I am the first of 11 children. When my mother took us out on the town with her, she sometimes got dirty looks or lectures from alarmed citizens who were shocked at such irresponsible behaviour. That was back in the 70s and 80s when people were still bracing for the imminent apocalyptic scenarios spelled out in Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb. My mother had no reason to doubt Ehrlich’s thesis that human populations would dramatically outpace the world’s resources leading to mass starvation. But she felt a strong spiritual call as a mother in Zion and trusted that God would honour His promise that “the earth is full and there is enough and to spare.” Ironically, alarmists today say precisely the opposite: that declining birthrates in the developed world are leading us to economic disaster.
When Ehrlich predicted imminent mass starvation, he was simply noting that the world’s resources were already stretched to capacity and couldn’t possibly sustain the billions of additional children coming into the world. But as it turned out, world population doubled, caloric consumption increased by 24% per person, and yet global death rates dramatically declined. When mass starvations did occur, their root causes were political instability, not global food shortage.
The Myth of Unsustainability
When people argue for “sustainability” they frequently fall into the Population Bomb trap. They make judgements about tomorrow based on the limitations of today. They don’t take into account the scientific innovations, economic transformations, and political changes that will likely take place. And by trying to restrict future consumption to match what is sustainable by today’s standards, they stifle the economic growth that fuels innovation and transformation, making their own apocalyptic scenarios all the more likely.
Some things in life are unsustainable. Elephant ivory is unsustainable. Overfishing in the ocean is unsustainable. We need regulations in place to protect these sorts of resources. But when we get to global warming, the conversation becomes much more complicated and our arguments increasingly hysterical and irrational. On the one hand, 50% of Americans don’t even believe in human-caused global warming. And on the other hand, we have frantic environmentalists who advocate unrealistic and counter-productive measures. Here are a few of the glaring blind spots in the debate on global warming.
Global Warming Blind Spots
1. Global warming is already here and it is here to stay. This doesn’t seem to be part of the conversation and yet it is the most urgent fact of the matter. Instead we argue endlessly about tiny reductions in CO2 emissions, as if any of that could make any difference or somehow turn back the clock. If we wanted to stop or slow down global warming, we should have started thinking about it 150 years ago, before we had created our massive fossil fuel dependent economy. It is too late for that conversation.
2. A reduction in worldwide CO2 emissions can’t come from government regulation. Government regulations won’t work because there is no central authority to enforce those regulations worldwide. And there is no moral authority either, because the US and other developed nations can’t ask developing nations to try and grow their economies while hobbling themselves with regulations that we never followed when we were growing our economies decades ago. Yet almost our entire conversation centres around trying to come up with the political will to enact regulations in one particular country or group of countries, regulations which can do nothing realistically to combat a problem as big as global warming. Subconsciously we all sense that it is a lost cause, which is why progress is never made.
3. A reduction in worldwide CO2 emissions can’t come from self-regulation either. Any economist will tell you that guilt is a poor economic incentive. If it makes you feel better to buy a fuel efficient car rather than an SUV, rest assured that a mother in Utah will more than counteract your environmental sensitivity by choosing to have yet another resource-gobbling baby. And she will be applauded for helping to prop-up a low-birthrate economy.
4. Solutions will come through innovation, not regulation. The solutions are already within reach: solar, nuclear, and wind. These resources are infinite, and once we learn how to harvest them cheaply, the world will experience a wave of technological innovation unlike anything we have ever seen. Imagine what could be done with cold fusion. We could be like gods with such power. We could create machines so big that they could suck all the CO2 right out of the atmosphere, pack it into little rockets and shoot it out into deep space. There is nothing in the laws of science that forbids us from doing such things. Currently we lack the knowledge, but we are constantly expanding our knowledge.
5. Regulation is only good in the service of innovation, not sustainability. Regulations can create financial incentives to innovate in cleaner directions. Cap and trade can be strategically utilised to encourage the development of green technology. But if regulations are aimed at sustainability rather than innovation, they will do little to reduce CO2, and little to encourage progress. We saw something similar happen in Europe during the Great Recession when depressed economies tried to balance their budgets. A depression is the wrong time for austerity. Likewise, a world grappling with the terrors of global warming needs to continue its economic activity full throttle in order to find innovative solutions which will actually work.
David Deutch and the Spaceship Earth Delusion
Some of the above ideas come from my reading of physicist David Deutsch’s book, The Beginning of Infinity. Here is a entertaining TED talk of Deutsch discussing the environmentalist philosophy of Spaceship Earth: the notion that the earth is fragile spaceship with limited resources which must be sustained at all costs. Deutsch notes that earth is not a habitable spaceship, but rather a frequently inhospitable place of death and starvation, which we must protect ourselves from through innovation. Humankind thrives not by sustaining the resources on Spaceship Earth, but by innovating our way to further progress. He asks, how might global warming actually help us continue to progress as a species? What could be the unexpected benefits of a warmer planet? These are questions I think we should also be asking ourselves. It’s well worth a view.
- Does the Global Warming debate fall into the “Population Bomb” trap by overemphasising sustainability at the expense of innovation?
- Do you agree that regulations are ineffective in reducing CO2 emissions to any effective degree?
- Do you agree that the US and Europe lacks the moral authority to ask developing nations like China to follow regulations, since we didn’t follow those regulations ourselves as we were developing?
- Should regulations such as cap and trade be used to encourage green innovation?