What Do North Korean Dictators and Radical Environmentalists Have in Common?

A recent editorial in North Korea’s state magazine took aim at this famous photo illustrating the disparity between electricity access in North and South Korea:

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The editorial argued, “They [North Korea’s detractors] clap their hands and get loud over a satellite picture of our city with not much light, but the essence of society is not on flashy lights.” [Emphasis added]

Where have we heard this before? It is the same refrain that modern environmentalists repeat time and again — that because material goods can’t supply happiness, therefore, we should abandon the task of securing economic prosperity for people and focus on what’s “more meaningful in life.” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, has made similar arguments to the North Korean magazine in the past:

We need to conserve energy. That’s the cheapest way to reduce carbon. Screw in the energy-saving lightbulbs, but that’s just the start…You have to plug in the new appliances—not the flat-screen TV, which uses way more power than the old set, but the new water-saving front-loading washer. And once you’ve got it plugged in, turn the dial so that you’re using cold water. The dryer? You don’t need a dryer—that’s the sun’s job...Do we want enormous homes and enormous cars, all to ourselves? If we do, then we can’t deal with global warming. Do we want to keep eating food that travels 1,500 miles to reach our lips? Or can we take the bus or ride a bike to the farmers’ market? Does that sound romantic to you? [Emphasis added]

It may sound romantic to McKibben, but millions of other people around the world may certainly disagree with his assessment of what is best in life. The problem with this line of thinking, as IER has pointed out before, is that while electricity and economic prosperity may not be a sufficient condition for peoples’ happiness, it is a necessary one.  Without reliable, affordable energy, basic activities such as refrigerating food and medicine, lighting your home at night, keeping yourself warm during freezing winters, and using household appliances like dishwashers and microwaves all become hugely expensive.

And a note to McKibben and friends: if your arguments are starting to sound eerily similar to those of the North Korean regime, then it’s probably time to rethink them.


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