04 October 2015

Robert Zubrin: Merchants of Despair

Although I am extremely skeptical of many of his ideas, I decided to spring for $4 for a used copy of the 2012 book by Robert Zubrin (he wroteThe Case for Mars in 1996): Merchants of Despair; Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism. His thesis (apparently) is that there is an antihumanist strain in much of what he refers to as "radical environmentalism;" that sees the solution to human problems as constraints on human activity, population and development, rather than what he really believes we need, which is innovation and expansion into space. He is also skeptical, not so much, if I understand him right, that Climate Change is occurring, but that it's that serious a threat. He takes an anthropocentric view; that we should just modify the world; terraform Earth, so to speak, develop GMO crops that can produce more food; mitigate sea level rise by deliberately modifying the environment, etc. You get the picture. Ultimately a Right Wing libertarian utopian view; just get out of the way, let innovators solve the problems.  
I have long grappled with opposing tendencies in environmentalist thought, and I don't reject this kind of thinking entirely, although I believe that extreme skepticism is in order, and that there is a role of government in steering technology towards a relatively conservative view of mitigation and safe development. But having said that, we do need to rely on innovation to develop the technologies to get us through this century to a world where resources are not limits to prosperity but means to it, and where we understand that the universe, in terms of resources, is virtually unlimited; all that is necessary is the smarts to figure out how to manage it. But at present, as a planetary civilization, we don't have the ability to reverse serious errors. The good news is that technology seems to actually be on the verge of making it possible to produce abundant renewable energy, so that society can indeed move forward into an era of greater abundance and degrees of freedom to innovate, without risking seriously out of control and unpredictable changes to the atmosphere. It's nuts to just assume that CO2 is fine, because it promotes plant growth, when atmospheric scientists and paleontologists who know the most about the kinds of conditions that existed on Earth when, in the past, CO2 levels did reach extremely high levels, are almost unanimous in warning that the acidification and potential for anoxic conditions in the ocean could make our planet almost uninhabitable. That is just too big a risk to take, and people like Zubrin, I think, ignore these very real dangers.  
I guess what I believe is that a balanced approach is necessary. We are not going to conserve and de-technologize our civilization back to the 17th century to escape the consequences of global Climate Change. It just isn't going to happen. Nor should it. There will be mitigation, and even intervention. Because if it's feasible, and the threat is there, people somewhere in our interconnected global community are going to do it. So what we need is to understand what can be done, and try to be smart about it, try to make sure the world remains liveable, so that as we move forward, we will have the freedom of innovation and development that Zubrin and his co-boosters of a future spacefaring civilization envision.  
Anyway, although I admit to being predisposed to disagree with a great deal of what I understand Zubrin says about environmentalism and what I'll call the "case for caution," I've decided I should read his book with an open mind and see what evidence, historical and scientific, he cites for his case.

Stay tuned for my review, if you're interested. Might be a while, I have a lot of things to work on and read at the moment.

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