Saturday, December 01, 2007

Analysis 9 - 'Saving the Planet': What's the best bet?

But which side shall we take? Reason can decide nothing here
- Blaise Pasc

(Note. Much of this Analysis and the one to follow has been occasioned by reading Michael Northcott’s A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming, (London, Oxfam/Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007). Northcott is Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh. It is in my view a pretty dreadful book, but the business of trying to get clear why it is so bad has nevertheless been quite stimulating. Page references in this Analysis and the next, ‘Saving the Planet’ – What’s the stake? are to this book.)

It is current political wisdom in the UK that the planet is getting warmer and that this is being caused by the excess emission of greenhouse gases. It is believed that this warming is so serious that, unless we take appropriate measures, there will be calamitous, irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Some say that it already be too late. So we’ve all had to become used to the ridiculous phrase ‘saving the planet’.

But not everyone agrees with the current orthodoxy. It is unclear how the evidence adduced is to be interpreted. Is it a case of CO2-induced changes, or of long term trends that occur irrespective of such emissions? In other words, is the warming part of a trend that not even Superman could affect? Some deny that there is global warming (GW). Still others say that GW is caused by sunspots, or by volcanoes, or that it is unclear what causes it. Others argue that greenhouse gases ought to be reduced anyhow. Still others believe the GW lobby is fuelled by a statist political agenda, reminding us of what H.L. Mencken said: ‘The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it’.

This confused debate is further confused by the plain fact that Europe is coming to depend on Russia for natural gas supplies. So maybe it’s in our own political interest no longer to rely upon fossils for power but instead to develop a new generation of nuclear power plants, or to make electricity from the wind and the waves. But that’s a separate political question, one to be kept apart from the issue of GW.

Scientists themselves differ sharply on these questions, often, sadly, reflecting the views of their paymasters or grant-awarders. This shows not so much the subjectivity of science as the bias of scientists, and therefore the limitations of science. (Often, minority views on the question of GW and what to do about it are suppressed. This shameful state of affairs is not our present concern, however.)

What follows is not addressed to those for who are already convinced of anthropogenic GW and of the possibility of anthropogenic policies to reduce or reverse it, or who are already convinced of the opposite.

For others, including Christians, who think that the evidence for an against is finely balanced, this is a time of some perplexity. It is a situation of radical uncertainty about an important, though not (of course) an all-important, matter. (Don’t you sometimes gain the impression that Christians who pick up the ‘one world’ emphasis of modern environmentalism find it very difficult to sustain the particularism that is intrinsic to the gospel?) Even though the evidence for and against GW may be finely balanced, or impossible to interpret, some action must be taken. But what action? One possibility is to opt out, to continue as before. But if our choices are ‘forced’, to opt out is in fact to make a choice. For to continue as before is in fact to choose to ignore the issue.


One way of addressing GW is by intellectual analysis. It is obvious enough that there are plenty of ways of criticising our modern world. The idea that happiness and human fulfilment are found in acquiring bits and pieces; the idea that moral and other kinds of progress can come from technology; the way in which the optimism of political liberalism has so quickly become a panicky pessimism.

On the other hand, the smugness and self-satisfaction of the ‘spirituality’ of the advocates of renewability is also fair game.

All these points are well taken. But criticising others and analysing ‘the problem’ does not prescribe what we should be doing. Such critique is no doubt necessary, and perhaps there is not enough of it, but it is essentially negative.

It is the aim of this Analysis, and the next one, to make some suggestions by way of an answer to the question, what action ought we to take in regard to GW?

Pascal’s strategy

So, if we don’t opt out altogether, what’s the way forward?

It has been suggested (by Stephen Heller) that in this situation of great uncertainty over a great issue we should adopt Blaise Pascal’s strategy. (274) Pascal famously argued that in a situation in which it could not be proved either that God exists or that he does not exist the rational thing to do is to gamble on his existence. If we win the wager we shall escape judgment, and if we lose there won’t be a judgment to escape. Whereas if we gamble on his non-existence we shall suffer punishment if we are wrong and be obliterated if we are correct, and we have a 50-50 chance of being wrong.

‘Either God is, or He is not’ But which side shall we taken? Reason can decide nothing here; there is an infinite chaos between us. A game is on, at the other side of this infinite distance, and the coin will fall heads or tails. Which will you gamble on either; according to reason you cannot defend either choice….Yes, but you must bet. There is no option; you have embarked on the business. Which will you choose? Let us see. Since you must choose let us see which will profit you less. You have two things to lose: truth and good, and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and our happiness. And your nature has two things to avoid: error and misery. Since you must necessarily choose, it is no more unreasonable to make one choice than the to her. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weight the gain and loss in calling heads, that God exits. Let us estimate the two chances; if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you have nothing. Do not hesitate, then; gamble on His existence’. (Pensees, trans. Krailsheimer (Penguin) 157).

Pascal stressed that the outcome of his Wager is of infinite consequence. It is well frequently to remind ourselves that despite the rhetoric of some environmentalists, we are concerned with possible outcomes which are finite.

(Northcott quite misunderstands the Wager. He thinks that it has to do with action in situations of uncertainty. (274) But this is to miss Pascal’s point, which has to do with choices of momentous consequence about which we are equally uncertain. It is not that we have no ‘certain knowledge’ of the future, but that we have no knowledge at all (of whether or not God exists), according to Pascal. Making a Pascalian wager is not to be confused with the everyday business of balancing probabilities.)

Yet perhaps in a situation of radical uncertainty about finite consequences, coupled with the possibly dangerous consequences of inaction we should gamble, in Pascalian fashion, on the GW ‘scientific consensus’ being correct. If we were to do this, what would follow?

The trouble with Pascal’s Wager – as many critics have pointed out – is that there is not just one alternative, atheism or theism. There are many religions, gods many and lords many, as the Apostle Paul noted. So it’s not a case of a straight wager for or against ‘God’, for this raises the question ‘Which god ought I to wager on?’

And similarly with betting on GW. Suppose that we are inclined to gamble on the planet’s future by going with the ‘scientific consensus’. Then we need to get clear what such a bet implies. What does my wagering tell me that I should do and not do? The trouble is, those who warn against GW offer many prescriptions, some at the international and governmental level, some at the personal level. Some are sensible, some plain daft. Not all of them are consistent.

A simple bet that some disaster will happen unless….does not imply a similarly simple bet on the multitude of means that are proposed to avoid the catastrophe. So in wagering that GW is occurring, which prescription or prescriptions ought we to adopt? A number of competing and conflicting prescriptions are offered. These are usually based upon the reasons that people have for why greenhouse gases are reckoned to have ballooned, and what their effect on the globe will be.

Global capitalism

Perhaps we should blame global capitalism for GW , believing ‘neoliberalism’ to be the cause of the increase in greenhouse gases. If so, gambling on GW would mean doing our bit to achieve the dismantling or radical modification of capitalism. Perhaps we should support the imposition of taxes and tariffs, or restrict trade in other ways., Perhaps we should support the outlawing of the practice of growing food in poor Africa and flying it to rich Europe and the US, abandon oil exploration and exploitation, and henceforward forbid logging, or control it very strictly.

Global capitalism no doubt has its faults, but it is in the business of satisfying demand, the various demands of its customers. The consumer choices made by you and me, in other words. The more customers that Tesco (or Walmart) has, and the more choices made for Tesco’s products, then the better for Tesco. If we think of capitalism in this way, then if (say) there was a sudden and sustained demand for C. H. Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David in Scouse we can be sure that Tesco would stock that book and sell it at a discount, just as it presently finds a place on its shelves for cheese-and-onion-flavoured roasted almonds.

Tesco and its global capitalistic friends follow demand like trade used to follow the flag. If demand changes, then their way of meeting that demand will change too. Hardly a surprise. If we stop demanding cheap (or not so cheap) fresh French beans in February then Tesco will quickly cease offering them to us.

But don’t Tesco and the other multinationals create demand? Don’t they invent things for us to buy? They most certainly do. Don’t they impose these newly-invented products on us? Aren’t they part of a tyrannical conspiracy? Isn’t neocapitalism ‘unaccountable’? Isn’t an example of ‘moral perversion’? (37) Is there not ‘an intrinsic connection between global warming, modern imperialism (i.e. Tesco) and neoliberal global capitalism (Tesco again)? (43)

To which questions the answer is: most certainly not. Global capitalism is accountable to us. If we don’t want the newly-invented products of ‘neocapitalism’ then we don’t buy them. Then Tesco and their suppliers are left with unsold lines, which is not a happy prospect for them. Capitalism is not morally perverse, it’s morally neutral. Much more so than governments and international agencies. Perhaps Tesco satisfies demands that we ought not to have. But that’s a rather different issue. If it does, then who’s to blame? We shall briefly return to this.

The market

Perhaps it’s not tyrannical global providers but ‘mechanistic’ free markets that are to be blamed for global warming. Markets, of course, convey immeasurable benefits to us. They identify our demands and supply them, bringing inventor, manufacturer, seller and buyer together in a way in which no other humanly-devised scheme do. But maybe the market is also a harmful institution. Maybe ‘GW is the earth’s judgment on the global market economy’. (7)

There are some serious misunderstandings about the market. One important one is that the market panders to our selfishness. So maybe climate change is due to selfishness, pure and simple. We curb our selfishness by shutting down or ‘regulating’ the market which satisfies it. So this prescription involves curbing the market, bringing in rationing, banning certain products, and so on.

Certainly the market it is concerned with demand, but why is all demand selfish? A person might go into the market and then give away what he buys. ‘Selfishness’ suggests action which is by intention to deprive others of what is rightfully theirs. Is there any reason to think that a mother who buys bread or trainers for her children is being selfish?

But there’s another reason to protect the markets, and the freedom of new providers to enter markets, a freedom (incidentally) that is easily eroded, particularly by corrupt governments. It is this. But what those who blame the markets for ‘anthropogenic global warming’ fail to note that if we are to be rescued from global warming by our own efforts then it is the market that must come to our rescue. If we are to ‘save the planet’ by changing our behaviour then it is the market that will be the engine of that salvation.

What’s the solution to the growing oil consumption? Ought we to ban the private car, change motorways into bus lanes, and ‘ration’ car use by granting road licences only to special cases, to doctors and nurses and journalists and MPs and….(You can imagine, can’t you, the potential here for frustration and corruption?) Aren’t buses more efficient? Yes and no. They can carry 30 people from A to B using less fuel than thirty cars can. But if part of efficiency is convenience, then the answer is, in general, no.

So suppose we do nothing, keeping our gas-guzzling cars and leaving the house lights on. What’s the solution to this burgeoning, wasteful demand for oil and gas? It’s the solution that the market provides, one that is, alas for the gas-guzzling public, ruthlessly efficient.

Barring presently unforeseen political upheavals, either the supply of oil will roughly keep pace with the rising demand for it, or it will not. If it will, no problem: the gas guzzler may continue to guzzle, and houselights can stay on.

If it does keep pace with rising demand, this may well be because rising prices make some of the trillions of barrels of oil still in the ground worth extracting. A rise in the price of oil may well call forth an increase in supply.

If it fails to keep pace, if oil begins to run out, then what will happen? Its market price will rise, perhaps very sharply. And then what else will happen? Other forms of propulsion will become relatively cheaper, and the market will reward ingenious and inventive entrepreneurs who make petrol engines run more efficiently, or who invent and produce new types of fuel, and new forms of propulsion. Life will change, but travel will not stop; forms of travel will alter, and the cost of travel may increase relatively to other costs. The market will come to the aid of the traveller.

So, if we wager on GW occurring, what does such a gamble commit us to? What are the costs of wagering? We shall try to explore these questions further in the next Analysis.