Turning Off the Lights of the World

 Posted by on 27 May 2008 at 12:40 am  Environmentalism, Law
May 272008

Ayn Rand’s masterpiece Atlas Shrugged ends when the lights go out in the world:

The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize that the panic had reached the power stations—and that the lights of New York had gone out. . . .

She remembered the story Francisco had told her: “He had quit the Twentieth Century. He was living in a garret in a slum neighborhood. He stepped to the window and pointed at the skyscrapers of the city. He said that we had to extinguish the lights of the world, and when we would see the lights of New York go out, we would know that our job was done.”

In the novel, the lights go out as a result of willful evasion — the refusal of the world’s leaders to acknowledge that it is the power of the mind to reform nature in its own image that keeps the world alight. Evil enough, as far as it goes.

Now it’s worse. Now there are people actively looking for the world’s light switch and positively salivating at the prospect of flipping it off.

Many commentators, not just at NoodleFood, have identified the man-hating irrationality in the leadership of the environmental movement. (For example, see NoodleFood here; see The Ayn Rand Institute here and here.) But I speak of a new horror: the advent of lawsuits charging specific companies with responsibility for global warming and demanding compensation for damages. This phenomenon unites an unholy trinity of destructive factions: the acolytes of the environmental movement; fear-ridden and pandering lawmakers; and those prepared to cash in on the regulatory scheme resulting from the self-reinforcing lunacy of the first two — the plaintiff’s bar.

Kivalina is an Inupiat Eskimo village in Alaska. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, over one-quarter of Kivalina’s residents lived below the poverty line. In 2006 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described Kivalina as follows:

Kivalina is home to 402 residents, who live in very overcrowded conditions in just over 70 homes. The community is predominately Alaska Native, and residents depend on subsistence activities for a majority of their caloric intake. The community does not have a piped water or sewer system, except for running/piped water in its school and washeteria. Residents rely on self-haul water and on honey buckets for human waste.

The village is experiencing catastrophic coastal erosion; ice which used to prevent shore damage from fall and winter storms has been melting. Unsurprising, given its location, shown above (New Orleans, anyone?). To continue its existence, the village must relocate. The U.S. Army Corps of engineers estimates it will cost anywhere between $150 – $250 million.

Kivalina is suing energy companies for $400 million.

Two non-profits, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment have filed suit on behalf of Kivalina against 24 energy companies. The nonprofits have teamed up with — wait for it — attorneys who successfully sued big tobacco companies. If the suit is succesful, the attorneys’ fees will be about 30% to 40% of the recovery. Meaning that what’s left for the plaintiffs will be pretty much the amount the U.S. Army thinks it will cost to relocate the village. Pretty neat how that works out, eh?

The Atlantic Monthly writes:

[T]he suit also accuses eight of the firms (American Electric Power, BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Southern Company) of conspiring to cover up the threat of man-made climate change, in much the same way the tobacco industry tried to conceal the risks of smoking—by using a series of think tanks and other organizations to falsely sow public doubt in an emerging scientific consensus.

In other words, attorneys plan to throw the tobacco playbook at rich energy companies. The message the case wishes to convey is that energy companies knowingly caused global warming and must pay for the damage they’ve wrought by selling the fossil fuels that provide the world with energy.

There is no scientific consensus on the extent or causation of global warming (putting it charitably). But that is not the biggest problem with the lawsuit. The real problem is that to the extent the lawsuit is successful, it brings mankind closer to the squalid standard of living of the population of Kivalina.

The ability to use fossil fuels for our own benefit is the predominant reason humans enjoy the standard of living that we do. And it’s not like this is a big secret: witness developing nations’ persistent objections to global emissions policies on the grounds that their priority is economic development.

So here we have the spectacle of million-dollar attorneys . . .

. . . driving their fossil-fueled cars to work

. . . where they’ll work well into the night in offices brightly lit using energy provided by the companies they’re suing

. . . after which they’ll go home to luxurious houses made comfortable through the use of energy to warm and cool their environment

. . . and enjoy a quality of life that would not exist but for the energy companies their lawsuits could put out of business.

There is a terrific irony here. The residents of Kivalina have a subsistence economy. The difference between a subsistence economy and the standard of living most Americans take for granted is based on the use and technology of energy. It takes energy to create factories that manufacture plumbing pipes and pre-packaged food, and it would take energy to transport these conveniences of modern life all the way up to Alaska by air, sea and land. But after lawsuits like this one have destroyed energy companies by wringing billions of dollars out of them on the grounds they’ve covered up evidence that does not exist, we may all end up living like the residents of Kivalina.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha