism. Repent, for the end of the world is nigh, is a religious approach. It is very easy to smuggle it into science and then use science to legislate our moral agenda. The problem with all prophesies of the End of the World is that we might be wrong. When environmentalists predict catastrophe and it doesn't come, they begin to look less and less like rational advocates and more and more like religious cultists.

But the human, social, way to deal with problems is to adapt. We usually can't predict what will go wrong, but we humans are certainly good a responding to a crisis and all pulling together in the aftermath of disaster.

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