Saturday, January 31, 2015

How Western Civilization Collapses from Climate Change - a Future History

The idea of this short book is that the authors are looking back on the 20th and 21st century from the year 2393 in the Second People's Republic of China, explaining why the Western nations and the rest of the world did not respond to the climate crisis that they knew was rushing down upon them, upon us.

The actual authors are historians of science and previously wrote Merchants of Doubt:  How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (, a book that every talking head on the Tee and Vee would do well to read before inviting a climate change change skeptic or denier on to their program.

The Collapse of Western Civilization by Namoi Oreskes and Erik M Conway
NY:  Columbia University Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-231-16954-7
(21)  By the mid-2010s, the Arctic summer sea had lost about 30 percent of its real extent [of ice] compared to 1979, when high-precision satellite measurements were first made;  the average loss was rather precisely measured at 13.7 percent per decade from 1979 to 2013.  When the areal extent to summer sea ice was compared to earlier periods using additional data from ships, buoys, and airplanes, the total summer loss was nearly 50 percent.
(38)  Market fundamentalism - and its various strands and interpretations known as free market fundamentaism, neoliberalism, laissez-faire economics, and laissez-faire capitalism - was a two-pronged ideological system.  The first prong held that societal needs were served most efficiently in a free market economic system.  Guided by the "invisible hand" of the marketplace, individuals would freely respond to each other's needs, establishing a net balance between solutions ("supply") and needs ("demand").  The second prong of the philosophy maintained that free markets were not merely a good or even the best manner of satisfying material wants:  they were the _only_ manner of doing so that did not threaten personal freedom.
(35-36)  The thesis of this analysis is that Western civilization became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies:  positivism and market fundamentalism.
Twentieth-century scientists saw themselves as the descendants of an empirical tradition often referred to as positivism - after the nineteenth-century French phiosopher, Auguest Comte, who developed the concept of "positive" knowledge (as in, "absolutely, positively true") - but the overall philosophy is more accurately known as Baconianism.  This philosophy held that through experiment, observation, and experiment, one could gather reliable knowledge about the natural world, and that this knowledge would empower its holder.  Experience justified the first part of the philosophy (we have recounted how twentieth-century scientists anticipated the consequences of climate change), but the second part - that this knowledge would translate into power - proved less accurate.  Although billions of dollars were spent on climate research in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the resulting knowledge had little impact on the crucial economic and technological policies that drove the continued use of fossil fuels.
(46)  Social scientists introduced the concept of "late lessons from early warnings" to describe a growing tendency to neglect information.  As a remedy, they promoted a precautionary principle, whereby early action would prevent later damage.
(58)  human adaptive optimism (1)  The belief that there are no limits to human adaptability - that we can either adapt to any circumstances, or change them to suit ourselves.  Belief in geoengineeering as a climate "solution" was a subset of HAO.  (2)  The capacity of humans to remain optimistic and adapt to changed circumstances, even in the face of daunting difficultires, and even if the form of "adaptation" required is suffering.
(77)  Neoliberalism in its pure form fails to recognize external costs or to provide a mechanism for preventing future damage.  There's no market signal from the future, or from birds and bats and bees (until the damage is so great that we actually see it, for example, in the cost of honey, but even then, most consumers won't know why the cost of honey is rising.) 
Business and political leaders who have been swayed by the arguments for deregulation need to realize that while the basic idea of invoking competition to good ends is a powerful one, it only works in the full sense when tempered by the need to address market failure and external costs.  Neoliberalism is an ideology, and like most ideologies, it hits potholes and speed bumps when put into practice;  even Adam Smith recongized that you have to regulate the banks.   Climate change is a really, really big pothole.  But here's an interesting point to note:  von Hayek explicitly invoked pollution as an external cost that can legitimately justify government intervention in the marketplace.  I suppose that might by why some people on the right deny that CO2 is a pollutant... 

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