"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Our Many Bombs

Tom Friedman, it has to be said, sort of gets it about climate change. I mean, he thinks Joe Romm is indispensable. How much more can you get it?

But it's sort of odd, the way pundits parse the world. Friedman claims that climate change is one of three "bombs" we face in the coming generation: climate change, economic collapse, and the actual El Guapo bomb.

I used to think of Friedman as very perceptive. Of course the Iraq fiasco cost him lots of points with me, but reading this stuff I have to wonder what I saw in it. The three issues he is listing are in three different categories: one is a problem in the real physical world, another is a problem in social organization, and the last is the risk of the first two getting out of control.

However the world ends, after all, it will be called World War III.

Compare Friedman's fears with my old colleague Jon Foley's take. As John Fleck summarizes,
Foley, a climate scientist and head of the Institute on the Environment at the University of [sic] the Minnesota, argues for a more inclusive view of the set of global problems we face. He believes the argument in favor of action on climate change is close to being won. But the struggle to feed earth’s growing population, and the enormous implications that has for land and water use around the world, pose problems of similar scale to that of decarbonization of our energy system, Foley argues. And those problems right now, he believes, are getting short shrift.
Here is the problem: there are something like ten billion of us, all striving for comfort and most for status. Expectations have been running high after a century of progress, expectations that show little chance of being met. We are in a desperate hurry to come to some sort of mutual accommodation, and failure to do so will lead to people not being comfortable or safe, which will lead to "economic" decline, which will lead to belligerence and risk-taking, which will lead to disaster.

Failure just isn't an option, but Friedman's confusion of categories of problem doesn't help us get things untangled. It's land, water, and energy in the end. It's not clear we have a plan for distributing resources in accordance with needs.

It's a whole bunch of little problems wrapped up in one big problem. Calling it "three" problems where one of them is "debt" just seems completely bonkers to me. Jon's piece isn't the finest writing I've seen, but that's a minor complaint. He is much better tuned to the reality of our predicament than the fellow the Times thinks is worthy of our attention every week.

Update: Archdruid puts it nicely:
For most people in the modern industrial world, the only way to get access to any kind of wealth – that is, any good or service – is to get access to money first, and exchange the money for the wealth. This makes it all too easy to confuse money with wealth, and it also fosters the habit of thought that treats money as the driving force in economic life, and thinks of wealth as a product of money, rather than seeing money as an arbitrary measure of wealth.

The thought experiment of placing a hundred economists on a desert island with $1 million each but no food or water is a good corrective to this delusion. Unfortunately this same experiment is being tried on a much vaster scale by the world’s industrial economies right now. We have seven billion people on a planet with a finite and dwindling supply of the concentrated energy resources that are keeping most of them alive, and governments and businesses alike are acting as though the only possible difficulty in this situation is coming up with enough money to pay for investments in the energy industry.

It should be obvious that no amount of money can overcome the thermodynamic and statistical laws that have placed hard limits on the amount of highly concentrated energy resources that happen to exist on our planet. This is not obvious to most people nowadays, however, because the metastasis of money throughout the economy has trained nearly all of us to think that if you have enough money you can get whatever you want. The fact that the richest people in the world can put their entire fortunes into health care and still get old and die is one of the few persistent reminders that money cannot overcome the laws of nature, or provide access to goods and services that don’t exist.


Nick Palmer said...

Here is the problem: there are something like ten billion of us, all striving for comfort and most for status

I presume you meant 6.7 billion unless you were talking about 2050+? :)

Best wishes,
Nick Palmer
Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer

Michael Tobis said...

6.7 is something like 10, especially since 10 is coming, yes. That was a conscious fudge.

But fair enough.

Paul Baer said...

Indeed, 6.7 is something like ten much more than something like one. Orders of magnitude are key.

And Jon Foley is right - climate change is by no means the only 800 pound gorilla in the room. Food and water and soil are all pretty huge problems. Holism, however, is not a strong suit of modern institutions.