Interlude on Ecorealism: Global Warming Heating Up

Was thinking of doing a pro-con post on Global Warming, but the issues are way too complex, beyond my scope, and (honestly) way too vitrolic to be worth the time.

For a direct response to Crichton on Global Warming, check out these two articles.

I’m sympathetic, as I noted earlier, to many of the issues raised by Crichton. I would say that global warming is probably occurring, but as Lomborg notes, it will only hurt the poor. Can’t stress that enough, environmental issues are a subset of poverty and not the reverse. [The biosphere is within the noosphere. Nature is in us, not we are in Nature. Of course too much of the pro-Global Warming opinion assumes that everything will remain the same for the next 50-100 yrs, other than more people wanting oil and a middle class lifestyle. As the models suggest, Everything else being equal, we would probably see a 2 degree Celsius temperature upgrade in the next 100 yrs. BUT EVERYTHING WILL NOT BE EQUAL.]

Al Gore has a new movie out on Global Warming, premiering at Sundance. I’m afraid it is going to be more of the same Litany of sins and coming apocalypse.

Al was/is a big proponent of things like and so-called people power, democratic anti-establishment movements (it probably cost him the 2000 election). One inconsistency I see is the branding of the environmental movement as a true grass roots democratic change agent. In some ways, it of course is. But it does not have the majority of Americans on board with the project. One of my favorites was the survey done in California (serious blue state) where people were asked, were they in favor of the environment (yes, something well 80%). Then asked immediately if anyone would make sacrifices–stop driving their SUV, turn off their AC in the summer–basically the same percentage resopnded no.

I’m not criticizing such democratic, usually liberal-leaning movements. It is a free country and I’m glad to see people organize, petition the government, work to change public opinion, and take an active role in our society.

What bothers me is that, given the environmental movement does not as of yet have any deep grounding, strong majority in the American populace, it resorts to scare tactics, ad hominem assaults (as on Crichton, which whether he is right or not, I find no evidence to suggest he is in bed with the oil industry or some Bush goon or gleeful at the thought of environmental degradation–all of that is profoundly sad and counterproductive….if he’s wrong, show’s he wrong, don’t attack him personally. For proof of this check the comments section under the blog posts. The posts themselves are pretty even handed and stick to factual/counterfactual claims.).

And most distressing of all is the love affair between the fatalistic medium of too much environmental thought and the sensational, catastrophe-loving media (both television and film). Catastrophes are sexy and sell. Global meltdown and ecological disaster is extremely sexy. Its particularly attractive to celebrities who can do television specials, promote films, all the while blaming governments, corporations, and conservative parties, while never actually doing anything positive for the environment. Particularly when the arrive to fundraising events in stretch limousines (what kinda gas mileage those get?).

In terms of the mythic religion-environmentalism link, I feel like I’m on a ground where I know somethign about the subject. Particulary, as someone who has gone through seminary training, I know quite a lot about the use of shame, guilt, and fear as tactics to encite human beings to action.

And there is no getting around one simple fact: those tactics do not work. Certain individuals–in a serious minority–may get the message but the majority are simply paralyzed.

Fear does not work as a motivator. Fear of a coming global ecological calamity will not spur human beings to action. Aside from the question whether global warming is pure hype (or more likely: true but seriously over-hyped), it might instructive to recall the great quotation: The medium is the message.

The medium of fear, coming calamity and collective guilt, in other words, has become the message. And once that has happened, I can tell you that such sensationalized environmentalism is re-playing Western Christian pathologies.

I can tell you that those innumerable sermons on how guilty we should all feel continue to this day–at some point, after thousands of these maybe someone would realize they have been less than effective, to put it mildly.

Environmentalism only has about 40 years of this guilt and fear-mongering under its belt. [We could say a little longer, given that the original global warming “scare” took place in the 1930s!!!].

And Crichton is certainly right on this point–the pattern of over-inflating possible catastrophes and focusing on possible dramatic cataclysms. See also the Easterbrook article in Wired. You are still so much more likely to die from an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, psychological stress accumulated over years, smoking, dangerous behavior (like drinking and driving), etc. then you are from chemicals in your food, the polar ice caps melting, a future global Ice Age (at least for the next 1,000-2,000 yrs. when we would be scheduled for the next one), or Al-Qaeda.

Environmentalism because it has not had the population support—hint: if you constantly have to rave about how your movement is gaining popular support, then you’re in trouble. Hamas wasn’t going around lauding how they signed up 500 new people, they were too busy signing up 1500 more at the same time–it has resorted to the courts and the media, trying to create a panic-scenario and thereby hopefully override the traditional give-and-take, slow, methodical game that is politics (from the so-called “democratic” movements, hence the inconsistency I see).

The historic Environmental Legislation passed during the 1970s, God forbid mostly under the Nixon and Ford Administrations, (e.g. EPA, Clean Air and Water Act, Endangered Species Act) are great contributions and yet have major flaws in them. Flaws that 30+ yrs. later it is tim to do something about.

Here’s a good one, relevant to the whole NSA wiretapping issue: The Congress was keen during the 70s to shift power back to the legislature away from the executive, seeing what Nixon had done. So the Environmental Legislation passed during the Ford (and Carter) years has extensive checks on the Executive (and thereby the EPA as an arm of the Executive branch). These provisions hurt the EPA today–they are more harmful than helpful. Now whatever the comparisons between Nixon and Bush, and the fear of rising executive authority, it does not seem likely that Bush&Co. would use Environmental Legislation to extend their reach. The Laws break violations into so many subsets and require individual action for each redress sought, that both environmental and corporate groups can sue over each miniscule stipulation of the law, leading to delay, huge wastes of money, etc.

But given that the environmental movement (as connected to the Democratic party generally) has lost the popular support it had during the 70s, in light of the Cultural Shift rightward during the last 3 decades, then environmentalists end up supporting old-legislation and attempting to stop any reform of the law (even well informed and productive reform) because they know they won’t be able to re-pass new legislation under the current political climate.

If they sought to deconstruct the pro-environmental legislation in order to re-construct newer, more effective ones, they are afraid–not without reason—that they will end up losing the whole package instead and replace it with de-regulation. While I wouldn’t foresee total de-regulation, there could be some rollbacks. The question though is whether, in such a case, we would be rollingback helpful or harmful legislation. The environmental lobbyists do not raise such issues–and the pro-corporate ones are only too happy to play that game for their own usually twisted agendas. Ugh.

Hence the opt-out, mostly, of the democratic process on the part of environmentalism. At least on a federal level. Because that would require in part the tough work of compromise, hitting the circuit, and local effort required. And when is Robert Redford going to head to a fly-over state (other than maybe Madison, Wisconsin) to argue his case?

When we check the memetic data, the implication is: If you want environmentalism to reach the American populace it has to be framed in terms of national security. And global catastrophe in the future and the ice caps are melting, sorry is not national security. I bring this up, again, because Al Gore lost an election (perhaps illegally) to man and a party who beat the Democrats (legally) everytime on the issue of national security.

Karl Rove: The Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. The Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview. This doesn’t make them traitors, just wrong. [Karl reading some more Wilber, with the worldview reference.]

If the Democrats plan to run in 2006 on Bush broke law, he’s wiretapping you, there’s a culture of corruption in Washington, etc, they will lose.

Thomas Friedman, nerdy though he is in many a way, is the only one who keeps beating this drum that environmentalism is a national security issue. Are Missourians likely to be attacked by Osama? Of course not. But image is reality.

For better or worse, national security is the number issue. It could be argued that it was during the Cold War, and that the Clinton years were nothing but a nice anamoly. Either way here we are. By purchasing oil and paying taxes you are funding both sides in the War on Terror, which for the military-industrial complex is the greatest boon imaginable.

Important to remember, that for now, the US does not receive the bulk of its oil from the Middle East–contrary to popular opinion. Our share of imported Middle Eastern oil is actually between 10-20%. Our oil money does prop up a nice Venezeulan dictator named Chavez. But in the future maybe our percentage of Middle Eastern oil goes up. What is already the case is that China receives the bulk of its oil from Iran–wonder why our the People’s Republic isn’t so hot on the idea of economic sanctions against the Ayatollahs?

How bout this for a grand vision worthy of a big dreamer like Bush–a US, EU, and Chinese mega-project to move to a hydrogen economy? It would strategically link China with the US, even more so than now, and allow everybody to get out of the Middle East oil business.

If global warming is occurring, and it is in some measure due to the burning of fossil fuels, and let’s for the moment assume that to be the case (generally speaking I would say I “believe” that statement, although I believe the possible consequences are extremely overblown and that they are far more important environmental not to mention political concerns at the moment), there are only two things that are going to counter this trend: Conservation and increased technological efficiency.

On the latter, we should note that human technology is evolutionarily moving to a carbon-free future whether Kyoto gets passed or not, whether the Sierra Club makes another doomsday prediction, or Al Gore stars in Global Warming II: This Time Its for Real. The erotic arrow of Kosmic Evolution has moved us from wood (10 atoms carbon to 1 atom hydrogen) to Coal (1-2 Carbon/1 atom hydrogen), to oil (1 carbon/2 hydrogen), to natural gas (1 Carbon/4 hydrogen).
A future hydrogen economy, being a totally de-carbonized technology, which when burned produces water. Which in turn could either A)Be purified and made cheaply accessible to the indigent and/or B)Used to create futher power.

The evolutionary record shows emergent, qualitative leaps and that will be the next one–most likely with carbon/natural gas/hydrogen combos in between. Now, humanity has made these leaps in the past (hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industurial to informational) and I believe it will make the next one. Will it do so in a perfectly smooth manner. Doubt it.

But it will happen and the sooner governments actually put some serious capital into R&D, and the environmental groups lobby harder for this–although that is beginning to occur in spates–then it will be up to industry and corporations–the scourge of the planet I know–that will do it.

Right now we already have the technology to massively increase fuel-efficiency in cars, even with oil (which remember, in post-industrial nations do give off 99% less pollution than they did only 40 years ago, these same emission standards sadly do no exist in the developing world because any capital must be spent either on paying off bribes, paying off loans to the World Bank/IMF (bribes by a legitimate name), security, or in some cases infrastructure.

The other green-house reducer is conservation. And again, we come back to the issue that conservation is actually an issue of wealth, paradoxical as it sounds at first. Think of it analogically: in the wealthy countries a hundred years ago to be portlly was a sign of wealth. Only the rich could afford meat diets and luxuries (and didn’t have to work their asses off all day long) to enable them to be overweight. In the developed world it is now the reverse. To be thin is to be correlated with wealth. It is the poor who suffer the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in this country, particularly among the African American community.

Just so with environmentalism. Initially things get a little worse with industrialization, then a lot better. The developing world is still in the worse part–at least the countries/populations that are in fact industrializing. So in China pollution is much worse now than 200 years ago. But the capital is increasing to the point that perhaps within the next few decades the flip scenario will occur–as it did in Western Europe, US from the 70s until today–things will get better. Not oonly then will the average population live a materially better lifestyle but the environment will be cleaner. A win, win.

To be very conservation minded, requires greater wealth in this country. The poor are forced to shop at places like Walmart; they do not have the luxury to make deicions based environmental impact, labor practices in other countries, etc. Only rich people can–and sadly most of the stuff they buy, branded as organic, green, environmental friendly, free-trade, etc. is just that…PR and label branding. The actual positive impact in large cases of that sector of society is the feelin of having bought environmentally-economically conscious.

Again, I’m not saying such buying tendencies are awful inherently, it is just an aspect of materialism and assuaging one’s conscience. The only thing I can take issue with is when such well-off individuals react with horror to say the idea of electrifying the developing world. Such a person then will rattle off, in environmental orthodoxy, that the population is already too large, the amount of fossil fuels burned will increase global warming, the space/habitation for all these increasingly wealthy people will destroy more habitat and cause an increase in species extinction.

All of which are wrong. Factually. Increased economic standing is correlated–on the whole–with: DECREASED population and pollution; INCREASED air, water quality and forest cover; and therefore INCREASED plant and animal numbers.

Again, when economic and technological increase outpaces cultural change (as will happen), then there are temporary bulges–in population, pollution, etc. Temporary. And after the momentum shifts culturally, then the population-pollution issue not only declines, it declines to a point lower than it was prior to the bulge.

The point, again, is simply that rich people do not have a right to say that others should stay in poverty because of mistaken righteousness concerning the environment.

We must create win:win mentalities. The environment-human justice debate is not a zero-sum game, where gains for one (say the human) must come at the price of the other (the environment). Sometimes there will be local-regional trade offs, there is no perfection here. But on the large scale, create a win:win (non-zero sum game) scenario and the momentum shifts entirely.

Fear does not work as a motivator. You must tell people how inherently dignified they are, and how inherently wonderful the earth is, and it is a call for them to be responsible memebers, responsible grown children of this Earth and of God. Then people wake up and act appropriately.

Both technological innovation and conservation are worthy goals and they are plenty of reasons to promote/support them that are NOT in a way connected to global warming.

The reduction of Co2 in the atmosphere is an important issue whether or not it is related to global warming.

The medium is the message. At some point we need to learn.

But in the end, I’m hopeful that will happen. Probably will take a major setback or two sadly, but at some point it will happen. Future generations we’ll, I imagine, look back on this with so much tragi-comedy. The tragic element being how we wasted so much time, capital, and effort on what in the end will likely turn out to be something–just not nearly as important as so much else. The comedy being the chuckles they will get by looking back on our blindspots and tunnel-vision.

Crichton is again right on this point: nothing is more sobering than reading accounts of the mass hysteria-widespread fears of the past and how many actually came to pass, while the actual catastrophes that do occur were very rarely–if ever–predicted and when they were, those who did the predicting were labeled as “liars, cheats, scoundrels, imbeciles” and the like.

Published in: on January 27, 2006 at 7:53 am  Leave a Comment  

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