By Andy May
The new book, 25 Myths that are Destroying the Environment, by Daniel B. Botkin, is a bit light on science and a breezy read. But, it makes some good points. All of us are for clean air and water, but as Peter Schwartz once wrote, the modern environmental movement is “anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-human.” The radical environmentalists of today latch onto mythical assertions that have no basis in fact; but support the idea that man is bad, man is “destroying” the planet and the natural “balance” of nature. Dr. Botkin, an ecologist and biologist of some note, addresses these assertions. He has held positions at Yale, the University of California at Santa Barbara, George Mason University and Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory. He is a prolific and well cited writer, this is his 16th book on ecology, the environment and science.
We agree with most of the points in the book, but it doesn’t help that in the foreword to the book, by Alfred Runte, we see the following unsubstantiated and clearly false statement:
“Say everyone believed the Earth to be cooling instead of warming. Would we still not want to curtail the use of fossil fuels? Of course, we would, because they are pollutants.”
This assertion not only contradicts the whole point of the book, which is we need to be skeptical of environmentalist’s myths and look to the facts and science, but it is clearly wrong. Fossil fuels are largely responsible for our current high standard of living, our long life spans and arguably played a significant role in eliminating slavery. As Alex Epstein noted in his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, in the modern world cheap energy from fossil fuels replaces slaves and servants.
“In the past, before modern energy technology, the main way to overcome the problem of human weakness was putting others into a state of servitude or slavery— which meant that only some could prosper, and at the great expense of others. But with machine energy and machine servants, no one has to suffer…”
Cheap energy and the technology it spawned improved the lives of the poor more than the wealthy. When gasoline powered cars were introduced in the late 19th century they were hailed as a clean alternative to transportation by horse and buggy and kerosene provided cheaper, cleaner and safer light at night. Some credit the introduction of cheap kerosene with helping to save whales from extinction. And the truth is the high demand and cost of whale oil (more than $2 per gallon in 1854!) for lamps had drastically reduced the number of whales in the oceans. They only began to recover when the rich switched to cheaper and better kerosene light. The poor of the time either had no light or used camphene or lard. Once kerosene could be distilled from liquid petroleum, thanks to Dr. Abraham Gesner, quality light became available to many more people. Kerosene was 7 cents per gallon in 1895 and whale oil had dropped to 40 cents.
Drought, flooding and plagues claim far fewer lives today due largely to cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy which is used to build irrigation systems, dikes, dams and to deliver clean water. So, with a current population of seven billion people, fed by a green revolution based on natural gas fertilizer, one must ask what would replace fossil fuels? The alternatives are not pretty or reliable, see here and here. It is a shame that a book dedicated to exposing environmentalist’s myths should spread one.
One might want to call fossil fuels pollutants, but it is clear that New York, London and every other large city in the world is cleaner today than in the early 1800’s and the reason is cheap energy from fossil fuels. The rare-earth metals used to make windmills and solar arrays, the chlorine that makes our water and fresh vegetables safe, the batteries in our phones can also be called pollutants. This doesn’t mean we curtail their use. Intelligent choices based on appropriate cost-benefit analysis are necessary. This was a federal judge’s instructions to the EPA recently when he ordered the organization to consider jobs lost when considering air pollution regulations. One shouldn’t say “curtail the use of” anything as important as energy regardless of the facts or consequences. Fortunately, most of the rest of the book is more sensible.
The 25 Myths
The first myth discussed in the book is that man is the only creature that changes the environment. In truth, all creatures change their environment and the environment of the world to some degree. That is how they survive and thrive. The largest changes are made by plants when they produce the oxygen we breath and the wood that we build with and so on.
The next myth is that life and the environment are fragile and man is precipitating the next great extinction event. The Earth has seen five major extinctions. These were all before man evolved and they were truly horrific. The worst extinction was the Permian mass extinction (250 million years ago) when an estimated 70% to 96% of all species went extinct. Myth #3 is that extinction is unnatural, but today there are an estimated 1.5 million species on the Earth and roughly one species goes extinct every year on average. Most species that have ever existed are currently extinct due to the 3.5 billion-year history of life on Earth. But, species persistence is very long, mammals persist for an average of 750,000 years. So, regardless of environmentalist’s persistent speculation; there is no evidence that man is causing an increase in extinctions over the geological norm. Further, extinction is quite natural.
Myths 4 through 11 deal with the “balance of nature” idea. That is nature is in a delicate balance and man somehow screws this up. The reality is nothing in the environment is constant; everything is always changing. Much of this is based on the idea that each population in the environment rises to some “carrying capacity” and can go no further. This is an idea based on laboratory experiments with bacteria in Petri dishes and it only works in laboratories and only with bacteria and other small organisms. In the real world, no population in a real habitat has ever been found to grow according to the “carrying capacity” logistic curve. But, this idea, first expressed in the 19th century, with no observational support, is still the basis of many environmentalist’s assertions.
Nature is not in balance and it has no need of balance. Man, especially land owners and the wealthy want nature to be in balance. They don’t want their property, buildings and houses threatened.
A corollary to the “balance” idea is that we have a perfect set of species in the world today. Each plays a unique role and if any one of these are lost the whole ecosystem fails. Dr. Botkin explains that this is utter nonsense. There are roles to be played in any ecosystem and usually more than one species can fulfill a specific role. Redundancy is a good thing. Competition is a good thing. Some say man is not a part of nature, but is a contaminant. This is not true we are a part of nature, not separate from it. We did not arrive from outer space.
Some would say that people have only changed the environment since the industrial age. However, the archeological evidence says otherwise. As Dr. Botkin explains, there is abundant evidence of man changing the environment for at least the past 30,000 years.
Myth #12: Are people the most important factor determining the Earth’s climate? Dr. Botkin says no. The processes affecting the Earth’s climate are complex and man is only a midget among giants. His discussion of this topic is quite good and familiar to this audience. I direct the curious to the book, he covers the key points well.
Myth #13 is that climate change will lead to a huge number of extinctions. The truth is that even though we are in the Quaternary ice age and have been for the past 2.6 million years, there have been very few extinctions. The climate changes, both warming and cooling, observed in the Quaternary far exceed anything predicted by the climate alarmists for the future, yet only one tree went extinct in North America in that period. Myth #14 is that recent weather is proof of climate change. How this myth persists in mainstream news organizations, like the Economist, when every qualified scientist (alarmists and skeptics) says no weather event can be attributed to climate change is beyond understanding.
Myth #15, consensus is science. Dr. Botkin notes that science is a process of questioning ideas. Scientific statements can be tested and proven wrong, otherwise the statement is not scientific. If the statement survives the tests; it is acceptable and potentially valid. Consensus has nothing to do with scientific validity. One of the problems with the “consensus statement” that man is causing dangerous climate change is it cannot be tested. Thus, the statement is not scientific. Myth #16 is that climate models are accurate. It is bizarre that unvalidated computer climate model predictions are considered “true” by many climate alarmists, politicians and news organizations. They haven’t successfully predicted anything to date.
Myth #17, all populations will grow so rapidly they will exceed their natural limit and then go extinct. Dr. Botkin summarizes the problem with this statement in a humorous way. He quotes Professor of Ecology Larry Slobodkin as saying “being rare is different from going extinct, as the whooping crane said to the passenger pigeon.” Whooping cranes have always been rare, but passenger pigeons which used to number in the billions, are now extinct. Unlike bacteria, the numbers of more complex creatures are not determined only by the food and water supply. In this chapter, Dr. Botkin discusses how many people the Earth could support. This is interesting, but of course he assumes that technology is static, which it isn’t.
Myth #18, predators are necessary to control prey populations. This myth goes back to Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century BC. Predators can reduce the populations of their prey, but they do not control them. Dr. Botkin describes many studies that show the assumed predator/prey relationship (the Lotka-Volterra equations) are not consistent with what is observed in nature.
Myths #19 and #20 are related. The first says if man manages everything correctly he can take the maximum sustainable yield of fish or wildlife every year. The second says that we can’t do much about environmental risk, for example floods and hurricanes. Each year is different and there are many factors affecting fish and wildlife besides hunting and fishing. These factors need to be considered when setting catch limits. Of course, we cannot predict floods, earthquakes, droughts and hurricanes; but we can avoid building in areas where they occur. Or, if we build in dangerous areas we can design the buildings appropriately for the environmental dangers. Being prepared for dangers and planning for them is important. Myth #21 is about forest fires. Forests are very beautiful and wonderful places to live. Unfortunately, it is natural for forests to burn frequently enough so that most of the fuel on the ground is consumed and does not become dangerous to the forest. The normal cycle of forest fires is completely natural and necessary. To live in them one must build very carefully and be prepared.
Myth #22 considers the storage of carbon in forests and using wood as a “renewable” and “carbon neutral” fuel. Dr. Botkin’s conclusion is that current methods overestimate the amount of carbon stored in forests. He estimates North American forests only store 41% of the carbon computed by the IPCC. He also points out that in 2013 the largest “renewable” energy source in Europe was biomass, mainly imported wood pellets from the United States. While the trees cut down and turned into wood pellets can be regrown and new trees will consume the carbon dioxide emitted by burning their parents, the process is not carbon neutral. Cultivating new trees, cutting them down, turning them into pellets and transporting the pellets to Europe emits a great deal of carbon dioxide and burns a lot of fossil fuels. So, obviously, calling this fuel carbon neutral is suspect and issuing carbon credits for burning wood is a fiction.
Myths #23 and #24 are the first of his myths that we disagree with. He claims that solar and wind energy do not require large amounts of land and could provide a “large” percentage of US electricity by 2050. He doesn’t say what “large” means, but we can assume 30% to 40% or more for the sake of argument. He says rooftop solar should be sufficient for most homes and that wind farms don’t need as much land as the critics claim. He doesn’t provide any evidence to back up his claims and they are suspect in our view. For another, more quantitative look at the practicality of solar and wind, I would refer the interested reader to the late Cambridge engineering professor Sir David MacKay’s excellent book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.
Dr. Botkin refers only to “solar and wind capacity” in his chapter and ignores the need for fossil fuel backup at night and on windless days. We will ignore these rather obvious flaws in his argument because he is missing the larger and more important point of cost. The costs of solar and wind must include fossil fuel backup, electrical grid enhancement to handle intermittent and out of phase power sources, and installation and maintenance. Using batteries to store solar and wind power are out of the question, they are enormously expensive. Germany’s Energiewende goal was to increase their share of renewable energy to 40% by 2050. According to an MIT Technology Review they are very unlikely to make it. In the discussion of myth #24 he uses a German solar energy facility as an example of a northern “successful” facility in a cold climate. Yet, German electricity costs are among the highest in the world and high enough to force factories overseas, often to the US where electricity costs about one-third as much. Siemans moved their oil and gas global headquarters to Houston from Erlangen and their natural gas turbine manufacturing to Charlotte, North Carolina. This move cost Germany 4,500 jobs. Austrian electricity is not as expensive as in Germany, but still over twice as much as in the US. For this reason, Austrian steelmaker Voestalpine built a steel making plant next to Corpus Christi, Texas and shut down a similar plant in Austria due to the lower cost of natural gas in Texas. Germany subsidizes their alternative energy through electricity-bill surcharges, the alternative power financed in this way will cost 25B Euros this year, but will only buy 3.6B Euros of electricity on the open market according to the German economics ministry.
Dr. Botkin’s final myth is that climate change is our most important environmental issue. As he explains, there are numerous other environmental issues that are being ignored due to the current climate change hysteria. Our list does not include the same items as his, but none-the-less we agree that the money spent on climate change would be better spent cleaning our water and air. Further, improving the availability of potable water, electricity and proper sanitation in poorer areas of the world would go a long way toward eliminating serious communicable diseases. These are just a few examples.
Conclusions and opinion
Aside from the flawed foreword by Alfred Runte and the unsupported assertions about wind and solar in myths #23 and #24, the book is generally a good read. It is filled with a lot of interesting anecdotes from Dr. Botkin’s long career as an ecologist. Personally, I would have preferred more data and scientific analysis in support of his conclusions and fewer anecdotes, but then he would probably lose a lot of his audience. Usually, qualified scientists, like Dr. Botkin, once they dig into climate science come to the same conclusion he did. That there is no scientific support for the ideas that man is the major cause of climate change and we are headed to a man-made climate change disaster. I applaud him for speaking out on the subject. His discussion on climate change is technically light, like the rest of the book, but I noticed no inaccuracies and it was a fair treatment of the subject.
The most interesting parts of the book were those that dealt with the ecological myths. These centered around the supposed “balance of nature,” species extinctions and persistence. He is a well-known expert in these areas and it shows. These chapters are very good. So, all in all, I do recommend the book. It is most appropriate for the non-technical reader. Those with a lot of scientific or engineering training may find it a little unsubstantial.