Words like “catastrophic,” and “irreversible” dominate the discourse about humanity’s impact on global ecosystems. We should ask why.
As the recent climate strikes indicate, a very great many people are convinced (“convicted” in evangelical terms) of the millenarian notion that anthropogenic emissions represent what Greta Thunberg calls the “… biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” Bigger, ostensibly, than bubonic plague, smallpox, or viral influenza; worse than global fratricidal warfare; more dangerous than murderous autocracies bent on “solutions,” final or otherwise.
It’s possible, in some absolute sense of course, that the worst-case predictions (1.5-3°C temperature increase over a century) will outstrip the relatively modest 0.13°C/decade observed warming since 1979. And it’s possible, in the same breath, to believe that this scenario will lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, or even perhaps the “end of human civilization” in our lifetimes. It’s just not very likely. Like the “Population Bomb” frenzy of the 1970s which predicted the imminent starvation of hundreds of millions of people by 1980, you have to be a particular brand of ingenue to take the apocalyptic prophesies to heart. That particular brand, unfortunately, is in very high supply—millenarian youngsters outnumber their more sober peers, by my conservative estimate, about 50:1. For decades now, the media and their chosen experts have told us time is running out, but our expiration date always seems to be deferred.
Climate alarmism is disproportionately a “youth movement,” and at least one reason is because it is so widely and uncritically accepted on modern campuses. As a graduate teaching assistant in an Environmental Ethics class at a flagship state university, I can attest that general notions about the environment are orthodox to a fault. Critical assessments of the available data or of varying viewpoints is not, shall we say, the strong suit of your average undergraduate. Rather, what reigns supreme on campus is a reflexive parody of institutionalized religious furor: the revealed and unassailable “truth” is that global environmental health teeters dangerously on the brink, and that nothing short of immediate global sacrifice managed by an anointed scientific clerisy can prevent the impending cataclysm.
This prevailing narrative drives the tenor of a conviction that for example allows professors to exhort their students to attend the climate strikes sponsored by March On and a constellation of left-leaning causes célèbres. Cynical I may be, but when you read editorials on the subject or listen to authorities speak on the matter, the implication is pretty clear: They all endorse the idea that climate activism is the proper, moral, and sophisticated position. Does anyone imagine that a student with a countervailing view will be emboldened in a setting dominated by activists? Can we imagine the accusations of propaganda if a professor were to exhort in the opposite direction? Here and there, one can find some token attempts to grapple with the complexities of climate, and there are a few lonely critical minds willing to question this dogma in the university, but given the overall direction of the academy, dissenters will take note.
I have just graded forty-seven abstracts on environmental catastrophism and can assure you environmentalism remains far from a balanced field. The assignment was this:
…select a contemporary environmental problem facing the world, preferably one that you are concerned about personally. Examples might include but are not limited to climate change, offshore drilling, strip mining, factory farming, soil loss, deforestation, and mountaintop removal. Your thesis will articulate and offer a critical argument regarding the ethical stance you endorse in relation to resolving the problem.
Asking students to formulate an “ethical stance” on resolving such preordained problems is like asking 1940s German students to formulate an ethical stance on resolving the “Jewish Problem,” or 1950s American students to solve the “Communist” problem in an ethical manner. Engaging students this way conveniently bypasses the crucial first ethical step: soberly determining if there is such a problem at all and the degree to which it threatens humanity. As Francis Bacon liked to say, “if you accept the premise, you accept the bit.”
Having made it to the bottom of my stack, I can attest that not one out of a full classroom has expressed the slightest reservation about the premise, and has cheerily moved forward, booted and spurred, into various paroxysms of ecologically-sensitive anguish, with all the predictable simplifications and demonizations. I paraphrase a few here:
- ‘The Amazon is burning and it is the fault of farmers and miners.’ Never mind that the globe is actually greening, or that Amazon deforestation and fires are down substantially from decades past.
- ‘The oceans are warming and coral reefs will be extinct very soon.’ No mention of the inaccurate and retracted warming report, or the unexpected coral resilience documented globally by scientists at the University of Queensland.
- ‘Habitat loss is destroying biodiversity.’ Nary a word on the decrease in farmed acres due to greater efficiency, or the attendant rebound in wildlife habitat and populations.
- ‘The Pacific Garbage Patch is American Capitalism’s fault.’ Never mind that the overwhelming majority of the trash comes from 5 Asian rivers, and that ironically some of this trash comes from diligent American recyclers whose best efforts are being dumped in Chinese canyons to wash into the sea.
And so on. Nothing, in other words, that might complicate the narrative of impending doom. In fairness, much of this may merely be performative art. Students have good reason to believe they’ll be graded down, if not ostracized, for their ecological heresies. So what do they do? They repeat the catechism.
For the record, I am no Pollyanna, and there are clearly important environmental issues with which we should grapple. However, each of the issues mentioned above is a Pandora’s box of subtlety and complexity. The trouble here is that whatever issues we set out to “solve” require heroic assumptions about how much we can actually know—assumptions that themselves are almost always wrong. While we must be conscious and diligent in stewarding our resources, it’s also important to note the tremendous progress in many areas, largely because of the seemingly paradoxical reality that wealth improves environmental conditions. But you would never guess this by listening to your average undergraduate today—they are too busy being (or at least seeming) properly “activist” to have time for such nuance. Besides, strikes are more fun than class anyway.
If it was just a matter of youthful exuberance designed to mobilize environmental consciousness, we might safely indulge it. But strikes are for demanding action, and the action demanded in the cause of climate change is not aimed at combating any of the real consequences of carbon emissions. Instead, the call is invariably in the form of state intervention in the personal lives of free individuals. If we are to take the strikers’ doctrinaire precepts at face value, the existential threat is increased global temperature. The demanded solution, however, is never for any action that would reduce global temperature, oddly enough. I have yet to see any strike banners demanding Sulphur dioxide emissions at the poles, and I’m quite sure that any serious technical efforts to sponge CO2 from the atmosphere would be widely decried as dangerous “geoengineering.” Rather, the call for “action” centers around demands for communal sacrifice, the reining in of capitalism, and for fundamental alterations in our way of life.
The quasi-religious template is unmistakable: centralized coercive action, directed by our superiors, demands draconian restrictions on personal liberty—only through this will we find salvation. A restrained and historically informed worldview, which knows a thing or two about “big crises” can only cringe.