27 January 2021

George Monbiot calls for censorship – perhaps he should start with himself


George Monbiot demands that we start censoring George Monbiot. That really should be the conclusion of the Guardian columnist’s latest salvo, in which he argues, apropos of Covid, that “spreading only the most dangerous falsehoods…should be prohibited”.

The problem for George’s argument is that a little bit of censorship is like a little bit of pregnancy, not something that really exists. 

But let’s consider his idea for a moment. We must stop falsehoods that cost lives. The full weight of government must be applied to this task – we must, that is, have censorship of untruths. 

Of course, the question of ‘what is truth?’ has a storied history,  but there are times that we really can determine what it is and what it isn’t in objective terms. We could start, just for fun, with some of the patently wrong things Mr Monbiot has himself said down the years. Take this, for instance:

A new generation of solar panels relies on gallium and indium, whose global supplies appear close to exhaustion…Beyond a few natural gas fields in Texas, economically viable supplies of helium are rare; even there they might be exhausted in 50 years at current rates of use, or much faster if airships take off. If there is a God, he isn’t green. 

That’s from 2007 and those claims were not true, as we can now prove. Worrying about helium seems particularly odd, given that it is constantly generated here on Earth – it’s the last stage in the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium and, along with the similar path of creation radon, often ends up collecting in natural gas reservoirs. Granted, the process of getting it out can be complex, involving the cooling down to liquid of those gases, but then we’re all using much more liquefied natural gas, LNG, these days. Helium is therefore in vastly greater supply now than it was then, simply because of better technology. (Indeed, an important general point that’s often missed is that mineral reserves are often created through the advance of technology.)

Now, I’ve no doubt Monbiot sincerely believes in his misplaced doom-mongering, but his sincerity doesn’t make the claims any less false.

The idea that gallium and indium were about to run out, which he took from this piece in New Scientist, is equally incorrect:

He estimates that we have, at best, 10 years before we run out of indium. Its impending scarcity could already be reflected in its price: in January 2003 the metal sold for around $60 per kilogram; by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per kilogram. 

Fast-forward 13 years and the price of indium is $390 per kg – a figure from the same source used by New Scientist, the US Geological Survey (USGS), and also is not evidence of increasing shortage. Gallium contained in world resources of bauxite is estimated to exceed 1 million tons. As the world uses perhaps 400 tonnes a year, half of which is already recycled (both estimates, but close to reality), we’ve a certain amount of time left. Back to the NS:

He estimates that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and hafnium – which is increasingly important in computer chips – could be gone by 2017, and terbium – used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs – could run out before 2012. 

Terbium didn’t run out in 2012, zinc won’t in 2037 and the idea that hafnium would run out 2107 was positively insane. 

The mistake being made here – and it’s one made by the Club of Rome, Blueprint for Survival and any number of other environmental works – is to be ignorant of what a mineral reserve is, something I explain in a (free) book which you can read here. The short version is that a mineral reserve is what has already been prepared for use. Given capitalism and how much it costs to do that preparation, the system as a whole tends to only prepare enough for the next 20 tor 30 years of usage. But each year there’s a little more prepared that will, in turn, be used in the medium term.

It is this, and only this, that drives the constant claims that we’re all going to run out of everything in 20 to 30 years. The amount we can prepare for use bears no relationship – none whatever, not a fraction nor an iota – to the amount that has been used, and isn’t even a limitation upon what can be used, except at the most absurd extremes. My own estimation of possible hafnium supply, for instance, is that it runs out some time after the heat death of the universe and I’d challenge anyone to argue otherwise.

Which brings us back to Monbiot’s wayward arguments about censoring untruths. In the case of his wrongheaded assertions about minerals, why they were untrue – misunderstanding, not malice, I’d venture – is not as important as the fact that they are, well, untrue.

Worse still, these kind of arguments really are – to use Monbiot’s own word – dangerous falsehoods, because they underpin such egregious foolishnesses as the EU’s circular economy plan. Policymakers could only suggest something as stupidly expensive as recycling everything if we were going to run out of resources otherwise. Ploughing scarce resources into pointless environmental schemes like this will mean less for far worthier causes: treating the sick, alleviating the lot of the poor and all the other things that we value.

So it really isn’t that big a stretch to say that Mr Monbiot has been disseminating the some very damaging ideas. And by his own logic, he ought himself to be censored. As he puts it:

Over the past 30 years, I have watched this business model spread like a virus through public life. Perhaps it is futile to call for a government of liars to regulate lies. But while conspiracy theorists make a killing from their false claims, we should at least name the standards that a good society would set, even if we can’t trust the current government to uphold them.

Well, yes, quite so. 

Still, though it might be fun, we must urgently resist these kinds of attempts at censorship, no matter which side of the political fence they emanate from. For this free speech thing, that cornerstone of liberty, extends to George Monbiot as it does to you, me, David Icke and even Owen Jones. Everyone has the right to spout off as they wish, subject only to the laws of libel and incitement to immediate violence. True, this means the likes of Monbiot get to peddle gross misunderstandings, but that’s a price we have to pay for our right to do the same.

The reason for this unfortunate bargain is that no one has a monopoly upon the truth, none of us perceive it all, therefore no one can be the arbiter of what may be said. Or, to put it another way, Galton’s Ox only works if everyone has their say – limiting even just the extremes leads only to groupthink. 

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Tim Worstall works for the Adam Smith Institute and the Continental Telegraph.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.