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Recent Articles, Science - Environment

Environmentalists: How to tell the bad ones from the good

In 1997, while completing a science fair presentation, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner devised a way to test for bad environmentalists. The first part of his presentation was on the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. He noted this chemical:

  • is a major component of acid rain
  • can cause severe burns
  • accelerates corrosion of many metals
  • is often lethal when accidentally inhaled.

After explaining these risks, Nathan surveyed his listeners and asked how many of them would support a ban of this hazardous chemical. Of the 50 students surveyed, 43 supported a ban, 6 were unsure, and only one realized that dihydrogen monoxide is H2O, or water.

Yup, 43 students wanted to ban water. Nathan Zohner had exposed them as bad environmentalists.

Marks of a baddie

Some might object that these students weren’t actually bad environmentalists – they were just tricked.

But how were they tricked? Nathan never lied to them, and never even exaggerated the truth. He told them the chemical’s true hazards: water is a major component of acid rain, it can cause severe burns in its gaseous form, and drowning (accidentally inhaling water) is often lethal. True, they wouldn’t have banned water if they had known it was water, but the point is they were willing to ban a very useful chemical based on very limited information.

And they aren’t the only ones. Bad environmentalists abound, and some of them are very influential. Before Christians side with an environmental initiative, we need to sure the people we're listening to are good environmentalists. Telling the difference between the good and bad ones can often be very hard, but the “baddies” have at least a couple of flaws that Christians can be on the lookout for.

1. They make decisions based on one-sided information

These students were ready to ban a chemical after only hearing about its hazards. Would they have come to a different conclusion if they had also heard about dihydrogen monoxide’s many benefits?

Just imagine if Nathan had told them that yes, it can be lethal when inhaled, but on the other hand, if Man is deprived of it for as little as three days, he will die. And that without it, plant growth is impossible. Hmmm…this dihydrogen monoxide sounds like a pretty important chemical, doesn’t it? They wouldn’t need to know it was water to come to a different conclusion; they would just need to know about its benefits. The problem was, they made a decision based on a one-sided presentation.

In Proverbs 18:17 God speaks to this very issue. There we read: "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him." When we hear just the one side, we simply don't have enough information. Based on what the students heard, it made sense to ban water. However, they didn't have all the information. They needed to hear the other side. 

Far too often we will find environmentalists emphasizing only the one side. A classic example involves the chemical DDT. It has been vilified for the last number of decades and yet since its commercial introduction in 1944 it has been credited with saving millions of lives (some estimates put it between 100 million and 500 million). Though it is useful as a general insecticide its most impressive results came when it was used to stop mosquito-born diseases like malaria. In 1948, for example, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) had 2,800,000 reported cases of malaria. In 1962 large-scale DDT programs had reduced that to only 31 cases. Results like this garnered Dr. Paul Muller – the Swiss chemists who patented DDT as a contact insecticide – the Nobel Prize in medicine.

But the odds are, when you hear the word DDT, you don’t think of a beneficial chemical. You are more likely to recall the accusations leveled against the chemical in the 1960s. Environmentalists back then tried to get DDT banned, claiming it:

1) was harmful to bird populations, because it caused a thinning of their egg shells,
2) was persistent in the environment and didn’t break down quickly
3) was a cause of human disease since it built up in human fatty tissues.

There was some merit to these claims, particularly the first one, but there was a good deal of hype as well. Even as US bird populations were supposed to be suffering due to DDT spraying, the Auduborn Society was noting an upward trend in the numbers of most birds. The persistence of DDT in the environment was both a hazard as well as a benefit, as it meant the chemical didn’t need to be sprayed as often. It was true that DDT did build up in the fatty tissues of animals and humans, but only to very low levels that hadn't been shown to be hazardous.

The point here is not to argue that DDT is harmless. Its use does seem to have some impact on birds and here in the western world we were able to afford other methods that are safer to our avian friends. But the move to ban this chemical was a worldwide movement. In 1963, the last year Ceylon had wide-scale DDT spraying, malaria cases had dropped to 17. Then they stopped and by 1969, only 6 years later, the number of cases had risen back to 2,500,000. India used DDT to bring their cases of malaria down from an estimated 75 million in 1951 to only 50,000 cases in 1961. But then they reduced their use of DDT and by 1977 the number of malaria cases had risen to at least 30 million.

Even if you accept all of the claims made about the hazards of DDT, even if you believe it does cause harm to birds and may even be a contributing factor in some cancers, DDT was still a cheap and effective means of fighting malaria. If you factor in both the hazards and the benefits DDT was a clear winner.

But of course, if you just focus on the hazards even water should be banned.

Nowadays we see this same sort of one-sided presentation when it comes to the global warming debate. I was just reading a 2005 Christianity Today editorial by Andy Crouch, where he presented the idea of adopting all the global warming restrictions as akin to Pascal's Wager:

"Believe in God though he does not exist, Pascal argued, and you lose nothing in the end. Fail to believe when he does in fact exist, and you lose everything. Likewise, we have little to lose, and much technological progress, energy security, and economic efficiency to gain, if we act on climate change now—even if the worst predictions fail to come to pass."

Little to lose? Global warming initiatives like carbon taxes, and restrictions on the development of oil and gas, and the increasing rejection of coal, are all raising the cost of energy. And higher energy costs impact food prices, housing costs, access to medicine, the ability to heat homes, and much more. How are those with the most to lose – the world's vulnerable poor – going to deal with these increased costs? What Crouch's argument overlooks is that there is a real and enormous cost to implementing what the global warming catastrophists are demanding, and such a one-sided presentation is no basis for making responsible decisions.

2. They view the world as a closed system with limited resources

In 1980 two prominent environmentalists, Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich, made an interesting bet. Simon bet Ehrlich that any 5 metals that Ehrlich chose would, in ten years time, be cheaper than they were in 1980. Lots of people make bets, but there was something important at stake here. Simon and Ehrlich had two very different views of the world’s resources, and the bet was a way for them to wager on whose view was right.

Ehrlich thought the world’s resources were finite and limited, and as we used them, we were getting closer and closer to the point where we would run out of them. The predictions of doom you frequently hear in the media are usually based on this worldview. As resources became more and more rare, they should become more and more expensive, so Ehrlich was sure the 5 metals would be more expensive in 10 years' time.

Simon, on the other hand, had a much more optimistic view of the situation. Rather than running out of resources, Simon was sure the opposite was true. He was so optimistic he let Ehrlich choose the metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten) they would wager on. It didn’t matter what the specific resources were, he was confident they would be more plentiful, and therefore cheaper in 10 years.

Well, when 1990 rolled around Simon emerged the winner. All five metals had dropped in price, chromium by 5 percent and tin by an amazing 74 percent. But even as Simon emerged the winner, it was less clear how he won. Ehrlich for example, conceded he lost the bet, but refused to concede that Simon’s view of the world had beaten his worldview. Simon’s optimistic worldview just didn’t seem to make sense. How can the world’s resources keep increasing even as we keep consuming nonrenewable resources?

It comes down to Man. Ehrlich, and those who think like him, see Man as a consumer – they view each new person on this planet as yet another mouth to feed. But in Simon's worldview, we recognize Man as not just a consumer, but also a producer; so yes, each of us is one more mouth to feed, but we also come with two hands to create and craft and produce with.

Of course, it is not our hands, but our brains that are our biggest tools. The world’s resources can keep increasing because Man can use his brain - his God-given creativity – to create new resources.

For example, in Alberta there are huge oil sand deposits that were absolutely useless to mankind until quite recently. Then someone figured out a way to separate out the oil and suddenly Alberta had vast new oil sources. Yes, the oil was always there, but it wasn’t a resource until man’s ingenuity figured out a way to get at it.

Man can create resources in another way as well. One of the more interesting examples of this has to do with copper, which was an important component of phone lines. As the number of phones, faxes and computer modems increased, the number of phone lines increased as well. The cost of the copper in all these phone lines started becoming a concern for phone companies, so they began to investigate cheaper ways of transmitting the phone signals. Now, instead of copper, many phone systems use fiber optic lines made of glass. And glass is made of sand. Man’s ingenuity turned common sand into a resource that can be used to replace the more limited resource of copper. And these “sand” telephone lines can now be used to transmit hundreds of times more information than the old copper lines ever could.

So the ultimate resource on earth is Man’s ingenuity and it is limitless, growing with each new person born.

But, the critic might ask, is it truly limitless? Sure, we might replace copper with sand, but it's only a certain sort of sand, and what if we run out of that? The world is finite after all. Maybe Ehrlich was wrong about how many the earth can support, but surely even Simon would agree it can't support a trillion. Or even a 100 billion. Right?

Can the world support 1 trillion? Not at the moment, no, but we haven't put our God-given minds to this challenge yet. Shucks, the moon is only a hop, skip, and a jump away, and Mars could be next, so who knows what we might be able to turn them into. Unimaginable? Not with millions of little problem-solvers being born each year. We went from learning to fly, to landing on the moon in just 66 years – how's that for unimaginable? – so let's not buy into any sort of overpopulation hype. Instead, let's use our brains to explore what other resources we can create.

Besides, there is no reason to believe Earth's population will reach anywhere near 100 billion, with most saying it will top out at 15 billion or so. Countries like China and Japan and Russia are facing problems caused by already occurring or coming declines in population. Many Western nations are only staying steady due to immigration. Those nations that have treated children as a curse to be avoided, rather than as a blessing to be received (Prov. 17:6, Ps. 127:3-5) are going to have problems in the near future when there are not enough young people to care for the elderly generation. Whereas those that see children as a blessing will focus, not on limiting their numbers, but on providing for them. Creative thinking might have us mining meteors, or, in some other fashion, continuing to create resources.

Lest I belabor the point, here's just one more example. In Washington State farmers used to use sawdust as bedding for their cows. It was a waste product from the lumber industry that they put to productive use. But then someone else realized they could turn this waste product into wood pellets for wood-burning stoves. So the price of sawdust went up and farmers had to look elsewhere for bedding. So what did they do? Someone invented a process by which they could turn cow manure into bedding – it would be heated, the germs killed, and then the end product served the purpose well – manure was turned into mattresses. That’s what happens when Man imitates his Creator, and creates resources where they didn’t exist before.

That we get this right is more important than many Christians might realize. It was bad environmentalism, looking at the earth as a closed system, that was behind the push for restrictions on population. That in turn was an impetus behind the legalization of abortion and consequently the death of millions around the world including, but certainly not limited to, China with its one-child policy.

Conclusion

God calls us to be stewards of the earth, and in fulfilling that calling, there will be times when we can work alongside a number of secular environmental groups. After all, while they may not know the Lord, they do want to care for His planet.

But it's important that we, as Christians, seek to discern the good environmental efforts from the bad ones. Bad environmentalists do abound: groups that see Man as more of a problem than a problem-solver, or neglect to consider the poor in the plans they propose, or only offer a one-sided perspective.

This is no small matter - the DDT ban cost lives by the thousands and maybe millions. The global warming debate could impact food prices in ways that harm millions more. Overpopulation hysteria led to the abortion of millions too. We need to be able to discern good from bad because environmental issues really can be matters of life and death.

A version of this article was first printed in the October 2001 issue of Reformed Perspective.

Science - Environment

Environmentalism and marriage?

When I first wrote about a marriage/environmentalism connection ten years ago, there was no need to clarify what I wasn't trying to say. But today it seems only prudent to note that while some people are now pretending to "marry" bits of natures – maybe a tree, or the earth, or as happened with one university group, the ocean – that's not what we are talking about here. There is a marriage/environmentalism connection to be found in the Bible. While it takes some digging to find, understanding this connections helps us understand what God wants from our stewardship of the Earth. We find this linkage in Genesis 2:5b. Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible renders the text a little differently than most other versions. Rather than being told there was no man to till, tend or work the earth, Young reads, “…and a man there was not to serve the earth” (emphasis mine). Serve the earth? This doesn’t seem to make sense when you consider that only one chapter earlier man was told to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28-30). Still, Young’s translation is a legitimate one – the Hebrew word here that is translated as “serve” is translated the same way throughout the rest of the Bible. So how then do we make sense of this call to have dominion, and this verse that tells us we serve the earth? In Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin, Clarence J. Vos makes the point that having authority does not preclude serving. Marriage is an example of this. A husband is given authority over his wife but must love her like his own body, and must love her as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:21-33). He is given authority but must use that authority to build up his wife and family. This idea of "serving authority" makes sense in nature as well. It is our job to rule it, and our responsibility to take care of it as well. This "serving authority" sets Christian environmentalists apart from our secular counterparts who certainly wish to serve nature, but don’t believe Man should have dominion over it....

Science - Environment

The Poor: why we can't let the Global Warming debate be over

It’s been 25 years now since Vice President Al Gore famously declared “Only an insignificant fraction of scientists deny the Global Warming crisis. The time for debate is over.” Is it different now? We’re still being told the time for talking is done, and yet “warming” has become disputable enough to necessitate a rebranding – now it’s the “Climate Change” debate that’s over. This is a brilliant rhetorical move in so far as climate change is indisputable –  as Heraclitus declared, the one constant in life is change. Despite what we’re being told there is still a lot to discuss. Think it’s a given that we should spend trillions to slow global warming? It’s nowhere near that simple, as E. Calvin Beisner* pointed out in an article last May – there are an “enormous range of opinions among scholars about: • how each of the thousands of subsystems of the climate system will respond to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. • how much warming will come from the added CO2. • how much harm and benefit will come from that warming. • how much benefit will come from the fertilizing effect of rising CO2 on almost all plants. • how to balance those harms and benefits against the benefits of the energy derived from fossil fuels; and • what would be the costs and benefits of efforts to reduce CO2 emissions by substituting other energy sources for fossil fuels” He continued: Earth’s climate system is one of the most complex natural systems ever studied. It consists of thousands of subsystems — feedback mechanisms — most of which we still don’t understand. We don’t know how strong they are or in some cases even whether they increase or decrease warming or the balance of benefits and harms from it. Providing energy to everyone is one of the most complex activities ever undertaken. The cost of reducing fossil fuel use — which now delivers about 85% of all energy in the world — is scores of trillions of dollars that could be used otherwise with far more benefit. This brings us to a key point for Christians to consider: how are the poor being impacted? We have to speak up for them, because they seem to be forgotten in all of this. To underscore just how important it is that we speak up for them, let's remember what happened the last time the United Nations wanted to solve a world crisis. Starting in 1969 the United Nations Population Fund warned the world about the dangers of overpopulation - we were going to run out of food, out of space, and out of resources! As a result of this fear-mongering, millions of children around the world were aborted. In China many mothers were forced to do it, due to China's one-child policy, but in the West it was sometimes a terribly misdirected sense of nobility that drove women to abort, rather than bring another child into a world they were told was crowded to capacity. Except it wasn't, and isn't. Overpopulation was a myth. That's obvious today, as countries like China, Japan, Russia, are already dealing with a different type of population crisis – they have shrinking populations, leaving an increasing number of old people, and fewer and fewer young people to care for them. Even western nations like Germany, Canada, and the United States may start to decline in the not too distant future. This was the crisis that never was. Millions were killed for no reason at all. And Christians should have seen through it from the start. How could we have known? Because God tells us children are a blessing (Ps. 127:3) but overpopulation proponents treated them as more like a curse. When it comes to Climate Change, God gives us clear guidance in His Word once again. No matter what you think of Global Warming – no matter what degree you think it is, or is not, happening – the one thing all Christians can agree on is that we must not oppress the poor (Prov. 14:31). So when we craft climate change policies then we need to ask, how will the world's poorest deal with the rising energy costs, and the rising food costs that come with them? If we help the planet, but hurt the poor, is that a good tradeoff? It's nice to talk about renewable energy, but that's remains expensive and intermittent. How might the poor in Africa, or Asia, or South America be helped if they had access to cheap, reliable fossil fuels? And if we're going to spend trillions to fight carbon emissions, shouldn't we consider what might offer us a better return on that money? How many lives could be saved if we spent those trillions another way? How many millions could be saved with access to clean drinking water? Or a cure for malaria? Or access to housing? Or by the employment opportunities created by natural resource development? We're being told the debate is over but for the sake of the world’s poorest we can't let it be. * E. Calvin Beisner will be the feature speaker for Reformed Perspective's 2017 Spring Tour "The Grass is Greener." He is the author of books on economics, the Trinity, the Psalms, as well as environmental policy, and he is the spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation....

Science - Environment

FREE MOVIE: Blue

Documentary 2014 / 58 minutes Rating: 7/10 Blue is about an alternative – a Christian alternative – to the Green movement. Whereas the secular environmental movement too often sees man as a problem for the Earth, the Blue movement would start with the biblical understanding that Man is the pinnacle of God’s creation, and has been entrusted with the stewardship of the Earth. While the Green movement wants us to just leave things alone, the Blue movement knows that God has told us to take an active role in protecting and developing the Earth. The strength of the film is King’s unabashedly one-sided, presentation: 100% of the film is spent talking to like-minded Christians, politicians and scientists, including some pretty big names like E. Calvin Beisner, Lord Christopher Monckton and Vishal Mangal Wadi. And because this is the side we hear so little about from the mainstream media, this film can serve as a good counter-balance. But the weakness of the film is this same one-sided presentation. I doubt that someone watching this who was already sympathetic to the Green movement would watch this any change their mind. I think it would be more likely that they would think King’s uninterrupted bashing of the Green movement must be unfair, and couldn’t possibly be a fair representation of them. The environmental movement is actually as bad as King portrays but because he never lets the Greens speak for themselves, it is understandable that a skeptical listener wouldn’t just take King’s word for it. The presentation is good, and as documentaries go, it is quite entertaining. That’s another way of saying, if you like documentaries, you’ll like this one, but if you don’t like documentaries, this one isn’t likely to make you change your mind. Overall I’d say it is a great one for Christians, to help us better understand the difference between biblical stewardship and the environmentalist approach, but it probably isn’t a good one to give to your environmentalist friends. You can watch the whole movie for free online. Check it out below. ...