Why I Worry about Global Warming


When I was in college, Margaret Mead came by and told me I wasn’t getting enough sex. Not that I needed an important scientist to point out anything so obvious, but it was nice to have official validation. And in the how-much-sex-I-should-be-having department, nobody could validate like Margaret Mead.

Margaret Mead had been in Samoa, watching from behind bushes as the improving hands of unfettered sex turned would-be hoodlums into loving, productive members of society. In Samoa, there was almost no interpersonal violence, very little crime, and no juvenile delinquency. The only reason juvenile delinquency happened in America was because juvenile Americans weren’t getting enough sex. Who could argue with Margaret Mead about something like that?

Mead had credentials. She was curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, chair and also president of the executive committee of the board of directors of the American Anthropological Association.

Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

With that one speech, Margaret Mead transmogrified a whole auditorium-load of us randy college guys into future productive members of society, every one of us on the prowl to spread peace and love all over whichever girl we ran into next. And when we ran into girls who clung to patriarchal values linking sex to marriage or, for that matter, to guys who turned them on, we had Margaret Mead and those fine-sounding credentials to corral her into the sack with.

The first glimmer that there might be more to the laid-back life in Samoa than Margaret Mead had led us to believe came years later when I occupied the office next to Chuck Habbernigg’s. Chuck had been attorney general for American Samoa, which meant he was on a first-name basis with just about everybody in the Pago Pago prison. And the people he was on a first-name basis with . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

The second inkling that something might be wrong came when a New Zealand anthropologist named Derek Freeman did what none of my classmates had ever done, or anybody else, apparently. He went to Samoa, checked out la Mead’s research, and discovered that she hadn’t been as rigorous as she let on. Hard as it was to imagine how such a thing could even be possible, it turned out that young Samoans got even less sex than young Americans, because Samoan parents made a bigger deal out of virginity than our parents had. And as for things like crime and social discontent . . . murder, juvenile delinquency, sexual violence, and suicide were higher over there than here. In the case of murder, much higher. The rate in Samoa was twice that of some of our inner cities.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit. It would have been worth the career of any anthropologist to claim that somebody as powerful as Margaret Mead, with all her chairs and important committees, was spectacularly, laughably wrong, especially an anthropologist who hadn’t gone to Samoa and done the fieldwork himself. And who’d want to do that? She had already done that fieldwork. If you wanted to go study a tribe, you’d go somewhere that hadn’t already been studied. So Freeman did the obvious thing, he waited until Mead had shuffled off to that great steering-committee in the sky, before he published.

Mead wasn’t the only famous scientist to hitch herself to a cartload of half-baked science, sink her teeth into the bit, and take off running. And to get millions of otherwise sensible people galloping along behind. The year after I graduated from college Paul Ehrlich came out with a book called The Population Bomb. It was a scary book that explained in a scary, scientific way how there were so many people in the world that entire societies were on the brink of being torn apart by food riots, hundreds of millions of us were going to die, and it was too late to do anything about it.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” announced Mr. Ehrlich in his most scientific way. “In the 1970’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . .”

Ehrlich wrote this in 1968, and his credentials were positively Meadian, they are so impressive. During his long, destructive career, he’s been president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the United States Naval Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Credentialwise, there’s no doing better than Paul Ehrlich.

By way of illustrating how serious the population thing had become, he included a hockey-stick graph proving just how far down the broad highway to destruction we already were. Hockey-stick graphs have become de rigueur lately with the scare-you community, and they’re pretty much all the same: a horizontal line running from the Pleistocene to the Industrial Revolution indicating not much going on until, along about your great-grandparents’ day, the line shoots upward and, voilà, the planet is pucked, Armageddon is upon us, we’re all going to die and it’s your fault.

If what you actually remember from the ’70s has less to do with food riots in the Imperial Valley and more to do with the Green Revolution and hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and Africans lifted out of starvation, bear in mind that the Green Revolution wasn’t something that got talked about a lot at the time. At the time, socially aware people who considered themselves scientifically literate . . . along with 58 academies of science that considered themselves socially-aware . . . became so alarmed over the fact that the rest of us weren’t willing to strangle our own children in order to save the planet that they began to think it was their duty to do something about us. Paul Ehrlich said so himself:

We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries . . .

I don’t know whether Deng Xiaoping read The Population Bomb, but the Paramount Leader wasn’t some wimpy university professor who could only rant about saving people from themselves. Deng Xiaoping was Paul Ehrlich with an army, and he had the power to see that pretty much anything he came up with happened. What he came up with was China’s one-child policy . . . and all the forced abortions, sorrow, and murder of girl babies that haunt the Chinese to this day.

In the ’30s, the issue du jour wasn’t that we had too many people in the world. In the ’30s, the issue was that we had too many of the wrong sort of people. Eugenics is the scientific name for doing something about too many of the wrong sort of people; and millions of the right sort, millions of concerned, socially-aware people, people with only the purest of motives, people who considered themselves scientifically-literate, jumped on the eugenics bandwagon. In our country, this led to anti-miscegenation laws and forced castration. In more socially-committed places, politicians used their political power in ways that sound positively Ehrlichian . . . and ensured healthy genes with gas chambers and murder squads.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were.

In the ’70s, scientifically literate people discovered that if the rest of us — meaning me and you — didn’t clean up our industrial ways, and soon, glaciers were going to come down and scrape Manhattan off the map. Before we even had the chance to decide whether this was something we might want, famous scientist Carl Sagan — who’d spent part of his career on television and part of his career figuring out the way things are on other planets — jumped in on the side of the glaciers. Sagan was a lot smarter than you and me put together, and the debate about the glaciers was over: they were on the march, and the time had come to head down to the community college and sign up for adult-education classes in blubber chewing and igloo making.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were. Not even Carl Sagan. Sagan was scientifically literate about television shows and atmospheric chemistry and dust storms on Mars, and the physics of particles bumping together in the rings of Saturn, but he didn’t know squat about glaciers. There aren’t any glaciers on other planets, at least not any of which the news has reached our planet. Or large, metropolitan areas waiting to be scraped away, for that matter. On most scientific matters, only three or four people in the world have enough actual knowledge to be scientifically literate.

Or not.

For the 40 years between the time young Margaret Mead returned to New York and started gathering up all those chairs, and the time Derek Freeman set out for Samoa, Margaret Mead was the only scientist in the world qualified to have an opinion about sex in Samoa. And her science was so botched, she wasn’t qualified either.

Whatever Paul Ehrlich may actually be qualified to talk about, telling people that the world is going to starve to death just as the Green Revolution was kicking into high gear wasn’t it.

No geneticist in the ’30s, a quarter century before DNA was discovered, could possibly have been qualified to say that entire groups of people should be flushed out of the gene pool. And those guys, and Paul Ehrlich, and Margaret Mead weren’t alone. They were just noisier than most. Here are some other things that socially aware, scientifically literate people have told us:

  • Tomatoes aren’t really tomatoes, they’re love apples and they will kill you.
  • Poinsettias will kill you, too, so keep poinsettias away from kids.
  • If you swim after a meal you’ll catch stomach cramps and drown.
  • If you hide under your fourth-grade desk, atom bombs can’t hurt you.
  • Go easy on the spaghetti because spaghetti is the kind of trash food that makes poor people fat. This advice was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti contains complex carbohydrates, which was replaced by:
  • Don’t eat spaghetti because spaghetti is nothing more than empty calories, which was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti is part of a Mediterranean diet, and Mediterranean people live to very old ages.
  • A glass of wine with dinner is good for the nerves, which was replaced by:
  • A single sip of alcohol leaves whole mountainsides of clear-cut brain cells in its wake, so never drink anything alcoholic, which was replaced by:
  • In spite of scarfing down unplucked songbirds, and sheep pancreases, and things even the Chinese won’t eat, French people drink lots of red wine, and they live longer than you do, so drink red wine, but not because you enjoy it, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the alcohol that makes the French live a long time, it’s the grapes their wine is made out of. So drink grape juice, instead, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the grapes, it’s the alcohol. Alcohol clears your arteries. Skip the red wine, chug down the hard stuff, and you can live as long as a Frenchman without the sulfites.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away, which was replaced by:
  • Modern-day factory farmed apples come coated with Alar. Alar is the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply, so don’t even think about touching an apple unless you are wearing a hazmat suit, which was replaced by:
  • Alar is nothing more than an apple growth-regulating hormone and doesn’t have anything to do with people, so go on, eat apples.
  • Bumblebees can’t fly. But that one was based on a faulty mathematical model, which brings us to mathematical models in general. In general, researchers fall back on mathematical models when whatever they’re trying to figure out is too complicated for them to understand.

Nowadays scientists run their mathematical models through computers when they want to figure out something that’s too complicated to understand. Sometimes the computer models are so complicated, nobody understands them, either . . . especially where weather and supercomputers are involved. Which, now that global warming is à la mode, leads to questions nobody has answers to.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter, because the computer wasn’t programmed to tell them.

When you ask why, if the oceans are beginning to boil away, is there so much more sea ice around Antarctica than there used to be, all they can answer is that the science is complicated, and they’re right. The science is complicated. It’s too complicated for the scientists who do that kind of science to understand. It’s way too complicated for scientists who do other kinds of science to understand. And as for the people who don’t do any science at all, such as the ones trying to persuade you that the whole thing is too complicated for you to understand, they don’t understand it any better than you do.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter.

The very best that anybody can do with questions like these is to compare what the computer spits out with what seems to be going on in the real world. That’s easy with bumblebees. When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model. When the model tells you summers should have been heating up for the past 15 years, and they haven’t been, maybe the computer hit a patch of short-term bad luck involving natural variations in weather patterns, and things really will heat up when the computer’s luck changes and the weather gets back on track.

Or, maybe, the sun ran out of spots for a while, the way it did in the Little Ice Age. And global warming is the only thing between us and freezing to death.

Or an increase in forest litter in the tropics is soaking up the carbon dioxide.

Or, maybe, all the sulfur compounds that Chinese coal-burning plants have been dumping into the air are shielding us from the solar gain we’d be getting if the Chinese were running their factories on natural gas.

Or the sudden, rapid growth of trees in the Siberian and Canadian sub-Arctics is swallowing up carbon dioxide as fast as the Chinese can generate it.

Or calcium in the ocean is turning carbon dioxide into limestone.

Or it’s all part of some long-term cycle having to do with Ice Ages. Carl Sagan was right, and the glaciers are coming for New York after all.

Or . . .

Or . . .

Or, could be, something is wrong with the model.

My money says we’re having a Margaret Mead moment: the science isn’t good enough, and nobody knows what’s going on. Not the computer programs. Not the people who write the computer programs. Not the scientists who study global warming. Certainly not the scientists who don’t study global warming. Or the hordes of socially aware laymen who consider themselves scientifically literate. And, most of all, not the politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals who built their careers on global warming.

The difference between me and these folks is, I know I’m scientifically illiterate. I am to science what a student at a madrassa is to the imam. All I can do is rely upon him to repeat the sacred texts to me. But with all the nonsense that’s been spoon-fed to us in the past, I’m going to ask questions before I get stampeded into doing something that doesn’t agree with the way the world looks to me. So, when someone who fancies himself scientifically literate tells me bumblebees can’t fly . . . and I look out my window at a whole gardenful of bumblebees buzzing around, I’ll need an explanation I can understand before I start claiming those bees aren’t flying.

When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model.

Could be the global warm-mongers are right. Could be that God really does have an emerald palace all fitted out with rivers of non-alcoholic wine and six dozen amnesiac maidens waiting to be deflowered just by me so they can forget about it the next morning and start over again as virgins . . . if I’m righteous about not running the air conditioner. But I’d need more than the word of somebody who hasn’t been any closer to Paradise than I have before I turn off the AC on a summer’s day.

When the kid sitting cross-legged on the mat next to mine stops bobbing his head as he memorizes yet one more sura, and tells me that if I don’t quit driving my car the ocean will swell up and wash away Denver, I’m going to want to know what happened in Colorado a thousand years ago when the weather was so warm that Vikings were homesteading in Greenland.

Could be there’s an explanation for that, but I’d need to hear it before I start passing laws to force people to raise their children in squalor because the things they need to do in order to lead decent lives are too wasteful and antisocial for the rest of us to countenance.

I’d need better proof than Margaret-Mead-knows-best before I recommit to the silly personal values of the ’60s. And I’d need a lot better proof before I start castrating people I don’t think are as smart as I am, or forcing young mothers to have abortions, or condemning entire populations to gas chambers . . . or millions of people here, and billions in other places, to lifelong poverty because I don’t think they should burn coal or gasoline or nuclear energy.

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