What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dealing with our Problems 1

In the last few blogs I have been discussing Global Warming and population, two interlinked problems that have the capacity to endanger continued human survival. In this blog I wanted to think about why we can’t seem to deal with these two problems.

There is a common sense expectation that if people come across problems, they should investigate the causes of these problems, deal with them and solve the problem. It is rarely as simple as this. For example, the link between smoking and lung cancer was first made in the 1950s (prior to this it was difficult to establish the link as people died younger, and, in an era before antibiotics, with high air pollution, people’s lung health was generally pretty poor and smokers often weren’t obviously worse off than non-smokers).

However, after this it took at least 25 years of fighting against the tobacco companies for any progress to be made in restricting advertising of tobacco products. Many of the arguments that have become familiar again more recently with corporate campaigns against environment protection were first used in the these battles, such as:
  • There’s no proof of the link between smoking and cancer
  • You can’t restrict people’s personal freedom
  • Any regulation is an attack on private enterprise
  • Politicians are meddling
  • Any harm done to tobacco company profits will damage the economy &c &c

And now, 60 years later, some 20% or more of people in developed countries still smoke.

Global Warming is another such story. Here the progress made in understanding global climate follows almost text-book account of how science works.

  1. In the C19 observations were made in the lab that CO2 traps slightly more energy in the infra-red part of the spectrum than other gases. This was later explained with reference to the molecular structure of CO2.
  2. In the mid C20 scientists began to suggest that anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere would cause global warming. However there were no measures of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperature records were not sophisticated enough to determine whether global warming was happening.
  3. Partly as a result of 2, and partly for other reasons, CO2 in the atmosphere started to be monitored, and temperatures started to be monitored in more places, and with more uniform processes, than before.
  4. As a result of 3, by the 1980s there was evidence for global warming caused by anthropogenic CO2. More research was conducted and multiple lines of evidence for global warming were established. By the 1990s the evidence was irrefutable.

However at this point resistance built because there wasn’t just one industry that stood to lose as in the case of tobacco, there were seemingly several. After a few years in which there were some attempts to question the evidence for global warming (the ‘hockey stick’ controversy), corporate players hit on a better strategy. This involved not coherent argument, but the spread of doubt and disinformation, together with a tactical alliance with right-wing political movements. Their work was facilitated the new technology of the Internet, which made the spread of disinformation from supposedly independent contributors that much easier.

It is a moot point whether the manufactured global warming denialism of the 2000s was more influential in holding back action on global warming than simple inertia and corporate obstructionism by more traditional methods (ie lobbying politicians). However I believe that this lack of action will soon end, mainly because when examined closely, almost no one except fossil fuel companies will lose out from measures to address global warming. The solutions to anthropogenic global warming are so similar to familiar economic activities that when momentum finally does build it will soon be commonplace to hear of the opening of renewable energy generating stations, to plug our electric car in, to call the repairman to fix the solar roof &c &c.

The next problem is more intractable. I have labelled this problem ‘population’, but most people in the world would not see this as a problem (and many of those who would are racists). What I am using this word as short-hand for is the overreach of human economic activities which compromises the earth’s ability to continue to support them. (My diagnosis of this can be found in earlier blogs, together with argument as to why encouraging a declining human population, along with all the measures that have already been proposed, is the solution for the overreach). Now global warming, I suggest can be addressed by methods familiar to developed societies, by overreach cannot; indeed we could solve global warming (that is, restrict the warming to a ‘safe’ 2°C) and still be left with the problem that the totality of human economic activities is too much for the planet, even when all clever, green innovations are taken into account.

Global warming doesn’t really require much in the way of a mental shift, it merely requires us to abandon fossil fuels in favour of renewables (much as undoing the harm of smoking merely required us to abandon tobacco products). Dealing with overreach via lowered populations requires us to do at least two things that are deeply ingrained into us:

  1. The first is admit we can’t all have children. Even if many of us never children, or have only one or two, it will be a mental leap to thinking that restricting the number of our offspring is something every one of us will have to think about.
  2. The second (which I hope isn’t as deeply buried as the first), is the recognition that our economic orthodoxy (growth at all costs), is wrong and needs to be stood on its head.

The first is hard, because it is against human nature. We have to have confidence in human society and its long-term future in order to forgo having children, or having many children, and possibly having as our only legacy in the future the gratitude of future generations who are not our direct descendants.

The second should be easier, because The Economy, people should be realising by now, is not so much a fact of nature, as a fact of our particular society. The events of the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 showed that the international economy is more like a badly-run Ponzi Scheme than what we might like to imagine as rational mechanism for organising economic activity. (Actually the previous economic crises of the C20 and earlier should already have made this realisation easy). Sadly, however, three years later, little seems to have changed and the widespread scepticism of people towards economic orthodoxy in 2008 seems to have evaporated.

Economics always reminds me of someone’s description of Catholicism, which was that it was logically unassailable ‘granted certain supernatural axioms’. In the case of economics, much of economics consists of entirely valid descriptions of areas of economic activity, which, however, are not descriptions of global flows of energy and resources. Economics has often been accused justly of ignoring externalities, and not accounting fully, this is its ‘supernatural axioms’, that you can compartmentalise activities and ignore some of these activities’ effects. This is also why economic overreach cannot be ‘discovered’ like global warming with increasing evidence, because evidence for it was already there from the 1960s onwards, it was just that few people thought to look.

A good analogy in this context would be with the US energy company Enron, which until the late 1990s was a by-word for a successful, innovative, company. Each part of Enron seemed to be amazingly profitable, it wasn’t until a full audit of Enron’s activities was undertaken after its filing for bankruptcy in 2001 that it was revealed that Enron had almost no assets and huge liabilities. Its apparent success was due to creative accountancing, which highlighted the few assets and reported projected profits as actual profits whilst disguising the liabilities.

The global economy is like Enron, apparently wealthy, but built upon huge ecological liabilities. It would be grotesque to argue that a course of action responding to global economic overreach by encouraging population decline would be ‘bad for the economy’, when in fact it is the economy which is bad for the world.

The only way that this fact is going to become common knowledge is if people begin not to ignore externalities, to join the dots and to think globally… and reject supernatural economic axioms. Then they will find that the sums don’t add up. However, on the way to this recognition we must expect a hurricane of outrage, opposition and denial from people who will lose by any changes, or who imagine that they will.

Next week: Facing our Problems 2

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