It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bill Clinton Accused of Violating Taboo

In a cogent if demoralizing screed, the World Climate Report quasi-blog (no comments allowed, please and thanks) argues (ignoring any contradiction with its other articles, but so what) that exceeding 2 C warming is unavoidable. You've heard it all before, of course, and in spite of everything I am afraid it's basically more likely than not to be how things pan out. I wouldn't even call your attention to it, except insofar as it reflects on the growth taboo. It is so unacceptable to question growth that even mentioning questioning growth in a discarded hypothetical is grounds for punishment in the political arena.

Here's how it goes. Step 1: Mr. Clinton (whom I otherwise greatly admire but who is definitely not a person who violates the taboo) spoke as follows:
"Everybody knows that global warming is real," Mr. Clinton said, giving a shout-out to Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize, "but we cannot solve it alone."

"And maybe America, and Europe, and Japan, and Canada -- the rich counties -- would say, 'OK, we just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions 'cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.' We could do that.

"But if we did that, you know as well as I do, China and India and Indonesia and Vietnam and Mexico and Brazil and the Ukraine, and all the other countries will never agree to stay poor to save the planet for our grandchildren. The only way we can do this is if we get back in the world's fight against global warming and prove it is good economics that we will create more jobs to build a sustainable economy that saves the planet for our children and grandchildren. It is the only way it will work.
In the lead paragraphs of the very same ABC article, this is summarized as follows:
Former President Bill Clinton was in Denver, Colorado, stumping for his wife yesterday.

In a long, and interesting speech, he characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: "We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions 'cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren."

At a time that the nation is worried about a recession is that really the characterization his wife would want him making? "Slow down our economy"?
Then we see the official Republican position quoted as an update to that same article:
“Senator Clinton’s campaign now says we must ‘slow down the economy’ to stop global warming," said Alex Conant, RNC Spokesman. "Clinton needs to come back to Earth. Her ‘tax-it, spend-it, regulate-it’ attitude would really bring the economy crashing down. No amount of special effects will hide Clinton’s liberal record.”
Finally, it is reflected this way in WCR:
And conservation is limited—after all, we can only roll energy usage back so far before we are unable to sustain our current lifestyle (and no government on earth is going to purposely role back the standard of living of its people—or at least they won’t be governing very long if they do—Update Jan. 31, 2008: Although apparently this is precisely what Bill Clinton proposes that we do!).
Note the implicit syllogism: energy rollback = reduced economic activity = roled [sic] back standard of living. No effort to question any of these identities will be tolerated. Even mentioning the possibility will be severely punished in politics by sound bite.

At least the WCR article acknowledges the obvious: eventually the carbon intensity of our lives will be rolled back. Apparently we are not allowed to think about how to make that happen before the carbon runs out. Apparently after the carbon runs out we will think of something, but before the carbon runs out we are not allowed to, because that would reduce our "standard of living".

Everybody knows that well-being is synonymous with money which is synonymous with spewing all available carbon.

Any questioning of any of this is Communist. (Of course it isn't, but it's sort of implied to be.) Stalin was a Communist. Stalin was very bad. So you'd be wise to shut up.

Well, I've got some news for you all. The concept of a party line that it's subversive to question even in a rejected hypothetical is pretty much the key weapon of totalitarianism. I would think it is not considered subversive in a free country to question widely held ideas, even the idea that total wealth can in any meaningful sense grow forever, and it's not sufficient to answer the question by adopting an expression of hostility and suspicion and disgust, effectively pointing out that the question itself violates a taboo.

I'd still like to see something resembling a serious answer to the question that Clinton was so foolish as to raise in passing. Anything at all.

I'd also like to know why this taboo exists. I think it's a back-formation from the growth addiction. The tenacious attachment to it on all sides combined with the lack of a well-known rational defense of it strikes me as symptomatic of something severely out of kilter.


etbnc said...


(Do Texans use "Hey!" as a greeting, the way Carolinians do?)

First off, observing the existence of the growth taboo is an accomplishment. Connecting it to other symptoms of an ongoing problem is also an uncommon, but worthwhile, activity. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

I'm curious about the closing paragraph. Is that rhetorical venting? Or are you really seeking an explanatory model that you don't already have?

I used to get really frustrated when I listened to the news. I kept thinking there must be something important that I was missing, something that would somehow make it all make sense. When someone pointed out something I had been overlooking, I thought, "Well, THAT can't be right!"

I think there are explanations available to us that can be sufficient and useful. Sometimes, however, those models go against the inertia of our accumulated habits. Sometimes I suspect we have some expectations about what we want our explanations to be. But as you know, the universe doesn't always arrange itself to meet our expectations.

Thanks again for connecting some important ideas here at your blog. Good stuff.


Michael Tobis said...

Thank you, O unpronounceable Tarheel!

Well, the serious alternative is that the theory caused the growth imperative.

In fact the whole argument may just boil down to which way round that goes.

I'm trying to give the theory a fair hearing but I can't seem to find anything I'd grace with the title of theory explained in terms a simple geophysicist might understand. I keep offering people opportunities and that's why the conclusion is tentative. I think you know which way I'm leaning.

etbnc said...

Hey, (as a pronounceable greeting)

I sent you a longish gmail which you may find relevant. (I hope it cleared the anti-spam detector.)

Also of seeming relevance: A guy named Dave Gardner is working on a film about this phenomenon, Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

I found that by way of Trinifar, a blog I like, and which I'd say complements yours in theme and analytic style.