Friday, November 30, 2007

Sorry, Not Quite a Break Through

Today I read and ’s new book, Break Through. It was a roller coaster ride with only one hump. I went up, up, up in pure joy – and then straight down from the middle of the book. Apparently the authors made quite a splash a year or two ago with an article that criticized the environmental movement. Probably the part I liked was an elaboration of that article, and what I disliked was the rest – which supposedly was going to be uplifting, with a vision of new possibilities. In fact, it was cultural criticism, referring to all kinds of folks from Francis Fukuyama to Tony Blair to the preacher who wears Hawaiian shirts and shows people the purpose of their lives, Rick Warren. I didn’t want cultural criticism. I wanted proof – or at least strong economic arguments – that their alternative to is sound. I didn’t receive it, so I will limit my comments to the initial arguments, with which I fully agree. In fact, I kept thinking, “This is the book I wish I had written.” Now I’m glad I didn’t.

They play with ’s famous hierarchy of needs, showing that when we have satisfied our lower-order needs, we become engaged with higher order, “,” inner-directed needs instead. As Americans (and they are explicitly talking about Americans without necessarily trying to generalize to other societies) became wealthier and most secure, they became preoccupied with problems beyond their immediate survival: , the protection of the wilderness, quality of life values. But environmentalists misunderstand the sources of their movement's upsurge:

“They have tended to view economic growth as the cause but not the solution to . Environmentalists like to emphasize the ways in which the economy depends on ecology; but they often miss the ways in which thinking ecologically depends on prospering economically. Given that prosperity is the basis for ecological concern, our political goal must be to create a kind of prosperity that moves everyone up Maslow’s pyramid as quickly as possible while also achieving our ecological goals.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger remind us that it is false to consider humankind as separate from nature, from “the environment.” The environment, they insist, includes humans, so everything is environmental. Yet environmentalists speak of “preserving nature” by stopping, restricting, reversing, regulating, and constraining human activity. The challenge of global warming is addressed with the same dismal formula, as if greenhouse gases were a new form of pollution caused by human prosperity. The authors, on the other hand, seek to address global warming by encouraging in new clean-energy jobs, rather than by regulating or constraining technology and business.

“Few things have hampered environmentalism more than its longstanding position that limits to growth are the remedy for ecological crises. We argue for an explicitly pro-growth agenda that defines the kind of prosperity we believe is necessary to improve the quality of human life and to overcome ecological crises.

“One of the places where this politics of possibility takes concrete form is at the intersection of investment and innovation. There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute....

“The transition to a clean energy economy should be modeled not on pollution control efforts, like the one on acid rain, but rather on past investments in infrastructure, such as railroads and highways, as well as on research and development — microchips, medicines, and the Internet, among other areas.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger poke fun at the environmentalists’ habit of recalling how much better things were in the past, when humans lived in “balance with nature.” In reality, nature has always been violent and unpredictable. The current urge to enjoy the beauty of camping in the woods arose because we became so affluent in the postwar period. They write, “The satisfaction of the material needs of food and water and shelter is not an obstacle to but rather the precondition for the modern appreciation of the nonhuman world.”

Because economic security fluctuates, the priority that ordinary people assign to these “higher order” concerns also fluctuates, much to the annoyance of environmentalists, who grumble that the average American citizen often seems more concerned with jobs and growth than with regulations designed to “.” They cite polls showing the low priority ranking of ecological issues, though I doubt that these polls are representative anymore; for the past year or so, global warming (though not all other environmental issues) has become a top political concern.

Other, less affluent societies, also show more authoritarian values when their basic material and security needs are not being met, and become altruistic, tolerant, cooperative, and civic-spirited when they are prospering. Nevertheless, the anti-materialist environmentalists portray material prosperity as the cause of degradation and pollution, not its solution. They see human beings, especially when populous, as the source of the problems because of our intrusions into nature. This view, say the authors, is simply narrow-minded.

Turning to examples, they mention the grave of the Amazon, which rightly perturbs environmentalists. In a brilliant chapter, they recount the history of international economic policies, which created debts that the impoverished Brazilians have repaid many times over. Though the country has sufficient land and raw materials to support its population, the lingering poverty in the favelas accounts for the deforestation of the interior. Nordhaus and Shellenberger insist that only by addressing is there any prospect of shifting the Brazilian economy in a different direction. But, they add, because environmentalists see conservation and development as separate issues, the real solution to the problem never crosses their minds.

I think these writers are correct. But they are not absolutely alone. ’s report was more far-sighted than the activists whom I know. He recommended three different types of change for governments to undertake immediately: (a) carbon taxation, with tradable permits for greenhouse gas emissions; (b) dramatic investment and incentives for clean-energy research and implementation; and c) preparation and adaptation for the impacts of climate change. Yet the proposals in the US Senate are entirely focused on setting greenhouse gas limits, without offering significant investments in clean energy or adaptive preparations for . This failure, say the authors, reflects the unfortunate dominance of the “pollution” paradigm in public discourse.

Skip the rest of the book. It does not suggest in practical terms what these excellent new investments should pursue, nor does it even attempt to prove that the new technologies will indeed be sustainable. I think they can be – but the environmentalists are never going to be convinced except by writers who know how to operate a calculator.


Monday, November 19, 2007

The Sad Pursuit of Equality

Some of my friends, with whom I have strong political and economic disagreements, have sent me two papers that make points that they regard as important. They fit together as complementary parts of the same argument. However, instead of feeling impressed by them, I find them both unbearably sad. And I doubt that my friends will understand why – though I’ll try to explain here.

The first paper is a luncheon address by the economist to the American Meteorological Society on November 13, 2007. Daly asks, then offers his answer, to the following question:

“What is it that is causing us to systematically emit ever more CO2 into the atmosphere? It is the same thing that causes us to emit more and more of all kind of wastes into the biosphere, namely our irrational commitment to exponential growth...”

I don’t think so. Yes, the economy keeps growing and we keep producing and consuming more than we need, but not because we are irrationally committed to exponential growth. Yes, we consume more stuff than we need – but not because we’re “committed” to doing so. There’s just something screwy in our motivational make-up, prompting us to keep wanting more and more commodities. It’s not a commitment. It’s a kind of wasteful mentality that everyone recognizes as perverse – one that we can overcome if we put our minds to it. It’s an unexamined assumption that just does us no good.

But, caught up in his train of thought, Daly goes on and poses yet another odd question, which he then answers in a demoralizing way.

“Instead we ask a wrong-headed, growth-bound question, specifically: ‘By how much will we have to increase energy efficiency or carbon efficiency, in order to maintain customary growth rates in GDP?’ Suppose we get an answer, say we need to double efficiency in ten years and we actually do it. So what? We will then just do more of all the things that have become more efficient and therefore cheaper and will then emit more wastes, including greenhouse gases — the famous rebound or Jevons effect...”

Well, I never heard anyone ask the question that Daly attributes to us all. No one sets out to consume more and more just to keep up the customary . Yet I will grant this: people often do increase their consumption, not purposively, but because they keep wanting more stuff. That trend – the unceasing desire for more material possessions – is a moral flaw that everyone recognizes as such, even as we admit that it is a flaw that we individually possess and should overcome.

Still, Daly projects a whopper of a generalization: that whenever increases, so that we can produce the same consumer goods with half as many natural resources, then our automatic response is to consume twice as many of the same goods as before.

If that were true, it would be a terrible moral indictment of the human race. And indeed, there is a little truth to it. But fortunately, the main trends in the economy consist of this: When we get sufficient material goods to meet our needs, instead of continuing to seek more of the same products, we shift our interests and priorities in a different direction, producing and consuming more intangible goods and services.

Indeed, among all my close friends and acquaintances, hardly anyone earns her living producing material objects anymore. I do know a carpenter and an artistic potter, but most of my friends perform services such as advising others about how to invest their money or how to perform Pilates exercises correctly. Some of them practice psychotherapy or direct plays or design web pages or teach philosophy. Hardly anyone produces tangible items, though we all have good incomes and high standards of living. So economic growth above a certain level depletes fewer and fewer – thank God. We live in an information economy, not a manufacturing or agricultural one.

Still, Daly is correct in seeing considerable greed for physical possessions. People often seem to keep acquiring things that they don’t need, and in doing so they use up natural resources and throw ecological systems into disarray. He is right to object, but his solution is draconian, to say the least: He insists that we should stop economic growth. This solution is just as silly as the thoughtless acquisitiveness that it would presumably replace.

If people acquire more stuff than they need, what they should do is start asking themselves: What, if anything, do I really need? And do I already have enough?

Why do people acquire more stuff than is good for them? Yes, we need clothing and shoes — but 100 garments and 50 pairs of shoes? Yes, we need a house to keep us warm and dry – but nobody needs two houses. When we keep buying more stuff than we need it’s because we aren’t thinking in terms of “need” or “sufficiency,” but are comparing ourselves to someone else. We want to have as much as he has, or preferably more. This, the , dooms us to judge our own well-being not in terms of how well our are met but in terms of our affluence in comparison to someone else. Equality is precisely the wrong standard because it prompts people to ask for more, even when they don’t need it.

Let’s take Daly’s issue seriously; indeed, we must reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and to do so we must become more efficient in producing . Fortunately, I have as much physical stuff as I need or want — but all around the world there are billions of poor people whose needs are unmet. Supplying them with the commodities and services will keep the economy growing – not as an end in itself, but I am delighted to support that growth. We can have — thank God — without ruining the planet, so long as we fulfill individual human needs rather than the endless material cravings arising from the pursuit of equality as a criterion of fairness.

Now I want to turn to the other disturbing paper my friend sent today: an article by of the University of Washington School of Medicine. I were a physician, I would be utterly demoralized by this paper. I don’t know how doctors can carry on if they believe what he is saying.

Bezruchka’s message is this: The main factor determining the illness of any human population is the degree of income inequality.

“Why would income equity — the width of the gap between the very rich and the very poor — have such a profound effect on the health of the population? And why does this influence on health affect the wealthiest countries as well as the poorest? Several reasons have been advanced, including stress ... ”

Notice that Bezruchka does NOT say that the quality of health care determines the health of the population. No, indeed. It’s that counts, not the excellence or inadequacy of the medical care. He writes:

“Most people probably consider health care services in developed countries such as Japan and the United States important in prolonging life and improving the population’s life expectancy. But there are few, if any, studies demonstrating the impact of medical services on the health of populations, a situation lamented in the Oxford Textbook of Public Health. Some maintain that acute health care services can be thought of as the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff to retrieve the victims cast off by the violent aftermath of societal structure. Indeed, some studies, particularly from the United States, suggest that acute health care can itself inflict significant harm...”

Bezruchka notes that Japan has the highest life expectancy today of any nation, and he attributes this, not to the excellence of its medical care or social services, but to the considerable social equality in the society.

“For example, even though Japanese society is reputed to be very stressful, with crowded cities, tiny apartments, long commutes and workers who push people into subway cars in order to shut the doors, everyone shares that stress...”

In other words, you’re better off experiencing considerable misery than being comfortable — if everyone else is miserable along with you. Neither medical care nor the fulfillment of your other objective needs count for much, for you do not judge your own well-being by consulting the state of your body or your ability to achieve the projects in life that you have set for yourself. What counts is only your well-being in comparison to that of others around you. If you are all equally miserable, you will probably live a long life. If you are worse off – or perhaps even markedly better off – than the others, you have grounds for complaint.

This external system of appraising one’s own well-being is pernicious and debilitating. What one person needs may be an impediment to another person. We have to keep in touch with our own bodies and our own life plans to know how well we are doing.

The worst example I have ever hard of this comparative self-appraisal comes from Hollywood. In an astounding study of all the filmmakers and actors who were nominated for Academy Awards, it was established that winning is everything! The people who were nominated but did not actually win, lived fully five years shorter lives than those who won Oscars! By every conceivable criterion, these people were successful in their careers – but not as successful as those who actually won. And they consumed themselves with envy and low self-esteem, shortening their own lives five years by invidious comparisons. Five years!

How can a physician serve his profession with dedication, believing that the quality of medical care is irrelevant – that what counts is that his patients receive equal (even if inferior) treatment and access to social benefits?

Listen, friends. We face many challenges right now, as we try to save this planet. But one fundamental challenge is a moral one. We have to stop this crazy pursuit of equality as if it were a goal. It’s not a goal. The goal is to allow individuals’ needs to be fulfilled — which means that they have to know what is a real need and what is a false, vainglorious pursuit.

Everyone must ask: Do I have enough? If so, I want no more. But if my brother in Burma or Bolivia or Burundi does not have his needs met, then part of my challenge is to help him get enough. That’s very different from the pursuit of equality.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Global Dimming or Warming?

I’ve been perturbed lately by some apparent contradictions in conclusions about “” — a concept that I described with alarm several weeks ago. The PBS show NOVA had described its effects. It seems that water vapor, gases, contrails from airplanes, and particulates in the atmosphere often blanket south Asia during the dry season with “brown clouds.” These are largely the result of emissions from the rapidly industrializing countries and, as all do, they block out some of the sunshine and have an overall cooling effect on the planet, partially offsetting the warming effect of greenhouse gases. What that means is that the true heating effect of greenhouse gases would be much higher if there were not so much gunk in the air, masking some of the warming. Hence cleaning up the atmosphere would be a mixed blessing. Although the pollutants are bad for our health, their disappearance would hasten the terrible day when the polar icecaps all melt and the world succumbs to .

But then I was informed that this theory was disproved after the NOVA program was produced. Global dimming, according to this new theory, is not real. Instead, the particulates in the atmosphere are exacerbating the heating effect, rather than masking it.

But how can this be? I have been puzzled ever since until I discovered two articles in the August 2 issue of Nature. I still don’t understand the full complexity of the situation, but the current version goes like this: Yes, there are cooling (“dimming”) effects. But these brown clouds vary in content and in their effects, especially according to the altitude. Presumably the water vapor does have a cooling effect. But the particulates have contradictory implications. Some of them reflect light in all directions, sending a good part of it back into space. But low-lying black particles heat the atmosphere where they are floating, thus intensifying the heating impact of greenhouse gases.

and his team studied these effects by sending three unmanned aerial vehicles flying through the clouds over the , stacked vertically over each other, with a horizontal separation of tends of meters or less, and a temporal separation of less than ten seconds. This made it possible to measure the atmospheric solar heating rates directly. They found that atmospheric brown clouds enhanced lower atmospheric solar heating by about 50 percent.

Extrapolating these effects over time, the researchers concluded that the combined warming trend of the brown clouds comes to about 0.25K per decade – possibly enough to account for the observed retreat of the .

The blessing of this discovery is this: It should be easier to scrub industrial soot out of the atmosphere than to halt the emissions of greenhouse gases. If this is done promptly, it could reduce the alarming heating effects that are now melting the glaciers of the Himalayas. Since the rivers of south Asia depend to a great extent on the glaciers, everything that can be done to conserve this ice will save the lives of countless human beings who will otherwise find themselves without drinking water in a few years.

Now Dr. Ramanathan and his colleagues are analyzing the content of the brown plumes of pollution that emanate from Asia but are blown across the Pacific to influence the climate of North America. This project is just getting started.

Another implication of this research seems to be that water vapor does have a “dimming” effect. Hence there may still be merit to the “geo-engineering” proposal to into the atmosphere to increase the global cloud cover.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Tipping Toward Geo-Engineering

I recently attended a weekend-long conference on climate change. Now, a week later, what sticks out in my memory are two comments. The former was by a U of T climatologist, . During a question period after the panel where he had spoken, I asked about , expressing uncertainty as to which is more accurate, the original theory that particulates, clouds, and actually are cooling the planet, but thereby masking the extent of the warming that otherwise would be attributable to greenhouse gases, or on the other hand, the newer notion that water vapor has a cooling effect, whereas soot from industrialization is having a warming effect. This second theory would be a happier one, since it would be easier to remove the soot than the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Peltier replied rather too succinctly; he said that global dimming has been debunked. I wish he had spelled out what the current theory is about which atmospheric pollutants heat and which ones cool the planet. However, at my prompting he did say that this is good news. I’d like to make sure that I understand the situation more fully. As a fellow behind me pointed out, there is the awkward fact that cooled the planet with its particulates. So how does that square with the theory that particulates heat instead of cool? I haven’t got it clear in my head yet.

The other memorable comment was by , who gave the longest address, spelling out the scientific facts about climate change. By now his message is old news to me. What did get my attention was his statement about “,” term that I have never heard before. Its meaning is obvious. It refers to the climate-management proposals that go beyond the reduction of greenhouse gases. These are expensive, often irreversible measures that should only be undertaken as a last desperate attempt to save the planet from catastrophe when it has become apparent that mitigation measures will fall short.

Geo-engineering includes such wild proposals as installing mirrors or foil in outer space to block the sun’s rays. Or building that will absorb the carbon dioxide already ambient in the atmosphere. Or spraying sea water into the atmosphere to dim the incoming rays. Or sprinkling iron filings into the ocean to feed plankton, which will function as carbon sinks.

Homer-Dixon said that a couple of years ago he was horrified by such schemes, but now he has changed his mind. We have come to such a serious point now that all the proposals being entertained at present are inadequate. We must consider these draconian measures. Within two or three years, he says, everyone will be talking about some of these ideas. He is already planning to go to a conference at Harvard about geo-engineering solutions.

Oddly, I have never tipped, since I’d never felt any horror about such proposals from the outset. If anything, I find them encouraging. There are still some tricks up humanity's sleeve. We can pull it off! Immediately I wanted to talk about the practical considerations: expense, for example. And irreversibility. I wouldn’t be keen to put reflectors into outer space because someday we’d have to send up a big vacuum cleaner to suck them back again. Let’s start with something cheap and reversible, such as into the atmosphere – if indeed that has promise. I need to understand more about global dimming to know whether that is the way it actually works.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Instead of Chicken Soup

I’ve been in the grip of the for a week and lacked the capacity for any significant project. (The gap between blog entries is one indicator.) I’ve spent this period of lassitude in bed, occasionally on the phone or reading the newspaper, but uncurious even to read a book. Trying to take my own advice about the use of emotions to heal, I spent over nine hours yesterday searching for humor or pleasure or love, to appropriate for myself vicariously. The miserable box had nothing of the kind on offer.

Perhaps instead of merriment or eros, excitement would do something for me. The neighbor upstairs was watching some kind of sports event for an hour or so, but I couldn’t figure out what the game was. I couldn’t make out his words, but the announcer was EXCITED! And fast! He never stopped for a single second. It couldn’t have been baseball, which is terribly slow, or even football, when the announcer reaches a fever pitch during a play but then returns intermittently to a normal conversational tone. I decided it may have been a boxing match. The audience was roaring at times. There were no cheerleaders. What is the tempo of hockey? Of soccer?

I think people choose their entertainment because it provides an occasion to feel particular . But, having said so, I cannot fathom why anyone’s preferences. I felt no positive emotions — mostly just disgust — during the nine hours of viewing yesterday. So why did I keep watching? The best excuse I can offer is that it absorbed my attention. No pleasure, little pain, but fairly consistent interest.

I watched three episodes of , which shows lots of images of beaches and expensive condos, plus good-looking, shallow people of both sexes. I have stopped trying to figure out whodunnit when watching American cop shows. What counts is the attractiveness of the images, not the emotions or motivations of the characters. There is no chance that one will empathize with a character; he is simply a moving photograph with well-designed lighting and a background that is usually pale blue, especially in the crime lab. The story involves professional working in a laboratory, and they never express the slightest emotion. There’s a stunning woman detective — played by — who speaks in a monotone, remains poker-faced, and goes about picking things up with rubber gloves and peering into microscopes and test-tubes. The hero, Horatio somebody, is played by , who reminds me of forty years ago – sandy-haired and preternaturally unemotional.

Is that what viewers want from this? Images of well-dressed characters moving through sets of uncomplicated modernistic design and solving human tragedies that seem devoid of tragic, or even buman, ? Using to solve problems that never extend in time before or after each assigned episode? And, in using their technical expertise, not being affected personally by the minds of the criminals or victims? These skilled professionals feel nothing, learn nothing. Indeed, they seem to lack any interior wherewithal to feel or learn. With such characters, multiple millions of viewers are apparently satisfied. Nothing much is required of them. If they undergo CSI Miami as strictly a visual experience, they need not even try to think about the intellectual puzzle that is being presented. I have stopped trying to solve the puzzles myself. But it leaves me empty, as if I have been lost in the meaningless, abstract world of a Mondrian painting.

I watched on George Stroumboulopoulos’s show, . That actually was worth seeing. She described trying to right a great wrong of hers that occurred in Beijing when she had been a university student there. She had denounced a fellow student for asking how to escape to the West. It had wrecked the woman’s life, and in her recent book Wong tried to track her down and apologize. We didn’t get to hear the end of the story, but it was enough to make me want to read the book. This was real, authentic, human. I don’t suppose it did much, one way or the other, for my cold.

I watched , a program about practical jokes produced in French but with no sound except music. Usually this is a good source of laughs for me. I don’t laugh at jokes (stand-up comedians turn me off) but I enjoy watching real people caught in absurd situations. used to be a great favorite. But this episode was constructed from recycled materials. I had seen most of the sketches before and I don’t think I laughed. But of course one never notices oneself laughing. I have tried to count the times during a show when I laughed, but it never worked. It just distracted me from the situation that was funny. Maybe I laughed a lot. But not at the female TV reporter who was interviewing people on the street with snot oozing from both her nostrils.

Finally, I ordered a film from Rogers on Demand: . I knew enough not to anticipate feeling pleasant emotions, but I didn’t feel many others either. There was a good bit of sex, but between people whom I could not really like, so I didn’t empathize. I kept wondering what they saw in each other. The only lovable character was the nurse.

Well, I shouldn’t hold that up as a definite standard of excellence. I should be prepared to explore an anti-hero too, and the burned protagonist was definitely morally ambiguous. But I did not quite accept the rationale for his betrayal of country during the war – his promise to rescue his dying mistress in the desert.

No, let me qualify even that statement. I didn’t feel that he should have been more committed to the Allies; I just didn’t think he made a good bargain. He gave the Germans the maps of North Africa that his geographic expedition had made, in exchange for gasoline to go to the desert and pick up an injured woman who would certainly have died by then. After her probable expiration date, his promise was no longer binding.

Would I have favored his betrayal of country, had it been possible to save her life? That would have been a more difficult problem, at least in the context of the war as described within that film. In everyday life I know that the Nazis were terrible, but nothing in the movie said so. It would have been plausible for the protagonist to assume that both sides in the conflict were morally equal. Perhaps he did assume that; we are not told.

In most wars I would make the same assumption. The war itself is the abomination, not the issue that is being contested. World War II was different, though. And now the plight of the Burmese against the junta – that issue is morally compelling. I would not fight physically, but I would support the cause of Burmese democracy nonviolently.

In an essay I read a couple of years ago, someone compared The English Patient to , In both stories, the passionate lovers are troubled by their awareness that the woman is married to another guy – indeed, a nice guy. In a peacetime situation he might have been jettisoned rather easily, but the circumstances of war complicate the love triangle with an issue of loyalty to country. In Casablanca, 's character tells ’s character to go back to her husband, who is working for the allies. In The English Patient, the opposite moral choice is made, but without arguing the case. We are supposed to feel compassion for the traitor because of the nature of his motivation – love. I felt no such compassion – merely cool interest. Only his nurse felt compassion for him, and she silently performs the final favor that he asks of her — to administer morphine and end his life. Her kindness almost makes up for the emotional inadequacy of the other characters.

Casablanca teaches this : to put loyalty to one’s group ahead of personal relationships. I don’t always believe that it’s the correct lesson, however. In many conflicts, collective identity is a source of wrong-headedness. But each case has to be assessed independently. I’m still trying to figure out how one should have behaved during . Hitler was so bad, it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But I know there were some.

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