Mark Twain is often (incorrectly) quoted as saying that “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” This is much less true today as a large number of academics and activists are putting forward an ever-growing list of actions that range from carbon taxes and restrictions on individual car ownership to jail time for oil industry executives.
A recent proponent of the latter is journalist and activist Murray Dobbin. In a column published a few weeks ago in both The Tyee and the Hill Times, the self-proclaimed “popular progressive columnist and analyst” states in no uncertain terms that our “failure of imagination regarding the ever-increasing production and use of fossil fuels will, over time, kill billions of us and irreversibly change all life on the planet.”
Unfortunately, the “unimaginable wealth” and “sheer power of the fossil fuel industry” makes it difficult to bring “the industry to heel in a serious effort to slow climate change.” The only reasonable way forward, he adds, is to treat it “like we eventually treated the tobacco industry: as an existential threat to human health,” a “criminal conspiracy” and “a plague.” Because the “fossil fuel empire” has triggered a “slow motion apocalypse of global climate change,” Dobbin calls for its CEOs to be (mock citizen) arrested on the “charge of species murder.” What happens next isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps the columnist wishes them the fate of thousands of alleged witches burned at the stake a few centuries ago because of their supposed role in causing the Little Ice Age…
Never mind that there has been no global warming for over a decade and half and that our planet is now greener because fossil fuels have been substituted for a wide range of things that grew or grazed on its surface. Forget also that there are now many more people than there were even a few decades ago and that they live much longer and healthier lives.(1) Indeed, Dobbin is apparently oblivious to the fact there were barely one billion human beings around when the use of fossil fuels took off and that the very notion that “billions” of us might die is entirely contingent on their widespread use in the last two centuries.
Another problem for Dobbin is that our planet’s climate will continue to change with or without the burning of fossil fuels, just as it always did before humans came along. And because people don’t like change, they will find something else to blame. For instance, the author of a column published in an 1881 issue of the London St. James’s Gazette quoted American experts who blamed dangerous climate change on the then-expanding telegraph system. Indeed, with “sufficient electrical connection by wires around the earth,” they suggested, the planet’s polarity itself could be reversed. The result would be a “sudden melting of the vast ice fields” followed by a “glacial flood” and “tremendous earthquakes” that would wipe out the human race. In order to look somewhat reasonable though, the Murray Dobbin of his time added that “whether this theory prove [sic] correct or not… there cannot be a doubt that something has of late gone wrong with atmospherical arrangements, and perhaps the telegraph wires are not wholly blameless in the matter.” To his credit, he did not advocate throwing telegraph industry CEOs in jail.
Closer to us, the geographer William Dando wrote in his 1980 book The Geography of Famine that most climatologists and even a “declassified Central Intelligence Agency” report agreed that because of air pollution, the Earth was “entering a period of climatic change” that had already resulted in “North African droughts, the lack of penetration of monsoonal rains in India and seasonal delay in the onset of spring rains in the Soviet Virgin Lands wheat area.” Global cooling, Dando told his readers, was “the greatest single challenge humans will face in coming years” because it would soon trigger “mass migration and all-encompassing international famines.”(2) Who should be jailed for this, however, he did not say.
Another way to put Dobbin’s fears in perspective is to consider past reluctance to eat potatoes. Although consumed for millennia in South America, the tubers were long despised by much of Europe’s peasantry after their introduction because of their similarity with poisonous local tubers, poisonous leaves and, in the case of some English Puritans, because they were not mentioned in the Bible. In 18th century France, potatoes were widely believed to cause leprosy, scrofula, cholera, tuberculosis, rickets, flatulence and to corrupt the blood. In 19th century Russia, government orders to grow what peasants labeled “Devil’s apples” and “Forbidden Fruits of Eden” on common lands provoked major riots. In time, however, their undeniable advantages over alternative grain and root crops—especially their high yields (between two to four times more calories per acre than grain crops), nutritious value, capacity to grow in poor soil and on small plots, affordability and ease of preparation—proved irresistible.(3)
By any historical standards, Mr. Dobbin has lived a long and prosperous (if perhaps bitter) life because of the fossil fuels he despises—and perhaps also because he ate his fair share of potatoes. Apparently unbeknownst to him, the apocalypse he fears is in the end nothing more than what our daily lives would look like if our ancestors had listened to the Jeremiahs of their time and turned their back on technological advances and fossil fuels.
1. See, among others, humanprogress.org.
2. William Dando. 1980. The Geography of Famine, V. H. Winston and Sons, p. 104.
3. See, among others, Ellen Messer. 2000. "Potatoes (White)." In Kipple, Kenneth F. and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas (eds). The Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge University Press.
* This column is adapted from Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. 2014. "When too Much Precaution Kills Humans and Wildlife: Part 1." The Drill (August 27), A9. ** Pierre Desrochers is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga.