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An Environmental Activist’s Guide To The Great Barrington Declaration

Above photo: By The White House from Washington, DC – President Trump and the Vice President meet with Airline CEOs about the Coronavirus, Public Domain.

The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) is standard issue libertarian free market ideology sanded down to fit the confines of public health – this document (coauthored by three highly credentialed academics: Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford) recommended that governments do nothing to combat a once in a century pandemic destined globally to obliterate as many as 27 million lives.

The fever dream enshrined in every libertarian narrative holds that “self regulating forces” exhibit a mystical benevolence only realized when governments retreat, and defer to the “natural order.” The natural order is a dog whistle for capitalist deregulation. Sunetra Gupta assured us that if we kept the economy wide open, the pandemic would end in as little as three months – roughly the length of time, she argued, that it would take to achieve natural herd immunity. COVID, like the mythical free market, provided its own self correction. Natural herd immunity, the libertarian equivalent of the tooth fairy, failed to slow COVID’s murderous onslaught but Gupta never lost faith. The GBD was never about science.

The pandemic inspired one more libertarian fantasy about the virtues of allowing nature to take its course. It was nothing new. We don’t need gun legislation because guns (collectively) have a self correcting mechanism – the “good guy with a gun.” The market regulates itself so long as the government only operates as a wind sock aligned with corporate desires. There is no need to limit fracking because the climate (with or without god’s help, depending on the preferred flavor of libertarian ideology) balances itself as well:

“We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.”

During the early months of the pandemic, Sharon Kelly, writing for DeSmog, noted that the same libertarian think tanks that had been spreading climate change disinformation had been redeployed to downplay the risks of COVID. The American Institute of Economic Research (AIER), located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, had not yet attracted Kelly’s focus, but within several months would organize, produce and publicize the GBD. The AIER had been one of the most lavishly funded founts of climate change denial, that routinely posted (and continues to post) missives in praise of fossil fuels.

The pandemic, partly because of government mandated closings, caused oil prices to plummet. With fewer people flying, driving to work or traveling to vacation spots, the networks spewing oil propaganda – already running full blast to misinform the public about climate change – were hastily put into service to wage a new war of mass deception targeting public health.

Sharon Kelly’s piece in DeSmog focused on the propaganda coming out of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) downplaying the risks of COVID. The ACSH is an astroturf organization – a front for the oil industry posing as a grass roots association of science writers. The ACSH continues to promote a relentless succession of climate change denial/pro fossil fuel industry screeds.

Another DeSmog piece by Steve Horn detailed the role that the State Policy Network (SPN) played in funding and organizing “Operation Gridlock” – a demonstration at the Michigan state capital that culminated with protesters entering the capital building brandishing high powered weapons to express their ire toward Governor Gretchen Whitmore for mandating business closings during the first COVID spike in April of 2020.

At that point the US daily COVID death rates were climbing to over two thousand, with ten percent of these coming from Michigan. Shortly after this, the COVID death rates dropped in both the US and in Europe, and Sunetra Gupta opined that the pandemic was on the way out. She claimed that natural herd immunity had likely reached the needed threshold. Of course we now know that the second wave would soon hit with US death rates eventually soaring to over four thousand daily.

But Gupta went doggedly forward, unshakable in her views that were underwritten by billionaire rightwing donor, George von Opel. At von Opels request, Gupta convinced Boris Johnson to abandon plans for a UK lockdown in anticipation of COVID’s second wave.

The common denominator uniting climate change denial and COVID contrarianism is big money. The AIER has assets of $282 million from an investment business trading in fossil fuel stocks. The AIER also receives ongoing donations from Exxon, Chevron, Phillip Morris, Mondelez and The Koch Foundation.

A piece written by Walker Bragman and Alex Kotch in December of 2021 traced the connections between the Great Barrington Declaration and the extensive web of oil industry funding sources. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff have connections to Hillsdale College’s Academy of Science and Freedom which receives funding from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation. Both are also affiliated with the Hoover Institute which receives money from the Donor’s Trust – The Donor’s Trust has been called the “Dark Money ATM of the conservative movement.”

This organization is part of the SPN that funded the Michigan protests. Kulldorf, Bhattacharya and Gupta are also affiliated with The Brownstone Institute, a spinoff product of the GBD headed by former AIER editorial director, Jeffrey Tucker. The Brownstone is another astroturf project with a website featuring Brooklyn based images but a mailing address in Austin, Texas. Like most of the organizations with ties to oil industry dark money, The Brownstone Institute bounces back and forth between attacking government spending for public health, decrying vaccines and fearfully warning of future government restrictions due to climate.

The Brownstone Institute has ties to The Epoch Times and the militant, JFK Jr. headed, antivax organization –  Children’s Health Defense.

The GBD proved just how powerfully and surreptitiously the aspirations of the oil industry circumvent our cultural and political destiny.

The Great Barrington Declaration became, according to legal scholar, Patricia Williams, the de facto inspiration for US COVID policy. Despite the revisionist COVID history that one encounters on libertarian internet sites, there were few US lockdowns across the three (official) years of the pandemic (before Biden, with his finger to the electoral winds, declared that the pandemic was over). During the fall of 2021, with some two thousand daily COVID fatalities, almost 99% of US schools remained open for in-person learning.

The idea that COVID had become the pretext for an unprecedented US government power grab is among the most mendacious myths currently circulating across media and social media outlets, no less absurd than the notion of a Marxist Democratic Party, or a stolen 2020 presidential election.

On the contrary, libertarian think tank operatives seized many of the levers of public health control and convinced a sizable segment of the US population to resist the most common sense public health precautions.

Trump’s appointment of Great Barrington Declaration apparatchik, Scott Atlas, to the Coronavirus Task Force in August of 2020 signaled that the crank ideas that had always driven Trump’s rhetoric on COVID policy now had been officially adopted as policy. If we imagine the pandemic as a cage match between public health bureaucracy and batshit crazy, the result was a bloody stoppage in favor of the latter. (It is important to understand that the GBD never achieved complete control of our COVID destiny. Most people complied with public health recommendations. Had they not, millions more would have perished.)

On the state level, Ron DeSantis appointed anti-vax zealot, Joseph Ladapo, as Florida surgeon general, and set up a “public health integrity committee” that included both Kulldorff and Bhattacharya. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin appointed herd immunity true believer, Marty Makary, to chair his medical advisory committee. In state after state, Republican governors appointed Great Barrington Declaration cheerleaders to key public health decision making posts.

Eve Ottenberg labeled the declaration’s herd immunity plan as, lethal capitalism. Great Barrington town officials referred to the GBD as a death cult. Benjamin Mateus deemed it homicidal. Patricia Williams called the Trump administration COVID policy a crime against humanity. David Gorski wrote that the declaration’s subtextual message was “screw the elderly and sick.”

Gorski asserted that the GBD pushed a eugenics agenda. The popular myth, often spoken with a dismissive air – that only the old and sick were vulnerable to COVID – implied that some lives are of little importance. These people are about to die anyways – why the fuss? The elderly, in the constellation of GBD values, had become “worthless eaters,” and the idea of giving them “focused protection” ought to summon memories of Nazi euphemisms like “special treatment.”

None of the authors of the GBD invested any thoughtful energy about focused protection, either in a plethora of op-eds and interviews, nor in the GBD itself. Focused protection was mentioned in passing, perhaps as a caveat to appease Twitter censors. As many have pointed out, in the US – where people often have no medical insurance, and many people cannot afford healthy food – half the population struggles with preexisting health risks. Who would qualify for focused protection? The issue never caused the GBD authors to lose sleep.

The GBD became ground zero for national divisions. This document spearheaded a contrarian social media culture that unleashed a toxic admixture of half truths and outright myths transcending the cautiously written, profoundly evasive GBD. Each of these bromides aim to slash and wound the fabric of public health. Here are a few:

1) The harms caused by public health policies were worse than those caused by the disease.

2) Vaccines have killed and disabled vast numbers of victims, and the media covers this up.

3) COVID gave the deep state an opportunity to employ Draconian restrictions that are a prelude to even more authoritarian edicts to come around climate change.

4) As there were COVID lockdowns, there will be climate lockdowns.

5) The government/deep-state exaggerated COVID deaths to justify arbitrary limits to freedom.

6) COVID deaths were inevitable acts of nature and COVID death rates would have been lower if the CDC did nothing at all.

7) Restrictions of COVID “disinformation” were an assault on first amendment rights and a harbinger of future free speech incursions around climate.

8) COVID was developed as a bioweapon to disrupt and overthrow the Trump administration.

9) COVID was engineered to spare Jews and Asians.

These statements that are ubiquitous across social media are not accusations of government bungling or even corruption. COVID contrarian assertions often imply that a system of hidden power, with virtually Satanic intent, defined public health policy during the COVID pandemic. These ideas have inspired toxic passion and a willingness to commit violence that inevitably now spills over into the contrarian climate change community.

The only absolute gauge of the GBD’s success are body counts. Where laissez faire COVID mitigation became public health dogma, COVID death rates skyrocketed. 11 of the 17 US states that have COVID death rates of over 4,000 per million voted for Trump in 2020. Those countries with authoritarian leaders who downplayed the dangers of COVID were among the worst hit of the COVID apocalypse – India under the lax public health leadership of Modi has been estimated to have had almost 5 million COVID deaths. Brazil under Bolsonaro, the US during Trump’s presidency and Hungary under Orban have been among the global leaders in COVID deaths. Vaccine hesitancy continued into the Biden administration, and even today the US still suffers nearly a thousand weekly COVID deaths.

By contrast, countries with prioritized, centralized, state run public health systems role modeled ways to limit pandemic harms. Here are the numbers of COVID deaths per million for socialist Cuba, socialist Vietnam and the US as of December 10, 2023, according to

USA – 3,538

Cuba – 754

Vietnam – 437

Here are the annual rates of medical spending per capita for each country

USA – $10,784

Cuba – $1,186

Vietnam – $181

Research in The Lancet, midway through the pandemic, determined that 40% of US COVID deaths were “avoidable.” Patricia Williams asserted that the US COVID death rate were indicative of “an intentionally induced avalanche of slaughter.”  Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and many other countries proved that COVID infections and deaths could be limited in exponential fashion. Cuba and Vietnam employed COVID mitigation strategies that the GBD authors assured us would lead to disaster. A Cuban style medical system might have saved a million American lives, but no one in US media is writing about Cuba’s pandemic.

For those of us terrified by the rapid escalation of global overheating, the GBD cannot be dismissed as an unrelated event. Instead, we must see this as a cautionary story depicting the oil industry’s power, reach and narrative hold on the public imagination.

The propaganda apparatus of the GBD continues to churn out rhetorical assaults on both public health and climate mitigation.

Consider this from a very well written, if deviously conceived, piece posted by W. Aaron VanDiver at both The Children’s Health Defense website and The Brownstone Institute (entitled – Covid Emergency, Climate Emergency: Same Thing):

“A small environmental group called Protect Thacker Pass, which opposes a major lithium mine in Nevada, pointed out that “green” energy projects that are “fast-tracked” under a “climate emergency” would not only have access to streamlined federal financing, they might also be permitted to skip environmental review and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

This would be a replay of the “emergency” mode of governance established during COVID-19 when products privately owned and developed by Big Pharma were fast-tracked through the federal approval process.”

Looking past the debunked bromide about fast tracked vaccines, VanDiver is clearly not writing to the libertarian, rightwing choir, but attempting to appeal to those who worry about the environment. The Great Barrington Declaration also succeeded in attracting a spectrum of adherents who resonated with the antigovernment, antiauthority veneer applied to a story that secretly served oil interests.

VanDiver has adopted the same sort of faux progressivism as that of the GBD which stated that the brunt of COVID lockdowns is inflicted on the working class. Oil industry funded climate contrarian, Bjorn Lomborg, complained that the cost of climate mitigation would better be spent treating illness in poor nations. Libertarian rhetoric is being directed toward potential converts – centrists and leftists, and it has been wildly successful at winning over unlikely allies for the oil industry.

VanDiver’s tactic is a bait and switch – rather than seeking a leftwing/rightwing rapprochement to battle climate change, VanDiver substitutes the goal of opposing government. COVID, in libertarian fiction, exposed the expansive aspirations of big government. VanDiver has absolutely nothing to say about climate overheating, he only seeks to warn his readers that the deep state plots to put a boot on your Hummer and snatch the meat off of your plate. This gambit won’t fool everyone, but neither did the GBD. The oil industry aspires to confuse just enough voters to gum up the political works and assure that climate inaction maintains a chokehold on our environmental destiny.

VanDiver is partly right – COVID indeed wrote an epic cautionary tale, but not about the Draconian power of big government. The COVID story instructed us about the Machiavellian aspirations of the fossil fuel industry. We have no way to accurately estimate how many of the 27 million excess global COVID deaths can be ascribed to the GBD and its larger social media culture of antivaxxers and paranoid fantasies. We can guess that the GBD caused 10 million deaths, 5 million deaths or less than a million. The numbers don’t matter, but the understanding of corporate scope, intentions and organizational abilities, I believe, are critical to the fight for a sustainable climate.

I recently watched a presentation regarding James Hansen’s latest message. Hansen tells us, essentially, that we are at the proverbial point of no return where immediate action and not tepid discourse is critical. At roughly the same time I have learned from a piece by David Sirota that the oil companies “buy the news.”

These two things define my terminal case of cognitive dissonance. Oil industry media domination and the urgency requiring immediate action do not add up to a viable path toward hope. If we could not even save millions of COVID victims from the oil industry’s check-mating moves to neuter public health, how will we bring carbon emissions safely down?

Did COVID teach us anything? Well yes – the movement to overthrow the fossil fuel empire will require action, passion, numbers and narrative force that we have yet to imagine.

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