Tuesday, February 4, 2014

David Keith vs the apocalypse

David Appell highlights this passage from David Keith's new book:
Imagine how effectively the world might collaborate if we discovered a massive asteroid inbound for a 2050 impact. But, this is not what we face. The claim that climate change threatens an imminent catastrophe is an attempt to play a trump car of (seemingly) objective science in order to avoid debate about the trade-offs at the heart of climate policy and about the role that values play in driving each of our personal judgements of the moral weight we accord to competing interests. But climate change is one of many problems, so there is no substitute for realistic assessment of our risks and open debate about the trade-offs between them, for we cannot avoid all risk or solve all problems.

-- David Keith, A Case for Climate Engineering
There's no question that there is a strain of apocalyptic thinking in environmentalism (is there any ideology that does not have some element of this?)  But as so often when you try to ascribe motives to people, Keith does not have this quite right.

Yes, some people picture climate change as an "imminent catastrophe." And depending on your definition of "catastrophe" or "imminent" you could be right by your own lights. But I don't think the appeal of the end-of-the-world thinking is that it short-circuits a debate about "values." The idea that we are having a conflict about values is just wrong, wrong, wrong. So what is the appeal?

In the first place you have to acknowledge the general appeal of extremism in political debates. This has been apparent for thousands of years, ever since there was a need to appeal to large groups of unrelated people using abstract ideas. Go back to the Greece of Thucydides, 2,500 years ago, and you find oligarchs swearing that democracy will lead to economic collapse, famine, incest, and cannibalism, and democrats swearing that oligarchs will crush the life out of the people, steal their money, rape their women, and so forth.

Extremism makes it easy to talk to low-information voters, which has always been a prime need of all political activists. Keith views environmental extremists as cunningly evading a serious and rational weighing of the relative risks and benefits of alternate courses of action. In reality, of course, insofar as shouting calamity from the rooftops is strategic at all, the strategy is to compete with other prophets shouting a different kind of doom from other rooftops.

An Assyrian clay tablet dating to around 2800 B.C. bears the inscription: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”[1]

Then, too, there is the even longer tradition of prophecies of doom, predicting an apocalypse that will consume the wicked. This goes right back to the Hebrew Bible and even before that. What appeals about these stories is not that they change the narrative of values -- prophets will have that conversation with you all day, every day, firmly in the belief that they are getting the best of the exchange. It is to reconcile their certainty that their values are correct and that they are in harmony with the universe with all the evidence around them that they have little power and the world is not ordered as it should be. This is the appeal of apocalypse stories to the devout, be they Christians, Muslims, extreme environmentalists, or libertarians (for libertarians, of course, the part of the Beast is played by fiat currency.)

The people who think the world is ending, imminently, should not be confused with the people who think the world is on a bad path, and needs to get on the right one, imminently. The two groups have plenty in common. They don't like large parts of the society we live in. They may dress funny. They may be strident and intolerant of gradualism. But while the former are in retreat from reality, the latter most decidedly are not. They are the Quaker abolitionists smuggling slaves to freedom, the women's suffragettes being dragged off to jail, the marchers on Selma and Washington braving the fire hoses and the dogs. And they are also, very proudly, the scientist arrested fighting mountaintop coal mining and the activist laying down in front of trucks to stop pipelines.

There is the judicious weighing of risks by armchair intellectuals, and there is action by those who have weighed the risks to those that cannot defend or protect themselves and chose to act, according to their own moral code. The latter may or may not succeed in affecting significant change; the former never will.


  1. +1 with a small caveat. don't dismiss the role of 'armchair intellectuals'. there are many roles to fill in this play. oh and please up your output. even if the quality suffers it will still be of benefit.