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Different protests, same bad reasoning

Mark Milke: Western voters were not insane in the 1980s and they’re not insane today.
(Leon Wang/

Back in the 1980s, when the Vancouver Province was a broadsheet and the weekend edition of the Vancouver Sun was half the size of a phone book—I know, I date myself —I recall one prominent front-page story: a 100,000-strong anti-nuclear march across Burrard Street bridge.

I remember it because that was the concern of activists in that decade, but also because 100,000 people marching with signs across a bridge was an iconic image. It thus stuck in the back of my brain. Memory can be faulty, but the web is a marvelous resource: CBC has the picture of that spring 1986 march here.

I also recall the anti-nuke marches (there was more than one that decade) because the City of Vancouver had, years before, declared itself a nuclear-free zone. You could see the signs as you crossed into Vancouver from Burnaby, New Westminster, and North Vancouver.

Vancouver’s anti-nuclear declaration was silly because A: Canada did not possess nuclear weapons; B: no government was ever going to build a nuclear plant or weapons facility on the corner of Robson and Burrard; C: Even if the concern was nuclear-armed American submarines prowling around the west coast (or American warships which did dock in Vancouver in the 1980s) they were never going to check their arms at the Port of Vancouver like an off-duty cop relinquishes her gun when done work for the day; and D: Even if a nuclear-armed submarine or ship sailed in Vancouver waters, there was nothing Vancouver councillors could do about it, the waters being under federal jurisdiction.

Vancouver’s politicians and activists then….

I digress because what eventually led to a reduction in nuclear weapons was not protest marches on the west coast or city politicians declaring themselves against nukes, but—and this will grate the greying anti-nuclear crowd—then-American president Ronald Reagan, and the thaw in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

That took place after Reagan, in office between 1981 and 1989, continually cramped up the Soviet Union with a robust defense of the United States and the West in general. That included, initially, higher American military spending to cement that point. Reagan’s bet was that eventually the United States’ superior economic system and free society would win over the economically and socially repressive Soviet system. He was right.

Reagan also steadfastly pursued the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). His hope was that technology could one day make nuclear weapons obsolete. It was a pragmatic response; no rational actor was ever going to endanger their nation with unilateral disarmament, and nor could nuclear weapons be un-invented.

Thus, Reagan and his supporters argued, something else was needed, a transformative technology, a defensive system that could shoot down missiles and thus make the development of ever-more offensive nuclear weapons less likely.

Initially mocked by some as Reagan’s “Star Wars” fantasy, the vision has partly come true. For example, this past spring, Israel shot down 86 per cent of 690 missiles launched on just one day by Hamas from the Gaza strip. That was due to Israel’s Iron Dome” anti-missile system, the genesis of which came from the  Strategic Defence Initiative and Israel’s participation in the same.

It was unrealistic to think that all nuclear weapons could be abolished, though even Reagan hoped for that. But if partial arms reduction was the goal, another factor also explains some success to that end: the arrival of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev implicitly (but never explicitly) admitted command-and-control economics were a failure, and that his country could never militarily outspend a much more prosperous United States.

While the Soviet leader always claimed his country’s socialist system could be reformed to work (he was wrong), the practical effect was that the Soviets ceased trying to export and impose that failure on the rest of the world.

After that, Cold War tensions dramatically eased. Then, it was all over except for the rather large lady singing. The implosion and collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 was the final event that made a bi-polar arms race and all the 1980s-era attention focused on it, irrelevant.

…Vancouver’s politicians and activists now

Back to Vancouver. I additionally digressed because the 1980s protests are directly relevant to today, with plenty of hysteria once again in the air, in pursuit of a world where humans have no impact.

Thus consider: Vancouver City Council declaring the laws of physics irrelevant by pretending residents will not soon need natural gas (never mind oil); marches for climate “justice”; or demands by scientists for people to stop having children; activists and others declaring we are in an emergency; a Green New Deal which mimics the worst top-down five-year plans from 20th century command-and-control economies; or marches in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver where alarmism and not pragmatism is on display.

The motivations and rhetoric spring from the same perfectionist and anti-reality sources who thought nuclear weapons could be miraculously wished away. Problem: In the 1980s, anti-nuclear protesters assumed the West should give up its free, entrepreneurial civilization for an oppressive anti-reality economics ideology which stripped people of dignity and choice.

Luckily, Western leaders were not insane enough to follow.

Today, some think that what has been built over two centuries in the modernized West and which has already lifted large portions of humanity out of poverty—a functioning economy and prosperity—should be self-sacrificed for what amounts to a human-free world. Or at least, one that would look little different from the medieval world, or the poorest corners of the planet today.

Western leaders and voters are not insane today either.

Stockpiles of American and Russian (formerly Soviet) nuclear weapons today are one-fifth what they were at end of the Cold War. That decrease occurred not due to protests, or hyperactive diktats. Instead, what changed—what allowed for a relaxation of tensions—was the decline of a tyrannical anti-freedom, anti-prosperity, anti-human ideology, combined with technological advances.

If carbon emissions are your core concern, dispense with the hysteria. Instead, be practical. People today will not abandon their elderly parents to energy poverty, nor their children to a pre-modern lifestyle.

Thus a few modest suggestions: Ship LNG to China and elsewhere in Asia to help unhook that continent from coal; embrace entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists. Do that not by attacking their livelihoods but by recognizing their value.

They are more likely to be the ones, like those who worked on Israel’s Iron Dome, who protect the planet and people from threats. Even if only partly successful, “partly” is still progress.

All the other noise—the marches, demands, the hysteria— is a throwback to the 1980s and lessons not learned by previous anti-reality perfectionists. They were wrong on the means and thus contributed nothing to a positive end, including the very one they desired.

Mark Milke is an independent public policy analyst. His newest book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.