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


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

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

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