A story this week in the conservative National Review claims that, based on a new study in Nature Sustainability, environmentalists want “to make the rich West much poorer so that the destitute can become richer.” Climate Depot gave the study the headline banner treatment and reposted it; giving the Depot’s wide reach in Denierdom, we can probably expect to see more of this attack. The study fits perfectly with a common denier narrative that climate action is just a communist hoax to redistribute wealth from rich countries to poor, so it’s not surprising that deniers would want to shout it from the rooftops
But there are two big problems with this story. One, no one, environmentalist or otherwise, is trumpeting this study as justification for wealth redistribution. And two, the study says absolutely nothing about wealth redistribution.
What the study actually does is quantify resource use required for basic and improved standards of living, and compare this use with the constraints of our natural resources. The authors examined the use of several resources worldwide, including clean water, nitrogen and phosphorus for agriculture. They also included carbon emissions, and how much the pollution atmosphere can accommodate. They conclude that in order to raise quality of life around the world, we need to find more efficient ways to use our available resources.
Beyond technological advancements to increase how much we can physically extract from the earth, the most practical path would be economic reforms: by moving from the current standard of constant growth to meet needs to a system with sustainable lifestyles that don’t require constant consumption, the authors argue, everyone can live the good life without using up all our natural resources.
This question of how much of our natural capital we can spend on improving lives without breaking the bank gets twisted by the National Review’s Wesley Smith. In Smith’s piece, he repeatedly excerpts from the study, then disingenuously jumps to paranoid and hyperbolic conclusions. Smith writes the authors “prescribe an international technocratic tyranny;” also according to Smith, the way to a sustainable future where we aren’t consuming more than the Earth has to offer would mean “confiscation of wealth” and that we must “destroy the evil fossil fuel companies and redistribute, redistribute, redistribute!”
This hand-wringing is quite a leap, considering that the word “redistribute” appears exactly zero times in the study. There’s also the little fact that the study’s lead author Daniel O’Neill told the LA Times that even if we could magically reallocate all the world’s resources, living the good life would mean “"we need to become two to six times more efficient” in how we use our resources to better human lives. The point of the study, then, is that even if we were to “redistribute, redistribute, redistribute,” we STILL would need to change things to avoid using up all of Earth’s materials that make modern life possible.
This study is all about how to raise the standard of living for those in poverty while simultaneously ensuring currently-wealthy countries don’t have to totally sacrifice our standard of living. Unfortunately, this major point seems to have eluded Smith. “The goal [of the study] clearly is a technocracy,” he writes in a panic, “that will undermine freedom, constrain opportunity, not truly benefit the poor, and materially harm societies that have moved beyond the struggle for survival.”
National Review titles Smith’s piece “Environmentalists Push Global Wealth Redistribution.” But the study hasn’t been pushed by any environmentalists, says nothing of redistribution, and focuses on our natural resources, not wealth.
Message to Smith: Amazing. Every single word you just said...is wrong.
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