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Global warming, evolution deniers base arguments on belief, not knowledge

Sat., Oct. 1, 2011

I received a humorous email after my last column, part of which addressed climate change.

I had used the phrase “others of his ilk,” referring to GOP front-runner and global warming/evolution denier Gov. Rick Perry, so the writer repeatedly threw it back at me, berating me and my sort for crying wolf over nothing.

He offered the usual tired platitudes: that there’s still plenty of oil (true enough, but); population growth is slowing (true enough, but); and my favorite, the ever-handy “technological fix,” which will save the day, Praise the Lord!

He was, however, right on target about biofuels and how we raise beef. Both being bad, that is.

And he hoped that I’d change the tone of any future writings on the subject. To which I’ll reply, “I will happily change my tone if new data suggests that I’m out to lunch. Frankly, I very much hope I’m out to lunch.”

In any case, I doubt that anything I say matters, as my main point – which will be very short and sweet indeed, and so I’ll save it for the end – is the nature of belief itself. Part of which is that I think most folks have their minds made up on the whole climate change issue and are unlikely to change. No. Matter. What.

But, to quickly address my own “buts,” let’s talk first about all that oil.

EROI is a not-very-sexy acronym that stands for “energy return on investment.” It’s just the number of calories of energy we get back for energy spent.

Well, darned if we haven’t used the majority of the easy oil already, and nothing else offers as good a return for energy spent. Biofuels, for instance, have a nearly 1:1 EROI ratio, which means that, well, we’re idiots to use them, aren’t we?

And slower population growth doesn’t much matter either because our overall mortality rate is dropping even faster. We, darn stubborn people, are living longer!

So there’s still a worldwide net gain of about another billion of us every 12 years now, a rate that most expect to hold steady. Until it doesn’t, of course.

As Wes Jackson from the estimable Land Institute in Salina, Kan., puts it, “Bacteria on a Petri dish with sugar simply go for it. Fruit flies in a flask with mashed-up bananas just go for it.”

He concludes that we just “ignore that our Petri dish has a wall.” And that even if we have, say, twice the oil we think we have, that still doesn’t buy much time.

As for the technological Hail Mary that will save the day, well, that’s precisely like belief in a god or gods. He, She, They – it might be out there, who knows? But until I see better evidence for either type of miracle I’ll go with what I know right now.

This won’t be a popular Q&A, but what the heck. Question: What is the single best thing you, as an American citizen, can do for the environment? Answer: Stop having babies.

Each one of us consumes about 125 times as much as, say, a child born in Bangladesh. Nothing you can do to save energy offsets birthing another “consumer,” America-style.

Which brings me to that belief thing again and why we’re so bad at making good decisions for the long haul. Evolution “designed” us for the short run – the immediate threat, that saber-toothed-whatever.

Which is why we just make up our minds, sans knowledge, and go on about business as usual. We’re not really very good yet, as a species, at thinking ahead.

The wall awaits.

Contact Donald Clegg, a Spokane resident, author and artist, via email at


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