Is Climate Change the new Eugenics?

Writing in the Telegraph James Delingpole picks up on a throw away point made by Niall Ferguson in the episode about medicine in his series Civilization: Is the West History?   Ferguson pointed out that eugenics was widely believed at the turn of the twentieth century, but is now known to be nonsense and dangerous nonsense at that.  Ferguson points out that man made climate change is widely believed today.

There are a number of possible interpretations of this.  One is that Ferguson is simply drawing a comparison to show that eugenics was a mainstream belief accepted by a great many well respected people.  Or you could take it that Ferguson was pointing out that man made climate change is another widely held but wrong idea, possibly an equally dangerous one.

But I hold to a third way of looking at it.  Ferguson is a mischief maker who deliberately dropped in a controversial point.  He artfully made it ambiguous enough to wind people up across the spectrum.  When someone is trying to wind you up, don’t be wound up strikes me as the best response. 

However Mr Delingpole has taken the exact opposite approach.  He has cheerfully recruited Ferguson into the ranks of climate change skeptics.  And he has gone further, and put together an argument drawing an even closer parallel.  He has managed to draw a link between eugenics and environmentalists.  Heady stuff.  He just falls short of taking it all the way and blaming the greens for the gas chambers.  You can find the full thing here.

If you want a summary, there is a writer on environmental matters who has apparently been described positively at some point in history by a former member of President Obama’s staff.  A quote taken out of context from this guy’s work dating from the fifties seems to suggest he is in favour of something that does sound a bit like eugenics.  I have been a keen environmentalist for over thirty years and I have never heard of this so called guru.  It is obviously just ridiculous to tar a whole movement based on one very old quote from a very obscure source.

Sorry Delingpole, I can dig up quotes from all sorts of people and use them to discredit other people all day long if I want.  It is a silly way to spend your time.  I have no idea whether or not Niall Ferguson is a supporter of man made climate change or a denier of it.  I can see the appeal of having him on your side, but it doesn’t alter the facts of the issue one way or the other.

Ferguson has, as infuriatingly enough he nearly always has,  good reason to say the outrageous things he says.  When he points out that eugenics was widely believed it is impossible to disagree.  This article from the Guardian makes that clear enough.  (If like me you are an advocate of science, you really need to read this.)

Now I don’t want to talk about climate change on this blog.  There are plenty of other places that gets talked about online.  But I will say that it is fundamentally a scientific question, which while difficult to answer will one day be answered.  Either the carbon dioxide we are emitting is causing the earth to warm up or it isn’t.  You would certainly expect it to, so the onus is on the skeptics to explain why they think it isn’t.  But I can think of enough examples of things that seem obviously true and yet are not to be sympathetic to skeptics.  And I regard skeptics as generally admirable people who keep the rest of us on our toes.

And having dismissed the argument that environmentalists are covert eugenicists I will admit that unfortunately a lot of greens are far from rational.    I was sent a very interesting article that makes this case very well.  It is Roots of Sustainability written by Glenn Rickets.  (Thanks to Professor on Forum Gallorum for it.)  It is hopelessly partisan and overstates its case considerably.   I was particularly irked by the suggestion that Rachel Carson’s successful campaign against DDT had led to a loss of life in regions of the world afflicted by mosquito borne malaria.  This gets repeated again and again and is complete nonsense.  The replacements for DDT were both safer and more effective.  But tone down the stridency and there is some sense in it.

Many environmental concerns have no bearing whatever on facts or assessments of risk. I recently saw a tweet suggesting that American drinking water was now comparable in quality to the third world.  On investigating I found that the contaminant was hexavalent chromium at parts per billion.  It wasn’t even close to being at a level that might cause any harm.  The people behind this particular scare were the Environmental Working Group who have form in this area.  They seem to specialise in putting inaccurate facts into the public domain.  It would have been really refreshing to hear some greens pointing out that this whole story was nonsense.

Environmental issues usually have better science behind them than that one of course.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are treated with scientific rigour.

A lot of predictions made by environmentalists are now old enough to be tested against reality.  Paul Erlich for example was predicting in the seventies that the major problem facing the world was population growth which would lead to resource depletion and hunger.   Well it hasn’t remotely turned out that way.  The population has grown, but the proportion of people living in poverty has fallen everywhere except Africa.  And although there are a lot more people alive today, standards of living in aggregate continue to rise.  And people are a lot healthier and live longer.

You can’t really fault Erlich as a scientist.  I have read a great deal of his stuff, though as it happens not his most famous book The Population Bomb.  You can’t deny he is intelligent and perceptive.  But as it happens he got things completely wrong.  This is a problem and it needs to be addressed.  I really want to understand why things turned out so different to expectations, especially as those expectations seemed so well founded.  But you don’t often hear anyone discussing it.

It seems like a lot of environmental problems get treated as if they can only be solved by personal sacrifice and contrition.  It does sound more like a religion than science. And that is quite worrying, because as the case of Erlich shows even when you are pretty clear minded you can still get things pretty wrong.  If you are using green issues as a way of dealing with some guilt issues you have no chance of getting it right.

I think that with all the technology and information we have available to us, most environmental problems can be solved.  When it comes to global warming, I am pretty sure it is real.  I am also pretty sure it can be solved.  Thirty years ago I was pretty sure that population was out of control and that it couldn’t be solved, so I could be just as wrong now as I was then.

But whatever their shortcomings, one thing I am sure about is that not many environmentalists support eugenics.  And I am pretty sure that James Delingpole doesn’t really believe it either.

If you are interested in the environment you may be interested in my review of the founding text of the environmental movement, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.


Filed under Niall Ferguson

7 Responses to Is Climate Change the new Eugenics?

  1. Denis Stewart

    This is a very interesting and thought-stirring piece. I haven't read either the article by James Delingpole [not sure I want to, based on your summary!] or the predictions by Paul Ehrlich to which you refer. My main question prompted by your piece is your assertion that Ehrlich 'got things completely wrong'. Whilst I take you points about population growth and the proportions of humanity living in [abject] poverty, etc., I tend to the view that human population growth, at it's current level, is unstainable within this finite planet, irrespective of our undoubted capability to find/invent technological solutions to environment-related problems.

    I wonder how far you would agree that the recent RSA Presidential Lecture by David Attenborough is relevant. See my brief post at:

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment. With regards to Paul Erlich's predictions, I was thinking of one particular one that unfortunately I can't give a web reference for. I had a text book written by him called Ecoscience. It was a thick book and I read it from cover to cover in 1980 the way you do when you are 20. In a section on China he said that the best estimate for its population in 2000 was 1.3 billion. But he then qualified it by saying it was impossible for such a large population to be fed and that by 2000 some major catastrophe would occur to reduce it back below 900 million. That is how I remember it anyhow. I don't have the book any longer and I am talking about 30 years ago.

    Obviously he is right in some respect. There is a limit to how many people the planet can feed. But his estimation of what that figure actually is must have been very wrong.

    With regard to Saint Attenborough, it does look like the emancipation of women seems to have the unintended side effect of solving poverty and population growth. Who saw that coming? Prediction is a tough business.

  3. Ehrlich had a chapter in Population Bomb with all sorts of drastic “predictions.”

    Of course, the entire chapter was prefaced with several paragraphs along the lines of “if this trend does not change, if humans fail to act in this regard, if the current political failure to fight disease X continues and spreads to others, and if air pollution and water pollution are not reined in . . . “

    Since then we got the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the U.S. We established the National Wilderness System, the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and expanded the National Parks. We got a lot smarter about managing National Forests and other public lands. We got a lot smarter about medicine.

    I think it's unfair to take a qualified prediction, ignore the qualifications, and pronounce the predictor in error.

    I'm reminded of a favorite old line from — Bob Schieffer? Walter Cronkite? — some old school journalist who said, 'The only correct answer to the poll question, “if the election were held today . . .” is, “It would be illegal.”

    If all present trends continue, we're in deep trouble. There are billions of people in about 200 different national governments out there working to change those trends.

  4. That is good point Ed, but I didn't mean to pick out Erlich for particular opprobrium. In fact I think he should be praised for putting his neck out. We need bold people like that.

    Nobody was really disputing what he was saying at the time. I am pretty sure nobody was saying that China would increase its population by the amount predicted AND reduce poverty AND avoid any serious political upheaval.

    The message of the population bomb in the seventies was about as well accepted as the warnings of climate change now. I can't help thinking that people on either side of the climate change debate who are sure they are right are probably the least well informed.

  5. Eugenics is a bad analogy to climate for a lot of reasons, but some obvious ones come to mind: Racism and “social Darwinism.”

    It's not a perfect fit, but if you take the states in the U.S. that authorized eugenics solutions to anything, you get a pretty good map of the most racist cultures in America. The case that got to the Supreme Court and produced the appalling line from Justice Holmes, “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” came from Virginia.

    Eugenics also appealed to the businessmen, the conservatives who considered themselves morally superior to everybody else.

    In short, eugenics then appealed to people who would, today, be “non-believers” in climate change, and those who work against government doing anything to prevent disaster.

    Eugenics, in the extreme, offensive-to-today's morals form, was not driven by scientists.

    As sea levels rise, as climate change makes some agriculture impossible, it will be the same poor and downtrodden who were victimized by eugenics in law.

  6. All very good points Ed. But eugenics did appeal to some very progressive people as well. George Bernard Shaw for example, though he had quite a few highly eccentric views. Sidney and Beatrice Webb – leading figures in the foundation of the British Labour Party – both wrote in favour of eugenics. It is certainly true that most enthusiastic eugenicists were also the most right wing as you say. But they weren't the only ones.

    As to scientists, I am afraid that there was at least one scientific journal devoted solely to the subject. Scientists are human too and can get things seriously wrong.

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