Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has reemerged into the public view with a series of new, viral videos chiding Americans that they must profoundly alter virtually every aspect of their lives, or the world will run out of resources before turning into a scorched wasteland. They must also change the food they eat because, after all, it has feelings, too.
Thunberg made global headlines when she delivered a bitter indictment of global leaders at the United Nations in September 2019. “All you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” she said. “How dare you!”
The Swedish climate change activist has brought her pessimistic message back to the internet for NowThis News.
“Let’s face it, if we don’t change, we’re f***ed,” she says in a new video, which has garnered more than 117,000 views as of this writing.
We can’t fact-check her sense of existential doom, but we can examine a few of her statements.
What is the claim?
Thunberg tied several contemporary social crises into her apocalyptic view of climate change, including the spread of disease, the possible starvation of the human race, and the mass slaughter of what she apparently views as thoughtful and emotional fish. “What they all come down to is the way we treat nature,” she said, because we ignore the fact that “we are part of nature.”
Thunberg said that deforestation speeds the spread of diseases from animals to humans. “Millions have died from COVID-19, Zika, Ebola, Swine Flu, Mad Cow Disease, West Nile Fever, COVID-19, SARS, MERS, [and] HIV-AIDS. Up to 75% of all new diseases come from other animals,” she said.
She also virtually equated the death of lower lifeforms with that of humans. “Every year we kill more than 60 billion animals, excluding fish, whose numbers are so great that we only measure their lives by weight. What about their thoughts and feelings?” she asked.
Thunberg sounded a more familiar argument when she argued that the prosperous lifestyle of the West will soon cause the entire world to run out of resources. She pinpointed the consumption of meat as a source of carbon dioxide emissions, as well as a huge use of land.
“If we continue, we will run out of land and food,” she said. “If we change toward a plant-based diet, we could save up to 8 billion tons of CO2 every single year. We could feed ourselves on much less land, and nature could recover.”
What are the facts?
The most easily verifiable claim we can check is a common one: that higher levels of prosperity mean the world will run out of resources, in this case, food and farmland. The extreme environmentalist movement, especially its population control wing, has made the same, baseless argument for decades. Population control guru Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1970 that overpopulation will “completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make” — which would trigger a “great die-off,” where 65 million Americans will starve to death in the 1980s together with 4 billion people around the world.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. Ehrlich made a common mistake: He ignored the fact that technological progress lets the world sustain life more effectively with fewer resources.
The world is not running out of farmland, because advances in productivity have made it possible to grow more food on less land. People globally consume more calories, pay less for food, and use less land for cultivating food than in decades past. “Between 1961 and 2014, global cereal yields per unit of land increased by 154%,” according to the invaluable website HumanProgress.org. Erosion fell by 43% between 1982 and 2007.
But what about meat? The same process is at work for every kind of livestock, which have gotten larger over the decades without taking up more space. Cows, chickens, and pigs produced 150-169% more meat per carcass in 2018 than in 1961. And this trend will continue.
We’re in no danger of running out of meat. Over the next 10 years, the global supply of meat will outpace global demand by 15 million tons (megatons, or “Mt” for short), driving down real prices. Demand for meat will increase to 350 million tons (or megatons, “Mt”), while the supply will increase to 365 Mt, according to an estimate from the OECD.
It’s true that, if we made no technological progress, the world could not live on the same kind of diet as the average American does today. Greta’s beef with beef is a red herring, because most global demand is for chicken and pork, which takes less land. And it’s not clear that the current American diet is healthy for Americans, either.
Her claim of animal-to-human disease transfer rests on better ground. “At least 61% of all human pathogens are zoonotic, and have represented 75% of all emerging pathogens during the past decade,” according to the World Health Organization. But it doesn’t help Thunberg’s case to raise this just as public authorities are finally beginning to investigate the possibility that COVID-19 originated inside a lab like the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The weak link is the idea that human beings are simply another part of nature, so the “thoughts and feelings” of fish are equal to those of your relatives. Scientists have not established definitively that fish possess intelligence or emotions comparable to humans. Some researchers like biologist Victoria Braithwaite of Penn State University have claimed to find evidence that fish feel pain, have thoughts, or have some form of rudimentary emotions. Others, like Brian Key of Australia’s University of Queensland, have concluded, “While mammals and birds possess the prerequisite neural architecture for phenomenal consciousness, it is concluded that fish lack these essential characteristics and hence do not feel pain,” much less do they experience higher emotions.
Most importantly, Western civilization built itself upon the notion that human beings possess special, innate human dignity that sets us apart from the rest of creation. The Judeo-Christian tradition, harkening back to the Bible, finds this in the creation of all humanity in the image of God (imago Dei) and the commandment to “replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).
What’s the bottom line?
Greta Thunberg stretches the truth at times, bends or breaks it at others, and downgrades the unique place of human beings in creation. Her overblown claims might provoke greater cases of “eco-anxiety,” but they don’t point the way to a brighter or more sustainable future.