Energy Week

Debating Phil Cafaro

To the anti-humanists, prosperity causes global warming, and therefore is bad.

Phil Cafaro is a leading radical anti-humanist. A professor of philosophy at Colorado State University and president of the International Society for Environmental Ethics, he has published numerous articles and a book calling for shackling humanity with all sorts of chains, ranging from mandatory recycling, to limits on meat consumption, airplane travel, and the size of houses, to stiff carbon taxes, immigration restriction, and population control. He also urges the abandonment of Judaeo-Christian ethics and human rights. According to Cafaro, the world population needs to be reduced to 2 billion and the U.S. population to 100 million. “The last thing the world needs is more Americans,” he says.

On May 13, I got a chance to debate him. The debate was occasioned by a guest commentary that Cafaro penned in the February 11 Denver Post, in which he advanced the argument that immigration needs to be sharply cut, because otherwise people from Third World nations might come to the United States and become prosperous, and thereby add to global warming. “And make no mistake,” warned the philosopher. “Immigrants are not coming to the United States to remain poor. Those hundreds of millions of new citizens will want to live as well and consume energy at the same rates as other Americans. . . . What climate change mitigation measures . . . could possibly equal the increased greenhouse gas emissions we would lock in by adding 145 million more new citizens to our population?”

I rebutted this on NRO on February 21: “This is truly remarkable. Conservative immigration skeptics have voiced the concern that immigrants might not assimilate and achieve success, and even common xenophobes have never objected to would-be immigrants attaining prosperity elsewhere. But according to Cafaro’s liberal argument, the wretched of the Earth must be kept poor wherever they reside, because otherwise they would ruin the weather for the rest of us. Following this logic, the United States should adopt the role of the world’s oppressor, enforcing the continuation of poverty around the globe. But why stop there? We have millions of poor people right here in America who hope to rise into the middle class. Surely we must stop them from doing so.”

I sent the piece to Cafaro and challenged him to public debate. He accepted, and John Andrews, the director of Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, agreed to host the event, setting it for April 15. It was snowed out (by one of the several blizzards this spring, which was the second coldest since 1860), but Cafaro agreed to reschedule, and on May 13 the encounter finally occurred.

It was a remarkable event. If you want to see it, the video is now available. You can watch it online, or download it from Dropbox.  But for those who would rather read a condensed, partially paraphrased, and frankly partisan first-person account, here is what happened.

Andrews, who served as the moderator, introduced the contestants and stated the debate proposition, which was that to help stop global warming, the United States should seek to sharply reduce carbon emissions, cut immigration, and reduce population growth. Cafaro, arguing for the affirmative, was given 17 minutes to present his case, and then there was equal time for me, representing the negative. Following this, we were each given 7 minutes for rebuttal, after which the meeting was opened up to 40 minutes of questions posed by members of the audience.

In his opening presentation, Cafaro soft-pedaled his actual beliefs, pointing (disingenuously, as later became evident) to concern for the 22 million Americans unemployed or underemployed as a reason to stop immigration, an action that, he further said, would allow the American population to be stabilized in the 360 million range by the end of the century. If this is not done, he said, then the U.S. population will rise to 600 million by 2100 and strongly drive anthropogenic global warming. This, which he claimed had already entailed an increase of the Earth’s temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius per decade for the past century (a total of 15 degrees C!), would raise it another 3 to 6 degrees C over the next 50 years, with devastating results. Thus, said Cafaro, immigration restriction combined with other measures to limit the U.S. population is “the right policy for stewardship, and the right policy for future generations.”

I then took the floor, focusing most of my presentation on the chart below.

Figure 1: Average global GDP per capita vs. global carbon use, 1800–2010 (2010 dollars)

“This graph,” I said, “shows the history of humanity’s great escape from poverty over the past 200 years. From the world depicted in the novels of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, with an average per capita income of $180 per year and people starving to death in the streets of London and Paris, the capitals of the world’s leading nations, to the world of today, with an average global GDP per capita of nearly $9,000. As you can see, it has been driven directly by carbon use. . . . What we are looking at here is not only a grand story of a world of billions of people escaping from poverty, but millions of individual stories of people escaping from places where they were doomed to poverty to places where they had the opportunity to rise. It’s a story of millions of people coming to America.

“So here,” I said, pointing to the lower-left-hand part of the graph, which begins in 1800, “they have names like Smith and Andrews, and they are coming from impoverished circumstances in England and Scotland. And here [pointing to 1850] they have names like O’Brien and O’Donnell, and they are coming from Ireland. And here [pointing to 1875] come Hanson and Johansen. And here [pointing to 1910] come Kowalski, and Kaplan, and Petrakis, and Cafaro. And here [pointing to the mid 20th century] they have names like Rice, and King, and Robinson, and they are coming from the land of Jim Crow to the land of opportunity. And here [pointing to 2000] they have names like Chang, and Gupta, and Gonzalez, and they come, seeking and finding opportunity. 

“Now this is so obviously good, who could oppose it? Cafaro does. He says, repeatedly, in his writings that ‘the last thing the world needs is more Americans.’ Well, I say that the first thing the world needs is more Americans. And here is why: Because we need to ask ourselves who did this [pointing to the line on the graph rising from $180 per year in 1800 to nearly $9,000 per year in 2010]? Who is responsible for this miracle? Well, for the first part [pointing to the region of the graph from 1800 to 1875], the answer is, the British. There are others who play a supporting role, including Americans and continental Europeans, but in the main, this is a British show, and it’s a great achievement, raising the world from $180 per year to $500 per year. But after that [pointing to the graph from 1875 to 2010], it’s the U.S.A. It’s America, inventing oil drilling, and light bulbs, and recorded sound, and centrally generated electric power, and telephones, and airplanes, and motion pictures, and mass-produced automobiles, and radio, and television, and nuclear power, and modern agriculture, and computers, and transistors, and micro-electronics, and all the rest. We are 4 percent of the world’s population, but for the past century we’ve been responsible for half the world’s inventions. That’s why the world needs more Americans.

“But has this been accomplished at the expense of a climatic catastrophe? Well, I’m 61, and my memories go back to Sputnik [pointing to the late 1950s], when the average global GDP per capita was $2,200. During the span of my living memory, we’ve quadrupled the global per capita income. What has happened to the weather? Well, for those of you who weren’t around then, let me tell you. When I was a boy, the weather was pretty much the same as the weather is now.”

That line got me a big knowing laugh from the audience. I then went on to display my second graph, provided below, which shows how, contrary to Cafaro’s Malthusian ideology, since 1500, as the world’s population has increased, GDP per capita has risen even faster.

Figure 2: Growth of living standards with population, 1500–2000 (2010 dollars)

I then pointed out, as a matter of particular interest, the part of the graph since 1968, when Cafaro’s mentor, Paul Ehrlich, published his bestselling book The Population Bomb, in which he predicted a collapse of living standards worldwide, including in America, should the global population double as anticipated by the year 2000. (Incidentally, Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, wrote the introduction to Cafaro’s book, Life on the Brink, published in 2012.) “As you can see,” I said, “the population did double, albeit by 2010, but instead of collapsing, as predicted by Ehrlich, the global GDP per capita tripled. Well, anyone has the right to be wrong about the future. But Ehrlich was also wrong about the past.” Here I pointed to the thin purple line with which I extrapolated the predictions given by Ehrlich’s theory backward in time from 1968. “Ehrlich was born in 1931, when the population of the world was 40 percent lower than it was in 1968. So if Ehrlich’s theory that human well-being is inversely proportional to human numbers was correct, then the world should have been much richer in the 1930s than it was in 1968, and Ehrlich would have been around to see it. But of course the world of the 1930s was much poorer than the world of the late 1960s, let alone the world of today. It is this willingness to ignore readily available data, and continually make predictions on the basis of a theory that has been shown to be completely counterfactual, that defines Ehrlich and his fellow Malthusians as cranks.”

At this point Andrews informed me that I had only one minute left. So I went straight to my conclusions. “The bottom line is this. Ideas have consequences. If the idea is accepted that humans are not creators but destroyers, then every nation becomes the enemy of every other nation, and every race the enemy of every other race. In 1941 Adolf Hitler said, ‘The laws of existence require uninterrupted killing, so that the better may live.’ Genocide is supposedly necessary because the Earth only has so much carrying capacity. That is the worldview that Cafaro and his co-thinkers are promoting. And if it is accepted, then there will be world war. Because if the Chinese come to believe it, the existence of the United States is unacceptable. We are using up too many of the world’s resources, and so forth. And should America’s strategic thinkers accept it, then for them the rise of China becomes unacceptable, because when the children of Chinese peasants graduate from college, they’ll buy cars, and start using the oil that we need, etc. But if the truth is understood — that humans are creators, not destroyers — then every nation is potentially the friend of every nation. The truth is that China’s ability to rise from poverty has depended entirely upon inventions made in America and elsewhere in the West, so the existence of America has been very good for China. And should the children of Chinese peasants become scientists and engineers, they will start making inventions that will contribute to human progress, and thereby benefit us. So that’s the choice: a world of war of all against all, or a world where all men can be brothers. The more people there are, the more free people there are, and the more of the freest people there are, the better off we all are.”

My time was up, but Andrews felt that I hadn’t directly addressed global warming very much. He asked Cafaro if I could have two more minutes to directly address that topic, and Cafaro generously agreed. So I did, briefly making the following points: Empirically the current rate of global warming is unclear, as we have just had the second-coldest spring since 1860. But if it were occurring, that would be something to celebrate, as global warming lengthens the growing season and increases net rainfall. Furthermore, increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which we have indeed done, accelerates plant growth, and we have both photos taken from orbit and reproducible lab experiments to prove it. So the bottom line is that we are making the world a more fertile planet. “The Chinese have a saying, ‘Where there is a will to condemn, evidence is never lacking.’ The anti-humanists want to put humanity in chains, so they seek to represent any human action as criminal. But we should be proud to have made the Earth more fertile.”

Cafaro then gave his rebuttal, making the point that in his view global warming must be bad, because we are accustomed to the current climate. He said that it was not correct to say that he is anti-people. He just does not consider the advancement of humanity as consisting of acquiring ever more wealth. Continuing in this vein, he proceeded to quote the Bible, reminding us to lay not up for ourselves treasures on Earth, but put them in Heaven, as where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. “We must choose between the pursuit of Mammon and another path that is better for our society,” he said. “I am frankly anti-growth,” he continued. “Our politics are built around the pursuit of growth. That might be okay for a poor country, but not for the U.S.A. I’d like to see more spiritual growth and less material growth.”

Then it was again my turn. I thanked Cafaro for admitting plainly that he was anti-growth, as this underscores the lack of sincerity of his alleged concern for the unemployed. Cafaro, I said, wants to stop immigration in order to stop economic growth, which is the only hope for the unemployed. I then addressed the broader issue of what Cafaro is actually up to, in combining xenophobia with collectivism. “Hayek examines this same phenomenon in The Road to Serfdom,” I pointed out, “where he says that Nazism is actually the ultimate form of socialism. How can that be, Hayek asks rhetorically, since the Nazis are racists while the socialists are internationalists? He then answers that, yes, the social democrats may prefer internationalism, but what Hitler understands is that if you really want to mobilize the passion required to impose the full collectivist agenda, you have to invoke the tribal instinct. Thus the combination of xenophobia with collectivism, the most lethal political combination there is. No one should be fooled by this. If you combine nationalism with socialism you don’t get conservatism, or liberalism. You get National Socialism.”

In response to Cafaro’s citing of the Bible, I offered two quotes of my own — Leviticus 19:33–34 and a longer passage from Mathew, 25:34–46 — which make it very clear where the Judaeo-Christian tradition stands relative to both xenophobia and Cafaro’s supposedly spiritual endorsement of state policies designed to enforce poverty. In contrast, I drew the attention of the audience to the philosophical writings of Cafaro and his fellow ideologues, who deride in their journals any form of human-centered ethics as representing “anthropocentrism,” a supposedly more primitive and narrow outlook than theirs, which places nature first and human needs last.

The floor was then opened to questions. The first questioner asked Cafaro how he thought Social Security could be financially sustained under conditions of negative population growth. Cafaro saw no problem, so long as the decrease was gradual.  I disagreed, pointing to the impending bankruptcy of Europe following from its ongoing population implosion. “It’s been said that the problem with socialism is that you run out of other people’s money to spend,” I commented. “Another is when you run out of other people’s children to support you.”

Andrews asked Cafaro if he did indeed want the U.S. population to decline. Cafaro said yes, but avoided saying how much. I then quoted one of Cafaro’s own articles in his Life on the Brink anthology, in which he favorably cited Negative Population Growth ideologue David Pimentel’s estimate that the proper U.S. population size was between 40 and 100 million. My daughter Rachel, who was in the audience, then asked Cafaro how he expected to deal with recurrent natural climatic problems like glaciation. Cafaro replied that that was for the long term — the problem now was to stop warming. I commented that the broader problem being raised was how can we cope with massive natural threats, including glaciation and asteroidal impacts. Clearly, the only way is by increasing our technological and industrial powers over nature, not holding them back. Andrews asked Cafaro to comment on his opposition to “anthropocentrism.” Cafaro responded that he was indeed opposed to ethics that placed value only on what was of use to humans and that, accordingly, he was also concerned with animal rights.

A questioner asked me what I thought was sustainable “on a planet with limited resources and land size.” I answered that the concept of sustainability within stasis was itself wrong, and that no fixed set of resources will ever last. The need therefore is for continued invention. “The idea that a society can pull in its horns and live within its means is false. Static societies have always failed. The society that has succeeded is one based on progress.” Andrews then asked me how many people, in that case, can we have on Earth. I replied that we are on the verge of achieving true access to space, and whether that occurs in 10 years, 20, 50, or 100, in an historical blink of an eye, the relevant arena of human activity will expand far beyond the confines of the Earth, just as our current global reach extends far beyond the limits of our species’ original natural habitat in the Kenyan Rift Valley.

Andrews asked Cafaro if he believed in the precautionary principle. Cafaro replied that while he would not ban all innovations, we have had an awful lot of progress in the past 100 years, and so a certain amount of precaution makes sense before we progress further. So let’s slow down a bit, he said. I intervened to point out that the average world income today is nearly $9,000, and while that is a great accomplishment relevant to past ages, we still have a long way to go. Poverty remains the No. 1 problem in the world today, I said. Poverty kills millions, through starvation, disease, exposure, brutality, ignorance. To say we’ve made it, so now progress can stop and the rest of the world remain in poverty, is not a moral position.

A Colorado Christian University professor commented that his best students were immigrants, and if we seek to exclude such bright, hard-working people, we will weaken the national fiber. Cafaro answered that nothing he said should be taken to imply that he was against immigrants, to which I responded by pointing out that he did want to exclude them. He said yes, but we have all the bright, hard-working people we need already here within our borders. I then spoke, agreeing with the CCU professor that excluding such people would reduce the future of this country, and therefore the world, “because it is America that holds up the sky.”

A questioner then confronted Cafaro with data showing that for the past 16 years there has been no global warming. Cafaro said he hadn’t seen those data. Another questioner asked Cafaro how he accounted for the 1,700 scientists who have signed a statement saying that the warmist campaign is a hoax. Cafaro answered that it was impossible to imagine how the thousands of scientists who are involved in the development of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports could be induced to cooperate in a massive scientific fraud. I replied, “Not if you understand how science is funded.”  I then went on to discuss how in the 1920s, pseudoscientific reports based on IQ tests given in English were used to argue for immigration restriction based on the non-existent threat that Polish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were posing to the nation’s hereditary intelligence.

A questioner then asked Cafaro what he meant when he said he supported “noncoercive” population-control measures. Cafaro responded by saying he supported the use of contraceptives. Andrews asked Cafaro where he stood on the Chinese one-child policy. I pointed out that it is endorsed in Cafaro’s book. Cafaro replied that the book is an anthology, merely edited by him, and that one of his contributing authors (David Foreman, co-founder of Earth First!) had actually made that endorsement. Andrews then pressed Cafaro to say where he stood, and Cafaro admitted that he endorsed the one-child policy too, saying that if China hadn’t had it, there would have been 200 million more Chinese, which would have been a disaster. I then spoke, quoting Cafaro as recommending that limits on childbearing be enforced by fines, which is certainly a form of coercion. I also quoted one of his own articles in his anthology, in which he says that the United States should use denial of foreign aid as a means of forcing Third World countries to impose top-down population-reduction programs, and I proceeded to discuss exactly how many such brutal, racist programs have been implemented under USAID auspices to date. Cafaro replied that that was unfortunate, and so to prevent our ever getting to that point, the United States should start implementing domestic population-control programs now.

The time limit for the event having been reached, Andrews drew the meeting to a close, and the audience departed, perhaps somewhat enlightened.

— 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 last year by Encounter Books.


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When I saw the chop-suey font in the CNN story I was reminded of a powdered-drink product from my youth: Funny Face.