This isn’t actually a part of my series on counterproductive and downright ethically and intellectually sloppy liberal elitist attitudes towards people they disagree with. The reason is that I am highly critical of those that have been arguing that climatologists are a bunch of ignorant, discredited alarmists, or part of some vast conspiracy to defraud the consumer of their divine right to cheap fuel. Of course I am adopting the kind of snarky, dismissive language that I have been criticizing, and my tongue is half in my cheek because there is a not-insubstantial school of thought out there that seems almost impossible to parody. I have listened to them change their story so often, from denying that there is any change in climate, to denying that it is caused by human activity, to denying that it is caused by CO_2, to denying that even if all of that is true then there are actually net benefits to the climate change. These are the lines of argument that I have heard advanced by a single group of people, all encouraging each other and not showing the slightest concern for the contradictions entailed in any of their positions. The common factor that must be denied at all costs is the need to do anything about the degradation of the environment. I feel quite sure that this is part of a modern nihilism, a kind-of party mentality that says we should live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. I am convinced it is the pathology of a drug addict.
The denial seems stunning. My father, a reporter, realted to me an interview he had with someone in the mid-1980s warning about the problem of CO_2 emmissions destabilising the climate. I remember clearly reading The Growth Illusion in the early-mid 1990s, agreeing with its central thesis that our relationship to economic growth is pathologically unhealthy, that the benefits of economic growth are a mirage and that the one sure consequence of economic growth is ever increasing consumption, especially of energy, and therefore the ever-increasing emissions of CO_2, with the grave risk of destabilizing the Earth’s climate.
I have since watched as all this has come to pass with the evidence of the climate being disrupted appearing visibly. ‘Usage of the Thames Barrier has increased from once every two years in the 1980s to an average six times a year over the past 5 years’ according to a UK government report (which has a powerful interest in believing that climate-change is over-hyped, as it would explain HMG’s confused and contradictory policies, airport expansion plans, difficulties in meeting treaty obligations, etc.; see George Monbiot’s many articles on climate change).
No single weather event and no particularly hot or cold year be chalked down to climate change but the overall trend is difficult to deny, which doesn’t prevent much creative energy being poured into such denial.
The talk of the polar ice melting is now being reinforced by the urgency with which the arctic powers (Canada, USA, Denmark, Norway and Russia) have started contesting the rights to extract oil around the North Pole. Before the changes in climate were observed the oil that was there was regarded as unexploitable and so there was no serious attempts to resolve the situation. Not any more.
Just as with drug addiction, the oil habit doesn’t seem to be particularly effective in its primary objective, of making the addict happy, for quite similar reasons.
According to a Buddhist way of seeing things (which I won’t unpack here) happiness, that which we all seek without exception (though mostly in a highly confused way) is a state of mind and therefore its substantial causes lie in states of mind. Material factors will act as important supporting factors, and especially while our mind remains so highly dependent on our bodies, food, medicine and shelter, will remain important. But once we have achieved a basic competence it is a mistake to believe that material factors will act as a cause of happiness. Of course a massive material failure–an environmental failure–will be responsible for great suffering, which is why we should strive to achieve a sustainable relationship to the environment if we care at all about the welfare of our children. In a previous article, Only a philosophical revolution can save us from climate catastrophe I wrote the following.
Pre-Enlightenment norms—religious norms—have consistently taught that happiness through materialistic means is a powerful delusion that must be systematically resisted. With the rise of happiness metrics, science is now saying the same thing—thanks to the work of the likes of Kasser and Malka & Chatman, we know that people who try to achieve happiness by pursuing materialistic goals tend to be more distressed than those that don’t (Oliver James summarizes the case in Chapter 2 of The Selfish Capitalist and associated articles). Note that there is no evidence at all to suggest that those compelled through poverty to be materialistic suffer from their materialism; the most acute dangers lies with those with a surplus of wealth who nevertheless continue to be driven by materialistic motives. The former, absolute materialism, is healthy as the materialism is addressing true needs; the latter, relative materialism, is trying to achieve fulfilment through acquiring ever more wealth, fame and reputation, a debilitating, stressful and unfulfilling treadmill (much as those in the First World tend to suffer poor physical health through eating too much rich food). And isn’t it those in the First World, making themselves sick and miserable through over-consumption, that are leading the destruction of the biosphere?
Don’t get me wrong. Lack of access to adequate food, medicine and shelter and a safe, clean, aesthetically-pleasing environment are powerful sources of suffering, which are largely banished in the resource-rich environments that the middle-classes of the industrial world find themselves. With these sources of suffering eliminated the happiness and contentment of the members of the industrial world should be off the scale relative to their counterparts in the resource-poor developing world, there appears to be evidence for this at all. Rather it appears that the people that are least content of those having their basic needs met are those that believe external things to be the source of happiness, continuing to pursue the acquisition wealth/status as ends in themselves. Such people seem to be the most confused about the causes of a happy and contented existence, and so it most comprehensively evades their grasp.
I can’t emphasise enough that this critiques does not apply to anyone who is not having their basic needs met. Likewise it doesn’t at all apply to wealthy people who, for example, direct their time and energy at good causes. Neither wealth in itself ot pursuit of wealth are problems. The issue is entirely the motivation for the pursuit of wealth.
I am sorry to dwell on this point, but I think it is important. The critique I have offered of a wealthy person living in the industrial nations stands as a critique of the industrial nations considered as a collective. The mindless pursuit of economic growth for economic growth’s sake is the logic of the cancer cell and deeply unhealthy (see The Growth Illusion). Furthermore it seems to have been one of the central displacement activities of the modern secular person, perhaps in the absence of anything else to make life meaningful. Traditional religious thinking has always been clear about the dangers of pursuing wealth and status for their own sakes, though many religious people, whether cynically or not, get caught in this trap—there is nothing to say that an official of the church becomes wither sincere or perfect once elected to office. the point is that their philosophies, properly understood, knew the dangers. There is scant evidence of the same current of thinking being present (currently) in secular philosophies.
For this reason I find it gloriously ironic that the religious right should be such a powerful centre for climate-change denial. the thinking seems to go something like God is all-loving and would never play such a dastardly trick of allowing his elected people to have to suffer the consequences of their trashing their environment. It seems to be the purest of self delusion, as egregious an abuse of logic, evidence and theology as you will ever find. Even though I am not a Christian it doesn’t take a moment for me to realise what an abuse this is of the central message, ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’, and I don’t recall reading about any exemptions related to Hummers being granted.
Having said all of that…
… I was delighted to read Robert Douquette’s comment on my article, In Defence of Motherhood
To expand on my view, I’m certainly concerned about the possible untoward effects of the buildup of CO2, but the sense of certainty with which the alarmists have invested this idea of global warming has put the public in a very irrational state within which to make decisions which may be premature and all too costly.
But anyhow, I think the best way to get to a more balanced, sustainable future is by accelerating technology development, not by cutting back. People have good intentions, but they often follow the wrong notions when trying to realize those intentions. The organic food movement is one such example of those wrong notions. Organic cultivation is less intensive than non-organic, and therefore requires that more land be in cultivation to grow the same amount of food.
I consider myself an environmentalist, but I remain skeptical of much of what the media or the experts push as green living strategies. Often there are subtle or not so subtle agendas being camouflaged under the greenery. Consider me a skeptical environmentalist.
Make no mistake, the levers that science and engineering have given us have played an essential part in getting us into this mess and those levers are going to be needed to dig our way out of the mess again. (The great environmentalist James Lovelock shares this critique of environmentalists I think.) However, we will also have to review some basic habits of thought that have been driving the problems and no applications of technology will turn things around without some change in priorities. For example Jevons paradox explains how increasing fuel efficiency increases consumption, our energy efficiency and energy consumption having doubled since the 1970s (see the excellent The Last Oil Shock for the full story). Technological advances that increase energy efficiency make the resource look cheaper in the market, encouraging greater consumption. To reduce harmful consumption we have to get serious about reducing our consumption, and be prepared to use whatever means. There is no avoiding this.
However the tendency of environmentalists to indulge in irrational thinking, aggression and fear mongering is certainly compounding the problems as Robert says. I never quite understood this so clearly until I read Robert’s comments. While I have found Lomborg’s commentary on the topic deeply irritating, seemingly suffering from some of the above problems, I will reexamine what he has to say.
I like blogging.