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Overheated rhetoric: Why Bill McKibben’s global-warming fear-mongering isn’t helpful

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Bill McKibben is one of civilization’s most civilized critics. For decades this humane journalist-activist has been warning that our high-technology, high-consumption ways are harming nature and our psyches. He is especially worried about global warming, which he views as a profound, imminent threat. But McKibben’s alarming predictions may exacerbate instead of ameliorating our problems.

Not content just to report on the dangers we face, McKibben recently founded, a "movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis." The 350 refers to 350 parts per million, the level at which atmospheric carbon dioxide started adversely affecting the environment, according to McKibben (and some climatologists, notably James Hansen of NASA). Because we are now at almost 400 parts per million and climbing, McKibben thinks we must slash our fossil-fuel consumption immediately or face dire consequences.

In a recent essay, "Japan’s horror reveals how thin is the edge we live on," McKibben notes that even Japan, arguably the most technologically advanced nation in the world, turned out to be terribly vulnerable to a natural disaster. As global warming brings rising sea levels and more severe storms, droughts and floods, McKibben asserts, catastrophes like the one unfolding in Japan will surely become even more common and devastating. The answer, he proposes, is to for us to cease our relentless economic and technological growth and head in the opposite direction.

McKibben elaborates on this notion in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, 2010). His vision of the future is a throwback both to the small-is-beautiful ethos of the 1970s and, paradoxically, the right-wing, antigovernment survivalist movement. We need to reject globalization and big government, McKibben argues, and create small, self-sustaining communities that generate their own energy, grow their own organic food, even organize their own militias for self-defense.

If we don’t do these things, McKibben warns, we might be ravaged not only by nature but also by each other, as we descend into Malthusian wars over water, food and other necessities. "On the new world we’ve built, conflict seems as likely as cooperation," he wrote. To support this viewpoint, he cites a 2004 Pentagon report, which claimed that wars over resources "were the norm until about three centuries ago…[and]…may again come to define human life" as a result of climate change.

Before he persists in this sort of fear-mongering, McKibben should consider cross-cultural studies of war carried out by the anthropologists Carol and (the late) Melvin Ember. For decades they oversaw the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University, which contains detailed information gathered over the past two centuries on hundreds of simple and complex societies. The Embers repeatedly tried and failed to find evidence of a straightforward linkage between scarcity of resources and violent conflict. In most societies war neither broke out as populations surged nor subsided as population fell. And no correlation was found between warfare and persistent, chronic scarcity of food and other resources.

What the Embers did find and report on in their 1992 paper "Resource Unpredictability, Mistrust and War"—which examined 186 "mostly pre-industrial societies"—was something more subtle. The strongest correlate of warfare was a history of unpredictable natural disasters—such as floods, droughts and insect infestations—that had disrupted food supplies. The Embers were careful to note that it was not the disasters themselves that precipitated war, but the memory of past disasters and hence the fear of future ones. Another correlate was a society’s distrust of neighboring societies. "Fear appears to be a common thread in the two obtained predictors of wars—fear of nature and fear of others," the Embers concluded.

In other words, wars stemmed from factors that were not ecological so much as psychological. Of course, societies in a region with a history of war also fear war itself; hence they arm themselves and even launch preemptive attacks against other groups, making their fear self-fulfilling. The irony—or tragedy—is that war often inflicts on us deprivation far worse than that which we feared.

Given the Embers’ finding of a link between war and fear, I worry about the extreme proposals and warnings of McKibben and other greens. Rather than inspiring people to grow organic beets, install solar panels on their roofs and ride bicycles to work, green alarmists might end up provoking voters to stockpile guns and ammo, and support even higher defense budgets.

Moreover, big government, despite its flaws, has its upside. In the U.S. laws such as the Clean Water and Air acts have helped reverse pollution. As recently as the 1980s the Hudson River was filthy, filled with sewage and industrial toxins—but I have been swimming in it with my kids since the late 1990s. Japan’s problems would be exponentially worse if its government had not mandated that buildings, roads, nuclear plants and other structures be designed to withstand earthquakes. And the last time I checked, people were responding to the calamity there with cooperation, not conflict.

A lot of people look to McKibben for guidance, but his book Eaarth is a cry of despair, not a viable vision of the future. I hope he rediscovers his faith in humanity, because we need him.

Photo of McKibben courtesy Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. kenlbear 6:51 pm 04/4/2011

    This is the New Luddite Rebellion against technology. In an older SciAm article, a population expert promised that without the Green Revolution, refrigeration, modern logistics and transport, and smart irrigation, fertilizers and combines for large-scale crop development, we could feed less than 1 billion people. Does McKibbin say that he wants 2.5 billion people to die off?

    People who are trying to save the planet aren’t saving it for people.

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  2. 2. pdjmoo 7:04 pm 04/4/2011

    The danger or attempting to do evaluations from past experience is…we have never been where we are at this point in time. By that I mean the difference between the past and now is population numbers and the devastating impact we are having on our ecosystems and environment that we depend upon for our very survival. These two factors have to be taken into consideration if any evaluation is to have any merit.

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  3. 3. bimpavidus 7:18 pm 04/4/2011

    The research cited simply states the basic "motivations" behind warfare, not specifically the events that lead to those motivations being triggered. It’s not rocket science (pardon the term) to know that two things are primary motivators in man — fear and greed. So, the research basically says that "fear" seems to have had the greatest correlation to why past warfare occurred (within the sample). Not really a big surprise, but nice to know. So, if indeed humans are driven to warfare by fear, those using fear to stimulate other behaviors may inadvertently drive that group toward a warlike stance. That’s the gist of the article.

    Nice article, something to think about when presenting a case for change.

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  4. 4. Happy Phil 7:56 pm 04/4/2011

    No wars over dwindling resources? Really? Wasn’t there a 1970′s T.C.U. study that determined Athens battled with Sparta because they used unsustainable farming methods and the people were starving?

    I suppose the ‘Water Wars’ in the American west weren’t about water, either.

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  5. 5. BlakeJustBlake 8:12 pm 04/4/2011

    That’s not what was said at all. They couldn’t find a correlation between war and dwindling resources, they didn’t say that it never happened.

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  6. 6. ConcernedCitizen 8:43 pm 04/4/2011

    I am going to start a new website "" 3000 was the atmospheric carbon dioxide parts per million in the Jurassic era, when the largest animals on the planet lived.

    Global warming is a crock, unsupported by science.

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  7. 7. BlakeJustBlake 9:36 pm 04/4/2011

    What a ridiculous comment. First of all, you’re saying that "global warming is a crock, unsupported by science" because there was a higher density of carbon dioxide in the Jurassic era, which doesn’t refute the idea of global warming at all, it just refutes the idea of what it might be like on earth once the globe has warmed. Secondly, what the earth was like when there were dinosaurs says nothing about how it will affect humans. Third, notice that the web site you posted refers to eras all looong before homo sapiens even appeared. What does that tell us at all about how a warming earth will affect humans?

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  8. 8. ConcernedCitizen 1:30 am 04/5/2011

    The chart is from NASA’s Geocarb III and shows there is no correlation between temperature and CO2 levels at all – there is no warming effect! Global warming is a crock. Also, there was nothing in the Jurassic era that would prevent humans from surviving. Humans can survive to beyond 10,000ppm of CO2 – we are 25x away from that level right now. How this fool believes that above 350ppm Armageddon will occur is beyond me, let alone that global warming is anything but fantasy.

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  9. 9. BlakeJustBlake 2:36 am 04/5/2011

    How can you possibly say that’s true, you have nothing to back up whether humans could have survived in Jurassic era conditions. Also, what you’re refuting isn’t whether the globe is warming or not, rather what’s causing it. Global warming, no matter what the cause, is still occurring, and we don’t understand what the effects will be on humans.

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  10. 10. E-boy 5:32 am 04/5/2011

    World wide? Nope. However, historically this particular drama has played out over and over again. Jared Diamond’s "Collapse how societies chose to succeed or fail" documents it very well, and I have to say is extroadinarily well researched and, thankfully, a whole lot more optimistic than Mckibben.

    It’s cautious optimism to be sure, but also well informed cautious optimism. Certainly due caution is warranted, but that’s not the same thing as making sweeping predictions about what’s going to come to pass. Yes climate change probably will cause all manner of problems for humanity the specifics are hard to model or predict though. Add to this the human propensity for innovation that has for centuries staved off Malthusian predictions… It might be a bit premature to advocate giving up the ghost on growth. A better approach would be to fully account for true costs in our economy. Also to invest heavily in alternative and more sustainable ways of doing business. Efficiency measures can stretch non-renewables, population control measures can help as well (For the record, simply having people moving into cities and getting educated seems to slow growth), and there are renewable energy sources that are maturing rather nicely. Solar alone will be as cheap as coal in another ten years if the present gains in efficiency continue at the same pace they have maintained for the last few decades.

    There’s room for cautious optimism. As for fear mongering? Malthus will never go away entirely, here’s to hoping he keeps being wrong for centuries to come.

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  11. 11. whatsup 1:24 pm 04/6/2011

    Let’s see, past global warmings and global ice ages and not a naked ape to be found. My guess is things always change and you either adapt or disappear. One thing is for sure, as in the past, if things heat up, The north pole will have less land but a wide open ocean for sea life to expand. There’s also a land down under, way down under, with lots of ice, and only a few part time birds walking around. This new land should give humans time to adjust, new resources to build with, expand off planet, and give our home world a brake. We either do it or join the dodo bird. Facts of life. Live with it.

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  12. 12. sethdayal 1:51 pm 04/6/2011

    Horgan here is obviously not a deep thinker.

    McKibben may have the wrong solution but there is a lot of science that warns that the danger is imminent.

    A massive world war II level effort in building nuke plants is the only possible solution but it will require the deaths of a few million first that can be definitely tied to global warming before the Big Oil funded Deniers at Greenpeace, WWF, and Sierra can be silenced and the Big Oil purchase of our politicians set aside. A 40% rate of return on investment will fuel the nuke to fossil conversion rapidly once the fire gets lit and the wood drys.

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  13. 13. ssm1959 7:03 pm 04/6/2011

    The thing about Malthusians is that they have been wrong ever since Malthus. Every generation falls for the dire predictions because they are so simple and consequently so appealing. However as simple arguments go they also cloud their primary premise; "if things keep going the way they are now" which of course they never do.

    For those younger the me I will provide an example. Back in 68, in the early days of Ehrlich and the Zero Population Growth movement we were told that the world population would reach 8-10 billion by 1980. In 1978 it would be by 1990, by 1988 it was 2000, etc. etc. Now the prediction is we will never hit 10 billion, but they insist on 9 billion by 2050. Based on the success of past I find it hard to believe this one too. Much of the resistance we see today against climate change issues has its root in the extreme claims made in the past that never had a hope of coming to pass.

    Mr. McKibbin has failed to learn what heath-care learned long ago: Fear is the worst motivator for rational decisions. Trying to scare people into a desired behavior has not nor will it ever work. At best it polarizes the discussion and guarantees grid lock. Better that the message be one of the effects we know, the realistic possibilities we feel are most likely, coupled with rationale from other arguments that make a more unified picture in favor of moving away from what is predominantly a monoculture energy economy.

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  14. 14. karlchwe 9:50 pm 04/7/2011

    I would define fear-mongering an attempt to create unfounded fear or panic to create political support, much as Bush did for the Iraq invasion, or Goebbels did about Jews. McKibben is not doing that. He may be wrong about future resource wars (which is not his area of expertise) but his fears are apparently genuine. He is not trying to manipulate the public for political gain.

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