Return of the Butterfly Prophet of Doom

Paul Ehrlich has made a career out of doomsday predictions. An entomologist by training, whose expertise is in butterflies—seriously—Ehrlich rose to prominence after the publication of his 1968 book The Population Bomb, in which he confidently predicted that, due to overpopulation, "millions of people will starve to death" by the end of the 1970s. The book was a sensation, and though his prophesied apocalypse never occurred, it was so influential that to this day Boomers and their Millennial disciples confidently sound off on the dangers of overpopulation, even as the developed world is experiencing a notable population decline, which will likely cause all sorts of economic and political problems over the next several decades.


But Ehrlich's work is too important to the environmentalists for anyone to admit that it has been debunked. While even Ehrlich himself will sometimes concede that many of his specific predictions have been wrong in the past, he and his followers are adamant that his underlying claims are right: Earth cannot support the enormous number of humans currently living.

Just recently, the 90-year-old fossil himself was exhumed and dusted off for an appearance on 60 Minutes, to make the case that humans are causing a "sixth mass extinction" on the planet, and that, in Ehrlich's words "you'd need five more Earths [to accommodate the people currently living]. It’s not clear where they're gonna come from.”

This is nonsense. And Michael Shellenberger—anti-Ehrlich, in that he has devoted his career to demonstrating that things aren't as bad as the environmental activists claim—has taken the time to check Ehrlich's work and show where he's blundered this time. Here's Shellenberger:

The assertion that “five more Earths” are needed to sustain humanity comes from something called the Ecological Footprint calculation. I debunked it 10 years ago... in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, PLOS Biology. We broke down the six measures that comprise the Ecological Footprint and found that five of the six, including food and forestry, were either in balance or surplus. The only thing out of balance was humankind's carbon emissions. But reducing carbon emissions requires neither that rich nations become poor nor that poor nations remain poor. Rather, it simply requires that we move toward energy sources that produce fewer carbon emissions, namely natural gas and nuclear.

And as for the supposed “sixth mass extinction” that we are currently undergoing?

To cause a “mass extinction,” humans would need to be wiping out 75-90 percent of all species on Earth. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the main scientific body that tracks species, says just 6 percent of species are critically endangered, 9 percent are endangered, and 12 percent are vulnerable to becoming endangered. Further, the IUCN has estimated that just 0.8 percent of the 112,432 plant, animal, and insect species within its data set have gone extinct since 1500. That’s a rate of fewer than two species lost every year for an annual extinction rate of 0.001 percent.

Meanwhile, the world's biodiversity has been increasing in surprising ways. Schellenberger quotes one biologist as saying, “More new plant species have come into existence in Europe over the past three centuries than have been documented as becoming extinct over the same period.” And on top of that, humans have gotten much more efficient in our use of land, which has enabled significant increases in conservation areas -- "The number of designated protected areas in the world has grown from 9,214 in 1962 to 102,102 in 2003 to 244,869 in 2020."

Now, it isn't all sunshine and roses; Shellenberger notes that there have been serious declines in wild animal populations, particularly in Latin America and Asia, which he believes should be addressed. But doing so would in no way require the kind of massive reduction in the human population which Ehrlich envisions. And good thing too, because despite what Ehrlich seems to believe, people aren't insects.

The 'Energy Transition' Will Be Delayed a Bit

Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of environmental ideology is that its religious fervor for the Malthusian apocalypse requires its high priests to ignore data and science. The actual monitoring data for core environmental problems such as air and water quality, deforestation, and other genuine problems show that most environmental problems are improving all around the world, most conspicuously in prosperous nations that have market economies, embrace technological innovation, and protect property rights and the rule of law.

Presenting these data, from credible sources as various as Human Progress, Our World in Data, or Environmental Progress, or figures such as Bjorn Lomborg or Matt Ridley (to name just two), sends environmentalists into a rage of denunciation. For environmentalists, good news is bad news, akin to depriving a fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone preacher of original sin.

This is true even of the grand-daddy of all environmental scares: "climate change." The latest official “consensus” scientific estimates of climate change have been backing away from the most dire climate disaster predictions of a decade ago, though the media never notice, and the relentless climate campaign won’t admit it.

Malthus: Doomed, I tell you, doomed.

It is not just more congenial, but essential, that environmentalism suppresses all data that does not support the urgency of their latest disaster scenarios. The most scandalous example came this week with news that BP (formerly British Petroleum) is weighing whether to discontinue its annual “Statistical Review of World Energy.” This fabulously useful report, which BP has published for 71 years, provides detailed trend data for every country in the world in downloadable spreadsheets, enabling analysts to conduct independent analysis easily, often noting findings that BP omits to highlight in its own write-up. Surprise: BP’s data turns out to be uncongenial to the renewable energy cheerleaders. Therein lies a tale.

Why would BP think of abandoning this well-regarded report, which can’t be a huge expense or labor for a multinational of its size and expertise? The Reuters report that broke this story hints at the problem:

The report has been seen by some BP executives as detrimental to the company's new direction, sources told Reuters... "Put simply, it (Statistical Review) is bad PR," one company source said. The company has in recent years also cut its ties with several oil and gas associations and has sought to raise its profile as a clean energy provider.

Why would a detailed, data-rich report on actual energy trends be “bad PR” for a major oil company? Back in 2000, BP formally rebranded its company initials to stand for “Beyond Petroleum,” accompanied with a $200 million ad campaign conceived by Ogilvy and Mather, featuring splashy public pledges to "go green" to fight climate change. In the immediate term this meant becoming predominantly a natural gas company and phasing out of oil exploration and production along with new investments in wind and solar power.

BP quietly abandoned the “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 made a mockery of its virtue-signaling pretensions. It also quietly sold off its money-losing wind and solar power divisions, and suddenly returned to expanding oil and gas production.

But BP lately has returned to the fold of climate hysterics, and is once again pledging to become carbon-neutral by 2050 if not sooner, and a full partner in the “energy transition” that is the fever dream of the climate campaign. And that’s where the Statistical Review of World Energy becomes an inconvenience and PR problem: BP’s data show that the “energy transition” isn’t happening. While we are inundated with headlines and advocacy group celebrations of the rapid growth of “renewable energy,” the data show that hydrocarbon energy—especially coal—has been increasing more than renewable energy for the last decade.

Meanwhile, a mountain of energy lies right beneath your feet.

In 2021, BP’s figures show global coal use grew by 6.3 percent, while oil consumption increased 6.1 percent, and global greenhouse gas emissions rose 5.9 percent. Coal accounted for 51 percent of total new electricity generation around the world, and coal even grew in the U.S., after falling (irony alert!) during the Trump administration.

The data for 2022 (BP’s report comes out every year in June) are likely to be even more dismal for the greens, as the disruption of the world’s energy supply has exposed the green energy fantasy. Coal use everywhere is soaring. Right now Germany has a higher electricity carbon footprint than coal-heavy Poland, which is wisely resisted the romantic nonsense of the greens. No wonder the climate campaigners would like to see this bad news suppressed.

The return to energy reality the Ukrainian War has prompted merely sped up the inevitable consequences of green energy diktats by a decade. Suppressing the data demonstrating this reality isn’t going to change that. If BP dumps their annual report to appease their in-house climate campaigners, hopefully a more clear-headed energy company such as Liberty Energy will want to take it over.

Environmentalism Looks in the Mirror

For Earth Day this year, Michael Moore gave environmentalists a very special present. It’s a greenish movie version of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a young environmentalist sells his soul to the devil in order to stay pure but becomes rich by getting capitalism to fund the replacement of fossil fuel energy with carbon-free renewables. He thinks he has tricked the devil. But when he sees his photograph on the brochure of the new Green Energy Mega-Corporation as its CEO, he is horrified to find that instead of the shining youthful purity of his original countenance, it depicts the corrupt features of a greedy, grasping old titan, deep in sin.

In Wilde’s novel, Dorian Gray stabs the picture from repulsion and despair and dies. In the 1945 Hollywood movie with Hurd Hatfield and Donna Reed, he also stabs the picture but then turns dying to God and begs for forgiveness. But in the Moore reboot, Dorian simply closes down his Green Genesis investment fund (which has been the target of a damaging investigative documentary) and partners with Al Gore and Bill McKibben to establish a new Do It Right (This Time) Brazilian Rain Forest Eco-Partnership, after which he graciously accepts an award from the Sierra Club.

Now, that’s my summary of Planet of the Humans. On another page Tom Finnerty has a more thorough and thoughtful account of its plot and message. So you probably think you don’t really need to see the movie. But Tom and I would advise you to do so all the same.

Planet of the Humans is not a great world-changing documentary from an artistic point of view, and it’s not really a signature Michael Moore film either. He’s listed as its executive producer; it’s making an argument that fits comfortably inside his socialist outlook; doubtless he arranged its financing and production; and his name helps sell the final product. But instead of Moore’s trademark style of sarcastic accusation, it has a sadder but wiser more personal tone.

Its director, Jeff Gibbs, a frequent collaborator with Moore, is here his own Dorian Gray. He takes us on an autobiographical ramble through the last fifty years of the environmentalist movement as it goes from idealistic student radicalism into the tentacles of corporate sponsorship and as he goes from hopeful believer to disillusioned radical. The film’s merits are that it’s pleasantly watchable, occasionally very funny, tells a real story, makes an honest argument, and not least is given away free on the internet. What’s not to like?

We'll get onto that in a moment. First things first, however: on the good side of the ledger, the film’s honest argument is that the renewables movement is essentially a fraud. And it makes that case very effectively.

The movie is cleverly bookended by two rock concert celebrations of the renewables industry—the first a small Vermont renewables fair, the second a massive star-filled exercise in corporate self-congratulation—that fall victim to the same flaw and illustrate the same argument. Though the concerts are supposed to be fully powered by renewable energy, they have to fall back on the local electric grid when the rain falls, the sun goes behind clouds, the wind falls away, or the amount of energy generated by biomass fuel is simply inadequate to keep a rock band bursting our ear drums. It’s comforting to know, thirty years after Tom Bethell wrote The Electric Windmill, that some things never change.

The argument these two events illustrate is that renewable energy sources—windfarms, solar energy panels, biomass—consume more energy in their construction and their operation than they generate for the energy user and they are not always available when needed (at night, when the wind stops blowing, etc.) This is a story that’s told—together with supporting statistical evidence, shocking pictures of post-industrial decay, and ominous music—again and again through the movie. It packs a punch. And it drives the message home.

I didn’t suppose I would usually go to the Hollywood Reporter for an economic analysis of the renewables industry, especially from a skeptical standpoint, but its review of Planet of the Humans hit this nail squarely on the head:

You may feel good about yourself if you drive an electric car, but don't forget that it's recharged by energy from a power company that uses coal or natural gas. And that the battery was manufactured by a company using fossil fuels. Solar panels are great, but they mostly don't last more than a decade or so. Renewable energy sources such as wind turbines are intermittent, leading to power outages unless they're backed up by power generated by fossil fuels. Indeed, there are no business entities running one hundred percent on solar and wind alone.

Two caveats should be attached to this insightful praise for the movie. The first is that, as supporters of the renewables industry have claimed, some of the film’s examples may be technically out of date—notably its criticism of the efficiency of solar panels. But that criticism would be stronger if “green energy” companies were not still demanding subsidies from the taxpayer to “compete” with the fossil fuels on which they rely. The day when these industries will see real profitability, moreover, constantly recedes into the future. Continued subsidies for renewables therefore undercut their fossil fuel rivals The reductio ad absurdum would be reached when fossil fuels themselves have to be subsidized to keep supplying renewables with the energy they need on cold rainy days. It’s the economics of absurdity, but alas that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

The second caveat is that while it’s admirable that environmentalists should admit and examine their own mistakes, the fact is that all of the film’s accurate criticisms are recycled versions of what the critics of deep-green environmentalism have said all along. Some credit should be given to the “climate deniers” for understanding reality first. If you want a sharp, lucid, and witty elaboration of the best points made in Humans, here is an after-dinner speech from 2014 by the Australian geologist, Ian Plimer, to the IPA in Melbourne. I’ve posted this before, but I never tire of watching it, and neither should you. No offense to Mr. Gibbs, but Professor Plimer is much funnier.

There are villains in Mr. Gibbs’s account, of course. They include  billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson and (inevitably) the Koch brothers who have greenwashed their reputations with donations to renewables and similar causes. Refreshingly for such indictments, however, enviro-activists and political sympathizers are named in the indictment too: Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Robert Kennedy Jr., the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, etc., etc.

Gibbs has a lot of fun, cross-cutting from noble speeches to Green groups by billionaires and high-profile enviro-activists to pictures of their failed renewable schemes and the dereliction the failures left in their wake. Hypocrisy is always an inviting target, and here it’s often an amusing one too. The message is hammered home that in dealing with the billionaires, the McKibbens and Concerned Scientists lent their prestige to the cause of enabling the rich to get still richer from renewable schemes that never had any real prospect of delivering a better energy source than fossil fuels.

But is that entirely true? And even if it is, is it entirely fair? Did the moguls and their green allies know that their investments were no more than ways of greenwashing carbon-based energy? That seems very doubtful to me. There must be at least the possibility that they hoped these investments would finance technical breakthroughs that would lead eventually to clean energy with no side-effects. Half the world’s scientists are trying to do just that. Indeed, the most likely solutions to the problems of energy and climate are technical ones. Admittedly, we can’t rely on future technical breakthroughs, as moderate environmentalists do when relying on carbon capture to justify a net-zero emissions policy, but it would be foolish to deny their possibility when history is littered with them. As Bertrand Russell used to say: “The existence of something is absolute proof of its possibility.”

But Planet of the Humans doesn’t grant that possibility. Indeed, the film has an almost religious objection to technical “fixes,” as do some of the activists they interview at protests and demos. The mere idea of a technical fix is denounced as a monstrous and threatening heresy. And this objection seems to arise less because the fixes would fail than because they might succeed and thus postpone the collapse of the present industrial system. As the film winds down, its message seems to be something like:

The End is nigh, and if it isn’t, it should be. So don’t talk to us about solutions.

That’s odd because Gibbs and Moore would usually be expected to advocate some such solution as socialism at this point. Its absence is glaring here. Tom Finnerty has a very interesting discussion of the reasons for this in his review, and I strongly recommend it. My own guess is that the filmmakers have a strong prudential reason for avoiding the topic.

Attacking capitalism is easy and acceptable in the current climate of opinion in which support for socialism is growing. But whatever its other attractions, it’s nearly impossible to advocate socialism on environmental grounds plausibly. Much the worst industrial pollutions, including Chernobyl, have not only occurred under socialist regimes but they have also been clearly traceable to the incentives of the socialist system. That truth has escaped from learned journals into the public mind, and it can’t be forgotten. So the film is shy about advocating socialism.

Its substitute for a solution is reducing the world’s population. Less is better. We are the problem. We are destroying the world, and the world will strike back, unless we master ourselves and reduce our numbers. That argument may initially sound responsible, but it's dangerous, unworkable, and short-sighted

Dangerous? The twentieth century shows the dangers of seeing people not as individuals with human dignity but as destructive pests. I’ll leave it at that.

It’s unworkable because governments can’t control population as they wish and make a mess of it when they try. China’s “one child” policy led to a serious population imbalance—not enough girls—and had to be abandoned owing to popular opposition.

Short-sighted? We know how to reduce population most effectively, and direct government anti-natal policies are not it. It's when it happens through millions of voluntary choices as a result of larger social changes. People have fewer children when women get a good education and when their employers seek to make the workplace both a family friendly environment and a flexible working one. Other policies play a part—affordable housing, for instance, so that lovers can found stable families.

But the key to all of them is that they are the kind of social policies that are found only in advanced, prosperous, democratic, market, and free societies in which women share fully in making family and social decisions. And such societies are the opposite of the poverty-stricken, cramped, static, technically-backward, and authoritarian societies that Greta Thunberg and the enviro-extremists want to introduce—and of which we’ve recently had a most unpleasant taste in the Covid-19 lockdowns.

And because we’ve had a taste of it, the End is probably not Nigh.