June 02, 2009

Getting out of the ecostalinist car

King's college reflectedI did a talk about "values for the future" at the Hay-on-Wye festival. The speaker before me brought up the climate change issue, and argued that in order to reach the 90% emission reduction he though was necessary we should give up those misguided ideas about individual freedom and independence we have held since the Enlightenment.

I countered by pointing out that we might need something like 120% emissions reductions, and we might actually need those oldfashioned atomistic values even more.

As Eric Drexler blogs in Greenhouse Gases and Advanced Nanotechnology, most people make the mistake of thinking CO2 will just disappear if we stop producing it. Instead it remains in the atmosphere over a century timescale, affecting the heat balance. If one is a believer in that there are already sinister effects on biosphere, and especially if one is concerned with tipping points and positive feedback loops, then this is a very serious matter. Just urging (or achieving) emissions reductions will not fix the problem. There has to be very large carbon sinks, or one should argue for much bigger attempts at climate adaptation than currently is fashionable.

As I like to say, if you are in a car rolling downhill and want to stop, it is not enough to just stop pressing the gas pedal, you better find the brakes, keep a hand on the steering wheel and wear your safety belt. A lot of past rhetoric has been of the type: "For heaven's sake, stop reaching for the brakes! They will distract you from not pushing the gas pedal! Or they might cause a skid!"

It was fun to see my audience when I explained that probably the choice might be climate change or widespread use of carbon sequestering GMOs (while I like Drexler's approach, it may take a while to get there; we could seriously start working on ultra-sequestering plants right now, I think). They didn't like that at all. Because largely, to their minds, climate change is just politics: get the politicians to make the right decisions, expected to be roughly some kind of anti-consumerist program that brings out the nice old values of community, environment and austerity.

The real risk is of course that climate change becomes ecostalinism instead. One common theme in the discussion was how irrational and selfish people are, so it would be a good thing if this short-sighted behaviour gets inhibited by suitable authorities with long-term interests. Democratically controlled and accountable, of course.

But the problem with everybody unifying to deal with a great threat, temporarily setting aside frivolous interests and rights that otherwise might be important, is that such a unification can not come from the outside. It has to a large degree be internalized, a part of the current culture. Our effective values should change when we are faced with a threat - other things have priority. But what does this do to deliberation, dissent and exploration? The War on Terror has already demonstrated not only how authorities can use it as an excuse to make themselves unaccountable but how internalisation of the fundamental idea of being at war with extremism has produced a mindset that finds expressing dissent with "how things are done" to be tantamount to treason.

It is all too easy to imagine the same thing in case of climate change. My previous speaker likened climate change denialists to flat earthers and creationists. Stupid and evil. But what about expressing scepticism over the conclusions made in IPCC reports or suggested courses of action? I have already seen far too many examples of how people expressing scepticism over something (for example the often rickety models linking climate to GDP in future economies, whether climate refugees will actually matter at all or pointing out the absurdity of many claims about ice melting) being accused of being "denialists". If we make climate the core of our political discourse, then it is very likely that any form of publicly expressed scepticism or criticism of any part of the edifice - built as much on ideology, politics and culture as on science - will be seen as disloyal and evil. At best it will be ignored and groupthink will rule, at worst it will lead to imprisonment (Australian commentator Margo Kingston has argued that "climate change denial" should be illegal just like holocaust denial - if one really thinks the stakes is human survival, then this actually makes sense). The problem is of course that stifling dissent will ensure that science will also be stifled (don't you *dare* find evidence against our current methods!), that mistakes and corruption will not be adequately reported and that in the long run the whole project is likely to diverge from reality. Not the best outcome for the biosphere or mankind's interests.

The real way forward is to stimulate exploration and dissent in order to figure out more about the situation. The current orthodoxies (that consumerism is the problem, that geoengineering and serious adaptation are out of the question, that only traditional technology is relevant etc.) are likely wrong at least in part and need challenging. If we all need to pull together, then we also need really good information to guide us and not just faith in authorities. For this we need strong protections for dissent - the social pressure towards conformity is going to be strong in any case. We mustn't loose the critical voices that point out that certain emperors lack clothing or that we ought to cover Wales with GMOs. They might be wrong, but they protect us from the overconfidence in planning we know has wrecked past projects and states. To give them up is to close one's eyes and let the car roll out of control.

Posted by Anders3 at June 2, 2009 05:59 PM