Tyranny can’t stop climate change | the troubling rise of neo-luddism
The daily routine of medieval serfs was remarkably simple. Wake up, breakfast, reap, sow, and plough the fields, eat, sleep and repeat! Though that routine was not just confined to the medieval era, that was how life was for almost all humans for thousands of years. The lives we live today, the ability to specialise and ‘pursue happiness’, would be completely unthinkable to these medieval serfs or the peasants of Ancient Greece, and one does not even have to go back in time — millions of people across the Global South continue to live difficult agrarian lifestyles and will continue to be locked into poverty unless something changes. The change that made everything possible: our ability to convert vast sums of energy from one source, primarily that locked in fossil fuels, to other more useful forms.
Energy is what sustains not just life on earth but the universe itself. Einstein put it perfectly in his beautifully simple equation: E = mc^2. Without energy, there can be no mass — nothing can exist. But if a certain subset of environmentalists had it their way, we would all return to living agrarian lifestyles where no-one consumed anything at all. That is the only realistic way in which humans will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, let alone by the 2030 target which many are calling for.
Here’s how environmentalism should work, in a free society. We exist as a collection of human beings on a planet called Earth. No individual man will live forever, most Brits will last around 82 years, but neither humankind nor our planet or galaxy will last forever either. Estimates suggest that Earth will be around for a billion more years. We’ll be long gone way before then. So, as conscious beings, most aim to make the most of our lives and find meaning. Climate change poses problems and it will be harder to seek meaning if we drown, and so we must find ways to mitigate either the cause or the effects, for us to continue finding meaning and enjoying our lives.
That, at least, is a rational way of thinking that most people would agree with. Some seem to have gotten mixed up, however. For them, what matters is not the humans living on Earth, but the Earth for the sake of the Earth. Damn the humans, their logic goes, we must work to protect the earth at all costs! It is collectivism in its newest form: just like in Soviet Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany, what matters are not the people, but upholding the regime or expanding the nation state — regardless of the impact on individual rights and their ability to pursue happiness.
I can think of hundreds of critiques against collectivism, especially in its newest form of environmentalism that elevates not human beings but the earth for its own sake — at any cost. There is nothing wrong with pragmatic policy that reduces air contaminants and accounts for externalities. As an economist, I’m very much in favour of that — rather than diminishing our individual rights, it augments them and makes this planet a better place to live. But I have a problem with those who seek to use force to destroy and ban everything that makes life worth living for ideological reasons.
Firstly, it is deeply irrational. Given that consciousness occurs on an individual level, with each human having their own mind and ego, all our subsequent aims and objectives stem from that point and that level. Secondly, even if the earth was our most important thing in existence, we can try anything we like, but it will still go extinct in one or several billion years’ time. To think otherwise is either to greatly underestimate or to disrespect the power of nature. So whilst we should do what we can to maintain a safe and livable planet, Earth should not be elevated to be a mythical ideal for which we sacrifice everything. Our priority should be our own well-being.
Given that per-capita energy use in developing countries, including in China and India, is a fraction that of those living in the West, we can also expect global energy use to continue growing exponentially over the next few decades. It is the only way that these countries will arise from poverty. In this context, anything we are likely to achieve in the West is a scratch on the surface in the grand scheme of things. Greta Thunberg might scorn us for pursuing ‘limitless economic growth’, but she grew up in wealthy Sweden, never having to worry about famine or destitution. It would be morally reprehensible to curtail energy use in poorer nations, thus condemning people to continued inter-generational poverty, for the sake of ideology.
The solution is obvious: stop the hysterical overkill and embrace technology. But of course, these so-called environmentalists oppose that. Nuclear power is cheap, plentiful, and extremely safe, but has been stifled by excessive government regulation, making the cost of developing a single plant amount to billions of dollars. This is based not on the actual risk but on emotions. Even accounting for the three major nuclear incidents, this form of energy is 330 times safer than coal and 250 times safer than oil. Most importantly, unlike wind and solar, it is very reliable and could be a lot cheaper to generate.
Many environmentalists also ironically oppose new urban development and support policies which distort the efficient allocation of resources and cause sprawl, all to preserve a form of ‘nature’ which is in effect not ‘natural’ at all: the Yorkshire Dales and Surrey Hills, for instance, only exist because of humans: their natural state is forest. Preserving ‘nature’ is a mythical goal that’s unattainable.
They deride cities as the antithesis of nature, as dirty places one should avoid at all costs. They block new urban housing projects, exacerbating homelessness and inequality as housing costs spiral out of control; locking young people out of the opportunities cities have to offer. Yet the truth is that people in urban areas emit 50% less carbon per capita than those in suburban areas. Crucially, cities are wealth generators — they’re what will allow us to finance a more sustainable future. If we truly care about stemming global carbon emissions and ending global poverty, our priority should be to speed up urbanisation.
Most importantly, proponents of anti-growth, Luddite policies know that no rational person would ever fund their absurd projects, the kind set out in the infamous ‘Green New Deal’ for instance. And so, as is usual with collectivists, they must opt for coercion and the use of force in the form of taxes and bans. After all, their philosophy points out that individual rights are of secondary concern, or perhaps of no concern at all since what matters aren’t humans but the earth for earth’s sake.
My message to readers is to think twice. If you really care about the earth, then start by making a difference in your own life rather than passing the buck on someone else. Doing so will only lead in corruption and a destruction of what makes life worth living. And always remember what truly matters in life.