False Hope: How the High Priests of the Green movement will ensure the collapse of civilization

December 5, 2010 • Climate Change & Mitigation, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Kurt Dahl for this opinion piece.

False Hope
How the High Priests of the Green movement will ensure the collapse of civilization
By Kurt Dahl

A man walks down the street one night and as he passes under a street lamp he sees a person crawling around looking for something. After inquiring, and learning that the person has lost his car keys, he gets down on his hands and knees and begins to help. A moment later another person walks by and joins the search, and then another.

After many minutes with no success finding the missing keys, the first mans asks the person who lost the keys if they might have a better idea of exactly where the keys were lost. Well yeah, the person responds, I lost them down at the end of the block but there’s no street light down there and it’s too dark to see.

You’ve probably heard this little story before. It is commonly used to illustrate the tendency of many people to “take the easy way out” when faced with a difficult problem. Many people choose to search for an answer in the light, even when they know the solution lies in the dark.

Today mankind faces the most difficult problems that we have ever faced, and unfortunately, we are approaching these problems exactly like the person who lost his keys.

Like the person under the street light who clearly understands his problem (his keys are lost), mankind also clearly understands the problems we are facing. We know that we are consuming the resources of our planet at an unsustainable rate. Left unabated, this overconsumption will eventually result in climate disruption, resource depletion (or exhaustion), food shortages, conflict, and ultimately the collapse of our civilization.

Every thoughtful person who understands what is happening knows that we need to make substantial changes in order to avoid these catastrophic consequences. We know we have serious problems. We know we have to find solutions.

And so, we have the Green movement. We are implored to use cloth grocery bags, drive hybrid cars, install florescent lights, build windmills, and on and on. We are told that these changes to our behavior will not only solve the problem, but will lead to energy independence and even prosperity – a true win-win solution to this looming catastrophe.

But in fact, the Green approach is exactly like the person who lost his keys – it is looking for the answer in the light when the solution can only be found in the dark.

Of course, we like looking for the solution in the light, it’s easier and it makes us feel good. It makes great gobs of money for those who promote it. And it allows us to ignore the real problem – it allows us to avoid the “dark” – because we make ourselves believe that we are all working hard on a win-win Green solution that will solve all of our problems.

And perhaps the most insidious aspect of the story of the lost keys is that not only is the person who lost the keys looking in the wrong place, but that person has also gotten several concerned onlookers to give up their time and efforts to help look in the wrong place. These people are resources that could have been deployed to work on the real solution, but now are being wasted because they were misinformed by the person who had defined the problem to them.

And again, this is exactly what is happening with the Green movement. We are being told by important people – politicians, environmental groups, scientists, etc. – that we only need to look under the light to find the solution. So now, hundreds of millions of people are going “Green”, crawling around under the street light, convinced that they are helping to find the keys to solving our overwhelming problems.

But the dark reality is this – changing our consumption habits cannot, by itself, solve the problem. Both the United States and the world will increase in population by fifty percent over the next fifty years. Consequently, demand for everything will increase by a minimum of fifty percent. Understand this clearly – we will need fifty percent more food, fifty percent more fuel, water, clothing, shoes, and on and on. We will produce fifty percent more pollutants, sewage, greenhouse gasses and on and on and on. No reasonable amount of “Green” behavior changes could possibly compensate for this tsunami of demand generated by population growth. Just do the math. It’s not possible.

So you see, the real solution can only be found in the “dark” – in the dark and forbidden topic of population management. But because the Green movement has encased those people who are forward thinking, thoughtful, and willing to help, in a cocoon of false hope, mankind optimistically heads to the abyss, unknowing or unwilling to face the dark choices that could actually save us.

Hope and false hope; a systems view

It is virtually impossible to isolate the concept of “hope” from the human condition. Hope is required to keep us going. It connects us from the present to the future, and without it we are lost, depressed, directionless. And because it is so essential to our well being, it can be easily exploited by those with an agenda that is outside of our personal lives. Think of the lottery.

Though, many lottery players would say that even the false hope of winning the lottery makes them feel good for a time. For only a few bucks they can buy a three day fantasy. Who are we to deny them that experience? The same could be said of the false hope many cancer victims create for themselves. While it may not be reality, it does more good than harm for them.

Hope is a good thing, and sometimes false hope is too. But when false hope negatively impacts those people around it, it needs to be called out. Think of the lottery again. If the person buying the tickets goes too far, spends too much, or begins to gamble in a way that impacts his/her family, someone from that family needs to stand up and help put a stop to it. The gambler’s false hope is now doing more harm than good.

From a systems view, those people who are negatively affected by the actions resulting from the faulty belief (the false hope) are considered to be a part of that system. Therefore, they are the ones who must take action. The rest of us, outside of their “system”, are not affected, so we can stand aside.

Another example: many Christians believe that they will be moving on to a glorious heaven when they die. This grand hope in a miraculous future keeps them happy in a day-to-day existence that may not be quite as promising. Many non-believers see that as false hope – i.e., “it ain’t gonna happen”. But since the non-believers are outside of that system (Christianity), they can stand aside and let those with the false hope continue to believe – because it causes no serious problems for them.

But this is different. The system for the looming planetary catastrophes we are now facing includes all of us. There is no outside to go to. This false hope in a Green solution will end in disaster for all of us. Please understand that we are all in this together – this fact alone makes this a completely unique problem. And because of that fact, the false hope that is now being foisted upon us by the Green movement must be called out. Let’s do that now.

The Grand High Priests of false hope – and perhaps the most dangerous men on Earth

While there are many priests in the Green movement, for now I’ll identify three men as the grandest priests of all: Al Gore, Lester Brown and Fred Pearce. Fred Pearce is included only because of his recent book that somehow received wide publicity. The other two are obvious choices.

What they all have in common is their complete disregard of population growth as both a primary driver of our problems, and as a primary obstacle to finding solutions to our problems. This disregard is shameful at best, and if it were up to me, it would be criminal.

First let me lay out the undisputable facts of population growth. Here are the most recent mid-level projections for world population in the year 2050 from the world’s three most respected sources:

United Nations 9.15 billion (and still growing after 2050)
United States Census Bureau 9.28 billion (and still growing after 2050)
Population Reference Bureau 9.48 billion (and still growing after 2050)

Three things are to be noted here for future reference in this essay: the population in 2050 will be well above 9 billion, the population in 2050 will still be growing by a substantial number for many years after 2050, and in most cases these population numbers have been revised upward over time.

Grand High Priest Al Gore

This is hard. Al Gore is a hero to many, including me. But, just as in many family situations where it is possible to love and respect someone and yet have a responsibility to call them out when their behavior impacts others in a negative way, Mr. Gore’s deliberate avoidance of presenting overpopulation as the main driver of our problems to his massive following obscures the reality of our critical situation for his millions of admirers.

Mr. Gore is of course, first and foremost a politician. So he knows how to avoid errors of “commission”, and he knows how to mislead by simply committing errors of “omission” (the other two high priests are not that savvy).

In his books and his canned slide shows, he simply avoids any mention of population at all. But when pressed in an informal setting a few years ago – on the David Letterman show – he did deliberately mislead Letterman’s audience of tens of millions. Letterman, a man who is surprisingly well informed and thoughtful on this issue of mankind’s future, asked Gore if in fact the main cause of our problems was overpopulation, and that the continued growth in population might make it impossible for Gore’s solutions to work.

Mr. Gore responded by saying that big progress was being made in reducing population growth, and that population would peak by mid-century at around 8 billion or so (please remember the figures for 2050 population stated above). He went so far as to say that reducing population growth rates was one of the great success stories of the last century. Essentially, he very clearly indicated to Letterman’s massive audience that overpopulation and continued population growth is not something that anyone should worry about – as it would soon be solved.

Think of the incredible impact that this one short exchange between Letterman and Gore had on the mass of thoughtful people that were listening that night. These people don’t have time to research the actual truth – the actual figures – so they blindly accept what Mr. Gore has told them, and dismiss any other information (in this case – the facts) that the small handful of population activists are trying desperately to get known.

Not only deceptive in the facts, Mr. Gore has now decided to carry that deception to our “attitudes”. In his latest slide show, he spends a large portion of the presentation simply stating and repeating how incredibly optimistic he is in our ability to solve all of our dangerous problems. This is of course the politician speaking – he wants to please, and what better way to please then to tell everyone that “everything is going to be all right” – like telling your junkie son that there is no need to worry, you’ll be just fine. This is, unfortunately, false hope carried to the extreme.

Vice-Grand High Priest Lester Brown

For those of you who don’t know Mr. Brown, he is the head of the Earth Policy Institute, and even more well know as the author of the bestselling book series “Plan B x.0, mobilizing to save civilization”. He is a well known and well respected writer, speaker and thinker on global environmental issues.

His latest book – Plan B 4.0 – should be on everyone’s must read list. In Part I of that book (the first three chapters) he describes the challenges we face in a comprehensive and unflinching manner. No one can read those chapters and not be scared to death by the implications. It is the best summary of what is going on in our world right now available anywhere. Do yourself a favor and read it. Recommend it to everyone else you know.

Mr. Brown is not the politician that Mr. Gore is – so he is willing to propose specific Green solutions that can be scrutinized (if one has the time) for accuracy. But like Mr. Gore, he essentially ignores the overpopulation issue. He mentions the figures from the U.N. for the high, medium and low projections, then simply states that we must “strive for the low one” – as if this was a buffet where we can choose the size of the piece of pie that we want.

He goes on to praise (rightly so) the work of the Population Media Center, and extol again the need for better education for women and more access to contraceptives – all worthy goals. But he never states or indicates in any way that overpopulation is a primary driver, or the major obstacle for solving our problems. He does not establish a target for world population or a plan (even though this book is called Plan B 4.0) for reducing it.

And like Mr. Gore, he chooses in at least one case, to misstate the facts in order lead us to thinking that the population will be dropping soon and therefore implying that nothing needs to be done about it. He claims that fertility in the U. S. has dropped to below replacement levels and that U.S. population will be declining by mid-century.

In fact, fertility in the U.S. is not dropping but has been climbing slowly but steadily since the mid-1970s (I’ll bet you didn’t know that!) and is now roughly back at replacement levels. The U.S. Census Bureau projects U.S. population in 2050 to be at 439 million with annual growth after that time actually accelerating. By 2050, the U.S. will have added more people to the world than every other country except India – so much for the myth that only poor countries are growing fast.

In his book “Plan B 4.0 – Mobilizing To Save Civilization” Mr. Brown devotes a grand total of 4 pages to overpopulation and population growth – the biggest cause of our problems and the biggest obstacle to achieving the goals he espouses, that of saving civilization.

He does, however, get very specific (unlike Mr. Gore) about how we can solve our problems without having to deal with an ever increasing demand due to population growth. Simply summarized, his plan goes like this: first, through extensive efforts at conservation and better energy management, we can possibly keep energy demand flat over the next ten years (I’ll give him that – it is possible) and then, in the same 10 years (2010 – 2020), we must deploy alternative energy sources with a “wartime” fury to the extent that it supplies more than half of our energy needs.

Let’s do the math on his alternative energy claim and see if that is even remotely possible. As he states in his latest book: “At the heart of Plan B is a crash program to develop 3,000 gigawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020”. He goes on to say that it would require the installation of 1.5 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each (at 3 million dollars per turbine) during the next 10 years. To do this he proposes doubling the production and installation of wind turbines (from current levels) every 2 years until 2020.

So…yet another supposedly learned person falls under the umbrella of Albert Bartlett’s famous claim that “the greatest failing of the human race is its inability to understand the exponential function”. Understand the function please – the biggest problem with Mr. Brown’s plan is that in the last two year period, an amount equal to all of the world’s previously installed wind turbines combined must be built and deployed. In this case an astonishing 750,000 turbines at a cost of 2.25 trillion dollars! In 2 years! There is no conceivable way to produce that many turbines or that kind of money in a 2 year period.

And if you could – what would happen next? After building up an industry as big as any other industry in the world, what would happen to it? Would everybody be fired? But if it went on at just the same level for another two years, it would cost another 2.25 trillion dollars. Talk about an economic disaster.

And because the wind turbine deployment is, as Mr. Brown explicitly indicates, the “heart” of his overall plan, without its success the whole thing falls apart. Simply put, the plan is completely impossible. So once again, one of the leaders that we listen to and trust the most fosters false hope in the extreme.

Assistant Grand High Priest Fred Pearce

What to say about Mr. Pearce…well, at least he doesn’t ignore the topic of overpopulation and population growth (as the other two High Priests have done). Instead, Mr. Pearce has decided to take it on directly by claiming that it’s not really happening!

He has recently published a book titled “The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future”, where he claims that population will soon be decreasing and therefore our problems will go away. Normally this brand of nonsense journalism doesn’t deserve any serious attention, except that somehow Mr. Pearce’s publisher and agent were able to get massive publicity for this unfortunate effort. I personally watched Mr. Pearce’s appearances on CNN and the Jon Stewart Show.

It was interesting (and revealing) to note that neither Jon Stewart nor Christiane Amanpour (host of the CNN show) were armed with even the most basic facts of world population growth, and so they never questioned his preposterous assumptions. So once again, a TV audience of tens of millions was dramatically misinformed about the facts.

Let me summarize the main points of Mr. Pearce’s book.

For the first third of the book, he goes through the history of population-growth activism, from Malthus to Ehrlich. He basically labels each person in turn a “eugenicist” – i.e., implying that they were motivated by eliminating racial, ethnic, or class groups and not by simply reducing population. His wrath even falls on Margret Sanger (noted feminist and founder of Planned Parenthood) and Garrett Hardin, famous for his iconic essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Of Hardin, revered by many, Mr. Pearce simply states “I find many of his ideas abhorrent” (ideas including, I would add, “The Tragedy of the Commons”).

He then travels the globe to interview a half-dozen or so women in exotic locales. Each (chosen specifically to bolster his position to be sure) expresses that they will be having fewer children than the norm for their country. From this comprehensive sample (of less then 10 women) he derives a trend – “women are having fewer babies!” This is essentially his mantra in the book and in his TV appearances. “It’s good news – women are having fewer babies”. He repeats this over and over.

Basic math is once again little understood by Mr. Pearce. Did you know, for instance, that you can have steadily declining rates of growth while at the same time actual growth is accelerating? If you understand this fact – good for you – Mr. Pearce clearly doesn’t. So what if growth rates are declining – if the world population continues to grow at 75 to 80 million people each year as it is now, we will continue to have a looming catastrophe in our future. It is “actual” growth that counts – real people that consume real resources. Growth rates don’t consume anything.

He then trots out the oft-repeated “rapid population decline” in Europe as further proof that population growth is no longer a problem. Once again, the facts tell a different story. According to the U.N.’s projections – Europe’s total population in 2000 was 726 million. Population projections for 2050 are 691 million – yielding a drop of only 35 million. To put this in perspective, Brazil alone will grow by 44 million during the same time frame – more than compensating for that minor decline.

That’s what is in the book. But even more notable is what’s not in the book. You would expect that somewhere in a book titled “The Coming Population Crash” Mr. Pearce would provide a specific projection for population decline – i.e., actual numbers of people by a certain year. Not so – Mr. Pearce never gives us any actual projections. He never quantifies his fundamental claim that world population will crash in the near future. He never says by how much or when this will happen – except – in one sentence near the end of the book.

On page 247 of my copy, Mr. Pearce states: “Wolfgang Lutz of the Vienna Institute of Demography sees a peak as early as 2040, at closer to seven than eight billion, following (sic) by a strong downward slide to as low as five billion by 2100”. This is the one and only world population projection in Mr. Pearce’s book. And it is easy to see why he chose to use this projection (and to ignore the three prominent projections listed above) as it seems to prove his point.

However, since Mr. Lutz is indeed a prominent and respected demographer, this projection stated by Mr. Pearce seemed more than a little fishy to me. I contacted Mr. Lutz by email and asked him to comment on Mr. Pearce’s statement about Mr. Lutz’s projections. Here is Mr. Lutz’s response (via email dated 10/21/2010):

What Fred Pearce seems to be referring to is the lowest 5 percent fractile of the uncertainty distribution. In other words, we see about a 5 percent chance that this statement is right and a 95 percent chance that world population growth will be higher than that. I had clarified this in a message to Fred Pearce some time ago. He now chose the somewhat ambivalent phrasing “WL …sees…” which somehow implies to the reader that I would see it as the most likely future path, which is clearly wrong.

Understand that Mr. Lutz’s projections are slightly different than the U. N. projections in that they are expressed as a continuum of probabilities as opposed to the three discreet (low, medium, and high) projections of the U. N.

For example, here is a statement from a presentation given in 2007 by Mr. Lutz:

There is a more than a 10 percent chance that the world population in 2100 will be smaller than it is today and an equal chance it could be more than 11 billion.

So, to make Mr. Lutz’s projections an “apples to apples” comparison to the U. N. projections, one must take the mid range of his probability continuum. That figure is, again quoting the 2007 presentation:

The probability that world population will peak during this century has increased marginally. The period during which the median of the projections reaches a peak (around 2070) and the level of this peak (around 9 billion people) remain virtually unchanged.

(Note: he is referring here to his 2001 projections for the comparisons).

Therefore, Mr. Lutz’s mid-projection of 9 billion, peaking in 2070, is actually right in line with the three projections stated earlier in this essay.

So let’s look more closely at what Mr. Pearce has done here:

First, why has he ignored the readily available standard for population projections (the U.N.) along with the other two sources mentioned above? Obviously, it is because they contradict his basic premise. They all show continued massive population growth through 2050 with continued growth for some period thereafter.

Then why did he choose to use a projection from Mr. Lutz? I can only speculate, but it seems likely that he chose a more obscure source so as to make it difficult for others to refute. After all, he could have chosen to misrepresent the U. N. projections just as easily as he misrepresented Mr. Lutz’s projections. Except that many more people would realize his misrepresentation because of their familiarity with the U. N. numbers.

It also seems that he had heard from Mr. Lutz about his misrepresentation before the publication of his book and yet chose to go ahead anyway. This makes it clear that Mr. Pearce cannot claim he made a “mistake” in reading Mr. Lutz’s projections. Though it seems highly unlikely he could have made a mistake like that anyway, as he is certainly familiar with all of the other projections that show the 9 billion plus projection for 2050.

You can draw your own conclusions as to Mr. Pearce’s actions and his motivations – though they seem clear to me.

So now the handful of people who have read this essay know the facts, but, unfortunately, the tens of millions of people who watched Mr. Pearce on TV have been left with the belief that overpopulation and population growth are not a problem. This is a tragedy. And I’m sure it will be compounded in the future as no doubt, people like Mr. Gore and Mr. Brown will quote Mr. Pearce’s book often to make the same inaccurate point.

The Greater Good

Leaving Mr. Pearce aside, can’t we at least forgive the other two because they are still doing great things with their exceptional efforts to curb consumption? If avoiding the toxic topic of population is necessary for them to continue to do a greater good, then isn’t it excusable? I say no. The faulty premise in that argument is that they “must avoid the toxic topic” in order to do good.

They have the stage, they are the voices of change, they have massive audiences, and people trust them. For them to deceive us into thinking that we can sustain upwards of 9 billion people on this planet for the bulk of this coming century is dangerous in the extreme. It can’t be done. And of course, the dirty little secret, the secret that virtually the entire well-informed and thoughtful activists in this sustainability arena all suspect – is that Mr. Brown and Mr. Gore most likely know the truth. They have just made the difficult choice of ignoring overpopulation because they fear the consequences to them if they began to speak about it openly.

And of course, I can see that that choice is a judgment call. They may be right. But in closing, let me say that not every prominent and influential person in this arena is afraid of raising the toxic issue of overpopulation. Here are some excerpts from a story in The Times London online, May 24th 2009.

SOME of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly to consider how their wealth could be used to slow the growth of the world’s population and speed up improvements in health and education.

The philanthropists who attended a summit convened on the initiative of Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, discussed joining forces to overcome political and religious obstacles to change.

Described as the Good Club by one insider it included David Rockefeller Jr, the patriarch of America’s wealthiest dynasty, Warren Buffett and George Soros, the financiers, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and the media moguls Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey.

Another guest said there was “nothing as crude as a vote” but a consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.

“This (overpopulation) is something so nightmarish that everyone in this group agreed it needs big-brain answers,” said the guest. “They need to be independent of government agencies, which are unable to head off the disaster we all see looming.”

A strong statement, considering the group – Mr. Gore and Mr. Brown should, at a minimum, take note of the Good Club’s courage.

So smart guy, if you are right, what can we do?

The real challenge for population activists comes after convincing the listener that overpopulation is in fact the main driver of our looming disasters. So what, the listener asks, what can you possibly do about it? And I will admit that mostly the answers have not been good. But let me try anyway, and in the spirit of Mr. Brown’s plan, call this Plan P 1.0. The four points of the plan:

Point 1: Stop the artificial “either/or” debate between population activists and environmental activists. Common sense says we have to do both. The looming disasters we all face can only be averted by a radical reduction of consumption to sustainable levels. Without returning to the Stone Age, sustainable levels of consumption simply can not be accomplished with an on-going population of over 9 billion. We must go Green aggressively and we must get smaller quickly. This could not be more obvious.

Point 2: The High Priests need to visit the Wizard of Oz and ask for some courage. Mr. Gore, Mr. Brown, and the all other Priests-with-portfolio need to begin to speak openly and accurately about the role of overpopulation and continued population growth. In the long run, nothing good can come from their continued misrepresentation of our challenges to the large following of people who trust them.

Point 3: In the spirit of Mr. Brown’s passionate plea for a “wartime mobilization” of alternative energy, we could use a “wartime mobilization” increase in funding to the handful of organizations that are already trying hard to reduce population growth around the world. Increasing the contributions to these organizations by a factor of ten, would be a simple and painless way for the people of the “Good Club” and other wealthy Green activists to make a difference in population growth. See groups like the Population Media Center, World Population Balance, and Population Connection to learn what they are doing and to contribute to their efforts. One way – immediately divert just one windmill’s purchase price to each of these important organizations. Three million dollars in their hands will reduce long-term global carbon footprints by orders of magnitude more times than just one windmill.

Point 4: Now, for the hard part – the real taboo topic – and that is the discussion and exploration of one-child policies. But before your mind slams shut on the idea of one-child policies, based on whatever pre-conception you have, give me one or two more sentences to explain. First, one-child-policies do not necessarily mean “coercion”. Policies can include a range from simple promotion and support of volunteerism, to changing tax codes to stop giving tax benefits for having more children, to outright financial disincentives for having more than one child.

More importantly, there are likely other innovative, acceptable and yet unexplored ideas that could significantly reduce fertility levels. But the problem in the here and now is that there is no place for exploring these ideas. The missing piece, in getting to a point where even a discussion of the possible approaches can happen, is that there is no organization that champions the cause. There is no governmental agency, and there is no NGO (non-governmental organization) that supports exploring and promoting the one-child proposition.

So – point 4 – I believe that before anything significant can begin, someone somewhere needs to start a one-child NGO. Please open your mind to this possibility.

I suggest to you that these four points answer the question “What can be done?” in a practical, doable, and yet effective manner. It is at least a starting point.

The Conclusion

Contrary to the positive enthusiasm of Mr. Gore, and the so-called workable solution of Mr. Brown, and the outright denial of Mr. Pearce, the reality is that we, all of us, are now in very dangerous territory. We need to replace the false hope that these leaders use to promote their personal agendas with straight talk about our challenges and choices. Only then will mankind shake off its apathy and its comfortable belief that eventually everything will be just fine. Only when this false hope is crushed, will we finally be able face the difficult choices that we have to make.

As Derrick Jensen, in his beautiful and insightful essay “Beyond Hope” states:
When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free-truly free-to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

I hope he’s right.

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