Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Not?

As much as I love the sound of my own voice, I do occasionally tire of it, so today, in the spirit of community,friendship, and sharing, I've invited a colleague up onto my little digital soapbox. My guest has asked to remain anonymous and has assured me this has nothing to do with a fear that my company will reflect poorly on him. He offered up the nom de plume, "Economic Unit #4,108,684,411". Mr. Congenial that i am, I accepted. I'm not one to stand on formalities, though, so, in the future should he return, I will abbreviate to "Eco".

Humour aside, this essay was actually written by a friend, not me.


Okay, global warming. If I were a daily newspaper columnist, I would feel compelled to tie this post into the upcoming Copenhagen climate change conference. That's the thing about conventional news media; a discussion of a serious and ongoing crisis is only fit to print if it can be related to a specific newsworthy event occurring this news cycle. Our ability to discuss the macro is constrained by what's happening at the micro level.

Luckily this is a blog and I can be as untimely, un-newsworthy and therefore as relevant as I want.

When you're talking to someone about global climate change and the importance of doing something to combat it, there are a number of responses that aren't really what they appear to be at face value.

The one I hear a lot of is this: If we have to cut global emissions and stop burning coal, that means countries such as China and India have to deny themselves the benefits of industrialization that we in the West have enjoyed. How, morally, can we justify that? How can we just burn a bunch of fuel, get stinking rich, and then turn around and tell them they can't?

That's the argument. Now, I've almost never heard that argument made in good faith. That is, it's never been posed to me as a legitimate question about equity. Rather, it has always been posed as a rhetorical question supporting one, and only one, conclusion.

Analagous to mathematics, where you can reduce and simplify a complex equation to its essence by applying a series of operations, you can get at the root of this kind of rhetorical question--the second, third.... nth BS derivative, as it were--by repeatedly asking, "What's your point?"

"What's your point?"
"Well, it's not fair to tell China they can't industrialize."
"Again, what's your point?"
"Well, it's not reasonable to expect China not to industrialize, therefore the industrializing has to happen.
"I'm presuming you have a point. What is that point?"
"Well, if China keeps industrializing, we also have to keep burning fossil fuels to compete."
"And your point is..?"
"Well, I guess my point is that we cannot and should not take the required steps to stop global warming because to do so has consequences we cannot accept."

Of course, the noble face-value statement--"It's not fair to ask them to not industrialize"--actually conceals several layers of assumptions, and ultimately conceals a very selfish argument. Namely, that we cannot take steps to stop global warming because it will require sacrifices we'd rather not make.

Now, there are all kinds of practical issues involved in that logic. For instance, even if you conclude that it's right and necessary to stop China from industrializing, you are left with the practical difficulty of how to do it. But when the argument is concealed in a false, passive-aggressive framework of "It's not even fair to ask," we don't even get to those practical questions.

Don't get me wrong. I recognize that the West has enjoyed great benefits from industrialization. It's not fair that China doesn't get to enjoy those benefits. But at the end of the day, this isn't about fairness. Fairness is probably the third most important thing in my value system. But number one is is survival, and this is about the survival of human civilization and the continuing functioning of the planetary ecosystem.

Lots of things in life are unfair because someone got there first and then when someone else came along later, there wasn't any left for them. If I had my druthers we would have some mechanism for ensuring that good stuff gets conserved so that people in the future can enjoy some of it too. Actually, that's not my idea; it's the essence of sustainability. Sustainability is ultimately about survival and fairness.

And so, if you were dealing with someone worth arguing with, you could turn the question around and say, "Well, since we've enjoyed the benefits of a stable global climate, who are we to turn around and tell people thirty years in the future that they can't have that too?"

(If that sounds overly cute to you, too much of a slick rhetorical jab, allow me to appeal to your less noble instincts. You'll probably never meet the Chinese peasant heading to the factory. But you might very well be around in thirty years when that future generation is in charge and you are old and feeble. And that future generation might have some very strong feelings about the decision we've taken and might be inclined to vent their frustrations on the people responsible. Since at this rate they probably won't have any ice floes left to stick us on, I hesitate to imagine what form that venting might take.)

But that's assuming you're dealing with someone who may be arguing in good faith--that is, that they are really concerned about the fairness issue, and not just cloaking a selfish argument ("I don't wanna change") in a selfless one ("It's not fair to ask them to change.")

But I have yet to run into that situation. Usually, it's just the latest in a series of boneheaded, ill-informed or willfully obtuse tactics, dating back to the first warnings of global warming, each deployed and then abandoned in turn as the facts make them untenable.

It started with denying the possibility of global warming; acknowledging the possibility but denying the reality; accepting the reality but denying a human hand in it; accepting human agency but questioning whether it's on balance a good thing or a bad thing; and then, grudgingly, recognizing that it's a bad thing but that it's too late to do anything about it. You'll note that the rationale for not dealing with climate change has changed again and again, but that the implied policy response is always the same: don't do anything that will interfere with fossil-fuel industry profits.

Now we're at the final, pathetic endgame: the human shield. "Yes, we have to do something but, oh no, doing so will hurt this poor Chinese peasant who's gone to Shanghai to work in the factory and send money to his aging parents. How can you do that?"

Frankly, at this point, arguing the reality of global warming and the need to do something about it just lends legitimacy to an intellectually- and morally-bankrupt position. The facts and the imperative are now as well established as evolution, the Holocaust and the Moon landing, with precisely the same implications for those who deny them. Everyone who can be reasoned with has been persuaded, and those who can't will continue to bray their skepticism until Buzz Aldrin punches them in the mouth.

But I can't resist a good argument, especially when it gives me a chance to smack down someone who is stupid, ignorant or dishonest. So, if I were cornered and asked in seeming good faith why it's okay to ask China not to burn all their coal, I would say two things:

1) First, we have to. The alternative is misery and death for most of the human race, including your kids. If the Chinese standard of living is so important to you that you're willing to sacrifice your kids' lives, then here's the deal: Go home put a plastic bag over your daughter's head and hold it there for ten minutes until she's good and dead. Once you've done that, I promise I'll send a big-screen TV and a Nintendo Wii to some family in China. If that's where your priorities really are, then put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, stop pretending that the standard of living of strangers on the other side of the planet is Job One in your value system.

2) If industrializing is so important to China, why did they wait so long? We're talking about a civilization that's been more or less stable for three thousand years. They were writing books and developing philosophy and massive public works projects while Europeans were picking lice out of their breeches. As it is, they waited until the last minute.

As it is, Europeans got there first and invented it. Sorry. (Observe that I am not saying Europeans are better, or smarter, or inherently more deserving. I say this to pre-emptively refute anyone who tries to take this as some kind of racialist justification for white supremacy, or who tries to impute that position to me. As I said, I have no use for stupid, ignorant or dishonest people and bigots are all three.) I'm just saying that if there's a limited amount of industrialization that the world can take (and there seems to be) then whoever got to it first gets to use it, and if past a certain point it has to be constrained, that is too bad for the latecomers.

Now, that's not an argument that I think is especially fair. In a fair world, Europeans would have limited how much they industrialized, knowing that someday the rest of the world would want to do it too. But it is one that is consistent with the rules of the game as laid out by capitalism, which last time I looked were deemed non-negotiable by the people in charge--particularly the corporations who have been most vociferous in undermining action on global warming. The same logic, for instance, is why we have patent laws. The person who invents something gets privileged use of that invention; she doesn't have to surrender it to everyone who comes asking.

Industrial capitalism has been around for about two hundred years; China could have picked up on it anytime but instead they decided to monkey around with Communism.

I'm not naive; I know the world isn't fair and I don't expect people to behave fairly. But I do expect them to not be hypocrites, and to behave in a manner that is more or less consistent with their own professed values. (Internal consistency - that's my second most important value.) If you're going to question global warming around me, you'd better have an internally consistent logic behind it or I will be inclined to treat you in a most uncivil manner.

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