Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prosperous Capitalist Living

In one of the most charitable gestures since George Armstrong Custer offered to accept the surrender of the Lakota and the Northern Cheyenne at Little Big Horn, Rob Bradley of the Institute for Energy Research is giving climate scientists an opportunity to admit that they're wrong and he's right.

In a column headed "if warming is not a burning issue, let's say so," he points out that "dire predictions about the future of prosperous capitalist living remain trendy." For a lifestyle that's supposedly threatened by everything from Islamofascist terror, to the machinations of Hillary Clinton, to new commuter rail lines, "prosperous capitalist living" seems remarkably resilient; you can almost picture it going on forever...growth begetting wealth and wealth begetting growth, world without end, amen.

If you can picture that, give yourself a pat on the back for being a realist. The alternative, after all, is to embrace Alarmism, the shabby pedigree of which Bradley conscientiously sets forth:

Alarmism as an intellectual movement began in 1798 when Thomas Malthus predicted that food supply would fail to keep up with population growth, resulting in human misery and subsistence living.
Malthus was entirely wrong, of course. The food supply did keep up with population growth, from that day to this, and human misery and subsistence living remained rare as hens' teeth (except among those incorrigible types who sought it out and wallowed in it). Today, the only conceivable threat of mass starvation comes from central planning and organic farming.
That was followed in the 1860s by the "coal panic" in England, brought on by an economist who forecast the imminent decline of the British coal industry. But coal, like agriculture, proved far more abundant than expected, and the alarms faded away.
Bradley's referring to William Stanley Jevons' The Coal Question. Whatever else you want to say about Jevons, his forecast was not "imminent"; what he argued was that the supply of coal is not infinite, and that its price would increase as it became harder to extract:
In every kind of enterprise we shall no doubt meet a natural limit of convenience, or commercial practicability, as we do in the cultivation of the land. I do not mean a fixed and impassible limit, but as it were an elastic obstacle, which we may ever push against a little further, but ever with increasing difficulty.
These are gloomy words indeed, and it's not surprising that they shocked a society whose cornucopian assumptions were more or less identical to Bradley's. (I should mention, in passing, that the famous Tower Colliery closed in January 2008, 13 years after its reopening, because "the coal [had] effectively run out." Perhaps Jevons was on to something.)

Next, the history of alarmism takes a great leap forward to Paul Erlich and the Club of Rome. The latter argued that the world would someday run out of mineral resources...but it turns out that the "shortage dates for various minerals" were exaggerated (all you meth freaks can stop stealing copper wire now).

Even if Bradley's account of alarmism were strictly correct, and the premise that natural resources aren't infinite turned out to be wrong (e.g., because it failed to take magic ponies into account), that wouldn't disprove climate change, any more than the boy who cried wolf disproved wolves or politically motivated terror alerts disprove terrorism. But Bradley knows his audience, and he knows that their appetite for logical fallacies is as boundless as their appetite for cheap gas.

Which is not to say that Bradley ignores facts altogether. He correctly observes that if future events were to contradict James Hansen, then James Hansen would be wrong. And that "scientists are deeply divided about whether global warming increases or decreases either the frequency or intensity of hurricanes." I have no quarrel with any of this.

I'm not at all happy with his solution, though:
It is high time for an open debate over the human influence on climate given that the federal government — after nearly 20 years of debate — is still considering whether to enact mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Marvelous, isn't it? The lack of progress we've seen after a 20-year "debate" in which industry-fronted hacks like Bradley were allowed to slander honest scientists, and to confuse the public with irrelevant psychobabble about the Club of Rome, is offered here as evidence that more debate - i.e., more industry-funded slander, red-baiting, and psychobabble - is needful if we hope to get at the Truth.

Also, please note that failure to heed Bradley's advice will lead to human misery and subsistence living, and may pose a serious threat to the future of capitalist prosperity.

Don't worry about where this train's headed; the important thing is not to pull the emergency brake.

(Photo: "Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea" by Richard Misrach, 1983.)


Anthony McCarthy said...

The rise of conservatism was achieved through people in the media and politicians convincing people that there were no limits to what they could have and that if someone said there was a price to be paid then they were trying to steal "taxpayers' money". The pervasive decay that comes from those lies are evident throughout public life, enviornmental pillage, public infrastructure decay and shoddy planning and building, private projects (which just about always end up being financed by the pubic).

The success of conservatives in the Anglo-American system has been through using a rather primitive system of marketing research to find ways to appeal to peoples' weaknesses, the desire to believe what the would like to be true foremost among them. It's a lot harder to tell people the unpleasant truth than it is a pleasing lie. Conservatism is a veneer of intellectual Formica over a base of lies and deceptions.

I've come to the controversial conclusion that, given the weakness of an effective plurality of the public, that it should be illegal to tell at least some of these lies in the media and that politicians telling lies to the public should be a felony. I see nothing getting better until the entire mass media are placed under requirements for accuracy, fairness, equal time and public service. The time of The People is at least as important a public holding as the radio spectrum, and unlike that technology won't make more time for us to get information and think about it. I don't think there is a right to lie to the public on the part of our public servants or the mass media which is given the privileges it is to serve us, not to service us.

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