Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do You Believe in Progress?

Occasionally, I have mused that environmentalism has a hidden agenda. Some parts of the environmentalist agenda are not controversial. Cleaning up the air and the water are surely good things.

Yet, once environmentalism declared war on carbon dioxide and descended into catastrophic thinking the narrative lost touch with the facts. Those who purveyed apocalyptic visions of industrialized nations destroying the planet were prophesying that we were going to pay a steep price for our capitalist sins.

In short I suspected that environmentalism had become yet another reactionary attempt to roll back the Industrial Revolution, to litigate us back to the Stone Age. The idea is as old as the Revolution itself. Martin Wiener chronicles some of it in his book English Culture: The Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980.
Now one Jeremy Caradonna, a Canadian history professor wants us to get lathered up over the state of the environment. In particular, he believes that industrial progress is a “narrative” that needs to be undermined because it has produced so much pollution.

Writing in the Atlantic, Caradonna says:

For instance, consider the growth of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere since 1750. Every respectable body that studies climate science, including NASA, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been able to correlate GHG concentrations with the pollutants that machines have been spewing into the atmosphere since the late-18th century. These scientific bodies also correlate GHGs with other human activities, such as the clearing of forests (which releases a lot of carbon dioxide and removes a crucial carbon sink from the planet), and the breeding of methane-farting cows. But fossil fuels are the main culprit (coal, gas, and oil) and account for much of the increase in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The main GHGs, to be sure, are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and a few others, many of which can be charted over time by analyzing the chemistry of long-frozen ice cores. More recent GHG levels are identified from direct atmospheric measurements.
If you are not terrified yet, try this:

What we learn from these scientific analyses is that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a veritable Age of Pollution, which has resulted in filthy cities, toxic industrial sites (and human bodies), contaminated soils, polluted and acidified oceans, and a “blanket” of air pollution that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, which then destabilizes climate systems and ultimately heats the overall surface temperature of the planet. 

Fancy that, the Age of Pollution. If we accept these apocalyptic visions as gospel truth we will shut down the electric grid and ban gasoline powered cars today.

Matt Ridley, among others, has argued persuasively that things have been getting better. In fact, they have gotten much better. Industrialization and free enterprise have improved human life on most of the planet. To see it you need to ignore the narratives and look at the facts.

Industrialization did pollute, but it also cleaned up the pollution. Perhaps, it’s a minor detail, but it’s worth noting.

Ridley writes:

The air is much cleaner than when I was young, with smog largely banished from our cities. Rivers are cleaner and teem with otters and kingfishers. The sea is still polluted and messed with in every part of the world, but there are far more whales than there were 50 years ago. Forest cover is increasing in many countries and the pressure on land to grow food has begun to ease.

And he adds:

The weather is not getting worse. Despite what you may have read, there is no global increase in floods, cyclones, tornadoes, blizzards and wild fires — and there has been a decline in the severity of droughts. If you got the opposite impression, it’s purely because of the reporting of natural disasters, which has become a lot more hysterical. Besides, thanks to better infrastructure, communications and technology, there has been a steep decline in deaths due to extreme weather.

Globally, your probability of dying as a result of a drought, flood or storm is 98 per cent lower than it was in the 1920s. As Steven Pinker documented in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the number of deaths in warfare is also falling, though far more erratically. The ten years 2000-10 was the decade with the smallest number of deaths in warfare since records began in the 1940s. That may not last — indeed, it is looking like this decade may be worse. But it may be better.

As for the larger picture, the virtues of industrialization, consider this, again from Ridley:

The average person lives about a third longer than 50 years ago and buries two thirds fewer of his or her children (and child mortality is the greatest measure of misery I can think of). The amount of food available per head has gone up steadily on every continent, despite a doubling of the population. Famine is now very rare. The death rate from malaria is down by nearly 30 per cent since the start of the century. HIV-related deaths are falling. Polio, measles, yellow fever, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, typhus — they killed our ancestors in droves, but they are now rare diseases.

Where Cardonna regales us with charts about pollution levels, Ridley offers data about the lives of human beings.

As for the charge that capitalism produces increased inequality, Ridley explains that, in truth, it has decreased the gap between rich and poor:

As for inequality, the world as a whole is getting rapidly more equal in income, because people in poor countries are getting richer at a more rapid pace than people in rich countries. That has now been true for two decades, but it has accelerated since the great recession. The GDP per capita of Mozambique is 60 per cent higher than it was in 2008; that of Italy is 6 per cent lower. A country like Mozambique has been out of the headlines recently and now you know why: things are mostly going right there.
Of course, it could all unravel at any time. The forces of reaction are on the march and they will do everything in their power to bring down Industrial capitalism and the civilization it created.

Ridley sees this clearly:

Of course, like anybody I can still talk myself into gloom. Scotland could break away. Militant Islam could tear our communities apart. European bureaucrats could strangle innovation even more than they do already. When asked what I most worry about, I always reply “bureaucracy and superstition” because these are what brought down previous civilisations in Ming China or Abbasid Arabia.

Be warned that being cheerful guarantees you will never be taken seriously. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “Not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

Obviously, a great deal depends on who is in charge. It’s not just European bureaucrats who are stifling innovation and economic growth. America has its own reactionary clerisy—to use Joel Kotkin’s word—that is hell bent on undermining free market capitalism.  

If it succeeds, it will not spell the end of progress or the end of Industrialization. Other nations will inevitably take the lead and advance humanity’s prospects toward a better tomorrow.

Finally, it is always useful to retain a bit of skepticism. I believe that Ridley is largely correct. Idem for Steven Pinker. But theirs is big picture thinking. The course of true progress does not run smooth. It has hiccups and setbacks and even calamities. The forces of reaction produced an enormous amount of carnage during the twentieth century, from wars to famines to genocidal massacres, and it was not very long ago.

Besides, don’t we know that people are always more optimistic before a crash? 


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

The sage clerisy's core maxim: "If you're happy, you're a fool."

The clerisy's activist followers: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

The ignorant masses' response to all these inputs: "We're all going to die!"

All suggested action is never enough. It's just more, more, more! There's nothing about improvement and commitment, it's a focus on what's wrong. That's an easy game. There's always something wrong. Always.

The intelligentsia always looks down on religion, but believes deeply in human sin. The great heresy at play here, the core of the chic Leftist "narrative," is that humanity is the source of global misery and destruction. All of it. They seek to "litigate us back to the Stone Age" because that's when things were pure, and there were only 10,000 human parasites on the planet. We've gone viral since the Industrial Revolution. Anthropomorphic global climate change has given us the fiction of anthropomorphic Earth that feels pain, complete with inert gases like carbon dioxide becoming vicious pollutants that will roast polar bears on a fast-vanishing Arctic ice no one will tell you is actually expanding.

Environmentalism and carbon dioxide are just useful characters in this sordid story. It would be hilarious if so many didn't actually believe it. Human freedom could provide a way out, but that would probably lead to... more stupid, parasitic human beings. Horrors.

The key to Leftist narrative is self-loathing, one of the oldest, most dismal storylines ever created.

Sam L. said...

Remember, the greatest environmental problems were in Communist countries where it's All Government, All The Time. SAY! How about that air in Beiping (insert your choice of spelling here)?

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, yes. Can you say Chernobyl, boys and girls? Yes, I knew you could.

Ares Olympus said...

I see the need for identifying the "middle narrative" between undue optimistism and undue pessimism, or at least somewhere in there is probably the truth among the million possibilties.

I accept the idea that we had a long "religious faith" in progress and technology, and faith means confidence, and you know when things go bad, the worst thing you can do is overreact, so instead you don't look at things that confirm your fear, and instead look at things that validate your biases of what the future holds. At least I can see that's a sane path, and that gloom and doomers are the outcasts, hoping if they harp long enough, someone will convince them they're wrong, and they can regain their faith.

But where is the middle narrative? Like right now we're worried about some 20 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. who are so desparate for opportunity, that they'll risk an underground existence, outside of the protection of law and justice, for a chance at something. That's astounding.

I wondered what would happen, if we extended the NATFA to allow "freedom of employment", so citizens of Canada, US, and Mexico (and maybe Central America too), could get a work Visa in any country just by applying for it. Why not?

Freedom to travel is a strong liberal ideal, and if you believe in progress, you'll accept it as a natural progression as we move towards a global community, where everyone is interconnected in deep ways towards everyone else, and so war becomes offensive, and we have to care about crime and injustice everywhere, since we know people are free to move away from violence towards better places, only limited by their ability to work, and follow the rules.

But the problem is that poor people also will seek opportunity in places that are much too expensive to live, so the Progressive future, where everyone is free to live where they want, is something only slightly unexpected. Many people would rather live in slums close to opportunity, than in rural subsistence living.

So talks like these show one sense of progress which we don't see yet, but it would seem to be the future. Stewart Brand: Why squatter cities are a good thing Robert Neuwirth: The "shadow cities" of the future

It is the ultimate libertarian view, of self determination, of opportunity, a chance to compete in a pure Meritocracy, and the best rise, and the failures become drug addicts and die early.

But its not a liberal view of progress, and it suggests something of the liberal lie, that says civilization can be a safe orderly activity, that we can protect everyone against all the bad guys.

So its pictures like this that challenge me, in my suburban quiet safety. But what if this is our future, especially after the current financialization ere collapses under its own debt, and the false vision that money is the source of all safety is exposed.

So maybe "progress" is like "evolution", not moving towards ever greater perfection but towards every possible direction at the same time, and most directions will fail in the long run.

Geoffrey West's analysis of systems, organisms, corporations, and cities, adds to the puzzle. Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations

Thinking at systems level allows some objective decisions to be made that are messy, but better than trying to control all outcomes for unknown future needs. Planning is needed, but always limited when things change, when old ways of doing things fail new demands.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @September 14, 2014 at 2:45 PM:

"Planning is needed..."

By whom?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Sam L. @September 14, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Check out Norilsk, Russia. One of the most polluted places on Earth. Bad, bad scene. Brought to you by the Soviets, part of their "worker's paradise" plan. Great gulag death history there, in case you want to visit. You see, when the people own everything, everything gets better. It's part of the "noble experiment" of communism... you know, the noble experiment we've tried lots of times and always ends with the same human and environmental carnage. The filth has accelerated under Putin. More glory for Mother Russia!

Ares Olympus said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD, "re:'Planning is needed...' By whom?"

Planning is needed by everyone, but most specifically anyone in a leadership position, including: parents, churches, neighborhoood organizations, city governments, state governments, federal government, corporations.

Geoffrey West's analysis of cities, showing their immorality as a paradox - the metabolism of a city is such that doubling its size more than doubles its activity, so large cities will always attract people more than smaller ones, but the speeding up of activity means there's a speeding up of problems.

I worked for professor in college who studied the ecology of forests, and noted how different species would dominate in different stages of growth, so what works well in one stage fails in others.

I see we now live in an era of abundant energy, so I think that is a driver of people into cities, but as we find ourselves unable to "grow" ourselves by expanding our energy usage, other cultural expressions may dominate.

My grandparants were farmers through the great depression, and they only had 80 acres, and rented more land when they could, and otherwise avoided the growth model that said borrowing money to expand their farm, with more expensive equipment was the way to success, so they merely stayed frugal through the depression.

So perhaps debt-free subsistence farming will someday be an ideal for us, if we pass through a long new depression, and people in cities will just see crime and drugs and despair, and the small towns might repopulate? Who knows?

So none of this can be planned for, and that's the problem, but planning can mean seeing multiple contradictory possible futures, and giving your community a chance to survive or thrive in as many permutations of them as they seem credible.

The big movement I'd like to see is "divestment", and that the retirement dream on stock investments is a lie that Gen-Xers and younger won't ever see. So putting all your trust in abstract investments seems a bad bet by itself. So I see individuals and collections of people of common interest need to ask what resources they have, and what debt is costing them, and pull their investments closer to home.

But I might be wrong, and the finanacialization of the economy might be just getting started, and the next $20 trillion dollar bailout, it might keep things humming for another decade, and then $80 trillion for the decade after that. You never know what's possible when you have virtual wealth to play with.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. My grandparents thrived through the depression as farmers in eastern Iowa, while had they been farming further south or west, the dustbowl would have knocked their farm out no matter how prude their financing or farming methods, although I'm sure high debt encourages more short-term thinking in farming as any enterprise, and so debt is the enemy to all conservation efforts.

I'm more concerned about systemic failure of human systems, but if I lived in South west US or western Texas these day, natural or human-made drought, it seems like not a good bet these days for the long haul.

Sam L. said...

Environmentalists have a Hidden Agenda?

How can that BEEEEE?