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Tilting at Windmills

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October 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BREAK THROUGH....I've been putting this off, but I suppose I really ought to offer up some comments about Break Through, the critique of global warming activism published recently by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. I've been avoiding it, I think, because rarely has a book left me more schizophrenic. I loved the first half, but hated the second.

I'll start with the high points. In the first half of the book, N&S make a number of trenchant criticisms about our current approach to global warming:

  • Poor people don't care about environmentalism. They're too busy caring about their next meal, keeping a roof over their head, and staying employed.

  • Partly because of this, and partly for nationalistic reasons, we're never going to get poor countries like India and China to agree to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions via regulation. It's just wishful thinking to suppose otherwise. In fact, the only way we'll ever get poor countries to care about environmentalism is to make them rich countries first. That means supporting economic growth all over the globe, which in turn means more energy production, not less.

  • However, even in rich countries like ours, it's hard to sell people on making any kind of serious sacrifice to cut down on carbon emissions, especially when the most damaging effects of global warming are fairly far in the future and will most strongly impact other countries.

  • What's more, as liberals themselves acknowledge, fear is fundamentally a conservative weapon. People who are afraid usually turn inward: They don't take chances, they look first toward their own safety, and in cultural matters they tend to revert to traditional norms. Apocalyptic global warming scenarios have the same effect. Rather than inspiring people to support change, they tend to make people feel fatalistic and ungenerous — precisely the opposite of what we want.

These are good points, supported by some interesting narratives, and you don't have to buy every single one of them in every detail to see that, as a whole, they add up to a powerful case that current global warming activism could benefit from some refocusing. So what should we do instead?

This is where the book falls apart. For starters, way too much of the second half devolves into an idiosyncratic mix of New-Agey jargon and weird eco-speak. Take this, for example:

As the earth warms, forests disappear, and the Arctic melts into the oceans, new natures will emerge all over....Just as modernity has replaced the question "Who are we?" with "Who shall we become?," the ecological crises will replace the reductionist question "What must we do to save the environment?" with "What new environments can we imagine and create?"

Pluralizing singular categories is a simple way to free ourselves from essentialism. In abandoning Nature, we can embrace the multiplicity of human and nonhuman natures. In abandoning Science, we can embrace the various kinds and practices of the sciences. In leaving behind the belief in a single objective Reason, we can better understand that we have multiple ways of reasoning about the world. In rejecting an essentialist view of the Market, we can embrace the power of markets to achieve our social and ecological goals.

There's an awful lot of stuff like this, and it just left me cold. Your mileage might vary, of course, but I guess I was hoping for a little less dorm room philosophy and a little more in the way of practical advice. As in: what should we do about global warming?

Which, it turns out, they never answer. I was fully ready for N&S to offer up a fairly weak policy brew, but I wasn't ready for them to literally offer up no policy suggestions at all. In fact, their entire prescription can be summarized in one sentence: we should spend $30 billion per year developing new, green energy technologies. They spend an entire chapter telling us that complex problems require complex systemic solutions, but when it comes to global warming, that's all they have. One sentence.

But it's even worse than that, actually. Working to bring down the price of green energy production is, at least, an idea, even if N&S don't flesh it out. But how about the other side the equation, making dirty energy sources more expensive (with carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes, for example)? N&S support this, but unless I missed a hurried paragraph or two somewhere, it gets precisely one sentence on p. 119. Instead we get pointless critiques of The End of History and the Last Man and A Tale of Two Utopias that basically left me mystified. I never did figure out what they were doing there, frankly. Ditto for much of the rest of the final three chapters.

The authors may have more substance to offer elsewhere, but Break Through isn't an 800-word op-ed, it's a book. There are no space restrictions. Instead of a few sentences, Break Through needed some genuinely persuasive arguments about conquering global warming via government-directed basic research. The fact that it never really makes those arguments makes it, in the end, a disappointment.

Kevin Drum 7:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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Comments

Stewart Brand has been all about solutions for a long time.

Posted by: harry on October 16, 2007 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

I don't even buy the point about poor countries are never going to care. First of all, the richer countries can make them care by offering incentives and consequences. Secondly, the leadership of poor countries aren't necessarily stupid (some are, but who are we to talk). The smarter ones know that when the refugees and the drought hit, it will be hitting them hardest.

Posted by: Emma Anne on October 16, 2007 at 7:16 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on October 16, 2007 at 7:30 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think I buy the second criticism. In fact, in order to make countries like India and China rich, they will need many more CO2 emitting power plants and cars. The solution is to provide them resources to build an emissions-free power grid and clean public transportation. These things will make them rich WHILE moving them towards lower emissions.Given that India and China are currently building the most power plants, we could make a big dent if we can make those new plants greener. Yes, it will cost a lot, but India and China won't do it on their own. And all of us will face the consequences.

Posted by: fostert on October 16, 2007 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK
These are good points, supported by some interesting narratives, and you don't have to buy every single one of them in every detail to see that, as a whole, they add up to a powerful case.

A powerful case for or against...what, exactly? These don't seem to be criticisms of anything, just a collection of broad generalization and a few simplistic conclusions from those broad generalizations.

What is missing in your description of their argument is any application to any existing approach to global warming.

(Particularly dubious is the poor countries one...Every country on Earth but the US is poorer, per capita, than the US, and yet the US is among the most resistant to actively doing anything about climate change. Really, its a lot easier to forego an uncertain future benefit to avoid a projected future harm than to sacrifice current benefits to avoid a projected future harm.)

Posted by: cmdicely on October 16, 2007 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

"The authors may have more substance to offer elsewhere, but Break Through isn't an 800-word op-ed, it's a book."
----
Maybe the problem isn't with these particular authors so much as the "current events" segment of the publishing industry. It's the WalMarting of the intelligentsia. Evidently, you are not the only complaining about their book:
http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/10/5/14244/7492

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on October 16, 2007 at 7:36 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatives have already proposed several solutions to solve "global warming." First, build more nuclear power plants. They don't use oil or coal so it would solve any "problems." Second, build more dams to generate more power using water. Third build more tree farms to inhale the cardbon dioxide. But liberals oppose all of these measures and that's why "global warming" cannot be "solved."

Posted by: Al on October 16, 2007 at 7:36 PM | PERMALINK

fostert: Actually, that's pretty much the argument N&S make. Their sole policy prescription is that since poor countries won't give up economic growth, the only answer is to spend lots of money developing cost-efficient green energy sources. Then we can make those available to China, India, etc.

cmdicely: Yeah, that's my problem with the book. The first half, I thought, was a reasonably persuasive argument that our current regulation-centered approach to global warming has a lot of problems. Fine. But then they need to provide an alternative, and they don't, really. They just say we need to spend lots of money on R&D and pretty much leave it at that. They might be right, but they never really make much of a case for it. Disappointing.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on October 16, 2007 at 7:47 PM | PERMALINK

The obvious answer is nuclear power. The technology is mature, and the nations that are the largest potential polluters (U.S., China, India) are already nuclear powers.

If we had other emission-free power systems to give to other nations, we'd be using them ourselves.

Posted by: harry on October 16, 2007 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum: I stand corrected. I guess I misinterpreted your summary. As for the solution, I don't really see another one. But it need not be as expensive as we might think. China and India have good engineers that work for far less money than ours. We could encourage (finance) them to do their own research. How about giving some grants to their universities to train their engineers in green technology? And we could give scholarships to students on the condition they study that technology. I have put three children (other people's) through college in India. It's quite cheap, even for the technical majors.

Posted by: fostert on October 16, 2007 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK

I don't buy the poor country argument either -- that presupposes that all other countries have a western view of their relationship to each other and the planet: that it's here for the taking and that we can rape and pillage as we see fit. In fact, what I think you are seeing and going to see more of is Eastern religious view coming into play in India and China about the necessity for being a global steward, for caring for each other. There is a perception in the East that Western Capitalism has come at the expense of humankind and that Westerners, as seen through our economic model, do not have empathy for each other. I think as the Environmental movement grows in the East more of this anti-Western perspective will come into play. It will be part and parcel to showing the West that they can win at the West's game without using the West's rules. This has been at the core of the economic revival in Japan since WWII and maybe part of the reason Japan, for instance, has been reluctant to change its economic policies to bend to the West. China has a similar attitude when it comes to human rights abuses. That they can do things differently i.e. not-Western. The environmental movement is and will tap into this. It's been part of the success of environmentalism in Japan.

Posted by: Inaudible Nonsense on October 16, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you, Kevin Drum, for reading "Breakthrough" so I don't have to.

The New Agey jargon you quote is just weird, weird, weird, just what one expects from people whose paradigm is collapsing. Really? "New natures will emerge...in abandoning Nature, we can embrace the multiplicity of human and nonhuman natures. In abandoning Science, we can embrace the various kinds and practices of the sciences."

So basically their book is a variation of the conservative argument that there's nothing humans can do but more of what we have been doing, the market will bring solutions, and humans will just adapt as we go along?

Posted by: PTate in MN on October 16, 2007 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

"In fact, what I think you are seeing and going to see more of is Eastern religious view coming into play in India and China about the necessity for being a global steward, for caring for each other. There is a perception in the East that Western Capitalism has come at the expense of humankind and that Westerners, as seen through our economic model, do not have empathy for each other."

Bullshit. Utter bullshit. WRT China, cite one communist nation that's ever cared about stewardship of the planet or about humankind at all, for that matter. Empathy? China? Does not compute. WRT India, a (sort of) democracy with tons of empathy, all you need to know is that they want your car and your standard of living. Cite the Indian politician who will tell his people that they can't have that.

The planet will survive. And so will humans, but there will be wrenching changes in the coming years.

Posted by: Nixon Did It on October 16, 2007 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

I find myself going off at just one sentence...

"What new environments can we imagine and create?"

This alone is so stunningly off. We create environments. We all know how well command economies work and economics which looks at the material relationships of but one species is when looked at from any non-anthropocentric angle just a tiny subset of the larger field of biology. Command biology!?! The top-down creation of a system? Perhaps delusion. Perhaps hubris. Certainly nuts.

Posted by: snicker-snack on October 16, 2007 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK
But it need not be as expensive as we might think. China and India have good engineers that work for far less money than ours. We could encourage (finance) them to do their own research.

Posted by: fostert on October 16, 2007 at 8:05 PM

With all due respect, does "engineers who design nuclear power plants" seem like the best category to search for the lowest bidder on?

Posted by: J.C. on October 16, 2007 at 8:46 PM | PERMALINK

And I will repeat again what I always say in these threads, every time someone proposes more nuclear power plants as an alternate form of energy....Unless we are comfortable with every nation in the world producing their own nuclear energy, we need to find different sources of energy.

Nixon did it: "The planet will survive. And so will humans, but there will be wrenching changes in the coming years."

I'm not so sure humans will survive. If the planet gets hot enough, we're all toast. But I agree about wrenching changes.

Posted by: PTate in MN on October 16, 2007 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

Nice post, Kevin.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on October 16, 2007 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

What nonsense!!! I'm just astounded by every sentence in the whole two paragraphs that Kevin quotes. And I also object to using the word environmentalism as what's happening here. Global warming is so far beyond what we've known as environmentalism (cleaning up rivers, the air, other pollutants, etc.) that to call the effort to ameliorate global warming 'environmentalism' makes no sense. If an enormous meteor were headed for the earth and scientists were devising a method to shoot it out of the atmosphere, would we call that environmentalism? It seems that N&S might very well accept such a scenario as an entertaining challege full of new 'natures', such a world easily accomplished by abandoning nature, science and reason. I think they wrote their very own book review in that sentence. THEY have abandoned nature, science and reason. Typical conservatives. :)

Posted by: nepeta on October 16, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

Fear is a stronger attention-getter than joy:

Look of fear sparks fast reaction
BBC News, Sunday, October 14, 2007

A look of horror will grab the attention of those around you faster than a smile, US research shows.
Individuals react more quickly to a fearful expression than to faces showing other emotions such as joy, a study in the journal Emotion found.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University found the same speedy reaction to fear when only the eyes were visible.
It is thought the brain has evolved to react more quickly to potentially threatening situations
(Probably dates back to when a look of fear on someone's face meant they saw a leopard behind you) Posted by: RepubAnon on October 16, 2007 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

The way to reduce global warming is conservation.

The lion's share of conservation occurs when people transact for energy improvements to homes, for transportation options that don't center around private vehicles, for regional manufacturing and distribution of goods/services.

Things that increase the GDP, just reasonably, rather than consumption of more fossil fuels which ironically increase the GDP more.

Posted by: Richard Witty on October 16, 2007 at 9:59 PM | PERMALINK

By Robert Collier, a visiting scholar at the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.

"[T]he arguments of Nordhaus and Shellenberger attain an intellectual pretense that could almost pass for brilliant if their urgings weren't so patently empty. The closing chapter calls for "greatness," but, like the rest of the book, it offers little in the way of substantive proposals to back up its rhetorical thunder.

Perhaps that's for their next book. Or perhaps real solutions, rather than pretentious sniping, are not the authors' purpose. Nordhaus and Shellenberger, like Lomborg, will get plenty of attention in Washington from those who want to preserve the status quo. But for those who recognize the urgent need to transform the national and world economies and save the planet as we know it, they are ultimately irrelevant."

Posted by: nepeta on October 16, 2007 at 10:18 PM | PERMALINK

PTate:

And I will repeat again what I always say in these threads, every time someone proposes more nuclear power plants as an alternate form of energy....Unless we are comfortable with every nation in the world producing their own nuclear energy, we need to find different sources of energy.

This is a good point, which is why I noted that almost all of the major energy users and emitters have already gone nuclear. If the big users move to more nuclear power, it cuts the rest of the world some slack in both supplies and prices for conventional sources of energy until other non-carbon options come on line in a form where less-advanced countries can use them effectively.

Note that nuclear power doesn't become an effective all-around solution until transportation starts going electric or hydrogen.

Posted by: harry on October 16, 2007 at 10:31 PM | PERMALINK

The lion's share of conservation occurs when people transact for energy improvements to homes, for transportation options that don't center around private vehicles, for regional manufacturing and distribution of goods/services.

These are also good points, particularly the home improvement one. Naturally, this also applies to places of business.

You are not going to get people out of private vehicles in a big way, so we might as well keep on pushing cars that don't burn gasoline.

I'm not sure that distributed manufacturing balances the transportation energy costs. Twenty little factories will burn more energy than one big one, but the latter will require more transportation to get the product around. I'd like to see someone do numbers on this. I suspect the answers would be different for many different industries.

Posted by: harry on October 16, 2007 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

No one can reasonably predict how expensive any adaptive process will be, but I can guarantee that, on past experience, it will be an order of magnitude cheaper than those who say it is too expensive.

One only has to look at energy useage per $ GNP generated in our nearest competitors to know that the US could easily and chaeply do a whole lot better. If the incentive was there.

And that's the problem now and with Break Through.

The do-littles and do-nothings make assertions that can't be substantiated and have no basis in fact, yet are accepted as the underpinnings of their arguments, whether it be about other nations (see China's and India's mounting problems and lack of potable water) or our own (e.g. "hard to sell." What if it was more expensive?).

A little more critical reading, please.

And, yes, Kevin, properly directed incentives and disincentives will do more to generate productive research and modification than the government spending $30 billion every year since, as every fire-breathing, climate change unaccepting, Bushite-evango-neocon will tell you, the government has no crystal ball as to where to direct that money.

It's the goal that counts. Slower climate change.

Posted by: notthere on October 16, 2007 at 11:25 PM | PERMALINK

>Instead of lecturing us, just tell us that you have given up driving automobiles and flying in airliners and heating your house. You and every other person who favors strong action- lead by example...

I gave up flying light aircraft, one of the biggest dreams in my life. Switched to sailing (small) boats instead. Liberals typically live in more urban environments as well (lower home energy costs, shorter commutes), and drive smaller vehicles (jet travel tho...less good).

Plus, you're using classic reactionary's binary thinking: "How dare you criticize the status quo! Why don't you leave society and live in a cave!". Europe and Japan have HALF the per-capita emissions of north america. Different cities within NA vary by even larger amounts.

In response to the origin post, unless you believe we are god's chosen species, then there is no necessity that we are capable of making rational enough group decisions to survive this kind of large scale problem. We're large enough that we now have to run the planet, and it may simply be beyond us.

Finally, I don't think country's responses to conflicts between their desires and physical limits & time scales vary just one way with wealth. Once you're rich enough / powerful enough, you use wealth and technology to create a bubble, to insulate yourself from the real world.

Within that bubble, decisions can be made for purely social and economic reasons. The job of the government becomes to protect citizens from the exterior world, weather real-politic, military, or geophysical - to allow that luxurious bubble thinking. It's only when the bubble fails, that citizens change their thinking. 9/11 was a failure of the bubble, and it inspired an irrational response. Not a good sign.

Katrina, oil prices, and iraq are further hints of reality breaking through; honestly the one thing I really hope as a left winger is that the EU and USA hold it together - are smacked to their senses, but still stay on top. Without global leaders and the international rule of law, global problems cannot be dealt with.

Why do you think, whether they admit it out loud or not, or even to themselves, leftists criticize dominant powers in the west so much, rather than say Russia, or China, or the middle east? Don't mistake disappointment for genuine hatred. Consider it praise - we expect the USA to show good leadership, we expect better.

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on October 16, 2007 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

I gave up flying light aircraft, one of the biggest dreams in my life.

Sailplanes!

Liberals typically live in more urban environments as well (lower home energy costs, shorter commutes), and drive smaller vehicles (jet travel tho...less good).

Any numbers on this? Is a person living in a city like New York really using less energy per capita than someone living on a farm? Remember, it's not just the apartment or the Prius. It's the stores, restaurants, streetlights, and everything else that make urban living urban.

Europe and Japan have HALF the per-capita emissions of north america.

It's a bit easier to keep transportation emissions down if your whole country is the size of one U.S. state.

Posted by: harry on October 16, 2007 at 11:41 PM | PERMALINK

"In response to the origin post, unless you believe we are god's chosen species, then there is no necessity that we are capable of making rational enough group decisions to survive this kind of large scale problem. We're large enough that we now have to run the planet, and it may simply be beyond us."

Great post, Bruce. The paragraph above says it all. Homo sapiens has been around for just 30,000 years, a brief bleep in the universe. I, quite honestly, don't care if homo sapiens sticks around for the next 30,000. I grieve more for the natural world and all of its inhabitants, plants, animals, a particularly human ability to imagine a bleak future. As a species we've overpopulated the earth. I read recently that we are now 20 years past the time at which the earth can sustain us all. I don't know what more to say. I'm not optimistic.

Posted by: nepeta on October 17, 2007 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

It's a bit easier to keep transportation emissions down if your whole country is the size of one U.S. state.

I suspect that the traveling done within Japan is far, far more extensive than the traveling done within any U.S. state. The centralized nature of the government here means provincial businessmen and government officials are always (and I mean always) traveling to Tokyo. IIRC, Sapporo-Tokyo is the busiest air route (in passenger miles) in the world and this and not other Japan routes only because Sapporo is the one large city the shinkansen network doesn't reach.

Plus if you look at Europe as a whole it is about the size of the U.S. so I'm not really sure where you're trying to go with your point other than to reflexly deflect criticism.

And on urban use, B the C is right. There are plenty of statistics on this. Go look'em up yourself. NYC (again IIRC) uses about half the energy per captita of the U.S. as a whole. And yes, that includes store lighting and such. That's taking aggregate energy use and dividing it by the number of people (if anything this number is larger than actual use - all the people who come into the city and use up energy but don't live there).

Posted by: snicker-snack on October 17, 2007 at 12:15 AM | PERMALINK

>Sailplanes!

Expensive. And you get used to being able to drink beer on your wing-driven boat.

>Any numbers on this?

tonnes / per capita / ann:

Vancouver: 4.9
Toronto: 9.3
Calgary 17.5
Canadian national average: 23.3

New York City: 7.1
San Francisco: 11.2
Seattle 12.5
Portland: 13.7
USA national average: 24.5
(various sources, 5 min with google, may be +- a few years)

Japanese national average: 10

The Comparative Advantages of Urban Canada (transport only)

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on October 17, 2007 at 12:15 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe it's been said, but what I don't get is: why all the emphasis on individual, personal responsibility to stop global warming? Sure, there are things individuals can do, and a lot of individuals together can do a lot. But isn't what we can do dwarfed by the kind of change big corporations could make if they would take some responsibility?

Posted by: rabbit on October 17, 2007 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

Bangladesh cares about global warming. Pacific islands that aren't the richest care about it. True, they may not be primary causers of the problem, but at least some less well-off countries are taking at least halting steps toward addressing what they can at home.

Nepeta, meaning this both snarkily and as serious exploration of thought, would you volunteer yourself to help reverse overpopulation? I guess it's an open question of whether modern Western/Westernizing, and generally low population growth, nations are more environmentally abusive with use of hydrocarbons, etc., or badly-off but population-intensive countries are, with destructive agricultural practices.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on October 17, 2007 at 12:30 AM | PERMALINK

Can we call N&S "environmentalist neocons"? That label may not be exactly right, but it's kind of what they come off as being.

Somebody can probably think of something better, given time, to think of a similar phrase that smacks of the neocon-like hollowed out core they present.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on October 17, 2007 at 12:34 AM | PERMALINK

The goal of the neo-cons vis-a-vis forests rather than dollars is to watch trees fall.

Posted by: zed on October 17, 2007 at 12:46 AM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly, "sidesteppers"? They don't quite deny climate change, nor do they take it head on. We will some how evolve into the solution before it is too late.

It requires a certain suspension of alarm or belief in the actual indications on the basis that alarm will negate a solution. Never mind doing near nothing runs the risk of the same outcome as any change will come too late.

nepeta, homo sapiens sapiens about 130,000 years or so, and all his antecedents before, but the big cultural change only the last 10,000 years. Assuredly a blip in earth's history, and just a shooting star scarring the planet if we don't mind our manners.

Posted by: notthere on October 17, 2007 at 12:56 AM | PERMALINK


A Solar-thermal electrical generation grid creates NO greenhouse gases, global warming or pollution. Less than 1/2% of the continental US would be required to produce twice our current use of electricity. You plug in your car and drive. The same can be easily done in India or China. This can be done with proven existing technology. See Solar One. A field of mirrors heats a boiler atop a tower to produce enough electricity for 5000 homes.

Posted by: deejaayss on October 17, 2007 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum wrote:

I'll start with the high points. In the first half of the book, N&S make a number of trenchant criticisms about our current approach to global warming:
  • Poor people don't care about environmentalism. They're too busy caring about their next meal, keeping a roof over their head, and staying employed.
    I dispute this conclusion of N&S and I dispute Kevin Drum’s characterization of this as trenchant. Do poor people want toxic waste dumps near their homes? Do poor people want open sewers instead of modern waste treatment plants? Do poor people care if filthy air is causing an epidemic of asthma and emphysema? Do poor people in coastal countries of low elevation (such as Bangladesh) care if sea level rises? I believe the answers are No, No, Yes and Yes.

    Therefore, poor people do care about environmentalism. Therefore, if N&S conclude that poor people don't care about environmentalism, they are wrong, and ipso facto not trenchant.

    By the way, why is it that every time I post a comment on this blog, I click "Remember personal info?" and it always forgets?

    Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on October 17, 2007 at 4:20 AM | PERMALINK

    Socratic Gadfly,

    I was speaking about overpopulation in general and not about specific areas in regard to global warming and sustainability. But the wealthier, less populated nations on the globe are much more carbon intensive than poorer, more populous agriculture-based societies. Well, it's obvious, isn't it? Our corporate agriculture uses tons of energy to produce food, not to mention the energy used to transport it long distances to markets. In fact, the US alone accounts for 23% of energy-related carbon emissions worldwide. We were the emissions leader until this year, I think, when China surpassed us. And, of course, China is manufacturing a lot of stuff for sale in the US, so we're still partly to blame.

    Now, for me starting to reverse population growth. Actually I did my part by having only one child. Hope you weren't thinking of anything more drastic... :)

    notthere: Thanks for the correction. I had read an article recently that said it had been thought that Homo sapiens sapiens had been the only remaining member of the Homo sapiens lineage for the past 30,000 years, but that the recently discovered 'hobbits' had actually lived later into this time period.

    Posted by: nepeta on October 17, 2007 at 5:04 AM | PERMALINK

    The survivors won't remember what nature was. They'll probably write the history books too.

    Posted by: B on October 17, 2007 at 6:10 AM | PERMALINK

    Apocalyptic global warming scenarios have the same effect. Rather than inspiring people to support change, they tend to make people feel fatalistic and ungenerous — precisely the opposite of what we want.

    This is pure fucking bullshit. Maybe they do have that effect on greedy old men (and women) who have one foot in the grave -- who just want to be left alone and continue to eat, beat off (like Nordhaus and Shellenberger), shit, and sleep.

    They do NOT have that effect on those young enough to inherit the earth we are trashing. They scare the piss out of them and WILL force action.

    Posted by: Econobuzz on October 17, 2007 at 6:21 AM | PERMALINK

    Like I keep sayin', just more proof of what ExxonMobil pocket change buys.

    The "green,' what-about-poor-people, new-agey crap is just their latest disguise.

    Ask poor people dying of asthma and cancer what they think about the pollution-spewing plants next door. That's an environmental issue, too.

    Posted by: Yellow Dog on October 17, 2007 at 6:30 AM | PERMALINK

    That there bullshit in the second paragraph isn't New Age jargon, it's postmodernist jargon. Antiessentialism, "natures" instead of nature, the move to multiplicity, multiple "practices" of science, blah, blah, blah... It's all pretty much total hogwash, but it sounds kinda cool, it's easy to pick up and spew out, and it's extremely common in the contemporary humanities and social sciences.

    I think that it's rather dying out, but it's leaving a residue of BS all over the academic disciplines where it used to thrive, and it's worked its way into the semi-popular press, so that now we get actual works about policy that try to build something useful on sophomore pseudo-intellectualism.

    *sigh*

    Posted by: Winston Smith on October 17, 2007 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

    I've become a big believer in despair. AGW is the perfect disaster-in-waiting: its effects are ill-defined, impossible to calibrate, and far in the future. By the time the effects become concrete, even if we reduced greenhouse gas emissions to 0, we'd still have a significant amount of heating awaiting us due to the inertia of the oceans. It's just that the smirking stupidity of the deniers reminds me of Swift's tirade against Pride at the end of Gulliver's Travels.

    Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on October 17, 2007 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

    I just finished Break Through yesterday and Kevin's remarks are essentially on point. I think Kevin overlooked (or disagreed with and therefore dismissed) the books general observations on the mistakes modern liberal advocacy groups are making as they try to advance their goals. The book rapidly became on that used global warming to point out these mistakes rather than a book about global warming per se. In this, I shared Kevin's disappointment about the author's failure to come up with significant, detailed recommendations on how to craft an effective strategy to address global warming. But, were I a liberal, I think I would take a long, hard look at the authors' critique of the state of the contemporary movement and find lots of food for thought there.

    In particular, I though the contrast between the rise of the evangelical movement and the stagnation on the environmentalist movement was very insightful. And could provide a very helpful set of tools for environmentalists (and other advocacy groups) to employ to further their goals. This probably won't make a lot of sense to folks who have not read the book, but I would certainly be interested to hear Kevin's (and other folks here) thoughts on N&S' broader call for what their called the "politics of possibility" as the proper course for liberals to follow in pursuing their aims.

    Posted by: Hacksaw on October 17, 2007 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

    harry,
    Note that nuclear power doesn't become an effective all-around solution until transportation starts going electric or hydrogen.

    Why is it the nuclear solution people have no sense of scale?

    Even with all-electric transportation the US would need, today, 350 nuclear power plants to power everything. Worldwide that number would probably be double.

    That is what I mean by no sense of scale. To power those plants there are really two choices - uranium which would last about 50 years or breeder reactors which create their own fuels. Breeder reactors sound great until one realizes that we might as well call the breeder reactors nuclear bombs because that is what their fuel is good for.

    So we've got a future with seven nuclear reactors in every state and either limited fuel or a much greater threat of nuclear terrorism.

    These are the reasons why nuclear will never be a total solution and will always be at most a small part of any solution.

    Posted by: Tripp on October 17, 2007 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

    "the ecological crises will replace the reductionist question "What must we do to save the environment?" with "What new environments can we imagine and create?"

    That last is a very poignant sentence, and others have noticed it too.

    Have any of you experienced the 9 acres of climate-controlled spaces called Gaylord Opryland atrium in Nashville TN?

    The atrium is a magnificent example of Engineering meets Terra-forming, right here on earth. Not to be confused with Biosphere 2 and its singular failures, or cities of steel certainly, enclosures of this type have no need to be self-sufficient, no need for complex biological systems, they focus on control and esthetics; an imagined, thus created man-made environment.

    We are slaves to development, we are slaves to technological advances, we are slaves to control. Interior environments put climate under mans control, leaving the sticky natural exterior environment/climate to the politicians for endless debate, research, and recommendations that will impede development as little as possible. The stagnation spoken of regarding the environmental issue is caused by push-back from the developers, who have gained much strength both legally and politically these past few years.

    On the philosophical plane, the history and the nature of man leads one to believe that seldom is it man's goal to fix what he has broken, but rather to gloss the problems over with newer and greater technologies. He rectifies his rifts with the natural world using solutions that cause greater rifts (Everglades, Mississippi River, floodplain development, ect). "What new environments can we imagine and create?" will be exactly the solution, mans' overly simplistic knee-jerk absurdity of a solution to what we have done to this planet.

    Aside from that:
    Nuclear energy is great, but we still haven’t solved the little side issue of nuclear waste and what to do with it. Advocates of nuclear power dont' seem to address that dangerous and long-lasting aspect in their praises.

    And why not geo-thermal technology? It has advanced enough that Bush flat-lined its federal budget. If Bush considers an alternative energy a threat, it is worth taking seriously.

    Posted by: Zit on October 17, 2007 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

    Kevin wrote: "Poor people don't care about environmentalism. They're too busy caring about their next meal, keeping a roof over their head, and staying employed."

    Global warming directly threatens the three things that you say "poor people" are "too busy caring about."

    No one should care about some vague abstract term like "environmentalism."

    But poor people, and all people, should care about global warming for the simple reason that it will cause mass starvation due to widespread failure of agriculture; mass homelessness due to extreme weather disasters; and mass unemployment due to the worldwide economic collapse that will inevitably result from the worldwide climate upheaval & ecological collapse that global warming will bring on.

    The dangers of global warming are quite concrete -- mass death, starvation, impoverishment and dislocation -- and threaten the poor people of the world more than anyone.

    The idea that Kevin refers to, that "environmentalism" is for well-to-do elites to worry about, not poor people who are concerned about survival, is phony. All of us utterly depend on the well-being of the Earth's biosphere, at a local, regional and global level, for our survival. Anthropogenic global warming is a profound and grave threat to the well-being of the Earth's biosphere, and thus is a matter of survival.

    Vapid intellectual debates about isms and schisms, about "preserving the environment" vs. "creating new natures", are irrelevant piffle.

    On a separate point the suggestion that Kevin attributes to the authors -- that the USA should invest in green technology and then transfer it to China and India, who otherwise will never address their GHG emissions, seems very ignorant. The USA lags behind numerous other countries in developing and marketing green energy technologies (eg. wind and solar), and indeed China is arguably doing more to develop and market these technologies world-wide than the USA is.

    Further, both China and India are well aware that pollution from the rapid growth of their very non-green industrial base is a direct threat to and limitation on their further growth -- not only from the results of global warming, which will be severe for both countries, but from the intense pollution of their most prosperous and populous urban centers. These countries have every reason in the world to reduce their emissions, and every reason in the world to participate in a global regime of mandatory GHG reductions, in which they can benefit from give & take with other countries while cleaning up the pollution as their future economic growth will require them to do anyway.

    This sounds to me like a pretty bone-headed book, probably intended as others have suggested to provide a lot of empty talking points for those who don't want regulation and mandatory reductions of GHG emissions from fossil fuels.

    The fact is, there is no new or existing alternative energy technology, and no combination of new or existing alternative energy technologies, that is going to replace cheap fossil fuels -- let alone provide for growth in energy consumption -- on the time scale within which humanity must reduce GHG emissions by 90 percent worldwide to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming. The ONLY way that we can reduce GHG emissions enough, and soon enough, to avoid disaster is through dramatic reductions in fossil fuel energy use and the associated emissions.

    The bad news for the USA is that about 85 percent of our primary energy use is from fossil fuels. The good news for the USA is that we are profligate wasters of energy, and unlike India or China where per capita energy use is very low, we can very easily make dramatic reductions in our energy use without much negative impact on our lifestyles let alone our actual well-being.


    Posted by: SecularAnimist on October 17, 2007 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

    Yellow Dog: "Ask poor people dying of asthma and cancer what they think about the pollution-spewing plants next door. That's an environmental issue, too."

    And water shortages...I was shocked by this article yesterday on water shortages in the Southeast. Water shortages are also an environmental issue.

    We talk "global climate change" but the environmental issues that threaten human life are broader than hotter summers and more hurricanes. Some are a result of our trashy lifestyles, some are a result of overpopulation, some are the result of climate changes. Some are the combination of trashy lifestyle and overpopulation and climate changes.

    As for overpopulation...reversing populaton growth is not something that volunteers can solve on their own. If some voluntarily limit the size of their family, and others do not, the sacrifice of the volunteering individuals won't dent population growth. (And in Darwinian terms, their responsible, aware genes are not passed to the next generation AND the population will continue to grow.) This is the message of Garrett Hardin's famous "Dilemma of the Commons" article.

    We have humane ways of addressing overpopulation--birth control, celibate or homosexual life styles--and we have inhumane ways of reducing overpopulation--war, famine, disease, poverty, genocide. Right now, it appears as though humans, hard-wired as we are for reproduction, prefer the war, famine, disease approach. The birth control approach can work only if everyone participates, worldwide, and this means governments must police reproduction, restrict immigration and stand by and not help when populations that don't restrict their growth suffer from war, famine, etc. And we can anticipate how well world citizens will accept directives that take away their reproductive freedom.

    Perhaps, by being blind and ignorant dickheads, we can embrace the multiplicity of human and nonhuman natures. Perhaps, by leaving behind the belief in a single objective Reason, we can make a quick profit off the forces of chaos and destruction!

    Posted by: PTate in MN on October 17, 2007 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

    PTate,

    "The planet's population continues to explode: from 1 billion in 1820, to 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1988, and 6 billion in 2000. *expected 9 billion by 2050* For the 21st century, the continued exponential growth in science and technology raises both hopes (e.g., advances in medicine) and fears (e.g., development of even more lethal weapons of war)." - World Fact Book

    Pretty scary. It was only at the beginning of the 19th century that human population started growing exponentially. Mother Nature tends to respond to such imbalances with little mercy.

    Posted by: nepeta on October 17, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK


    Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

    Posted by: Barney on October 17, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

    Nepeta wrote “It was only at the beginning of the 19th century that human population started growing exponentially.” It was growing exponentially before that. What's changed is the exponent.

    By the way, why is it that every time I post a comment on this blog, I click "Remember personal info?" and it always forgets?

    Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on October 17, 2007 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

    Darn it, Joel, you're right. Better that I stay away from mathematical terms or spend more time commenting at "Piano World." :)

    Posted by: nepeta on October 17, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

    I'm supposed to write a review about this book. From the very beginning I thought it was crap, but as I go through it and view your comments I realize I wasn't mistaken at all...

    It's just so liberal (in economics terms), ethnocentric and completely wrong from its very inception... I coulnd't stand the "positive" approach we should take towards the problem, it's not scientific at all. The same for referring global warming as something different than pollution.

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