McKibben: ‘Thatcher and Reagan Summon the Worst in Us’
Acton Institute Powerblog

McKibben: ‘Thatcher and Reagan Summon the Worst in Us’

Bill McKibben’s New York Review of Books essay on Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, has prompted two previous posts by your author (here and here). Working through the review has helped identify McKibben’s affinity for liberation theology and his outlandish claim that Pope Francis shares this affinity.

In the The Wall Street Journal, Lord Lawson, former Great Britain Secretary of State for Energy, Chancellor of the Exchequer and current chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, reviews Ronald Bailey’s most recent work, The End of Doom. Lawson favorably compares Bailey’s book to Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (high praise indeed). Much of the material Lawson recounts in his review directly refutes McKibben and, to a lesser extent, Pope Francis. The world, according to Bailey, Ridley and Lawson, and contrary to McKibben, is a much better place for the poor than it was a half-decade ago – largely attributable to technological advancements and the midwife who made it possible: capitalism.

Ronald Bailey begs to differ. As his book demonstrates, a careful examination of the evidence shows that, at least in material terms (which is not unimportant, particularly for the world’s poor), life is getting better. The overriding reason for this, according to Mr. Bailey, is continuing technological progress, facilitated—and this is crucial—by the global triumph of market capitalism.

Among the scares examined by Mr. Bailey in “The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century” are overpopulation, the exhaustion of natural resources (particularly oil), the perils of biotechnology and genetic modification, and global warming.

Mr. Bailey has little difficulty demonstrating that, despite an explosion in world population greater than Thomas Malthus could possibly have envisaged in the 18th century, global living standards are higher than ever. “Food,” he writes, citing statistics from the World Bank and other organizations, “is more abundant today than ever before in history.” In the past 50 years alone, global food production has more than tripled.

Furthermore, argues Lawson, the greater efficiencies of contemporary agri-business serves as a boon for the environment, because workers displaced by these efficiencies move to urban areas to seek employment:

It is also more than likely, in the opinion of most demographers, that world population will peak in the relatively near future and then start to decline. Mr. Bailey attributes this to the related phenomena of growing personal wealth in the developing world and the advance of education, particularly for girls, in those countries. He underplays, I suspect, another factor: Perhaps the most striking aspect of global development is the dramatic migration of population from the country to the city. Of course, this population movement is excellent news for wildlife and biodiversity.

Lawson continues, directly addressing Laudato Si and, by extension, the McKibbens of the climate-change crowd:

If there is a connecting thread among all these irrational prophecies, and the profoundly harmful policies that the doomsters recommend, it is the precautionary principle, which this book rightly castigates. Based on a confusion between the sensible precept “be careful” and the nonsensical proposition that you can’t be too careful, it insists on taking the worst-case scenario as the outcome that should dictate policy. On that basis, one would never get in a car. And the massive technological advances that we have seen since the Industrial Revolution, and the reduction in global poverty that has followed, would never have occurred.

Another factor is the quasi-religious appeal of these prophecies, which may help to explain the papal encyclical to which I referred at the start. Even more recently, the Church of England at its latest synod called for all vicars to be trained in “eco-theology” as well as the Bible. It also called for churchgoers to do without lunch on the first day of each month, as a fast against climate change. Perhaps this should not be mocked: It might help combat obesity, which is probably more damaging than climate change.

This brings some perspective to the content of McKibben’s NYROB piece on Laudato Si, in which he channels 1970s’ environmental writers who attempted to draft the world’s great religions in the service of Gaia:

By contrast, at least since the Buddha, a line of spiritual leaders has offered a reasonably coherent and remarkably similar critique of who we are and how we live. The greatest of those critics was perhaps Jesus, but the line continues through Francis’s great namesake, and through Thoreau, and Gandhi, and many others. Mostly, of course, we’ve paid them devoted lip service and gone on living largely as before.

We’ve come close to change—opinion surveys at the end of the 1970s, for instance, showed that 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth,” 31 percent “anti-growth,” and 39 percent “highly uncertain,” and President Carter held a White House reception for [E.F.] Schumacher. But Reagan’s election resolved that tension in the usual way, and the progress we’ve made, before and since, has been technological, not moral; people have been pulled from poverty by expansion, not by solidarity. The question is whether the present moment is actually any different, or whether the pope’s words will fall as seeds on rocky ground.

If there’s a difference this time, it’s that we seem to have actually reached the edge of the precipice. Schumacher and the visionaries of the 1970s imagined that the limits to growth were a little further off, and offered us strong warnings, which we didn’t heed.

Yup, these “visionaries” are akin to the twitchy scientist – such as the one portrayed by Paul Giamatti in this summer’s eco-disaster flop, San Andreas – nobody heeds until it’s too late. Except … Newsflash! … Schumacher’s predictions haven’t been realized. The same could be said for Paul Ehrlich’s dire warnings from the same era.

At this point, McKibben returns to castigate the wealthy and successful, raising the ante on Pope Francis’ concerns expressed in Laudato Si:

His profound sadness about the inequality among people, and the toll it exacts on the poor, is also undergirded by remarkable new data that separate it from earlier critiques. The data show right now that inequality is reaching almost absurd heights: for instance, the six heirs to the Walmart fortune have more assets than the bottom 42 percent of all Americans combined; the two Koch brothers (together the richest men on the planet) have plans to spend more than the Republicans or the Democrats on the next federal election. If you want to understand why the Occupy movement or the early surge toward Bernie Sanders caught the usual political analysts by surprise, consider those facts. (The pope suggests that “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres and power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor with little direct contact with their problems.”)

Yes, it’s quite clear from Laudato Si that Pope Francis harbors the same animosity toward the Koch brothers and the Sam Walton family as McKibben. I’m being sarcastic, of course, but one might want to compare what the Koch and Walton families contribute to remedying the plight of the working class and poor compared to McKibben’s alarmism. Pope Francis’ assertions that the wealthy are isolated from the poor may be true to some extent, but doesn’t erase the enormous philanthropic good provided by the wealthy, the jobs they provide, or the totality of their economic footprint, which includes taxes.

But…Bruce! Isn’t there anything on which you agree with McKibben and Pope Francis? Why, yes, there’s this, but with reservations: “Thanks to the engineers whose creativity the pope celebrates, we’ve watched the price of solar panels fall 75 percent in the last six years alone.” As the Walker Brothers reminded us, the sun doesn’t shine all the time, and yet, I’m confident technological innovations eventually will displace fossil fuels. In the meantime, however, there’s presently a lot of hungry mouths to feed. But, claims McKibben, solar panels are …

… now cheap enough that a vast effort, rooted in pragmatic physics, could ensure before the decade was out that there would hardly be a hut or hovel that lacked access to energy, something that the fossil fuel status quo has failed to achieve in two hundred years. Such a change would be carried out by small-scale entrepreneurs of just the sort the pope has in mind when he describes the dignity of work. And it would mean a very different world. Instead of centralized power in the hands of a few oil and gas barons like the Koch brothers, the earth would draw its energy from a widely diffused and much more democratic grid. Building that system in time would require aid to the poorest nations to jumpstart the transition.

Demonizing the Kochs may play for the NYROB readership, but I doubt any of those subscribers actually are lacking things like electricity, clean water, jet travel or on-demand latte machines. But just how, exactly, does McKibben propose we democratize the grid, dislodge the Kochs and provide solar power to the poor while at the same time ensuring only the purest of small entrepreneurs make a reasonable profit? He doesn’t answer, only to say 200 years of fossil fuel status quo hasn’t energized the entire third world, a dubious claim at best and tremendously dishonest at worst. McKibben concludes with this:

[David] Brooks, Reagan, and Thatcher summon the worst in us and assume that will eventually solve our problems—to repeat Brooks’s sad phrase, we should rely on the “low motivations of people as they actually are.” Pope Francis, in a moment of great crisis, speaks instead to who we could be individually and more importantly as a species. As the data suggest, this may be the only option we have left.

This, pure and simple, is ideological hogwash. While at the same time I may not agree entirely with the New York Times writer David Brooks’ phrase, I take extreme exception to the claim “Brooks, Thatcher and Reagan summon the worst in us.” In short, McKibben resorts to demagoguery to libel the legacy of two world leaders who, together with Pope John Paul II, helped end one of the most oppressive and soul-crushing regimes of modern history.

These three inspired many individuals, your writer included, to recognize and realize the best in themselves, which benefits society as a whole. McKibben, it seems, views it the other way, through a Marxist lens in which a faceless, unfeeling society imposes its centralized will on individuals. Pray Pope Francis doesn’t view it the same way, although it’s clear McKibben – based on his liberation theology pronouncements – wishes he does.

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.