Sunday, February 07, 2010

Pascal's Wager and climate change

I'm fairly sure that there isn't a god. But if you met me on a crashing plane, I'd probably be on my knees doing a decade-of-the-rosary every couple of seconds.

And for those of us that don't have to capacity to understand the science around man-made global warming, I think that there's a similar Pascal's Wager type approach that we could adopt.

On the substance of the science, I don't have strong or fixed views on this question. As far as I'm concerned, whatever the scientists conclude, if we can all be a bit less greedy and over-consuming it can't do us any harm - and that most of that could be achieved with a fundamental change to the nature of consumer capitalism. Seeing as most scientists tend to think that man-made climate change is a sensible interpretation of what's happened, I'm prepared to go along with it.

Because I see other benefits to such a change - in aesthetic terms, in terms of social justice and increased distributed social capital - I'm quite happy to go along with this, up to a point. It's a similar mindset, I expect, that most lefties have had over the past 150 years. We may not understand or be totally convinced by whatever is buried in the third volume of Das Kapital, but we buy the general outlook on the wastefulness and iniquity of capitalism. We prefer a response that is based upon collective action and common ownership rather than an individualism that doesn't address the historic legacy of exploitation and theft.

As long as an environmental catastrophe is a possible outcome of not taking these fairly palatable steps (same relationship between damnation and prayer on a nosediving 747), I'm happy to go along with a lifestyle that takes a holistic approach to sustainability and lower consumption. That last sentence needs the words 'up to a point' inserting in bold letters, obviously. I'm not about to embrace vegitarianism, nudism, soap-dodging or anything like that.

There's probably a less irritating word than 'holistic' that could be used as well.

But do you see what I've done there? I've conflated the narrow question of cutting carbon emissions with the wider Greenie agendas that are implied, but in no way essential to that task.

I raise all of this because I've just listened (belatedly) to the Radio 4 Analysis programme in which the tensions within the larger camp of people who want to cut carbon emissions was explored.

On the one hand, there is a fairly managerialist response. Simply come up with regulatory frameworks, big strategic decisions (in this case, around nuclear power) and incentive schemes that reduce carbon emissions to the point at which the narrow question of carbon-caused climate change is pointing in the right direction. And then leave it at that. It's a very market-based response - one that downplays any need for collective action and one that treats questions of culture as being out-of-scope. One that maintains a hard shell around the rights of individuals and the need to secure short-term consent.

On the other hand, there's the anti-consumerist radical-decentralisation small-is-beautiful precautionary-principled back-to-nature response.

One commentator on the programme was surprised when she addressed a meeting of 'really hardcore environmental types' and asked (paraphrasing): "If I could wave a magic wand and reduce carbon emissions without effecting any other change in consumption and society, would you lot be happy?"

The herbivores in the room clearly weren't up for this deal, and she was just jolly-well angry about all of this.

I'm with the herbivores for reasons I've hinted at above, but would need to explain at length if you don't already follow my drift. But I'll leave you with two observations:

1. The Analysis programme firmly promoted the narrow managerial market-based approach to climate change. One of the business types that it had as a witness for the prosecution complained that a lot of greenies were prepared to suspend democracy if they needed to in order to force through the cultural changes that they would like to introduce. If you've been here before, you'd know that I've got arguments about how it is only in an impoverished democracy that you need to micro-argue for every aspect of a political programme. It's an illustration of how impoverished the social democratic / green movement's understanding of democracy is that they could serve themselves extremely well by promoting an intellectually coherent definition of democracy instead of the juvenile version of it that has been allowed to dominate public debate.

2. Why is no-one dealing with the question of over-powerful pressure groups and regulatory capture here? If you want an explanation for why the wider green perspective of radical decentralisation, opposition to monopoly capitalism and anti-consumerism is a useful one to adopt, then just look at the way that the tobacco industry delayed necessary change for decades. Look at the way that copyright reform has not kept pace with the public interest, look at the grip the motor industry has over the carbon question-in-hand, and look at how the healthcare lobby has made purposeful change all-but-impossible in the US over the past twelve months.

With democratic reform, it's representative character is infinitely more important than the question of it's proportionality. The real opportunity that more open government offers us is to reduce the room for manoeuvre that pressure groups (as opposed to elected politicians) enjoy. As far as I can see, these are massive opportunities for the green and social democratic left to exploit, but for some reason, they seem almost unconcious of this.


Optimistic Cynic said...

Dealing with the environment isn't a "Pascal's Wager". If we put money into the wrong technology or put limits on development then we suffer. OK, in the UK that might mean driving a smaller car, but in some parts of the world that could be far more serious.

I'm not sure about the "wastefulness of capitalism". All those factories in the Soviet Union churning out products that no-one wanted was wasteful, and their environmental record was poor. We could also consider the millenium museums, many of which got closed down, or the Olympics which is going to be a massive construction project, little of which will be reused after the games have finished.

And taxation, and leaving it to the market will be the most efficient way to deal with environmental problems. Leaving it to government will see corruption through lobbying, the concentration on spending in marginal seats (rather than where it is necessary) and of course, it lacks the efficiency that self-interest gives over bureaucrats spending my money.

Tim Worstall said...

"if we can all be a bit less greedy and over-consuming it can't do us any harm"

Yes it could. We would be poorer.

Will said...

Fucking nora -- Worstal is a fuckking Idiot and a cunt.

wot surface level bullshit he natters on aboot.


and evil.

The Plump said...

Will's response to Worstall is one way of putting it. The ecological thinkers that Paulie is on about would put it differently. They would point out that if we consume all our capital now we feel richer but are, in fact, becoming poorer. Much the same thing really.