Politics & Policy

America, Stop Breathing

The new Club of Moscow says the U.S. consumes too much oxygen.

I just returned from a weeklong trip to Russia, my first visit to that country since I was a student there in 1969.

A lot of things have changed in Moscow. The streets, which were previously nearly vacant of cars, are now so filled with traffic that vehicles are practically immobilized. Only the old Soviet-built subway system, which miraculously still works well (most old Soviet-built things don’t), makes the city functional.

Prices have gone up a thousandfold, while wages for most people have gone up about a hundredfold, so that the stores, which used to be mobbed by people lining up to buy scarce goods, are now filled with elegant products but have very few customers. I saw none in the GUM — formerly the Glavny Universalny Magazin (Main Universal Store), now a gigantic upscale shopping mall — at midday Monday.

The government dominates most of the mass media, but not all — in Moscow, the liberals (by which term is meant the supporters of Western-type government) have a vibrant TV station of their own, and the literary culture appears to be free, with classic anti-totalitarian works by writers such as Pasternak and Grossman sold openly in bookstores. World War II is still very much on people’s minds, but the latest blockbuster, Stalingrad, is now showing in IMAX-3D.

In what might be a good metaphor for the country, the huge All-Russian Exhibition Center located near the Cosmonautics Park in Moscow is mostly abandoned and decaying, but part of it has been taken over by a private group that has built therein Mars Tefo, a world-class Mars-colony exhibit — the best I have seen anywhere — which, when I visited, was packed with scores of merry, bright-eyed children excited about the possibilities of space, science, and the human future.

I gave a number of talks on space exploration, including at the Moscow Aviation Institute, the traditional center for aerospace-engineering education in Russia, and at Skolkovo, a hypermodern joint venture between Russian educators and MIT, which teaches both engineering and entrepreneurship. Everywhere I met men and women of talent and good will, people with a great deal of potential to contribute to the advance of Russia, science, and humanity. Within these technical circles, as well as among numerous ordinary Russians whom I met on the street, I came across no one who wanted anything other than friendship with America.

But then I encountered some other people, with other plans. People selling despair, envy, and hate who have now set up shop as the brand-new Club of Moscow.

The founding of the Club of Moscow took place at Globalistics 2013, held at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, from October 23 to 25. I bumped up against the Club of Moscow by chance, having received an invitation to present an abstract at the Globalistics conference, which was advertised as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Vernadsky.

Vernadsky (1863–1945) was a significant scientific thinker, being the founder of the field of biogeochemistry, and more famously the originator of a philosophy of evolutionary emergence, according to which the geosphere, whose effective laws are determined by chemistry, gives rise to the biosphere, whose effective laws are determined by biology, which in turn gives rise to the noosphere, where the effective laws are those of thought.

Thus, for example, the presence of free oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is an impossibility in the chemically determined geosphere but made possible by the laws of the biosphere, which can create oxygen (and vast amounts of sugars, cellulose, and proteins as resources for life) in defiance of chemical equilibrium through its invention of photosynthesis. And the existence of metallic aluminum on Earth, while impossible in either the geosphere or the biosphere, becomes possible in the technology-wielding noosphere.

These ideas have had numerous interpretations, ranging from Christian (Teilhard de Chardin) to Communist. My own take is humanistic, as I see these ideas as defining the development of expanding resources and ever greater degrees of freedom as a fundamental feature of nature. So I was glad to submit an abstract, and it was accepted.

So imagine my surprise when, at the opening ceremony (after an endless series of welcoming speeches by various dignitaries), the organizers started talking about the allegedly profound “limits to growth” ideas of the Club of Rome, and the need to reestablish the Club of Rome as the Club of Moscow to carry forward the global Malthusian cause. I attempted an intervention at the plenary session the second day, where I pointedly asked the lead conference organizer, Lomonosov MSU professor Alexander Rozanov, how he could honestly embrace the ideas of the Club of Rome, when all its predictions had been proven false. And did he really believe that the Club’s idea of zero economic growth would be good for Russia and the world? In reply, he dodged, ranting something about the Cold War and nuclear war that neither I nor some Russians sitting nearby could make head or tail of.

My talk was scheduled for a breakout session that afternoon, and in view of what was being promoted, I decided to shift gears from my planned Vernadskian discourse and instead do my best to skunk the picnic by really making the issues at hand clear. I presented data showing that throughout history, as the world’s population has gone up, the standard of living has gone up too — not down, as predicted by the Club of Rome and prior Malthusians. This is so because “resources” are actually human creations, resulting from technological innovation, and the more people there are, and the more prosperous and free they are, the more inventors there will be.

Before agriculture was invented, land was not a resource. Before oil drilling and nuclear fission were invented, petroleum and uranium were not resources. Right now, solar power and deuterium fusion are not resources, but within decades, they will be. The danger facing us comes not from lack of resources, but from people who insist that we have run out of resources. If you embrace their idea of a world where there is only so much to go around, then you are endorsing a program of genocide and a war of all against all.

As proof, I cited the words of Hitler, from the fall of 1941, when, to justify his order to exterminate the 3 million people of the city of Leningrad, he set forth precisely the Club of Rome’s theory of the Earth’s limited carrying capacity, saying that “the laws of existence require uninterrupted killing, so that the better may live.” And then, to twist the knife, I quoted the eerily soulful words of the poet (and radio heroine of the siege) Olga Berggolts, inscribed on the memorial to the 1 million Leningrad dead — “No one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten” — and threw them in the organizers’ faces. These Malthusian ideas had to be defeated at a terrible cost, I said. They cannot be allowed to rise again.

The speaker who followed me, an academician who had the appearance and manner of a Brezhnevite fossil preserved in alcohol, did not agree with me at all. But he proved my point, clinically, by laying out the full Club of Moscow case. I was wrong, he said. The world is running out of resources, and it is America’s fault. America is exhausting the world’s oil, and not only that, Americans are using up the world’s oxygen.

In short, to save the planet, America must be destroyed.

Frankly, I was shocked. While I have understood for some time that this would be the ultimate destination of the Malthusian train, it was still quite jarring to suddenly hear the announcement of the final stop.

Now, while there were some government officials present at the conference, deputy ministers of this or that, I would not allege that the Club of Moscow speaks for the Putin party or regime. At least not yet. In fact, immediately following the above-described talk, a Putin-supporting lecturer from the Academy of Economics delivered a forceful rebuttal. But it is clear that the people behind the Club of Moscow are trying to make the sale. They are saying: “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich: You need a universal ideology to oppose America with. Communism will no longer work. But we’ve got a new, and better, ideological package for you, one that does have current draw among radical circles around the world. Let’s create a Malthusian International, with its headquarters moved from Rome to Moscow, where we academicians can provide you our services as the movement’s priesthood.”

This is dangerous stuff, because in its own evil way it is spot-on. Traditional Marxism attempted to argue against free enterprise by saying that capitalism causes poverty and that therefore socialism is necessary. That didn’t work, because it was false. But if the problem with free enterprise is that it ends poverty, as it actually does, then collectivist totalitarianism is indeed the answer. And America, as the strongest engine for freedom and progress, must be the prime target.

It is one thing when leading voices of a rival power tell you they will beat you to the moon. It is quite another when they say you are using too much oxygen.

Can Putin embrace such an ideology and set Russia forth as the leader of the world’s Malthusian movement? At first glance it must seem preposterous, given the Soviet Union’s environmental record and Russia’s current desire to expand and develop its oil resources. Yet such hypocrisy would not necessarily scuttle the project. Consider, for example, the considerable success the Soviets had in putting themselves forth as the leaders of the international labor movement, even while practicing slave labor on a mass scale at home. Western environmentalists might value their independence, but their organizations are largely donor driven, and if he wanted to, Putin could have a lot to donate.

Then again, there are a lot of businessmen in the Putin camp, and they know they need Western markets and Western technology. They also want to be able to pursue industrial growth at home. Fanning a bit of domestic fervor about peripheral issues like Syria may be useful to the regime politically, but taking leadership of a global crusade committed to the destruction of the United States of America and Western civilization is quite another. These things have a way of getting out of control.

Putin is from Leningrad. His father was wounded nearly to death during the siege. Perhaps before embracing the Club of Moscow, Putin should go home and spend a little time at the memorial, reflecting. Does he really want to set up the conditions for a new world war? For what?

Or, if Leningrad is too far away, perhaps Putin should just hop the metro and ride from the Kremlin over to the Cosmonautics Park (because, until the city’s traffic problems are fixed, being chauffeured over there would take forever) and have a look at the children at the Mars exhibit, full of hope, eager to be the ones to invent spaceships and fusion reactors, to push humanity’s frontiers onward and outward, to Mars and beyond. Does Russia’s future lie with them, or with a gaggle of mad academicians, merchants of hatred, envy, and despair, seeking to create plush sinecures for themselves by promoting a global conflict over Lebensluft?

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. His latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was published in 2012 by Encounter Books.


The Latest