I have some more observations from this New Yorker article about the brothers Koch and the immense, scary influence they have on the political system. A lot of stuff in here isn’t that surprising if you’re paying close attention—the self-aggrandizing to distract from the immorality of libertarianism, the astroturfing, the racist history, the obscene amounts of money spent to manipulate the political system, the delusional rhetoric about global warming. But even I was surprised to read about the display at the Smithsonian.
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multimedia exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change. At the main entrance, viewers are confronted with a giant graph charting the Earth’s temperature over the past ten million years, which notes that it is far cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago. Overhead, the text reads, “HUMANS EVOLVED IN RESPONSE TO A CHANGING WORLD.” The message, as amplified by the exhibit’s Web site, is that “key human adaptations evolved in response to environmental instability.” Only at the end of the exhibit, under the headline “OUR SURVIVAL CHALLENGE,” is it noted that levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been, and that they are projected to increase dramatically in the next century. No cause is given for this development; no mention is made of any possible role played by fossil fuels. The exhibit makes it seem part of a natural continuum. The accompanying text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.” An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future. People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”
This is part of an overarching strategy of replacing actual science with pseudo-science. What’s interesting to me is the “having it both ways” aspect of this—the Koches fund all sorts of global warming denialism, but then also hedge their bets by suggesting that global warming isn’t so bad. This is far from the only example.
David Koch told New York that he was unconvinced that global warming has been caused by human activity. Even if it has been, he said, the heating of the planet will be beneficial, resulting in longer growing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because far greater land area will be available to produce food,” he said.
This is, of course, pure nonsense. Growing food is about factors coming together, and heat is just one of them—it’s also sunshine and fertility. Increasing desertification of some parts of the planet will not have a corresponding effect of giving northern climates more sunshine, even if they do get warmer in the aggregate. The overwhelming evidence shows that rising temperatures will likely lead to mass starvation. Also, there’s no certainty that humans will always adapt. We can, you know, die off. It happens. Ask the dinosaurs.
But what all this points to is a very serious problem for libertarianism, whether Christian or secular. As I noted earlier, libertarianism tends to spring up when you start to believe human beings exist to serve systems and institutions, and not vice versa. But our system of government was laid out explicitly on the grounds that institutions serve human beings—basically, the founders were backed by a humanist philosophy. If you disagree, let me point you to the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
Rights exist because of people. Government exists because of people. Markets exist because of people, and if those markets stop working for people, they should be modified until they do. Libertarians take an opposite view, which is that their institutions—free markets for seculars, free markets plus the patriarchy plus the church for Christian libertarians—have the right of way when they come into conflict with the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of The People. Pollution is no reason, in their view, to introduce environmental regulation. Economic crashes shouldn’t result in economic regulation. We’re all supposed to just see that as the way the cookie crumbles.
But of course, they can’t just say that bluntly too often in the public square, because it’s basically against all the founding principles of our democracy.* What they do instead is engage in a lot of hand-waving arguments about how their principles actually dovetail with humanist goals, by denying that pollution hurts people or suggesting that unfettered capitalism does the most good for the most people. And, as long as they can spin bullshit infinitely, this works more than it should. The mainstream media particularly likes to kick around bullshit arguments about how restricting social services or cutting taxes for the rich are actually somehow good for those with fewer means. But then, once in awhile, libertarian dancing around humanist principles comes into direct conflict with humanism. Which is the case with the environment.
There is a bald, fact-based problem for libertarians. Global warming is real, it’s caused by human activity that goes straight back to the capitalist energy markets they worship, and it is really bad. None of these things are up for debate with sensible, reality-based people. Even if you’re generally sympathetic to the claims that government regulation of markets and corporations somehow constrains freedom, the need to save the species from killing ourselves off for short term gain comes would cause a sensible person to suggest this requires government action. The conflict between libertarianism and the humanism that is supposed to guide our system has been made explicit.
And so libertarians are forced to deny the science. They’re willing to sacrifice the planet for their bullshit principles, so of course the truth is no big thing.
What’s interesting to me about the Smithsonian display is that even as it’s using fake science to excuse blatant disregard for human decency, the libertarian underpinnings shine through. After all, to say, “Global warming is no big deal because human beings will evolve into underground hunchbacks to survive it,” is to basically say that the amount of suffering and loss to get to that point is acceptable. Evolution is an ugly, inhumane process. It requires weeding out those who don’t have the adaptive genes, which is a nice way of saying they’ll die. For the amount of evolution that they expect to happen at the rate they claim it will happen, you’d be looking at mass death on a level that would be tantamount to an extinction. The people that emerge may not even be the same species as we are. And that’s if this prediction happened—odds are high that it wouldn’t. Natural selection is no guarantee. You still have to have the genetic mutations occur. But the point remains—even in their apologist fantasies, the mass of humanity is so much human offal to be killed off in service of their bullshit principles about how environmental regulation is tyranny.
*Interestingly, Christian libertarians actually do a better job of secular libertarians at getting around this problem. They basically demonize humanism, and blatantly argue that the principles they stand for were laid down by god. Therefore, if people are sacrificed for their principles, that’s what god wanted. However, their arguments have limited appeal, because very few people in a democratic system are willing to blatantly argue that policies should be based around a set of arbitrary principles supposedly handed down by god instead of the common good. So even Christian libertarians end up engaging in the same kind of hand-waving, in public at least. In their own circles, they’re open about how many people they’ll screw over for their principles.