Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Earth Hour" - Lights Out for Freedom, Flourishing, and the Third World


"Lights out" for freedom and the achievements of industrial civilization.

Yesterday at 8:30 PM local time all around the world, demonstrators dimmed the lights of their houses and establishments for one hour as part of a global demonstration called "Earth Hour" by its originators in Sydney, Australia. Organized by the WWF (The World Wildlife Fund or World Wide Fund for Nature outside the U.S. and Canada), Earth Hour's website says:

This year, Earth Hour has been transformed into the world’s first global election, between Earth and global warming.
For the first time in history, people of all ages, nationalities, race and background have the opportunity to use their light switch as their vote – Switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, or leaving them on is a vote for global warming.

But the chic marketing tag that frames this as an election between Earth and global warming is ultimately vague, meaningless, and disingenuous. It is a preposterous, context-dropping obfuscation of the WWF's real purpose, made all the more absurd because the WWF states its real purpose in the next sentence:

WWF are urging the world to VOTE EARTH and reach the target of 1 billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009.

This meeting will determine official government policies to take action against global warming, which will replace the Kyoto Protocol. It is the chance for the people of the world to make their voice heard.

The WWF is shrewdly counting on its demonstrators and its audience to remain in the dark about the real meaning of this demonstration by shining the spotlight on its vague anti-concept of voting for or against the Earth. Why after all, would anyone vote against the Earth? But the deeper question here is "What would that even mean?" The real alternative- the real issue that people were "voting" on yesterday- is whether or not the international community should sign a treaty requiring signatory governments to severely cap their country's emissions.


The Light of Free Market Capitalism and Industrial Civilization

Supporting an environmental treaty mandating steep reductions of carbon emissions is tantamount to advocating a demolition job of industrial civilization and all of the wonderful things it has brought us. Presently, the overwhelming majority of energy generated globally is produced from the combustion of carbon-emitting fossil fuels. To severely restrict their use with draconian regulations and taxes will mean less energy. Less energy will mean less productivity. Less productivity will mean less value for us all. By value, I mean all the things that lengthen and improve the quality of our lives. The price of energy will skyrocket, hurting businesses, dampening job growth, and inflating the cost of living.

The poorest among us, as always, will be hit the hardest. People with plenty of money to spare may not like the results, but they will be able to absorb the damage and continue to live comfortably. People who already barely make ends meet will be ruined by the rising costs of living brought on by less energy and higher energy costs. Groceries will cost more because of the increased costs of using energy to fertilize, till, plant, reap, store, transport, and distribute food. Heating and air-conditioning which are nearly universally available in first world countries might become luxuries for the wealthy. The symbolism in "Earth Hour" is quite accurate- a world without energy would be a very dark world.

Just look at these two respective maps of 1) the Earth at night as seen from space and 2) GDP intensity- how much economic activity happens within a square kilometer:

Source: Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, DOD

Source: the International Regional Science Review, 1999

Let's take a break from the politics for a second and have a moment together. Isn't what you just looked at above really, really cool(!)? Seriously, just stop reading for a minute if you haven't already and contemplate those maps. Light isn't an indication of some hideous crime against the Earth. It's an indication of great achievements for humanity! It isn't a badge of failure, but a stamp of success! Industrial civilization has shined a light on the world, and in all the places where that light is brightest, it is because the people there live the longest, most productive, most literally enlightened lives. Those lights illuminate schools, homes, and office buildings where students, families, and workers spend their time extending and improving their lives and the lives of others by creating and exchanging things of value.


Crushing The Third World's Hopes of Affluence

And how badly the rest of the world wants to step into that kind of light! Developing and former communist countries throughout the third world have a dream. If you visit the busy streets of India or the crowded, extra-legal shanty town districts surrounding the cities of poor Latin American countries, you will be dazzled and electrified by the excitement and bustle in the air. The third world has a dream and that dream is industrialization. A second Industrial Revolution is sweeping through these countries with the promises of affluence that it brought to the West the first time around! A global treaty to limit carbon emissions is a promise to shatter that dream. It is not only the lower classes of wealthy nations that will suffer from the proposed ends of the "Earth Hour" demonstrators, it is also the poor of developing countries who will continue to be left in the dark and legally forced to remain there.

Source: Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, DOD

For residents in Sydney, Paris, or New York, "Earth Hour" is a trendy protest, an occasion to socialize by candle light and swell with pride at supporting a "cause." For the residents of Haiti or Uganda, "Earth Hour" is a way of life, a prison, an endless privation that they are trying and hoping desperately to escape. Yesterday's demonstration was a slap in their face, a careless display of privileged, bourgeois ignorance. It was simultaneously, a call to forcibly restrict developing nations' economic growth and an admonition for developed nations to be more like the third world- this at a time when the third world is working so hard to be more like the developed world! How can "civilized" people be so foolish, backward, and regressive as this?


Being The Change We Want To See In The World

What I find interesting, is the sharp contrast between "Earth Hour's" methods and its ends. It's method of demonstration was for people around the world to voluntarily cooperate by modifying their own behavior to conform to their values and beliefs. But the goal of that demonstration was to persuade world governments to forcibly modify their citizens' behavior by law. The juxtaposition is ironic because the solution to their problem was contained within the demonstration itself, yet they all seemed to miss it. If we believe carbon emissions are harming the planet and that we must take action to reduce them, any one of us is welcome and free to reduce his or her own carbon footprint by taking voluntary action and having "Earth Hour" every night, instead of just once a year.

If the debate really is over and there is truly an inarguable scientific consensus that global warming is caused by human carbon emissions, then why is the use of force necessary to persuade the world to act? Shouldn't the force of their arguments be enough for environmentalists to change the world? That is the premise of a free society, which is to say, a civilized society, the premise that we must persuade each other to cooperate together voluntarily to achieve values we consider worthwhile, that we must never aggress against others to achieve our ends, whether by the force of individual coercion or the institutionalized force of legal coercion. This is the humble premise, the premise that says "I am not infallible so I will not forcibly impose my beliefs on the lives of other human beings, because if I am wrong then only I should suffer the consequences of my mistakes, not everyone else who I forcibly dragged along with me." This is the operating premise behind the Mahatma Gandhi's admonition to mankind that we must be the change we want to see in the world.


Concluding Thoughts on "Earth Hour"

"Earth Hour" was a systematic assault on the liberty of the world's people disguised as a peaceful demonstration. It casts the alternative as one between Earth and global warming, but the real alternative it proposes is between forced restriction of carbon emissions and the freedom of all human beings to flourish by using energy to improve the length and quality of their lives. If we choose the former of the two alternatives, we will harm and destroy the productive ability of poor nations and retard their development into shining, affluent societies.

A common theme of propaganda is to define a struggle as one between the light and the darkness. It is curiously revealing that these propagandists openly declare that they are on the side of darkness while their enemies are on the side of light. We should take their claim at face value and eschew the darkness that they themselves claim best exemplifies their cause.

5 comments:

Matt Gentry said...

Not to be cantankerous, but if human-caused global warming really does exist, I don't think it's a problem that free markets and private action can effectively address. Carbon emissions are a textbook case of a negative externality: since I don't personally bear the full social cost of my own carbon emissions, I will naturally tend to produce too much carbon. Since everybody else faces the same incentive structure as me, they do exactly the same thing. Thus, barring a spontaneous outbreak of unselfishness and fellow-feeling (which would be awesome, don't get me wrong), the only solutions I see to human-caused global warming would involve some kind of collective action.

All that, of course, completely sidesteps the real question: does human-caused global warming actually exist? I have no idea, and I certainly don't think we should go bonkers about it until we're sure beyond reasonable doubt. If it really is a problem, though, I don't think it's one that markets on their own can reasonably be expected to solve.

W. E. Messamore said...

No worries, Matt- I know you're not a trolling contrarian! Thanks for seeding some thoughtful discussion. You are correct to note that the subject of anthropogenic global warming is an unresolved controversy, which (as I note in my editorial) is one reason why coercive measures would be arrogant and premature.

As we agreed in our discussion a few weeks ago, emissions are a negative externality, but we also agreed that there is an optimal range of decreased quantity that bridges the efficiency gap. It seems apparent to me that this range is rather narrow.

My reasoning is that the explosive growth in economic gain from the use of fossil fuels (as evidenced by the two maps in this article) is very likely to dwarf the costs to society of emitting carbon (unless that cost is a global climate catastrophy, which we agree is uncertain- and which I think is very unlikely).

In any event, the kind of emissions caps proposed (such as the European Commission's recommendation that developed countries reduce emissions to 30% below 1990 levels) could trigger a global economic catastrophy. I doubt such a steep reduction would correct inefficiencies and create more value for the world.

Last of all, if human beings must collaborate to avoid the costs of emissions, let them collaborate. If you meant exactly what you said when you wrote that the only solution you see to correct inefficiencies is "collective action," I withdraw any criticism of your assertion. If what you really meant is that the only solution is "coercive action" I must disagree.

But if you are correct, I find the solution morally inferior to suffering the consequences of the problem while "doing my part" to alleviate it voluntarily as my conscience and beliefs dictate.

Greg said...

I missed out on Earth Hour - you know why? Because I live in one of those "dark spots" on the globe (yellow on the other map), and the power was off when Earth Hour came around. For me, it puts things into perspective.

The morons who promote these things should really think about what they are doing, promoting poverty.

W. E. Messamore said...

Readers, don't take it from me. You just heard it from someone who lives in one of the dark spots. It's not fun, classy, or cool to have less energy.

W. E. Messamore said...

...thanks Greg!

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