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The Big Green Bigfoot Sighted Again

I can’t believe I have to pass out Power Line’s coveted Green Loser of the Week Award twice in one week, but the new World Wildlife Fund Living Planet 2012 report deserves a special bonus award this week.  This is the ninth edition of this report, produced every year by the WWF International (curious and telling that the U.S. WWF always keeps a discreet distance from this report) in conjunction with the Global Footprint Network, which is based in—where else?—sustainable San Francisco.  Beyond the soothing clichés of the report—“paradigm shift,” “inclusive governance” (which means exactly the opposite), etc., the nub is given away with the phrase that we need to think “beyond GDP.”  Translation: get ready to live poorer.

I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that the history of philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato, and likewise nearly all eco-doom reports such as this one are just footnotes to the Limits of Growth study of the 1970s (with maybe one exception—bonus if anyone can name it), and show once again how environmentalist thinking is stuck in the 1970s and will never grow out of their primal Malthusianism.  And so early in the report we read:

We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal. We are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change course that number will grow very fast – by 2030, even two planets will not be enough.

The report comes with the all the best faux-science, such as the chart below, which even has a “Confidence Limit,” as though the model really is statistically accurate to the 95 percent level.

Oh, it has a "confidence" band, so it MUST be true.

But when you read a nonsense sentence like this—“We can meet all of our energy needs from sources like wind and sunlight that are clean and abundant”—you know you can stop reading further.  But I keep going, so that you don’t have to.

I won’t bore you with full details of the methodological flaws of this annual stunt.  The search for our ecological footprint is like the search for Bigfoot—frequently sighted, but never captured.  You can think of this as the Ecological Bigfoot.  The model essentially attempts to convert total human impact on the planet into a simple metric of land area.  This is a thought-provoking way of challenging our understanding of sustainability, but it is static, incomplete, and almost certainly wrong.  It does not allow for dynamic tradeoffs, such as, for example, the way the automobile reduced urban pollution from horses and conserved nearly 100 million acres of land in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century.  The model is not helpful to policy makers, in part because large technological changes and new environmental tradeoffs occur less as a result of national policy than the serendipity and trends of the marketplace.

Moreover, in the older versions of this model the single largest variable was carbon dioxide emissions and the land area required to absorb our emissions.  If you remove or discount this variable (or discover that global warming is overestimated) then we aren’t using too much land at all.  The assumed “unsustainability” goes poof, but so does your harum-scarum headlines.  Since fewer people are paying attention to greenhouse gases and the weary, used-up climate change banner, this year’s Living Planet report shifts its focus to biodiversity instead.

It’s another example of the intellectual fraudulence at the heart of the environmental advocacy community.


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