Why green votes red: the lifeboat earth fallacy

Wander around the world and through history classifying governments according to their political philosophies and environmental records, and you'll soon notice an almost perfect correlation between philosophy and environmental result: capitalist Taipei looks and is cleaner than communist Beijing, South Korea is environmentally much better than North Korea, West Berlin was better than East, Miami beats Havana, and at similar technology levels the most rapacious coal mining in Appalachia would be considered environmentally sensitive compared to what communists did in Poland and the Ukraine -or what they're doing now in Fuxin and Shanxi.

You'd expect, therefore, that people who care about keeping man-made pollution out of the environment would generally be rabid capitalists - but most aren't. On the contrary, the political agendas espoused by most of the people who identify themselves as green activists or strong supporters are those of the far left philosophers whose track records feature Chernobyl, the Three Gorges dam, upper Silesia, and the mass starvation going on in North Korea.

Look beyond the purely fascist states at jurisdictions where socialist control of government has been democratically constrained, and you see the same contradiction: the left gains power at least partially on the environmental vote, and then implements policies whose net effects degrade both the environment and population health.

It's easy to see why red action contradicts the green agenda: prosperity is clean, poverty is not. If a society chooses to limit the generation of economic surpluses, then it soon won't have the resources needed to combat human and environmental entropy - in the family analogy, kids who inherit the family home but consistently over spend their incomes on beer and pizza eventually find they can't afford to fix a leaky roof or replace corroding bathroom fixtures.

Rust and mold are, of course, completely natural -but green's tendency to vote red is not. When Clinton reduced the Army Corp of Engineers requested budget of $2.5 billion for Southern Louisiana Flood Control to $460 million he did so in response to environmentalist pressure - and set the stage for Katrina. In contrast, when the vicious campaign the New Democratic party launched against "Duff's ditch" gave them control of the Manitoba legislature in 1969, much of the project was too advanced to stop - and Manitoba's floodways have since saved billions in dollar costs while producing enormous human, animal, and environmental benefits.

So why? why does green vote red when every indication is that doing so works against green ideals? The common equivocation is the "no one answer" shrug: the claim that the casual suburban democrat who genuinely believes using a linen grocery bag helps protect the environment is responding to different values, and different beliefs, than the leftist idealogues stretching environmentalist argument to stop food production in California's central valley.

Unfortunately that's an evasion, not an answer - the answer is that the housewife and idealogue act and think differently but do so in response to conclusions each draws from the same mistaken analogy: one comparing the earth to a lifeboat hurtling through empty space.

Imagine yourself on a real lifeboat: endless days, endless heat; endless seas: a life delimited by sun, by wind, and by the people and resources there with you. Give up belief in eventual rescue or landfall and the image is a recipe for existentialist hell: picture your lifeboat spinning through empty space with no end but death and you get Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and the Malthus of popular imagination. Make the boat big enough to contain groups differing from yours in some easily identifable way, and the Donner party reality of finite resources justifies handing leadership to such shining lights of national socialism as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the Nietzschean theorists of Showa Japan.

The essence of the lifeboat in the analogy is that it is permanently disconnected from the infrastructure and economic system that produced it. The resources it launched with are finite and irreplaceable because there is no infrastructure, no human or industrial support, no magical Adam Smith to provide new resources: what's in the boat, is what's in the boat. Fuel used once is gone forever; sewage tossed overboard cannot be reclaimed; the last chocolate bar is the last chocolate bar.

In the lifeboat, both the socialist ideal: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs", and the environmentalist's domestic mantra: "reduce, re-use, recycle", express ideas that work for group survival.

In the lifeboat the red policies greens so often support: from the confiscatory daddy state and the replacement of law by ad hoc response, to the denigration of women and the enthusiasms for abortion and homosexuality, generally make survivalist sense: there is no room for democracy, population growth, family loyalties, or sea lawyers in a lifeboat.

Generalize from the real lifeboat to an image of the earth as an over populated lifeboat hurtling pointlessly through empty space and it's easy to see the Hummer driver as selfishly wasting resources; easy to see every new power plant as bringing forward the end of civilization; easy to buy the myth of the noble savage co-existing with nature as the right way forward for all mankind; easy to see abortion as improving the odds for the survivors; and easy to recognize the good guys in the boat as those opposing resource development, forcing down consumption, penalizing wastrels, and working to elect sociopathic fascists like Gore and Obama to the captaincy.

In reality, however, the analogy is completely wrong: the earth is not a lifeboat: there is no overboard, so nothing can be lost. Gasoline, for example, is not some limited legacy left us by a beneficient ancestral race, it's an industrial product used mostly to store and transport chemical energy - and, as such, we can either replace it as technology changes or, because burning it has no effect on the earth's supply of carbon or hydrogen, make as much of it as we want to pay for.

Television's Stargate SG1 featured an intrepid team stepping through a network of indestructible Stargates developed and abandoned by the race that fathered humanity to meet and easily outwit an ancient race of evil and manipulative parasites whose actions and attitudes mirror those of a cartoon capitalist drawn by Engels, Ayers, or Wright. A few of the worlds the team visits have larger populations actively seeking social justice, but the overwhelming majority have their entire populations concentrated in a small medieval village situated near the local stargate - villages populated by people who, despite centuries of oppression by vicious local villains and a complete lack of infrastructure, wear clean machine made clothing, work only at the odd handicraft, enjoy plentiful food, and generally spend their time peasanting joyously around the village square.

This is the lifeboat analogy realized in fiction: the five year old's daddy state ideal imagined by rich democrat dilettantes in which work is done by invisible agents, stuff magically appears when needed, bad guys are both morally inferior and easily defeated, and everything happens in the local now with neither cause nor consequence.

In reality, however, it takes more than a village to build or maintain a civilization and policies applicable to lifeboat societies tend to have perverse consequences when applied within a larger economic system - because real actions taken on the basis of false beliefs tend to produce results aligning more with reality than the beliefs. Handing power to leftists doesn't, for example, produce egalitarian solidarity and environmental harmony in the worker's paradise, it produces slave states like East Germany, Vietnam, or North Korea in which the group with the biggest guns gets smaller, richer, and more isolated while the majority gets bigger, poorer, and increasingly willing to rape mother nature in the struggle for personal survival.

Taken broadly, the pattern holds across the gamut of leftist policies winning green support: they seem intended to achieve largely laudable goals and at least arguably make sense for a small group abandoned on an otherwise uninhabited planet, but have consequences sabotaging green goals when applied in the real world of large scale human economic co-operation.

Thus green's greatest public successes have generally been its greatest environmental failures - for example:

  1. The most widely accepted green idea is almost certainly that expressed in the "re-use, reduce, recycle" mantra commonly taught school children.

    In situations where these ideas can be applied on a personal or person to person basis they generally make sense - but when they're applied to transactions mediated through the general economic system the consequences are virtually always perverse.

    It makes perfect sense, for example, for you to use bricks a neighbor wants to get rid of in your new barbecue pit - but municipal bylaws mandating that 50%, by weight, of the materials in demolished buildings be reused tilt builder decisions toward choosing between doing nothing or green field development. As a result these bylaws act as brakes against urban redevelopment and as accelerators for suburban growth, making winners out of slum landlords and giving green voters more of exactly the suburban sprawl with its attendant new roads, traffic, fuel use, agricultural land losses, and festering urban core, that they're most horrified by.

    The reason you can't generalize from the obvious value in re-using something a neighbour or family member discards, to forcing an entire society to do it is that society can't throw things away: there is no overboard. From an individual perspective something sent to the landfill is gone forever, but from a societal perspective garbage is just another resource subject to the same pricing mechanism everything else is - and the reason cost prohibits much commercial use of recycled brick is that brick manufacturing is precisely the kind of energy intensive, highly automated, process that typically produces middle class wealth, where brick recovery is a labor intensive, low energy, cottage industry of the kind that makes the single family outhouse a status symbol in Cuban peasant society.

    In general, public re-use, recycling, or reduction mandates come into existence only when the indicated action increases system wide total cost without providing off-setting economic benefits - when, in other words, the action reduces everyone's quality of life by reducing the economic surplus from which positive change is paid for. Thus nobody has to mandate automotive part and steel recycling because this makes economic sense, but newsprint recycling must be both subsidized and mandated because it costs significantly less, both in terms of dollars and in terms of polutants released into the environment, to replace newsprint than to recycle it.

  2. Green's enthusiastic embrace of the left's climate change extravaganza contradicts everything environmentalists claim to stand for.

    Warm climates support more life, and a greater diversity of life, than cold ones - throughout history human expansion and progress has been correlated in time with warm periods; contractions, hunger, and despotism with cooling periods. If greens actually believed in science they'd laugh warmists off the podiums; if they actually believed themselves fighting to preserve and extend biodiversity and healthy environments they'd be desperately hoping for another medieval warming period; if they believed in professional integrity or limitations on personal consumption they'd want warmist leaders from Gore to Mann jailed.

    They don't - instead they behave like cult members: screaming that the end is near and demanding that those who question the obvious dishonesty of the press release pseudo-science promulgated by warming's best known talking heads be jailed or executed for crimes against humanity.

    Some of the passion is easily understood: climate careerists and their cheerleaders have deep financial and personal interests in quashing dissent, and every cult teaches its members to despise the unenlightened - but those kinds of explanation don't address the underlying appeal that's allowed warmists to inflict one of the greatest public policy disasters western culture has ever seen.

    Think in terms of the lifeboat analogy and the reason is obvious: at the most superficial level almost all small boat - big ocean stories picture heat from the sun as life threatening, and at the deeper level of the lifeboat earth analogy warming really would be a threat to those on board because it produces more life, more diversity: more consumers competing for finite resources.

    Nobody really wants to think about this, but the lifeboat's malthusian resource economics has a murderous consequence: eugenics - because throwing lesser humans overboard provides lebensraum for those in control of the boat. Thus Hitler didn't get 60 million decent Germans to support killing off Jews, cripples, and gypsies just by telling them the fatherland required it of them - he told them that the higher position the Aryan race had achieved on the evolutionary scale gave their government the right and the obligation to take control of the boat's resources away from the lessor races who had conspired to divide those resources between themselves.

    The lifeboat meme celebrates existentialist despair: God is dead, and there is no parent civilization to rescue and judge the survivors - meaning that survival in the face of finite and dwindling resources becomes the only moral yardstick and actions, such as aborting 55 million black lives in the womb or turning a blind eye as the middle east's Moslem Brotherhood systematically kills Christians, are morally right because right is whatever helps the fittest survive longest.

  3. Green efforts to mandate the spread of florescents as replacements for incandescent light bulbs were sold on the twin assumptions that the electrical power available on lifeboat earth is finite, and that reductions in power demand are matched by reductions in the pollution produced through power generation.

    At the individual level making the switch can make sense because believers get a psychic boost out of doing something to help, everybody who does it gets an immediate reduction in the monthly power bill, and few check to see whether reliability is good enough for the power savings to ever add up to the cost of the new bulbs.

    In reality, however, power plants, particularly coal plants, become significantly less efficient, and thus dirtier, when run below capacity - and, worse, extending the life of older plant increases both unit power costs and long term total emissions because the new plants would have been more efficient and thus cleaner.

    Thus the net effects of the red/green success in getting incandescents banned in favor of florescents were to directly inject unrecoverable mercury into people and their environment; to increase local emissions by extending the life of older coal plants; to decrease local economic surpluses by raising local power costs while lowering power plant operating efficiency; and to increase global pollution by forcing the export of jobs sensitive to power costs to environmentally unconstrained Chinese industry.

  4. Trees, bushes, and other forest plants have a natural life cycle that ends, in nature, when combustible materials burn to clear the way for another cycle. Logging has broadly similar effects to fire, except that local animal life is either unaffected or benefited, and new canopy growth is accelerated relative to fire damaged areas.

    Not letting anyone cut down healthy trees lining your street - or burn down the ones in your front yard -makes perfect sense; but when society interferes in the natural process of forest renewal by preventing both logging and fire what happens is that fuel accumulates until hotter and larger fires become unstoppable - converting a natural continuous renewal process affecting a few hundred acres at a time into one in which a single fire eventually destroys entire forests for thirty or forty years at a time.

    Thus environmentalist action sold the public as protecting both trees and owl or other habitats has, over a period of more than forty years, significantly damaged the American lumber industry, caused hundreds of thousands of man years of lost employment, sacrificed American wood markets overseas to Russian, Finnish, and Chinese interests, raised lumber costs for the American building industry, abrogated property rights via the courts to the point that anyone now encountering a rare or threatened species on owned land is best advised to kill it off as quickly and quietly as possible - and the direct effect has been to see both owl habitats and local economic surplus destroyed through large scale fires in areas where environmentalists won - and people, owls, and forests all flourishing in areas where they lost.

  5. One of the great contradictions in the green movement is its ferocious opposition to fission power and equally dedicated support for wind and solar powered electrical generation.

    Today's commercial fission plant is the result of sixty years of leftist opposition to progress but the core technology, paricularly as evolved for use by the American Navy, has actually progressed to the point that a late ninties GE S9G combined naval reactor and turbine produces about 200,000 times as much power per square foot as the typical wind farm, does so at about 10 cents on the commercial licensee's dollar, doesn't need long transmission lines, doesn't kill birds or small mammals, doesn't make much noise, doesn't destroy the landscape, doesn't need coal or gas fired backup, and has an essentially perfect safety record despite being widely deployed on mobile platforms exposed to every extreme on the planet.

    There are many issues here, but the key one is that leftists have been able to create, in the minds of the green voter, an image of nuclear power as dangerous and one of wind power as clean and safe - with the former a consequence of a Soviet inspired 1960s dis-information campaign, and the latter based on leveraging the disconnect between individual and society underlying much of the lifeboat analogy's appeal.

    On a lifeboat the perception is that what's there, is there - if there's a wind turbine on board then there's a wind turbine on board: it wasn't made, it just is; and any power it generates is seen as produced solely by the turbine, not by the industrial processes that put the machine and its supporting infrastructure on the boat. That's both the five year old's view of what's in daddy's house and green journalism's view of the coal powered electric car with its remote smokestack and hugely polluting batteries - but what's fundamental about it is the disconnect between the personal view of the nice clean blade spinning freely in the wind and the reality that the windmill in commercial power production is a small part of an environmentally negative, high cost, low reliability, system that can't be scaled to support a modern industrial society.

    And that, of course, is the point: forcing society to use wind and solar in the short term forces economic and population regression in the longer term - bad for people and bad for the environment, but a useful means of reducing competitor consumption on the lifeboat.

The bottom line on all this is simple: the lifeboat earth analogy captures a world view in which there are too many people competing for finite resources, gets sold to greens by encouraging them to assume that what makes sense for individuals or disconnected small groups makes sense for society as a whole, and produces policies sabotaging green goals because reality ultimately matters more than perception and the simple reality is that the left's most fundamental assumptions about resource limitations and the human economic system are completely wrong.

Paul Murphy, a Canadian, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.