"System change is now inevitable. Either because we do something about it, or because we will be hit by climate change. '...

"We need to develop economic models that are fit for purpose. The current economic frameworks, the ones that dominate our governments, these frameworks... the current economic frameworks, the neoclassical, the market frameworks, can deal with small changes. It can tell you the difference, if a sock company puts up the price of socks, what the demand for socks will be. It cannot tell you about the sorts of system level changes we are talking about here. We would not use an understanding of laminar flow in fluid dynamics to understand turbulent flow. So why is it we are using marginal economics, small incremental change economics, to understand system level changes?"

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Quandaries about ethics

So William objects to my argument from intergenerational equity on the grounds that I have claimed an ethical basis without specifying a coherent ethical theory, never mind one that can serve as the basis of a social contract.

His point seems to be that it's easier to agree on a discount rate (which is after all just a number, not to mention one decided by a free market (of extremely wealthy actors, but never mind that, it's in some sense objective)) than to agree on a whole theory of ethics. And that absent any such theory of ethics, we can't decide anything on an ethical basis. Ergo, ethics doesn't matter, and therefore economics, QED.

Contrast this with this interesting argument that life doesn't begin at conception, intended to undercut ethical arguments against abortion:

See also http://www.scarymommy.com/patrick-s-tomlinson-twitter-abortion/ where Tomlinson's conclusion is discussed:

Here, ethics is derived from what "any rational [sic] human being" and "anyone with a beating heart" would agree to. I am not advocating a position on the claim that anyone would behave in this way, though I'm fascinated by the "argumentam ad ducking the question by missing the point of the analogy" aspect of some of the responses. "No they aren't viable", "no they don't weigh that much" etc. I am admitting that something about this way of arguing strikes me as unsatisfying, and I think that William is accusing me of doing something similar.

Now to be fair, this is a trolley problem, an absurdly unrealistic distillation of reality, while climate change, alas, is something we actually are bequeathing to succeeding generations.

But I'm saying "if we could distill this climate problem to its essence, people would not behave the way they are now behaving". That is, I am arguing from an innate ethical sense, just as Tomlinson is doing.

As I keep saying, my position on ethics is fundamentally the traditional conservative one, the Tory one. It is that we do know good from evil in some sense, whether this is by nature or nurture, and that this understanding should be honoured rather than trivialized. In particular we should honour ethical standards that apparently arise in disparate cultures, such as acting in service of the eternal at the expense of our own personal benefit.

That we increasingly lack a consensus on ethics seems to be core to both William's point and mine. Building an ethical consensus when it is breaking down is more difficult that maintaining an extant system that optimizes for self-interest and eschews any long view. I think we agree on this. Where we disagree is what to do about it. I think, in what I believe is a fundamentally Tory way, that we should reach back to our ancestors and try to understand what they'd think of our behaviour, and consider modifying it appropriately. William's position seems to me to be that it's too hard, and we need to settle for what economics will buy us, and hope that is enough.

Tom's position is like that of the guy who refuses to answer Tomlinson's question. It isn't that we should or shouldn't temper economics with ethics. It's that climate isn't that big a deal. Of course, I find that position wrong, but in the present context it's worse than wrong, it's irrelevant. Do we owe something to the seventieth generation, specifically, a viable ecologically diverse planet? I say yes, and I say we're screwing it up spectacularly. William shrugs, defers to his friend the economist, and says, well, the ecological viability of the seventieth generation isn't worth much according to revealed preferences in the marketplace. Tom F says "squirrel".

There's a new entrant in the field, Steve Mosher, who considers my explicit appeal to ethics "wacky and repugnant". I remain hopeful that Mosher is an outlier in making such a claim, that ethical discourse is acceptable to most people in deciding, well, what we should do.

Notice the "should"?

The trouble is that we don't really have an explicit ethical basis. It's possible that "life begins at conception" could be a consensus. The Spartans said "life begins when the infant is granted a name", allowing for postpartum abortion. This could also be an imaginable consensus.

(I know I'm treading on dangerous ground here. Lord give me strength not to voice an opinion on this question!)

But I do think that most people do not want to believe that their lifestyle is destroying the world for their grandchildren.

Since in fact it quite arguably is doing exactly that, the easy approach is to resort to denial. "It's not really a problem." ("The embryos in the case are not really viable." "Global warming will have modest impact.") And a denial industry has arisen to serve exactly that predeliction, simultaneously protecting literally trillions of dollars in reserve fossil assets.

But I'm venturing that "we should not irreversibly damage the world" is a proposition that a vast majority of people would agree to. An ethical consensus still exists, even if accompanied by no formal ethical philosophy.

That being the case, denial that major change is necessary, without due consideration of the evidence that it is, is in violation of a global ethical consensus.

So we're being bad. Evil, by our own, very limited but still extant, shared ethic.

Mosher further suggests that it is impolitic to say so. I think that's weird, but that's another topic.

Impolitic, repugnant, too difficult, lacking a coherent philosophy, squirrel.

Sorry, I still vote none of the above.

We may not agree when life begins. But we can still agree that it would not be a good idea to end it or drastically curtail its potential.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Why do we take from nature instead of integrating with it?

I had the temerity to answer. Here's my answer:

Why do we take from nature instead of integrating with it?
That’s not a Quora question so much as a book topic, or indeed many books and PhD theses.

But I’ll say a few things anyway. What follows is my opinion only. I can’t easily prove any of this but I do firmly believe all of it.

How we live is a combination of how we lived in the past, how we think we should live in the future, and what we desire today. This doesn’t always lead to the best solutions.

Efforts to drastically fix things have often made things worse, sometimes terribly worse. Some people conclude from this that we should never try to fix things. But that obviously doesn’t work either.

We need to learn from the past and still be aware that the future is very unlike the past. The thing we need to do less of is worry on a day to day basis.

The societies where day-to-day living is the most difficult have the least mental and emotional capacity for imagining how the future might be better. So the first thing we need to do, in each jurisdiction, be it nation or town, is to aim to be more generous and inclusive as a society. This is becoming a matter of urgency.