As a side-note to our earlier conversation about pantheism, I thought it was interesting to see how that religious philosophy was playing out in the global warming debate. I just finished SuperFreakonomics (really enjoyed it, more on that later) and I had heard on the news that the authors, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, had gotten lambasted by various prominent environmentalists for daring to suggest that geoengineering was a promising strategy for averting global warming. Evidently, backing any solution that does not revolve around carbon reductions is considered "aiding and abetting the enemy," since it takes the wind out of the carbon-reduction cap-and-tax (oops, I mean, cap-and-trade) schemes currently being pushed. After finishing the book, I read the critiques from Elizabeth Kolbert and Raymond Pierrehumbert, as well as Dubner and Levitt's replies.
Let me start by saying: I have no idea who's right. I generally agree with Dubner and Levitt's basic assertion that it will be well-nigh impossible to get 6 billion people to all forego their self-interest for sake of averting a possible crisis hundreds of years from now. The outcome in Copenhagen only bears that out – the costs of the proposed solutions (slowed growth, lots of money changing hands) is still too high to get everyone on the same page, and you need everyone on the same page to avert a tragedy of the commons. So I think it's only sensible to look for some game-changing technological breakthroughs instead of relying on altruism and changes in human behavior. I also know that Malthusian doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world for centuries, and they routinely overestimate the hazards and underestimate the effects of new technology. On the other hand, I think geoengineering is so rife with the potential of unintended consequences that it also deserves some serious skepticism – even if we succeed in changing the earth's climate, it's impossible to predict the side-effects. So on the facts of the matter, I'm not taking any sides yet.
What interests me about this debate, though, is how absolutely nasty some of the environmentalists were in their reactions. Dubner and Levitt maintain a basically cheerful but factual tone in their writing, while Kolbert and Pierrehumbert drip with condescension, insult, and innuendo. Dubner and Levitt notice it, too, and they suggest the reason some environmentalists are so upset about geoengineering is because it offends a moral sensibility rather than an intellectual one. Dubner and Levitt just wanted to find the best strategy for cooling the earth, while environmentalists like Al Gore are trying to live in harmony with Mother Earth.
It does seem like a lot of environmentalists are carrying around certain pantheistic assumptions:
The Earth is sacred, and shouldn't be molested or interfered with
The Earth is perfect, and if we just left it alone it would return to its natural (that is, perfect) state
Mankind is Bad. We mess up the perfection of the earth. The concerns of mankind – feeding, clothing, and caring for humans – cannot trump the sacredness of Nature. We are mortals, but Nature is divine.
Someone with that kind of world view will perceive global warming very differently than those who don't. For the pantheist, global warming is a moral issue. We haven't merely created a difficult situation; we have sinned against the Goddess. The problem isn't that global warming will cause all kinds of problems for humanity; the problem is that a global economy, capitalism, consumerism and technology have offended the gods. Sometimes it seems like averting global warming is only the convenient pretext for a much larger agenda for reshaping society into a socialist, vegan, agrarian, earth-worshipping retro-utopia (with environmentalists as the high priests, of course). So of course geoengineering would be a heresy – that's only more "interfering" with Nature. That's why even safe, non-polluting thorium-based nuclear energy still ruffles their feathers. A purely technological fix only interferes with their plans to stick it to the capitalists.
Ok, maybe that's too much. I don't want to descend to Kolbert's level of snark. I think everyone in this debate is well-intentioned and even well-informed. I also think everyone in this debate has self-interested motivations and underlying philosophies that affect their positions (even me). We might as well root them out.
I agree completely with what you're saying, and I think it's very well said. Interestingly, a lot of the environmentalists--including some of their most visible spokesmen, I've been told--are starting to suspect that nuclear energy might not be such a bad idea after all, at least compared with the alternatives. So clearly there are environmentalists who really are trying to just think through the issues of how to save the earth, instead of using the very real problem of global warming to push us toward a lifestyle that they really wanted anyway.
But I do think the word "lifestyle" is key here, because it's not just about sacrificing what we want in order to save the planet. In many cases, it's about sacrificing what we think we want, to get what we really want, a la Thoreau. Hidden behind a lot of environmentalist rhetoric is the sense that if we gave up all this technology and returned to a simpler way of living in harmony with nature, we would ourselves be much happier people. An extreme (and delightfully unhidden) version of this belief is in the book "Ishmael" which argues that the dawn of agriculture was the big mistake, and it was all downhill from there.
I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I had a dream a few months ago that still haunts me, where I visited this woman who was living in a very old house. The walls that did exist were made of concrete, but a lot of walls were just not there at all, and you couldn't never really draw a line of where the house started and where it ended. She lived only a few miles out of the city, but she was completely off the grid, and spent her time raising her own food, and I had this overpowering sensation that her life was better than anyone else's that I knew, and I couldn’t have it, and I practically woke up in tears. It isn't about saving the planet, it's about living a simpler life for its own sake.
And yet, I wouldn't want to go too far back technologically. I don't actually want to give up modern medicine, or heating and air conditioning, or (most of all) my ability to make a living teaching math while others do the farming. I know, I know, I'm way off topic now, but here's my point. The people who want us to save the planet by going backward, and are horrified that we might actually save the planet by going forward, are fantasizing about their own lives as much as anything else. And I am at least half-way with them. But I don't like the fact that they pretend they're only reacting to the latest scientific data, and I certainly don't like the moral superiority they feel over the rest of us.