Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Re: Skeptical Environmentalist by David Brin

David Brin provided this excerpt of his new book with this introductory comment:

"Here is a section of my new nonfiction book, in which I comment on both Lomberg & his foes."

The Cliche of Contempt

In saying all of this, I expect to be accused of complacency.
After all, what other reason could I possibly have, for
downplaying our contemporary tragedies and problems?
Isn't optimism the worst enemy of activism?

This meritless assumption, apparently shared across all spectra of personality and politics, insists that we must choose between two starkly simplistic attitudes. On one side are those who perceive a world in extremis, teetering at the edge of an abyss, requiring desperate and costly intervention in order to stave off doom by global warming, pollution, starvation, topsoil loss, resource-depletion, ethnic intolerance and species mass-extinction.

From Paul Ehrlich to the Worldwatch Institute, to those kids demonstrating against "globalization", the pattern is consistent and uniform -- one must take a worst-possible interpretation, accepting no evidence of success or progress. Above all, never acknowledge any past errors of prediction.

Implicit is an underlying belief that anything less shrill than a cry of despair will be ignored. Public pressure for action to fade away, resulting in complete neglect of very real problems.

Of course this behavior plays conveniently into the hands of those opposing activism, who fiercely rebuke every exaggeration and failed prediction, as statistician Bjorn Lomborg did in a recent book--The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Lomberg especially pilloried Worldwatch for ignoring dramatic improvements in every painful category that the Institute had lamented in their own dour 1989 report -- problems from acid rain to population growth, that appear to have eased remarkably during the last dozen years or so. (*See notes + "Extinction" file.)

Alas, the opposite pole in this 'dichotomy' is no better. Take for example a persistent mythos spread by elements of the American right-wing for twenty years, campaigning to denigrate the very idea of Global Warming. In the face of overwhelming evidence, this bloc kept insisting that "the jury is still out" -- while it was simultaneously revealed that the U.S. Navy is drawing up battle plans for an ice-free Arctic Ocean. Finally, pressed by a nearly universal consensus among prominent scientists, the obstinate bulwark collapsed in June of 2002, when the administration of President George W. Bush issued a new report admitting that the Earth's climate is being dramatically altered by human intervention, in ways that will at-minimum cause major economic disruption, along with serious potential for profound human suffering.

Did this retreat portend a genuine concession and acceptance of fault? Perhaps a willingness to shift in a pragmatic compromise toward activist intervention and a policy of harm-reduction?

Not at all. The new party line claims that it is now too late to interrupt or even palliate this unstoppable trend by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we had better spend money on preparing emergency services to deal with a coming wave of chaotic weather patterns. Moreover this new policy was announced without even a hint of self-aware irony.

Cynics on the left and right are quick to offer explanations for their opponents' apparent hypocrisy. From one perspective, activist "doomsayers" are intellectual parasites who want to double our taxeswhile reducing us all to the level of rustic hippies, spinning our own yarn by the light of a single, flickering, wind-powered bulb. In the opposite direction, "obstructionists" are shortsighted planet-ravishers using their political connections to conceal hidden costs or foist them on public, while privatizing profits at our children's expense.

Both sides make smug -- and almost totally unexamined -- assumptions. Members of the activist left seem to be saying that only anticipation by a far-seeing elite (their own) can grasp the future and its needs. Their calls for sustainable technology, e.g. solar and wind power, focus upon a prescribed set of state interventions, forcing individuals and corporations to "forsake selfishness to save the future."

In response, the right wing dismisses all such efforts to predict failure modes, calling the activist agenda a throwback to socialist-style state planning -- "choosing winners and losers". Their alternative is to put total faith in the resilience of markets, trusting that the fluid appeal of supply-and-demand will draw innovators to solve all problems.

When re-expressed this way, it's easy to see that these positions were staked out not because of some proved efficacy or track record, but because each helps its adherents to feel better about themselves.

Alas, such examples of partisan tunnel vision are all-too common nowadays. Is it any wonder that, when offered only a stark choice between such opposite extremes, so many of our fellow citizens get suckered into the fallacy of taking sides?

Can we afford this kind of doctrinaire rigidity in an era of rapid change?

The culture of contempt results in one layer of foolishness being laid upon another For example, take another look at Bjorn Lomborg's appraisal of the dismal forecasts made by the Worldwatch Institute in 1989, asserting that all of them proved wrong by the turn of the century. Population growth rates are falling, suggesting an approach to stabilization instead of boom-then-bust. Extinction rates for temperate-climate species appear to be declining instead of increasing. Acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer were addressed with alacrity and effectiveness by European and North American democracies, though pollution remediation lags in developing countries such as China.

Lomborg -- along with others who are even more fiercely critical -- suggest that these failures of prediction eviscerate the activists' portrayal of a world under perpetual threat from human abuse. In science, failure to accurately forecast the outcome of an experiment is considered to cast a theory in shadow, if not complete repudiation.

And yet, there is a potentially devastating answer to this riposte.

Might the environmental activists claim, with some justification, that their earlier worst-case scenarios failed to come true because of the warnings? Because the admonishers were effective, heeded by an attentive public, just as they hoped to be? You might expect to hear such crowing. And yet, despite strong evidence that public opinion and democratic institutions can sometimes respond to danger with great agility, you almost never hearthese proponents of activism bragging. No one says -- "I told you so... and you all listened. Good for you!"

To do so would require admitting something that most partisans find more distasteful than defeat -- that "the masses" aren't stupid, after all.

In later chapters we'll discuss more generally the phenomenon of self-preventing prophecies -- gloomy predictions that don't come true because the forecasts were powerfully persuasive and dissuasive, prompting smart people to act, helping ensure that a particular failure mode never happens, after all. We'll examine this marvel,not only in light of environmentalism and nuclear war, but also politics and the fierce battlefield of terror.

Indeed, it may be the tool that saves us. Isn't this what foresight is supposed to be about?

And yet, this very idea is almost never discussed. Partisans of all stripes and persuasions would much rather portray themselves as lonely Cassandras, as tragically ignored Jeremiahs.

So enamored are they to the delectable addiction of disdain.

David Brin is the author of the Uplift Series, Brightness Reef, The Practice Effect, Earth, and many other SF books. He is a physicist and professor. Visit his blogs: http://www.davidbrin.blogspot.com and http://www.davidbrin.com
Read his biography at Wikipedia.

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