"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What I want to know

Some crackpot opinions if you'll bear with me.
A tea bowl from the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, 16th century, repaired using the kintsugi technique, which involves gold powder. DADEROT/WIKIMEDIA/PUBLIC DOMAIN ===
Basically, pure capitalism and pure communism are well-nigh indistinguishable - both can work pretty well with responsible people in power, but not otherwise. Vast systems with complex hierarchies and powerful leaders emerge in both. Bureaucracies thrive. The differences become more symbolic than substantive. Pure capitalism and pure communism are similar not only in their result but in their deontological prespective. They start with a set of principles, and emerge with a set of rules, rules which they firmly believe to be in the best interests of humanity. But here's the problem: it's all too easy in these rule-based systems for power to be captured by irresponsible people, at which point all hell breaks loose. In practice are also fundamentally agreed in their belief that the fundamental question of human governance is economic. They simply come to diametrically opposed positions on the question of "property". Now, many would be in accord with me when I say that the truth must lie somewhere between "everything should be property" and "nothing should be property". But it seems a bit surprising and radical nowadays to say that it's the wrong question. I'm not sure many would agree with me on that score. But hear me out. I suggest that the fundamental question of human governance is not economic at all, though. It is ethical. Are the people with the most influence good people, or are they selfish fools? After all history isn't written by the rule set, it is written by the people who are most adept at influencing the system that results from those rules. "Left vs right" is simply a distraction from "right vs wrong". The answer to the ethical question, in a given polity, seems almost perfectly orthogonal to the question of economic organization or political tribe. There are "good kings" and "bad kings". Good mandarins and bad. Good commissars and bad. Good billionaires and bad. Good presidents and bad. "In what system by what means did you get to power?" Perhaps it doesn't matter. History cares whether you and those around you had empathy for the world around you after you achieved it, or not.
But also, perhaps making systems *too* rule based leaves too many opportunities for sociopaths to find loopholes. I mean, there are just some things we shouldn't put up with, whether the rules successfully accounted for them or not. ===
"Whoa, whoa, what I want to know, is are you kind?" - Robert C Hunter

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Settled Science Strawman

Someone on Quora asked
Why do people say "the science is settled" when it comes to climate change? Isn't the point of science that nothing is "settled?"
You might find my answer interesting.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Science Communication Cluetrain


David Roberts has an article out on climate communication. It seems to be generating some controversy and will surely generate some rebuttals. I too am frustrated by the academic specialists in "climate communication", and I have a few points to add. 

This is Harsh, But It's Right


David says:
What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.
The key qualifier here is "long-term". And I think this is exactly right.


Social Science is Hard, But Working Hard Doesn't Guarantee Results.

Social science is hard, but I am not convinced that there are "climate communication experts" who adequately consider what psychologists call "longitudinal" effects. To an oceanographer this is cringeworthy jargon, but it means "over a long time and multiple exposures".

Climate communication doesn't actually occur in the small chunks that are easy to study; yet single-exposure experiments seem to dominate most of the studies I have seen. 

I'm not afraid to change my mind, so I'd welcome any updates or corrections to this observation, which aligns with David's.


It's All About Context

There is a truism in advertising. I am not sure whether there is any research to support it, but most advertising people worth their salt will tell you it's the case. People usually don't take action until they receive a message from three sources that they take to be independent.

It makes sense to me. The rule-of-thumb "three" is not the point. The point is that communication occurs within a communication context. People already have priors. This means that any study that involves how a specific message moves people, absent the long-term context in which the message is received, is rather pointless.  

The Context We're In Is Largely Designed by Evil Advertising Geniuses

It's time to recall the infamous Luntz Memo:
"The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.
"Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.
"Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."
Luntz's campaign was tragically successful. We're now in a condition where the first thing many non-experts in climate think of in any climate context is "uncertainty". Even the most certain things (the greenhouse effect, the basics of the carbon budget, etc.) are tarred with this "excessive certainty"/"arrogance" brush.

Consensus messaging is a part of the answer, but a direct response to the broken communication environment itself has to be part of the response, too. A very tall order for the sane members of the climate and energy policy communities.

As individual scientists conveying our own opinions, it's unfortunately unavoidable, but fortunately not our issue. What we need to convey is expertise and sincerity. By far the best way to do that is to know what you are talking about and be sincere about it.

The "Fear Question"

Does fear motivate? Of course it does. We wouldn't have evolved fear if it didn't motivate. Does a fear-bearing message motivate? Well, sure it does, if you believe it. But first you have to decide if you believe it.

People hearing the climate message are in a communication context where they have been encouraged to doubt the message.

That is, individual messages are not the issue. The context is the issue.

There is, I think, quite a lot to fear in this matter. So an entirely fearless message is either dishonest, crazy, or wrong.

The Scicomm Cluetrain

I wish somebody would write a scicomm version of this: http://cluetrain.com/
Markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, dir ect, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

Most corporations, on theWhat I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments. other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.
But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about "listening to customers." They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.
The most important thing is to speak with your own voice.

My advice is to know what you're talking about, and talk about it in a way that your audience can absorb.

If you have fears, say so, and don't pretend otherwise. Leave the "communication research" to the politicians. Politics is a necessary evil, but it's not sufficient to the task at hand. We need well-informed people to tell the truth in their own way, in their own voice, honestly.

Train image by "Extra Zebra" is in the Creative Commons under license Attribution 2.0 Generic(CC BY 2.0)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Quote Gallery II


See also Quote Gallery I


Contributions always welcome; use the comment section.

===


So far, we're not doing any better than the cyanobacteria.

- Ray Pierrehumbert

===

Trivializing democracy; being anti-government; claiming all politicians are evil; saying there are no differences between political parties; stoking conspiracy theories; insisting that the civic sphere is all a joke: These all serve the powerful.
 

Cynicism is obedience to power.

-Alex Steffen

===

We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not – the only question we have a right to ask is: What’s the right thing to do? What does this Earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?

- Wendell Berry

===

For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it's looking like we have no other choice.

-David Graeber in Debt, The First 5000 Years

===

In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late ... We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late".

- Martin Luther King Jr, 1967

===

The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun.

We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2. Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 46% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.

The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

- Stephen Leahy

===

It is not widely understood that carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries, so our future will depend on the total amount we humans put into it over the next several decades. This is the paramount fact that separates climate change from all other environmental problems.

 – Clive Hamilton Utopias in the Anthropocene
===

In the end it’s not about finding policies that work, it’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism. Can we do this?

- Barack Obama

===

A tolerably good human future is possible if we work together toward it. It’s not a question of predicting. It’s a question of deciding.

- mt

===

A journey of a thousand miles begins with deciding where you are going.

-mt

===

People always ask me one question all the time: ‘How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?’ We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.

- Richard Berman describing how oil money gets transferred to what he calls ‘Win Ugly’ political action

===

When the going gets tough, the people losing the argument start whining about civility.

- Paul Krugman (h/t Eli)

===

If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.

- George Orwell (1984) via David Brin

===

Qu’on me donne six lignes Ă©crites de la main du plus honnĂȘte homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.

- Richelieu

===

well-funded companies would love to disprove climate change to the satisfaction of the scientific community at large. So if scientists could be bought, these motherf***ers would have already made it rain in nerd town, trust me.

- Jon Stewart

===

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. … We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. … The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

 - R. Buckminster Fuller 1970

===

Projections of climate change by the IPCC are deeply skeptical, and there is no attempt to hide the large uncertainty of climate forecasts. … Ironically, those labeled “skeptics” by the media are not in fact skeptical; they are, on the contrary, quite sure that there is no risk going forward. Meanwhile, those interested in treating the issue as an objective problem in risk assessment and management are labeled “alarmists”, a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake.

- Kerry Emanuel

===

“Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.”

- Isaac Asimov in The Secret of the Universe

===

Less semantic aggression might conduce to clarity all around. -

- Russel Seitz

===

We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.

 – Barack Obama, on climate change

===

It is good to know there are unknowns. It is better to know when you know enough.

- Florifulgurator

===

Men argue; nature acts.

- Voltaire

===

If you think a journalist is asking the wrong question, don’t answer it – tell them what the right question is.

- a Planet3.0 reader, paraphrasing Ed Yong, citing Tom Stafford

===

The community of scientists has responsibilities to improve overall understanding of climate change and its impacts. Improvements will come from pursuing the research needed to understand climate change, working with stakeholders to identify relevant information, and conveying understanding clearly and accurately, both to decision makers and to the general public.

 - American Geophysical Union statement “Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.” revised August 2013

===

I was… labelled as an advocate because… I measured something.

- ecologist Jeremy Jackson

===

Resolved, that none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses, native or otherwise, outside the fact that for the present there are lots of them, the best on record, and we are after getting the most out of them while they last.

- Resolution of a Texas stockmen meeting ca. 1898. (With a hat tip to Martin Gisser).

===

There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

- Marshall McLuhan

===

Aliens might be surprised to learn that in a cosmos with unlimited starlight, humans kill for energy buried in sand.

- Neil deGrasse Tyson

===

If you’re talking to someone who isn’t following the climate change discussion very closely, they may not understand the difference between technical and political difficulty. It does them no favors to talk about inevitability and the fall of civilization. They’re either going to think you’re nuts or they’re going to join you in despondency. We need to always reinforce the point that we can make life a lot easier for ourselves (and especially our children and grandchildren) if we just choose to start doing something about it.

 - anonymous commenter at Planet3.0

===

Here is the IPCC message: We are as certain that humans are radically changing the planet’s climate as we are that tobacco causes cancer.

- Peter Gleick

===

We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

 - Bruce Sterling

===

The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?

- John F. Kennedy

===

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.

- Rebecca Solnit

===

We hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action. Having seen it, are we to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into the service of the future which they will have to bring about?.

- J. D. Bernal (1929) via David Grinspoon

===

“Global warming, huh? By pure coincidence every scientist was right”

- Homer Simpson (the cartoon character)

===

We do not share the view of many of our economics colleagues that growth will solve the economic problem, that narrow self-interest is the only dependable human motive, that technology will always find a substitute for any depleted resource, that the market can efficiently allocate all types of goods, that free markets always lead to an equilibrium balancing supply and demand, or that the laws of thermodynamics are irrelevant to economics.

- Herman Daly and Joshua Farley via Tom Murphy

===

Maybe we’ll be smacked by an asteroid we’re not looking at and it will offset the CO2 we’re not looking at.

- Bruce Sterling

===

Many people improving the environment think only in terms of the air they breathe in their hometown and the water in the aquifer under their hometown. My guess is very few are thinking centuries ahead or thousand of years ahead, but that’s what we have to do.

- Pete Seeger

===

I’m just hanging on like grim death to the simple truth that giving up is just lazy. We have a commitment to life, because that’s all there is, and that’s all about it.

- Susan Anderson

===

We need at least ten times more editors than we need auditors.

Willard

===

These arguments are not those of serious people.

Judge John G Hayburn II

===

Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.

- B H Obama

===

Peo­ple often ask me if I’m an advo­cate for some kind of pol­icy. Do I want every­body to have a car­bon tax, do I want every­one to drive a Prius, do I want every­body to have a renew­able energy standard? I have opin­ions about all of those things, but that’s not what I am advo­cat­ing for. What I’d like to have peo­ple do is have an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion about the prob­lem of cli­mate change. … But what actu­ally hap­pens is, that all of those things get sub­sumed. We have these fake argu­ments – we have these argu­ments about tree rings in the 15th cen­tury, as if any­body … was going to make a pol­icy about what a tree said in the 15th cen­tury. It’s absurd. -

Gavin Schmidt

===

Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.

 - Naomi Klein

===

It’s not that the scientists are alarmists – it’s that the science is alarming.

- Bill McKibben

===

Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about.

- Federal Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, with a tip of the hat to Mr. Coke Dilworth, yellow dog Democrat of Austin TX

===

Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.

- Shankar Vedantam via Maria Popova

===

Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as [the] deadening of our response.

 - Joanna Macy (h/t Martin Gisser and Dan Olner – follow that link!)

===

What do we most need to do to save our world? What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

===

Since the start of the industrial revolution, mankind has been burning fossil fuel (coal, oil, etc.) and adding its carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In 50 years or so this process, says Director Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, may have a violent effect on the earth’s climate Dr. Revelle has not reached the stage of warning against this catastrophe, but he and other geophysicists intend to keep watching and recording. During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), teams of scientists will take inventory of the earth’s CO2 and observe how it shifts between air and sea. They will try to find out whether the CO2 blanket has been growing thicker, and what the effect has been. When all their data have been studied, they may be able to predict whether man’s factory chimneys and auto exhausts will eventually cause salt water to flow in the streets of New York and London.

- Time Magazine, 1956 (via Simon Donner)

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Science Fiction Dilemma

In the Start Trek universe, travelers in deep space are always encountering other species that are of comparable technological and military capacity, competing for control of sections of the galaxy. I don't think it will work like that, but imagine if it did.

The electromagnetic signal of our emergence as a technological species is some 70 years old, enough to penetrate a 70 light-year sphere, or to penetrate, say, a 25ish light year sphere and allow for space-faring civilizations to mount a mission to pay us a friendly first-contact visit.

Imagine that there are two competing species approaching us now, about to make their pitches.

Both are physically repulsive creatures, harder to look at than the most disturbing bugs or snakes, but both claim to come in peace and encouraging us to ally with them against their sinister opponent.

How would we distinguish between these two?

Imagine we had in the vaults enough data to reconstruct some information about their home worlds.

One species' world is rich in plant life and we have enough information to conclude that it is a thriving biosphere. The other's is a smoldering wreck, and we conclude that any surviving species from that world must be maintained in enclosed life support bubbles much like their spaceships.

Would this information affect your choice of which species to ally with?

Mark Jacobson Abandons Science, Takes Up Barratry

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has sued a prominent energy researcher and the National Academy of Sciences for defamation over a sharply-worded rebuttal of his work, shifting a heated scientific debate over renewable energy out of the journals and into the courts. 
The suit, filed September 29 in a Washington, D.C., superior court, demands a retraction of a June paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jacobson seeks more than $10 million in damages from both the paper's publisher and its lead author, Christopher Clack, who is chief executive of Vibrant Clean Energy and a former NOAA researcher. 
Jacobson was the lead author of a 2015 paper in the same journal that concluded wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources alone could supply 100 percent of the U.S. grid's needs, all at low cost. 
Many other energy researchers have long argued that additional technologies, such as nuclear energy, carbon capture, and advanced storage options, will be required to decarbonize the electricity sector, particularly in a cost-competitive manner. 
Earlier this year, Clack and 20 other researchers published a response arguing that, as MIT Technology Review previously reported, Jacobson's paper "contained modeling errors and implausible assumptions that could distort public policy and spending decisions." (For more details on the researchers' critiques, check out our earlier article on the Clack paper: "Sustainable Energy Scientists Sharply Rebut Influential Renewable-Energy Plan.")
Jacobson wrote (what seemed to me at the time) a very bad paper. At least the climate modeling makes no sense, which caused me to doubt the rest of it.

It got into PNAS without peer review. (That journal has a publication mechanism that allows some non-peer-reviewed articles.)

If I and many others are right that his work is poor, that doesn't mean his conclusion is wrong, just that the paper shouldn't be relied upon as evidence that his conclusion is right.

Normally, bad work is quietly ignored, but this was getting enough publicity that a multidisciplinary team of highly regarded authors hastened to put together a rebuttal, and ran it through peer review. Rather than correcting, amending, or defending his work, Jacobson chose to treat the challenge as libelous. This is inexcusable, even if the paper somewhat misrepresented Jacobson as he claims.

(It is difficult to correctly represent incoherent argument, of course. If one criticizes one part of the argument it may be inconsistent with another part of the argument. )

The context is that Jacobson is telling people what they want to hear, specifically that 100% renewable energy is possible with little cost or effort. That doesn't make him one of the good guys.

This is not a schism within science. It's an attack on science from someone who doesn't accept the norms of science.

Attacks on science can't be tolerated, whether they come from people who tell you what you want to hear or people who tell your opponents what they want to hear.

By taking this dispute outside the norms of science and into the courts, Jacobson essentially is rejecting and subverting science. His actions should not be seen as reflecting on the scientific community. Without science, we are flying blind. Jacobson's behaviour is ridiculous, and the scientific community is having none of it. I hope the activist community, which claims to be such a strong supporter of science, backs us up.

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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Seventieth Generation

What do some of us mean when we say that climate change is an ethical problem, not merely an economic one?



Consider medieval Europe's habit of building cathedrals. There is no conceivable rational self-interest in expending resources to build a cathedral - the (oftentimes amazing) aesthetic value of the result of the enterprise occurs long after the lifetimes of the people planning and organizing the effort have come to an end.

When Christian vernacular refers to matters outside the church as "secular", they provide an answer to this, which appears to the modern homo economicus as a puzzle. Secular literally means "of the century". It is usually contrasted with "sacred" but many contemporary readers will have too many associations with this term that I'd like to avoid for present purposes. Let's go with "eternal" for present purposes. "Eternity" may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the people planning the cathedral presumably weren't sparing much thought for its eventual ruination.

"Secular" activities refer to the foreseeable future, while "eternal" activities correspond to activities in the interest of a distant future which we cannot foresee, but to which we nevertheless have a responsibility. Traditionally, our responsibility to the eternal has been to convey the best of our civilization forward to our progeny. Nowadays we have a new one.

There's a story that the Iroquois tribal culture would judge its actions on the basis of its effects as far as on the seventh generation. I don't know how true the story is, but it is instructive even if apocryphal. The responsibility to the distant future is not about our own advantage, but about the sustenance of the world for our progeny.

Our current immense power over the environment has placed us in a position where our actions have impacts on not just the seventh generation, but the seventieth.

Yet our behavior is, as anyone paying attention to the climate problem will attest, astonishingly shortsighted. Far from constraining ourselves to be considerate of the seventieth generation, we seem to have little concern for the world of our own grandchildren. How is this possible?

I propose that part of the problem is that the eternal has been systematically removed from public discourse. "Religion", we say, "is a private matter". Our collective actions are necessarily "secular'. Only secular activities are informed by objectivity. Ethical responsibilities are too divisive to discuss, and must be ignored. We can leave all the actual discussions to technocratic discourse among professionals in decision-making.

Those decision-makers are systematically "secular" in both senses. They ignore ethics, and they concentrate only on the foreseeable. They base their advice on a framework of perpetual economic growth, under which conditions a dollar today is worth two in the future. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" because the bird in the hand will almost surely produce more birds in the future.

In this secular way of thinking, we owe little to the distant future. The more distant in time our impacts, the less we need care about them. Our ancient obligation to carry the torch of civilization is invisible to this way of thinking. Our new obligation to leave the world viable at all for our distant descendants is considered actually beneath mention, a sort of contemptible hysteria.

Whether the reassuring calculations of econmists about the next few decades are realistic or not absorbs all of our discourse. Somehow, we find ourselves arguing about the global temperature perturbation in 2100, not the (probably much higher) global temperature perturbation when the climate equilibrates to the anthropogenic carbon pulse.

This systematically understates our generation's vast ethical transgression.

We are behaving insanely. Insanity is, above all, a failure of love. And we cannot muster the imagination to act from love for our descendants, or for what remains of the world in which they will live.

It's not as if ethical constraints on economic activity themselves are unimaginable. We no longer tolerate slavery or murder, at least not at the scale they occurred in the past. Money is no object. There is no amount of compensation that (we suppose and hope) absolves a person of murder. We just don't do that.

Drowning the coastlines, burning the forests, souring the ocean, these are not just matters for secular consideration subject to discounting.


Yet we continue to do just those things. In our daily mundane acts, we impoverish and desecrate the future of our planet. At the present scale, what we are doing is unambiguously ethically wrong.

Economics should have nothing to say about it other than to acknowledge the constraint and proceed from there.

Economics can't be expected recognize this on its own. It lacks an ethical vocabulary, and shouldn't be expected to have one. The constraints have to be imposed from outside economics. We simply have to find the gumption to tell economics that we are its masters, not its vassals.

It's especially sad and discouraging to see so many religions in denial, foolishly siding with the economic reasoning, since the disaster is partly but directly traceable to the secular overriding the eternal in our reasoning.

The sooner we can wean ourselves from what was once inadvertent destruction, but is now plainly and explicitly immoral and unjustifiable injury to the ages, the less awful we are. We prefer to hide from this culpability, understandably enough, but hiding behind economics' skirt doesn't exonerate us.

UPDATES: responses by Tom F, William C, with a postscript, and And T.T.P.

Links to other direct responses or relevant articles online or in print will be appreciated.

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