The Day After the Day the Earth Stood Still

Warning: politics.  Not partisan politics of the GOP/Democrat variety, but politics nonetheless.  You’ve been warned.

I am a conservationist.  I recycle, and I precycle (that’s when you use something again, for another purpose, before you recycle what’s left of it), and we use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.  I believe we have resources that we are meant to use wisely.  I am also a believer in God, and I believe that if He made it, to treat it with disrespect is to treat Him with disrespect.

And yet I am also a huge believer in business, in productivity and progress.  I love creation, and human creation is often excellent.  I love to participate in business growth and job creation, and I have nothing but respect for those that do it, and do it better than I do (which is a lot of people).

I am one that believes that there is no necessary conflict between these two passions.  In fact, I believe that they can be mutually reinforcing and abetting.  I realize that I am, in this position, part of an exceedingly tiny minority.

Apropos of this, I wanted to mention a really fascinating op-ed in the London Guardian penned by one of the green movement’s lions, George Monbiot, in which he basically admits that he and those of his persuasion have no plan.  This is a serious problem.  Many greenies are anti-business crackpots, but some are seriously concerned about the environment and distressed about our current treatment of it.  There’s a real danger that those people will be ignored along with the rest unless they have some solutions – real, actionable solutions – that people like me can get behind.  I’m hearing talk of 50% energy reductions, carbon caps, all sorts of things that are just code for “no jobs”.  There are tradeoffs here.  Those tradeoffs are not being acknowledged.  It isn’t as simple as shutting off all the machines.

As, for instance, at the end of the silly remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  The acting was passable, except for the radiant Jennifer Connelly, and the special effects were cool, but the story was not just meh, it was blech.  The original, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, is not about environmentalism, but world peace, an equally difficult prospect.  It’s a better movie for being severely understated, almost preternaturally calm, with all the conflict going on mostly outside the characters.  In this original version, while it is obvious that Klaatu’s robot can destroy the world, Klaatu tries first to get everyone’s attention by eliminating all electricity for half an hour, except the stuff in hospitals and planes in the air.  Only after that, when humanity persists in being stupid, does he order the destruction of the earth.  Which, of course, since you’re reading this, he rescinds.

In the remake, we don’t get even that much explanation of what is going on.  There are some cool things, like these glowing spheres that rise up out of the earth, but which have as far as we can tell no other purpose than to provide work for Industrial Light and Magic.  Then there’s the robot, which is enormous this time, but which does not, itself, do much of anything.  It’s a big virus, essentially, morphing into microscopic bugs that multiply and eat everything.  Absolutely everything.  Including people, of course, and it’s left open to interpretation whether the bugs can tell what is people and what is other organic matter, like plants and animals.  Probably they can, but it would have been nice to know.

Then Klaatu sees that mothers love their children, and everything changes.  Instead of ordering the destruction of the earth, he kills off the bugs with a pulse of light, though he disappears in doing so.  Simultaneously, though, everything in the world stops working.  Watches, oil pumps (nice to work that in there), cars, everything.  No explanation.  Are the airplanes spared this time?  If not, there are a few hundred thousand people that will be mightily inconvenienced, though obviously not for very long.  What about hospitals?  There goes another million or two.

We’re not shown any of this.  What we see is the robo-bugs dying, and the watches not ticking, and the oil rigs halting, and cars gently rolling to a stop.  It’s quiet.  Everyone seems bewildered, but in a “isn’t this kind of cool” sort of way.  We don’t see the planes or the respirators, so we don’t know about them.  But really, they don’t matter overly.

Because if it’s not just for half an hour this time, and the specific implication in this film is that it’s permanent, so as to give humanity a chance to “change”, then there ought to be a lot more screaming and a lot fewer wistful smiles.  Any even semi-permanent loss of electrical and mechanical power would cripple every industrial society and result in the more-or-less immediate deaths of billions of people around the world.  Billions.  There is no getting around this.

Human society is built on power, most of which is generated by fossil fuels.  Take that power away, and the population pyramid crumbles.  Take New York, which in the film was gnawed a bit by the alien bugs, but seems at least largely intact.  If there is no power, there are no water pumps.  No water pumps, no culinary delivery to all those high-rises – so no drinkable water.  No power, also no refrigeration.  80% of the food in New York will spoil in ten days.  And remember, your cars don’t work.  There will be no delivery of more food to New York.  There will be no way to get the food from where it’s grown to the people that need to eat it.  There will be no way to harvest the food in the first place, at least, no way that will make any difference.  Klaatu’s last, heroic gesture to save the earth has condemned those beautiful friends of his to a week or so of hunger, followed by dysentery and death.  This is the fate of 9 or so million of the 10 million in Manhattan.  The rest?  They’ll be killed in the food and water riots.

Forget about the government stepping in to keep order.  No power, no communications.  No communications, no order.  Government – our government, or ANY government – has to have a system for communication, and without power you have nothing.  No cops.  No military, which is dependent on power for all but the most basic of weapons.  In every major city on the globe, all the food will be gone in 48 hours, except for pockets hoarded by those with the ability and willingness to use force.  Hoarded food will last a few weeks.  Then those people will die, too.

You take out the power, you kill half the planet’s human population in a month.

There are all sorts of other things, too, like nuclear reactors, for instance.  Once the power dies, there isn’t any cooling going on (all of which, as you should know from watching Japan, is provided by diesel generators), and the nuclear reaction isn’t electric, it’s, well, nuclear.  Stop those reactions, and you’re stopping all the chemical reactions on earth and that won’t exactly save the world now, will it?  So we’re going to have nuclear reactor meltdowns all over the planet, and there goes another several million people.

Within three months, you’ll have lost 75% of the population of the earth, and by a year, we’ll be down to, what, 10% of the human race remaining?  Most of those people will die of starvation and disease (no production of medicine, after all).   Everyone who is IN the hospital, except for a few lucky ones, is going to die, even if the power keeps going, because it isn’t going to keep going forever, and there isn’t any way to replace anything, since all the mechanical processes for restocking supplies, repairing machines, and delivering power, depend on that power in the first place.

As is always the case, the people that will die first are the old, the young, and the sick.  Life expectancy will plummet to, oh, about 45.  Infant mortality will skyrocket.  Developed countries will be destroyed down to the village level.  Developing countries will fare little better.  In short, the entire thing will be a nightmare, far, far worse than any plague, ridiculously worse than any natural disaster of any conceivable scale.  It would be better, from a human suffering standpoint, to kill everyone with the bugs.  MUCH better.  You could argue that by killing off the bugs but also the power, Klaatu is being a sadist, not a savior.

Aye, there’s the rub.  Because what is being proposed by the green lobby right now, in many, many places, is a collapse of similar order.  It is simply impossible to operate human society on the attenuated scale fervently desired by much of the green lobby without killing off gigantic chunks of the population.  Please line up, if you volunteer to be one of the dead.  No?  Well, that might be why it’s a little complicated getting electoral majorities of environmentalists.

Let me quote from Monbiot’s essay, and let me remind everyone that this is a leftist, green-lobby enthusiast:

If this vision looks implausible, consider the alternatives. In the latest edition of his excellent magazine The Land, Simon Fairlie responds furiously to my suggestion that we should take industry into account when choosing our energy sources. His article exposes a remarkable but seldom noticed problem: that most of those who advocate an off-grid, land-based economy have made no provision for manufactures. I’m not talking about the pointless rubbish in the FT’s How To Spend It supplement. I’m talking about the energy required to make bricks, glass, metal tools and utensils, textiles (except the hand-loomed tweed Fairlie suggests we wear), ceramics and soap: commodities that almost everyone sees as the barest possible requirements.

Are people like Fairlie really proposing that we do without them altogether? If not, what energy sources do they suggest we use? Charcoal would once again throw industry into direct competition with agriculture, spreading starvation and ensuring that manufactured products became the preserve of the very rich. (Remember, as EA Wrigley points out, that half the land surface of Britain could produce enough charcoal to make 1.25m tonnes of bar iron – a fraction of current demand – and nothing else.) An honest environmentalism needs to explain which products should continue to be manufactured and which should not, and what the energy sources for these manufactures should be.

There’s a still bigger problem here: even if we make provision for some manufacturing but, like Fairlie, envisage a massive downsizing and a return to a land-based economy, how do we take people with us? Where is the public appetite for this transition?

There isn’t one.  What there is, though, is a massive blind spot on the green movement.  There’s hope for better, smarter use of our resources, for reduction of our power consumption, for a continuity of growth not necessarily meaning the destruction of the planet.  Here’s one, and only one, example:

It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer in all the tablet hype or not, those sexy slates are having a serious impact in the way US consumers use their computers.  32 percent of desktop owners with tablets said they used their computers less, while 30 percent of tablet-toting laptop owners said the same, according to a recent Nielsen report, which was based on an April consumer survey.

So what?  Well, laptops use on average 1/3 the power of desktops.  But iPads and the like use less than 10%.  That’s what you’d call footprint reduction.  And this is only one very small example.

In other words, as people adopt the newest technology, they use older, outdated and wasteful products less.  Once, there was a gigantic demand for laying about a quadrillion miles of cable in the developing world of southeast Asia.  Guess what?  Cell phones and wireless data transfer have made that cable unnecessary.  Infrastructure demands are often reduced by technological development.   According to one study, a car today moving at 65 mph on the freeway produces less pollution than a car did in 1973, when that car was sitting in the driveway.  With the engine off.

Short of it is, if Klaatu wanted to make a change in humanity, instead of blackouts, he ought to have given us cold fusion.  He should have given us more power, not less of it.  Whatever his spaceship was powered by, THAT would have been a useful thing to have here.  People are really good at figuring their immediate incentives.  If you give me a source of power that will run my house for a month off an hour’s spring drizzle, you’ll have my unreserved attention.  Nobody LIKES power lines.  Most people prefer quiet and the singing of birds to the roar of a jackhammer.  If I were a serious green, I’d be trying to get more technology, more development.  Instead of restricting the development of the third world, I’d be pushing for it as fast as possible.  Like it or not, there isn’t any going back.  The only way out is through.

One Response to “The Day After the Day the Earth Stood Still”

  • Lawrence Law says:

    I concur. You have said it very well. We can’t do away with humans and as humans we desire to progress and grow… with our children. And to give our children better than we had.
    I believe also that we can find the power that Klaatu used in his space ship and one day power the world, green. But it’s like you said, through technology not the absence of technology.
    Kudos to you for saying so…

Leave a Reply