The Problem with Ms. Thunberg

Imagine someone discovered a cure for all childhood cancers, but it required killing every eagle on the planet. Would you choose eagles or children?

Everyone seems to know environmental activist Greta Thunberg these days, a 16 year old (17 in January 2020) high school student. Ms Thunberg insists the world is on the brink, that the current climate conditions - brought about by actions of mankind - represent a true, pressing existential threat and, unless immediate actions are taken, global destruction is imminent.

And, that the world as it’s been built over the past 6,000 years is wrong, that there needs to be massive change in what we do and how we do it. All of us.

There are a whole host of things that can be said about Ms. Thunberg, and most of them have already been said. But there’s something else that needs to be added, and that something is a question, a question that needs to be asked of everyone who has, like Odysseus tied to the mast as his ship passes the sirens, tied themselves to the climate crisis. That question is this: 

Are you willing to live with the price you insist be paid?

You want to end coal power - and nuclear power - and eventually all carbon-based power (and heat) generation - and replace it with some combination of solar and wind power. Even though doing so will result in the lost of hundreds of thousands of jobs but more importantly will make electricity substantially more expensive.

Do you have any idea what it’s like to live without air conditioning? Particularly if you are elderly and ill? Or living at 65 degrees all winter?

You would eliminate most of the plastics and chemical industries, industries responsible not only for hundreds of thousands of jobs, but also for all sorts of things that make life better: paints that protect houses and cars, pharmaceuticals that improve the lives of millions, plastics that make light-weight and effective packaging that allows Europeans to eat fresh bananas and corn and yams and kiwis - all year long.

You want to eliminate plastic bags and plastic packaging, replacing them with paper bags and paper packaging: made from trees and with a great deal of energy, more expensive than the plastics they replace, more costly to transport goods, with higher loss rates from damage to those good.

You cross the Atlantic on a multi-million dollar yacht and claim to be green, but you ignore the heavy industry and high technology necessary to make a carbon-fiber yacht and all its many pieces, the high technology, high energy processes that made the diesel engine, or the yacht’s refrigerator, or the packages for the food in that refrigerator, the yacht’s desalination machinery, or the GPS receiver that provided navigation. Never mind the GPS satellites that provided that navigation signal. All products of a modern Industrial Age and high energy industries of which you are ignorant.

You demand high tech electric cars but seem to be ignorant of how electric cars are made; or where that electricity comes from; or how much plastics and light weight materials - made from a host of complex, high tech chemical processes - are necessary to make those vehicles function at all, never mind function efficiently.

You insist that people live in dense urban environments and use public transportation, where does the steel come from to make modern cities? You certainly want to eat well, but apparently are unaware as to the technologies necessary for farms to grow enough crops to actually feed the world. Or to move crops to the people who eat them. And do so with a minimum of loss.

You speak of a technology model that, with reduced available low cost power, and reduced use of certain fertilizers, would support a global population substantially smaller than the current 7+ billion souls. Who gets to decide who has children and who doesn’t? 

You speak of a new technology model that will increase medical care costs; who decides how that medical care is parsed out?

And on and on.

While there are real issues with how the industrial / digital age uses the planet, industrialization has so dramatically improved the standard of living of everyone on the planet as to defy easy summation. You and your very manipulative handlers talk a great game but have no idea how many industries and technologies need to come together to simply make the pencil in your hand, never mind the watch on your wrist or the bicycle you don’t ride to school. From quantity and quality of foods, to quantity and quality of water, availability of health care and pharmaceuticals, availability of luxuries such as heating and air conditioning, comfortable clothes, pesticides, medicines, ease of travel, and incredibly productive economies that employ the bulk of the earth population, modern society has made lives longer, better, healthier and fuller.

Yet none of those who call for paring back on the various elements that make that modern life possible are willing to explain exactly how each of these replacement technologies will be parsed out. Will the people who live in Sub-Saharan Africa be banned from having energy consuming air conditioners? Nor do they seek to answer an even more important question: at what point is it simply not worth the trade-off?

Consider this: DDT, that now universally despised chemical, saved tens of thousand of GIs lives during World War II. And probably millions of lives in the following few decades. Was that worth it? 

If technology is available that will allow your grandfather to live into his 90s, but would eventually wipe out the giant panda, which would you choose? Go stand in front of your grandfather and ask yourself that question.