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Anne Applebaum on devaluing humanity and hope in Copenhagen

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

There is no nihilism like the nihilism of a 9-year-old. "Why should I bother," one of them recently demanded of me, when he was presented with the usual arguments in favor of doing homework: "By the time I'm grown up, the polar ice caps will have melted and everyone will have drowned."

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Watching the news from Copenhagen last weekend, it wasn't hard to understand where he got that idea. Among the tens of thousands demonstrating outside the climate change summit, some were carrying giant clocks set at 10 minutes to midnight, indicating the imminent end of the world. Elsewhere, others staged a "resuscitation" of planet Earth, symbolically represented by a large collapsing balloon. Near the conference center, an installation of skeletons standing knee-deep in water made a similar point, as did numerous melting ice sculptures and a melodramatic "die-in" staged by protesters wearing white, ghost-like jumpsuits.

Danish police arrested about a thousand people on Saturday for smashing windows and burning cars, and on Sunday arrested 200 more (they were carrying gas masks and seem to have been planning to shut down the city harbor). Nevertheless, in the long run it is those peaceful demonstrators, the ones who say the end is nigh, who have the capacity to do the most psychological damage.

I'll pause here to point out that I enthusiastically support renewable energy, believe strongly in the imposition of a carbon tax and am furthermore convinced that a worldwide shift away from fossil fuels would have hugely positive geopolitical consequences, even leaving aside the environmental benefits. It's true that I'm not crazy about the Kyoto climate negotiation process, of which the Copenhagen summit is the latest stage. But I'm even more disturbed by the apocalyptic and the anti-human prejudices of the climate change movement, some of which do indeed filter down to children as young as 9.

Over the years there have been many radical statements of this latter creed. In the infamous words of a National Park Service ecologist, "We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. . . . Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." A former leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once declared that "humans have grown like a cancer; we're the biggest blight on the face of the earth." But it is a mistake to think that this is the language of only a crazy fringe.

Look, for example, at the Optimum Population Trust, a mainstream organization whose patrons include the naturalist David Attenborough, the scientist Jane Goodall and professors at Cambridge and Stanford -- and that campaigns against, well, human beings. Calling for "fewer emitters, lower emissions," the group offers members the chance to offset the pollution that they generate, merely by existing, through the purchase of family-planning devices in poor countries. Click on its PopOffsets calculator to see what I mean: It reckons that every $7 spent on family planning generates one ton fewer carbon emissions. Since the average American generates 20.6 tons of carbon annually, it will cost $144.20 -- $576.80 for a family of four -- to buy enough condoms to prevent the births of, say, 0.4 Kenyans.

The assumption behind this calculation is profoundly negative: that human beings are nothing more than machines for the production of carbon dioxide. And if we take that assumption seriously, a whole lot of other things look different, too. Weapons of mass destruction should perhaps be reconsidered, along with the flu virus: By reducing the population, they might also reduce emissions. Perhaps they should be encouraged?

Coupling all that with a firm conviction that the end of the world is nigh, you can see how homework is rendered pointless. As for hopes for the future and faith in humanity -- forget about it. But while we're at it, we might as well forget about reinventing our energy sources, too.

For while it's true that humans are often greedy, stupid and destructive, it's also true that we got to where we are at least partly thanks to human creativity, ingenuity and talent. Electricity is a miracle, an invention that has brought light and life to millions. Modern communication and transportation systems are no less extraordinary, helping to create economic growth in places where poverty and misery were the norm for centuries.

All of them depend on fossil fuels, but they don't have to: A profound change in the nature of human energy consumption is possible -- thanks to the entrepreneurship that created the Internet, the compassion that lies behind the advances in modern medicine and the scientific reasoning that sent men into space. As for nihilism and hatred of humankind, it teaches us nothing, except to give up. And we shouldn't be passing that on to our children either.

applebaumletters@washpost.com



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