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Rich environmentalists oppress poor people

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Environmentalism remains enduringly popular among the world’s rich elite. Activists would like us to believe they are motivated only by the purest of intentions, but is that really true? They routinely oppose development and discount the needs of ordinary people, but their campaigns are often motivated by factors that have no redeeming merits at all.

In the remote, mountainous jungles of Aceh province, on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, lies the Mount Leuser National Park, a World Heritage Site. It is home to the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran orangutan, Sumatran elephant and Sumatran rhinoceros, all of which are listed as critically endangered. It forms part of the Leuser ecosystem, one of the largest and richest rainforests in the world, covering an estimated 2.6-million hectares from the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Strait.

Like most rainforest regions, Leuser is under threat from development. According to one source, about 21,000 hectares of the ecosystem are razed each year, mostly to make way for palm oil plantations. Other sources put the damage at about 4,000 hectares every six or so months, mostly on land zoned for non-forest uses. These numbers represent only a fraction of a percent of the ecosystem’s surface area, but forest coverage in Indonesia has fallen from 65% to 50% in the 25 years since 1990.

The fight against deforestation is a long and ongoing battle, in which environmentalists protecting an important ecological sanctuary are pitched against impoverished locals who want the benefit of jobs, roads, hospitals, farms and schools.

Unsurprisingly, rich celebrities with carbon footprints the size of small countries have poked their noses into that fight. Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor and climate change hypocrite who reportedly flew a beautician from Sydney to Los Angeles to do his eyebrows for the Oscars, recently made deforestation in the Leuser ecosystem a piller of his alarmist film, entitled Before the Flood. The film was broadcast worldwide, to mostly positive reviews.

Recently, however, a new front opened in this fight. Geothermal energy, which depends on steam generated by the subterranean heat of geologically active regions, is an important potential power source for Indonesia. With an installed capacity of 1,335 megawatts at the end of 2012, it is the third-largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, and set to overtake the United States and the Phillipines. Estimates of the exploitable potential of its geothermal energy vary widely, from 9 gigawatts to 27 gigawatts. The higher of these estimates would give Indonesia the world’s largest known geothermal resources.

Indonesia has long had ambitions to develop its geothermal reserves, in a bid to shore up its limited power supply and bolster it with renewable energy. However, progress has been slow, for lack of capital financing among other difficulties. Still, where geothermal energy is available, it is an unusually effective and clean resource, and Indonesia has been cited prominently as an example of the potential of geothermal energy. It is a reliable source of both base load and peak load electricity, combusts no fossil fuels, and produces no emissions other than steam. On the surface, it has a small footprint, needing no more space than a gas turbine or coal-fired power station. As effective, environmentally-friendly energy goes, geothermal is probably the best option known to man.

One would think, therefore, that green activists would welcome the possible development of a new geothermal plant in Indonesia. But a proposed development by Turkish company Hitay Holdings would require rezoning of 800 hectares of the Mount Leuser National Park. The governor of Aceh province, Zaini Abdullah, is in favour of the project. The Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry shot him down.

Although the site identified for the plant is very far from the low-lying deforestation hotspots, would represent only 0.1% of the Mount Leuser National Park’s area, and would amount to only a small fraction of the damage that other development is allegedly doing every year, environmental groups are dead against it. The media followed suit, with emotive appeals claiming that a geothermal plant would pose a threat to endangered species and rainforests alike.

In a separate development, veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, whose beautiful nature films have been accused of lulling us into a false sense of security about the state of the environment, attacked plans for a bridge to be built across the Kinabatangan river on the Malaysian side of Borneo. He argues that a bridge will harm endangered wildlife and threaten the vast patchwork of wildlife sanctuaries along the river. He has little sympathy for the locals who want the bridge to cut travel times between villages and to local hospitals.

These stories raise the question of how limited the environmental impact of a project would have to be, or conversely, how great the need of the locals has to be to earn the support of global eco-activists and environmental officials.

Environmentalists often try to appeal to our common-sense instincts to preserve our world from harm. Nobody would dispute that a healthy, productive environment is desirable, and indeed essential for continued human welfare and prosperity.

However, in their zeal to oppose environmental degradation, environmentalists routinely overstate their case. When infrastructure or other development projects are proposed, their knee-jerk reaction is to object, and never give ground. Instead of seeking to minimise harm, they insist that no environmental price is worth the benefit of development.

There are strong incentives for environmentalists to become fundamentalist extremists, who brook no human development that might disturb a supposedly pristine environment. To understand why, allow me to propose four possible motivations: environmentalism as a religion, environmentalism as a political tool, environmentalism as sensationalism, and environmentalism as an industry.

The first was eloquently expressed by the late author and screenwriter, Michael Crichton, in a speech given to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2003. It was scrubbed from his personal website after his death in 2008, but remains archived here and there on the internet. Crichton posited the idea that “environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths”, which appeals to urban atheists.

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all,” he said. “We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.”

Faith can be justified by any evidence, or none at all. The faithful live in certainty that they know the one and only truth, and they invariably denounce those who point to evidence that justifies scepticism as immoral or heretical. Crichton’s point was not to denounce environmentalism per se. He argued that we need an environmental movement, but not one that is as dogmatic and inflexible as a religion.

Politically, environmentalism is also useful. The socialist project may have failed, but that has not stopped governments from seeking to expand their power, nor has it stopped left-wingers from finding ever more excuses to advocate for higher taxes and more regulation.

In environmentalism they have found an over-arching justification that affects almost every aspect of our lives. It rails against private profit and prosperity, seeking to redistribute the fruits of private enterprise to the general public instead.

Because the call for ever-expanding government intervention to curb private development is based on unproven – and unprovable – predictions about the future, it becomes very hard to argue against. What is more important: personal liberty, private profit and rising prosperity, or government protection from the threat of future calamity? It is not intuitively obvious that the answer is often liberty, profit or prosperity, because the calamity might not occur. It is anathema to many that the answer can ever be prosperity despite a real risk of future calamity.

For an entertaining take on the notion that environmentalists are green on the outside, and red on the inside, pick up a copy of British journalist James Delingpole’s book, Watermelons.

Prophecies of environmental doom not only appeal to the obvious audience, which contrary to all the evidence believes that the world is headed to hell in a handbasket. Whenever there’s a story about the threat of environmental destruction, I’m likely to click on the link, too – if only to denounce or deride the apocalyptic alarmism.

If it bleeds, it leads, is an age-old media trope. And what better headline than a prediction that a fluffy animal, or worse, all of humanity, is facing disaster?

The media consists largely of wealthy, urban elites, many of whom instinctively buy into the environmentalist religion or have socialist sympathies. But they’re also driven by pure profit. Readers and viewers mean revenue, and sensationalist stories of doom are guaranteed clickbait, which can be packaged for sale to advertisers.

Finally, the profit motive is not limited to the media. The environmental industry itself is vast. I’d tell you how vast, but they charge $3,995 for that information. This is the highest price I’ve seen for any research report on any industry ever, which underlines just how rich the industry is.

Billions of dollars of government funding is available for environmental research and projects. “Green technology” companies can earn large subsidies to help them compete against more economically efficient incumbents. Millions of jobs rely on supporting the environmental mantra, and that includes thousands of career scientists.

When you hear someone say “planet before profits”, the correct translation is “our profit before yours”. The idea that environmentalists are altruists who have no motive other than to save the planet from the rest of us is poppycock. There are certainly good people in the environmental movement, but many are no less self-serving than any capitalist. Conversely, there are greedy people in private companies, but most are full of good people who sincerely want to earn their living by making the world a better place for the rest of us.

Environmentalists do not have a monopoly on the truth, or on being good. They are often wrong, especially when they prophesy doom. And they are seldom more wrong than when they deny poor people a chance at building bridges or developing renewable energy.

It’s time we acknowledge that when environmentalists put planet before profits and prosperity, they might not be doing it out of a genuine fear for the environmental consequences. They can be motivated by faith, politics, sensationalism or profit, just like the rest of us, and these motives are powerful enough to trump their regard for humanity.

To repeat an old dictum of mine: distrust environmentalists just as much as you would distrust corporate spin. DM


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