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Climate catastrophe: only science can save us

With an increasing global population, the earnest debate over the merit of biofuels and wind farms misses the point, argues John Gray. It is the technologies we fear that will be our salvation.
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If there was ever an example of humankind being unable to bear too much reality, it is the current debate on climate change. No reasonable person any longer doubts that the world is heating up or that this change has been triggered by human activity. Aside from a dwindling band that rejects the clear findings of science, everyone accepts that we face an unprecedented challenge. At the same time, there is a pervasive belief that this is a crisis that can be solved by feel-good gestures such as eating organic foods and refusing to fly or installing a wind turbine on the roof

When it comes to deciding what should be done, most people, including the majority of environmentalists, shrink from the discomfort that goes with realistic thinking. US president George W Bush seems to have been persuaded that climate science is not a left-wing conspiracy to destroy the American economy. Along with the rest of our political leaders, however, he continues to insist there are no limits to growth. As long as we adopt new technologies that are supposedly environment-friendly, such as biofuels, economic expansion can go on as before.

At the other end of the spectrum, greens put their faith in sustainable growth and renewable energy. The root of the environmental crisis, they say -- and here they agree with Bush -- is our addiction to fossil fuels. If only we switch to wind, wave and solar power, all will be well.

In political terms, Bush and the greens could not be further apart, but they are as one in resisting the most fundamental fact about the environmental crisis, which is that it cannot be resolved without a major reduction in our impact on the earth. This means curbing the production of greenhouse gases, but here fashionable policies can be self-defeating. The shift to biofuels, led by Bush but also under way in other parts of the world, involves further destruction of rainforest, a key natural regulator of the climate. Reducing emissions while destroying the planet's natural mechanisms for soaking them up, is not a solution. It is a recipe for disaster.

Yet standard green prescriptions are not much better. Many renewables are not as efficient or as eco-friendly as they are made out to be. Unsightly and inefficient wind farms will not enable us to give up fossil fuels, while large-scale hydroelectric power has major environmental costs. Moving over to organic methods of food production can have significant benefits in terms of animal welfare and reducing fuel costs, but it does nothing to stop the devastation of wilderness that goes with expanding farming to feed a swelling human population.

So, conventional Green nostrums are not all that different from Bush's business-as-usual policies. In each case, the end-result can only be a planet gutted of biodiversity, with humanity exposed to an increasingly hostile environment. To some extent, technology may be able to replace the biosphere that has been destroyed, but, like an obese patient hooked up to an artificial life-support system, we will be living on borrowed time. One day, the machine will stop.

The uncomfortable fact, which is ignored or denied by both ends of the environmental debate, is that an energy-intensive lifestyle of the kind enjoyed in the rich parts of the world cannot be extended to a human population of nine or 10 billion, the level forecast in United Nations studies for the middle of this century. In terms of resources, human numbers already are unsustainable. Global warming is the flip-side of worldwide industrialisation, a side-effect of the dash for growth, and the reserves of oil and natural gas on which industry depends are peaking at just the point when demand for them is rising fast.

Contrary to the greens, there is not the remotest prospect that the world will renounce the use of fossil fuels. Ask any competent energy economist and you will discover that no expansion of renewables can satisfy the demand for energy that is being generated in China and India. Anyway, does anyone really expect the countries getting rich from hydrocarbons -- Russia, Iran, Venezuela and the Gulf states -- to give them up? As long as there is enough demand, these countries will continue extracting fossil fuels.

The only way forward is to curb the need for fossil fuels, while at the same time -- since there is no way of giving them up altogether -- making them cleaner. This means making full use of technologies many environmentalists view with superstitious horror. Nuclear energy has well-known problems of security and waste disposal and it is nothing like a universal panacea. Even so, demonising it is conventional green thinking at its delusional worst. Though solar power has potential, no type of renewable energy can replace the dirty fuels of the industrial past.

If we reject the nuclear option, we will inevitably end up going back to coal. There are emerging technologies that can make coal cleaner. That is no reason for turning our back on nuclear, which is already virtually emission-free. A similar reasoning applies to genetically modified (GM) crops. Genetic engineering involves a type of human intervention in natural processes whose risks are not yet fully known. But the practical alternative is to carry on with industrial-style agriculture, whose destructive impact is all too clear.

Any feasible remedy for the environmental crisis involves high-tech solutions. The aim should not be to master nature or turn it into a mere resource for humans to exploit, as Bush and the greens, in their different ways, end up doing. Given the legitimate aspirations of people in developing countries, only a high-tech strategy has any chance of reducing the human footprint. But it will also be necessary to breach what has become the ultimate taboo and face up to the reality of population pressure.

Green activists, free-market economists and religious fundamentalists may not seem to have much in common, but they are all agreed there can be no such thing as overpopulation, or at any rate, nothing that can’t be solved by better distribution, faster growth or a change in human values.

Actually, the perennially unpopular Thomas Malthus was closer to the truth when, at the end of the 18th century, he argued that population growth would finally overtake food production. Industrial farming was supposed to make famine impossible. But such farming turns out to have been heavily dependent on cheap oil, and with farmland being lost as a result of the switch to biofuels, limits on food production are re-emerging. Far more than fantastical schemes for renewable energy, we need to ensure that contraception and abortion are freely available everywhere. A world of fewer people would be far better placed to deal with climate change than the heavily overpopulated one we are heading for now.

Despite unstoppable global warming, a humanly liveable world is still worth striving for. But it requires a sustained capacity for realistic thinking, which is not the strong point of the environmental movement. Along with the political classes, greens are in denial. While there is no technical fix for the human condition, intelligent use of technology is indispensable in coping with environmental disruption that is now unavoidable. It would be ironic if, because of their irrational hostility to high-tech solutions, the greens were to end up as much a threat to the environment as George W Bush.

John Gray, a British political philosopher, is author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Allen Lane)

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

Homepage photo by shindz

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

丑陋的现实

那是不是说人类不太可能利用目前已有的技术,以一种可持续的方式为65亿人口生产出足够的食物、清洁的水和燃料?

The ugly reality

Is that the human race may not be able to sustainably produce enough food, clean water and fuel for 6.5 billion people with currently available technology?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

另一方面...

核动力,怀孕,流产...
这真的是拖延的唯一方法么?这是环境的启示么?那么,如果每个人都能主动节省一些能源呢?一个人不需要3辆车,人们不需要将电视转换到待机程式。这对食物而言是相同的。能肯定的是,较发达国家在减少即将到来的肥胖危机和土地农务负担方面,还有很长的路要走。

Alternatively...

Nuclear power, contraception and abortions for everyone.. Is this really the only way to stave off and environmental apocalypse? What about if everyone just consumed less in the way of energy? People don't need 3 cars or to leave their TVs on standby 24/7. As for food; surely a curb on demand in MDCs would go a long way help lessening the extent of the coming obesity crisis and ease burdens on the land from farming.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

假如末日来临

我知道世界末日来临时将发生什么样的变故:地震,火灾等一切天灾人祸。人类将会灭亡。在大多数人看来二零一二年是那一天到来的日子。而我认为灾难随时随地都会发生。留心你的周围,征兆随处可见。现在我们处于一个资源极度被消耗的时代:不久的将来地球上会因为缺水爆发大规模战争。人类面对这样的战争会束手无策,人人需要饮水。随着世界毁灭的日子一天一天地接近,我们能做的最实际的事是什么?及时行乐:看你所想看的美景,做你想做的一切。
当然,如果我们做深入的科学研究,我们是可以找到一些自救的方法。比如,当彗星要撞击地球时,我们可以发射火箭。此种速度极快的火箭将在彗星撞击前将它摧毁。我们的地球也会慢慢移动。北方地区会越来越接近赤道。处于北边的一些国家,加拿大,美国北部等,也不例外。

I know!

I know what is going to happen in the end of the world. There is going to be earthquakes,fires and everything. We are all going to die. Most people think that it is going to be the end of the world on the date 2012. But it could happen at any time. You can see the signs right now. We are in the burning period. In the future we are going to have big wars, because there will be big needs for water. We are all going to want something to drink! We can't really do much about this all happening. All we can do is view all the things that we always wanted to view, and do all the things we always wanted to do. Have as much fun as you can. But if we can do more studies, we might just be able to save our selves from comets and stuff. All we have to do, is send rockets or somethen to hit the comets or what ever. They would have to be sent at a very very very very fast speed, so that the thing would break. Our earth is also going to move. Most of the northern parts of the sarth are going to be very very very close to the eqator. Such as th northern United states, Canada, and so on.