Bad science and bad ethics in Peter Gleick’s Review of “Apocalypse Never” at Yale Climate Connections

The ideas of Thomas Malthus (center) were used by British governments to justify the Irish Famine, 1845-1848 (left) and Bengali Famine, 1943-1945 (right) before becoming the basis for 20th Century environmentalism. In his review of Apocalypse Never …

The ideas of Thomas Malthus (center) were used by British governments to justify the Irish Famine, 1845-1848 (left) and Bengali Famine, 1943-1945 (right) before becoming the basis for 20th Century environmentalism. In his review of Apocalypse Never at Yale Climate Connections, scientist Peter Gleick defends Malthus and the Malthusian tradition.

1.

In his review of my new book, Apocalypse Never, at Yale Climate Connections, Peter Gleick accuses me of mischaracterizing environmentalism and misrepresenting climate science. He argues that I construct strawmen, promote nuclear energy above other energies, and engage in ad hominem (personal) attacks.

In fact, Gleick mischaracterizes Apocalypse Never, which accurately reflects the best available science and promotes energy progress, not nuclear to the exclusion of other sources, without making personal attacks. 

Most troubling, Gleick writes, “if Malthusians are wrong, all they would have done is made the world a better place.” But in Apocalypse Never I show that, for Malthusians, making the world a “better place” has meant letting the poor starve, keeping poor nations dependent on wood fuel, and diverting World Bank funding from dams, roads, and fertilizer for development to charitable endeavors like solar panels for rural villagers aimed at making poverty sustainable.

To be sure, there is much that Gleick and I agree upon. “We know how to provide safe water and sanitation to the billions who still lack it,” he writes. “We know we must now work to both cut greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the severity of climate change and at the same time work to adapt to the impacts we can no longer avoid. We know how to improve agricultural efficiency to both grow enough food for everyone and to get it to hungry mouths.” 

What we differ on is how to get there. In Apocalypse Never I show why poor people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America will enjoy higher standards of living, and protect the natural environment, by doing the exact same thing Americans and Europeans have done, which is to industrialize, urbanize, build flood control systems, modernize agriculture, and move up the energy ladder, from wood and dung to hydroelectric dams and fossil fuels to nuclear. 

I further argue that, if we continue to develop in these ways, deaths from natural disasters will continue to decline, food surpluses will continue to rise, and global carbon emissions will likely peak and decline soon, preventing temperatures from rising more than three degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels.

Gleick disagrees and defends the Malthusian notion that future food surpluses are highly uncertain due to climate change, and argues that I ignore such risks. To get to the bottom of the disagreement, we need to review the best available science, as well as the history of Malthusian ideology.

2.

In Apocalypse Never I explicitly acknowledge climate change’s potentially negative impacts on food production and point out that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and every other major scientific body conclude that fertilizer, irrigation, flood control, roads, tractors, and other technologies needed to increase yields massively outweigh rising temperatures around the world, including in poor and developing nations in the tropics.

Gleick, for his part, offers no reason to expect declining food production, much less famine. Food surpluses have been rising gradually for millennia and especially in the 220 years since Thomas Malthus wrote his famous tract, claiming that humans were doomed to periodic starvation. 

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Gleick similarly accuses me of denying any relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, and ignoring how fire seasons have grown longer. But on page two I write, “Today, California’s fire season stretches two to three months longer than it was fifty years ago.”  As for extreme weather, I wrote, about one of the world’s leading experts,  “[Roger] Pielke stresses that climate change may be contributing to some extreme weather events. ‘For instance,’ he notes, ‘some recent research is suggestive that regional warming in the western United States can be associated with increasing forest fires.’”

My point is, again, that human development and disaster preparedness massively outweigh whatever increase there’s been in hurricane wind speed, the length of forest fire season, or modestly more precipitation. “What most determines how vulnerable various nations are to flooding,” I note, “depends centrally on whether they have modern water and flood control systems, like my home city of Berkeley, California, or not, like the Congo.”

Gleick falsely accuses me of cherry-picking a quote from a 2019 New York Times story on Amazon fires. “If you look at the actual article he cites,” writes Gleick, “the journalist makes clear the “influence” of climate change just two sentences later.” But, as noted above, I have never suggested there wasn’t an influence, just that it is outweighed by other factors.

Gleick confuses the reader about the relationship between disasters and extreme weather events. A hurricane whose wind speed has been made more intense by climate change but doesn’t hurt anyone or destroy property, is not a disaster, according to IPCC, dictionaries, and common sense. And yet Gleick conflates the two concepts, leading readers to believe that we have become more vulnerable. “In fact,” he writes, “a large and growing body of literature already shows strong links between climate change and extreme events…” But I never deny those links and indeed address them specifically in Apocalypse Never

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What I note — again – is that however much climate change might be making extreme weather worse, it hasn’t made up for the huge improvements in resilience which have made natural disasters better. Deaths from natural disasters have declined over 90 percent in the last century, and there has been no increase in the cost of natural disasters once greater wealth and development are accounted for. 

Gleick falsely claims I misrepresent the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, when in fact I note that it “concludes that crop yields will increase significantly, under a wide range of climate scenarios.” Gleick claims this is a misrepresentation, quoting FAO saying, “Climate change already has negative effects on crop yields, livestock production and fisheries, particularly in low- and middle- income countries. Such impacts are likely to become even stronger later in this century.” 

But the quote in no way contradicts what I wrote. Climate change is, once again, a factor, but it is outweighed by other factors. Gleick notably fails to mention what I wrote just one sentence later in my book: “Food production, the FAO finds, will depend more on access to tractors, irrigation, and fertilizer than on climate change, just as it did in the last century.”

Gleick claims I dismiss “the threat of species extinction” and biodiversity loss, and that Apocalypse Never “ignores the critical issues of biodiversity raised by invasive species”. In reality I debunk the unscientific claim that humans are causing a “sixth mass extinction,” and make the case that our conservation concern should be focused on protecting and expanding habitat and the number of wild animals. 

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I specifically discuss the threat that invasive species pose to New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguins and albatross populations. “Invasive species including the stoat, a kind of weasel, as well as dogs and cats, ate the penguins” (p. 56). “Rabbits, cows, pigs, and cats have negatively impacted the albatross population as well, and scientists believe cats and pigs caused the local extinction of the southern royal albatross on Auckland Island, while also preventing the species’ return.”

Gleick claims I contradict myself by writing, “When it comes to protecting the environment by moving to superior alternatives, public attitudes and political action matter,” to which Gleick adds, “exactly the point of environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace that worked to change public opinion.” But I present evidence showing that “Whaling peaked in 1962, a full thirteen years before Greenpeace’s heavily publicized action in Vancouver, and declined dramatically during the next decade.” Gleick never counters the evidence I present; he simply asserts it’s wrong.

Gleick misrepresents my discussion of uncertainty and complexity as it relates to so-called “tipping points.” Gleick suggests I claim high levels of uncertainty are “unscientific” when in reality I point out that speculations about tipping points are unscientific because levels of uncertainty and complexity are too high, which is exactly why IPCC does not take such scenarios seriously. I don’t disagree that we can’t rule out extreme scenarios, and never wrote as such. I simply point out that such scenarios are not scientific and incomparable with other unscientific speculations.

Finally, Gleick claims I argue that the “only solutions” I believe “will work” are “nuclear energy and uninhibited economic growth,” but later writes, “His passionate belief that nuclear is the only answer to our energy and climate problems (maybe along with a mega-dam on the Congo River in Africa)…”

In truth, a major theme of Apocalypse Never, is that what matters is the direction of travel. We should want to move up the energy ladder — from wood and dung to hydro-electric dams, liquified petroleum gas (to replace wood and dung), natural gas (to replace coal), and then, yes, nuclear energy — and not down the energy ladder, which is what Malthusian environmentalists advocate. 

3.

Gleick writes, “Shellenberger no doubt believes in, and supports, the goal of a better future. So do environmental scientists, activists, and any decent human.” The question is what we mean by “better future.” For Malthus and Malthusian scientists, a better future is one where there are fewer people. “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England,” Malthus famously wrote, “and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” 

Conservationists and environmentalists defend Malthus by claiming that he wrote his famous book when it was still too early to know that the industrial revolution would radically increase food production. Malthus came of age in what historians call the “advanced organic economy,” which, due to its reliance on renewables, namely wood fuel and waterwheels, “condemned the majority of the population to poverty” for inherently physical reasons, notes Malthus biographer Robert Mayhew.

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But the bleakness of Britain’s renewable-powered economy hadn’t prevented contemporary thinkers from imagining the end of hunger and universal prosperity. Indeed, there was evidence of success all around them. Had it not been for the continuous improvements to agriculture yields during Malthus’s lifetime, along with an expansion of farming from 11 to 14.6 million acres between 1700 and 1850, hunger in the British countryside would have been far worse.

Does any of this matter? Did Malthus’ ideas have any impact on the real world? 

They did. British elites used Malthus’ ideas to justify letting one million people starve to death during the Great Irish Famine. To this day, when people think of the Great Famine, they tend to focus on the fungus that killed potatoes and overlook the fact that, between 1845 and 1849, Ireland exported food, including beef, to England. Irish families had to sell their pigs in order to pay the rent, even as their children were starving. 

Malthus taught the British to blame the Irish. “The cheapness of this nourishing root [potatoes],” Malthus wrote, “joined to the ignorance and barbarism of the [Irish] people, have encouraged marriage to such a degree that the population has pushed much beyond the industry and present resources of the country.” 

Thirty years later, the British governor-general of India argued that the Indian population “has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil.” Later he claimed the “limits of increase of production and of the population have been reached.”

Then, between 1942 and 1943, as India produced food and manufactured goods for the British war effort, local food shortages emerged. Food imports could have alleviated the crisis, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to allow it. Why? “Much of the answer must lie in the Malthusian mentality of Churchill and his key advisors,” concludes Mayhew. 

“Indians are breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war,” Churchill claimed, falsely. Partly as a result of his decisions, three million people died in the Bengali famine of 1942 to 1943, which was three times the death toll of the Great Irish Famine.

After World War II, American conservationists adopted the thinly-veiled Malthusian idea that making the world a better place involved letting poor people in poor nations starve to death. Top academic institutions helped make Malthusian ideas mainstream. 

In 1972, an NGO called the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth,” a report concluding that the planet was on the brink of ecological collapse, which The New York Times covered on its front page. “The most probable result,” the report declared, “will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” The collapse of civilization was “a grim inevitability if society continues its present dedication to growth and ‘progress.’”

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Humankind needed to play “triage” and let poor people in Bangladesh die, argued Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, and Anne Ehrlich in their 1977 textbook. In the “concept of triage,” they wrote, “those in the third groups are those who will die regardless of treatment. . . . The Paddocks [the authors of the 1967 book Famine 1975!] felt that India, among others, was probably in this category. Bangladesh is today a more clear-cut example.”

Malthusianism grew its hard edge in the 1970s. Garrett Hardin, the University of California biologist, published an essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” in which he argued that “we must recognize the limited capacity of any lifeboat.” The picture Hardin painted was of keeping people out of the lifeboat. Otherwise, the people trying to get in would doom the people in the lifeboat, in addition to themselves. “However humanitarian our intent,” said Hardin, “every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain, and for subsequent generations.”

Malthusians and socialists within the Democratic Party and center-left political coalitions in Europe clashed overpopulation and poverty. Socialists blamed poverty for food crises, where Malthusians blamed too many people. The clash resolved itself when Malthusians, including Paul Ehrlich, accepted a redistributive agenda of rich nations assisting poor nations with development aid so long as that money went to charity and not things like infrastructure. This was the seed of what the UN would christen “sustainable development.”

Ehrlich and Holdren argued that the world likely did not have enough energy to support the development aspirations of the world’s poor. “Most plans for modernizing agriculture in less-developed nations call for introducing energy-intensive practices similar to those used in North America and western Europe—greatly increased use of fertilizers and other farm chemicals, tractors, and other machinery, irrigation, and supporting transportation networks—all of which require large inputs of fossil fuels,” they noted.

A better way, they said, was “much greater use of human labor and relatively less dependence on heavy machinery and manufactured fertilizers and pesticides.” Such labor-intensive farming “causes far less environmental damage than does energy-intensive Western agriculture,” they claimed. In other words, the “secret” to “alternative farming methods” was for small farmers in poor nations to remain small farmers.

Malthusians justified their opposition to the extension of cheap energy and agricultural modernization to poor nations by using the left-wing and socialist language of redistribution. It wasn’t that poor nation needed to develop, it was that rich nation needed to consume less.

4.

But then, the global population growth rate peaked, and with it fears of overpopulation. In 1972, the editor of Na­ture predicted, “The problems of the 1970s and 1980s will not be famine and starvation but, ironically, problems of how best to dispose of food surpluses.” The same editor noted that fear-mongering “seems like patronizing neo-colonialism to people elsewhere.” Others agreed. One demographer said the problem wasn’t a population explosion but rather a “nonsense explosion.” 

Danish economist Ester Boserup, working for the FAO, did historical research finding that as the human population increased, people had long found ways to increase food production. Malthus had been wrong even about the preindustrial era, she found. 

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In 1981, the Indian economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines showing that famines are not caused by a lack in food, and occur primarily in times of war, political oppression, and the collapse of food distribution, not production, systems. Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998.

By 1987, demographers knew the number of humans added annually to the global population had reached its peak. Seven years later, the U.N. held its last Family Planning meeting. Between 1996 and 2006, United Nations family planning spending declined 50 percent.

As it became clear that the growth in the global birth rate had peaked, Malthusian thinkers started to look to climate change as a replacement apocalypse for overpopulation and resource scarcity. The influential Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider embraced the Malthusianism of John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich, and he invited them to educate his scientists.

“John did a more credible job of laying out the population-resources- environmental problems than nearly anyone else could have done at the time,” wrote Schneider. “That talk helped the [National Center for Atmospheric Research] scientists to see the big picture clearly and early on.”

While collaborating with Holdren and George Woodwell, a cofounder of Environmental Defense Fund, at a conference organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1976, Schneider said he made the case that “humans were multiplying out of control and were using technology and organization in a dangerous, unsustainable way.”

Schneider attracted media attention by speaking of climate change in apocalyptic terms. “We were moving beyond the halls onto the world stage.” Thanks to the work of friend Paul Ehrlich, he said, “In the summer of 1977 I appeared on four [CBS The Tonight Show Starring Johnny] Carson shows.”

In 1982, a group of economists who called themselves “ecological economists” met in Stockholm, Sweden, arguing, in their founding tract seven years later, that risks demand we assume Malthusians right, in predicting hard natural limits on human activity. “Ecological economists distinguished themselves from neo-Malthusian catastrophists by switching the emphasis from resources to systems,” notes an environmental historian. “The concern was no longer centered on running out of food, minerals, or energy. Instead, ecological economists drew attention to what they identified as ecological thresholds. The problem lay in overloading systems and causing them to collapse.”

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Gleick defends Holdren and the Ehrlichs as part of his broader defense of Malthusianism. Gleick claims they did not claim fossil fuels were scarce in the 1970s, and points to a book published in 2003 where Holdren said, “What environmentalists mainly say on this topic is not that we are running out of energy, but that we are running out of environment…” 

But I make this exact point in Apocalypse Never. I show how Malthusians have used climate change to shift from claiming fossil fuels were scarce to claiming that the environment was scarce. “Where just a few years earlier, Malthusians had demanded limits on energy consumption by claiming fossil fuels were scarce; now they demanded limits by claiming the atmosphere was scarce.” 

The Malthusians significantly modified Malthus. Where Malthus warned that overpopulation would result in a scarcity of food, Malthusians in the 1960s and 1970s warned that energy abundance would result in overpopulation, environmental destruction, and societal collapse. Where in 1977, Ehrlich and Holdren proposed international control of the “development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources,” many Malthusian scientists, green NGOs, and U.N. agencies today similarly seek control over energy, food, and water policies in developing nations in the name of climate change and biodiversity. 

In his 1989 book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that humankind’s impact on the planet would require the same Malthusian program developed by Ehrlich and Commoner in the 1970s. Economic growth would have to end. Rich nations must return to farming and transfer wealth to poor nations so they could improve their lives modestly but not industrialize. And the human population would have to shrink to between 100 million and 2 billion.

Where just a few years earlier, Malthusians had demanded limits on energy consumption by claiming fossil fuels were scarce, now they demanded limits by claiming the atmosphere was scarce. “It’s not that we’re running out of stuff,” explained McKibben in 1998; “what we’re running out of are what the scientists call ‘sinks.’ Places to put the by-products of our large appetites. Not garbage dumps—we could go on using Pampers till the end of time and still have empty space left to toss them away. But the atmospheric equivalent of garbage dumps.”

Environmentalists used climate change as a fresh reason for opposing hydroelectric dams and flood control even though, as Briscoe, the environmental engineer from South Africa, noted, “Adaptation [to climate change] is 80 percent about water.”

Briscoe pointed to evidence that Western environmental groups contributed to food shortages. “Look at the food crisis last year,” said former World Bank engineer John Briscoe in a 2011 interview. “There were many voices bemoaning the crisis, with press coverage dominated by NGOs, and aid agencies who immediately called for greater support for agriculture in the developing world. What they did not mention was what their roles had been in precipitating this crisis.”

“The NGOs did not reflect on the fact that many NGOs had stridently lobbied against many irrigation projects and other agricultural modernization projects because these ‘were not pro-poor and destroyed the environment,’ ” Briscoe continued. “What the aid agencies did not say was that lending for agriculture had declined from 20 percent of official development assistance in 1980 to 3 percent in 2005 when the food crisis hit.”

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5.

Beyond mischaracterizing my position toward nuclear and other energy sources, Gleick suggests I ignore problems with them. In reality, I specifically discuss the problems of mountaintop coal mining, fracking for natural gas, and nuclear energy — even as I show each to be an improvement of the fuels they tend to replace (e.g., wood, coal, and natural gas).

It is notable that Malthusians have long opposed nuclear energy not because it is dangerous but it eliminates the scarcity and pollution problems that Malthusians ostensibly are so worried about. 

Scientists had known since the early 20th Century that nuclear energy was the key not just to bountiful fertilizer, water, and food but also zero pollution and a radically reduced environmental footprint. Nuclear energy thus created a serious problem for Malthusians and anyone else who wanted to argue that energy, fertilizer, and food were scarce. Some Malthusians argued that the problem with nuclear was that it produced too much cheap and abundant energy.

“If a doubling of the state’s population in the next twenty years is encouraged by providing the power resources for this growth,” wrote the Sierra Club’s executive director, opposing Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, “[California’s] scenic character will be destroyed.” 

Behind an advocacy ostensibly motivated by concerns for the environment lies a very dark view of human beings. “It’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean, and abundant energy,” said the Malthusian advocate of renewable energy, Amory Lovins, in a 1970 interview, “because of what we would do with it.” Ehrlich agreed. “In fact, giving society cheap, abundant energy at this point would be the moral equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

And most of all they stoked fears of the bomb. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that “nothing is more likely to lead to an H-bomb war than the threat of universal destitution through over-population.” They called the growing population in developing nations a “population explosion.” And Ehrlich titled his book, The Population Bomb.

Ehrlich and Holdren argue that a nuclear energy accident could be worse than a bomb. “A large reactor’s inventory of long-lived radioactivity is more than one thousand times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” they wrote, implying that it would have done one thousand times the damage. The implication was wrong. Nuclear reactors cannot detonate like bombs. The fuel is not sufficiently “enriched” to do so. But mixing up reactors and bombs was the go-to strategy for Malthusian environmentalists.

Gleick claims I misrepresented the Ehrlichs and Holdren, who elsewhere note the difference between nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, but I did not. The whole point of referring to Hiroshima was to raise the specter of nuclear weapons explosion. Why else use it? They could have referred to radiation from receiving an x-ray, or from living in high-radiation places like Colorado, which are more emotionally neutral than Hiroshima.

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In Apocalypse Never, I point to a pattern. Malthusians raise the alarm about a resource or environmental problems and then attack the obvious technical solutions. Malthus had to attack birth control to predict overpopulation. Holdren and Ehrlich had to claim fossil fuels were scarce to oppose the extension of fertilizers and industrial agriculture to poor nations and to raise the alarm over famine. And climate activists today have to attack natural gas and nuclear energy, the main drivers of lower carbon emissions, in order to warn of climate apocalypse. 

In his review of Apocalypse Never, Gleick does something similar. He suggests that I am wrong that hydro-electric dams, flood control systems, and nuclear power plants will allow human societies to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. I believe Gleick is wrong to do so, in both senses of the term “wrong.” I’m sad about that, not angry.

In the end, as I argue in the last chapter of  Apocalypse Never, Malthusian scientists, activists, and journalists are lost souls seeking false gods. They are individuals in the grip of religion without knowing it. That’s not a personal attack. It’s a criticism of an ideology that has become the dominant religion of supposedly secular people.