Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why It's Hard to Debate a Cornucopian

It's much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to tell them what they need to hear. This is the first and most important advantage a cornucopian thinker has when arguing before any audience. No one really wants to hear that the future may be filled with turbulent change and personal insecurity.

Perhaps more difficult to overcome is the argument that the future will be like the recent past--meaning the last couple of fossil-fueled centuries--only better. By definition there can be no proof of such an assertion. But the human tendency to extrapolate the recent past (meaning my lifetime of experiences) into the future is almost universal. When the ecological truthteller offers a different scenario, the burden of explanation is on him or her to show why the future will be different; the cornucopian is not required to mount a case other than to say something vague such as, "Everything has worked out fine so far, even though the pessimists predicted catastrophe."

This is nothing more than the problem of induction which is unfathomable to many people unless it is explained very simply. One writer relates a story told by Bertrand Russell that attempts to do just that:
I prefer another tale told by Bertrand Russell, which concerns a certain farmer and his turkey. From the point of view of the reflective turkey, the farmer will always greet him in the morning with a bucket of grain. Why? Because, by simple inductive reasoning, it follows that the more often this happens, the more secure [the turkey] is in the belief that it will happen again until, one morning, the farmer appears with an axe. Now from the farmer's better informed point of view, he knows that the more often the turkey gets the grain, the less likely it is that he will survive another day. Similarly, life underwriters adopt the farmer's point of view.

We mistake frequency of an event for proof that it will continue in the future.

Cornucopians also like to talk about how much better off nearly everyone in the world is now than in the recent past. Again, because most people have difficulty understanding the problem of induction, this claim is hard to battle. But the clever debater will show that the cornucopian is focused only on human welfare in the very short term. The eco-services that humans rely on for clean water, food production, and stable climate are actually on different and deteriorating trajectories. If the very basis for our material well-being is declining dangerously, then society's feeling of well-being will someday reverse. The big question is when.

Since the ecological truthteller must now come up with a date to satisfy the audience's curiosity, he or she will offer one from the literature on global warming or water depletion or some other predicted ecological crisis. If the date is nearby, the truthteller will be subject to short-term falsification (and, in addition, to the feeling among the audience that something so horrible couldn't happen so soon and that the speaker is merely engaging in fearmongering). If he or she chooses a distant date, the audience may not see the importance of doing anything. Keep in mind that dates 20 years or more in the future seem distant to most people, and they are inclined to believe that the intervening time will be sufficient to think up and implement solutions for a known problem.

Above all, cornucopians love to argue that even if many environmental problems exist, we will think up ways to solve them because we always have. They will cite clean air and clean water as successes. This is the problem of induction with a twist. It is not just faith that current trends can be endlessly extrapolated into the future, but faith that problems which could derail those felicitous trends and for which there are currently no solutions will be miraculously solved. It is as if the turkey in Bertrand Russell's story knows that the axe has fallen with regularity on other turkeys, but somehow believes that the axe "problem" will be solved before his number is up.

To offer a definite date in the future for anything (except maybe recognized holidays) is a fib. The cornucopian will easily trip up anyone claiming to be an ecological truthteller and turn him or her into a ecological liar. The calendar is already littered with disaster predictions that have not (yet) come true.

But the tables can be turned on the cornucopian who likes to speak in certainties just as much as the ecological truthteller inadvisably does. We live more or less in a probabilistic universe about which our knowledge is highly imperfect. In our daily lives, however, we unconsciously know this. We take out insurance against risks which may never strike us, but the consequences of which could be catastrophic. We buy fire insurance on our homes, for example, even though home fires large enough to justify an insurance claim are very rare. Yet, we do it because we know that home fires have been known to wipe out people financially.

The cornucopian has no more knowledge about the future than anyone else. And yet, even as he or she conveniently ignores negative trends, the cornucopian also tells us not to bother with insurance in the form of mitigating global warming or creating a sustainable society.

The ecological truthteller now has the opportunity to fight the arrogant certitude of the cornucopian with a dose of risk assessment as follows: "Given that the consequences of global warming and resource depletion could be severe--so severe that they could bring down our modern civilization--and even if you believe that the chances of such severe consequences are small, wouldn't it be worth it to take out some insurance just in case? And, if you believe we should do nothing, why are you paying to insure your home against catastrophic but very rare occurrences such as fires? As for the date of the onset of any demonstrable crisis that we will feel personally, well, we are all like Bertrand Russell's turkey. We simply don't know when it will happen. But, unlike the turkey, we've been warned."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Welcome to "Braided" Time

On a recent visit to Minnesota a friend of mine introduced me to the idea of "braided" time. The average American segregates such activities as work, shopping, dining out, exercise, and socializing. And, because of the way we have organized our towns and cities, this means an average of six car trips per day per household in addition to any commute to work, according to Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation.

But, on this day in this small town tucked along the Mississippi River, I accompanied my friend and his family as we engaged in all these activities at the same time without ever getting into a car. From his house, we walked to the center of town to get breakfast at a local eatery dedicated to providing fare from local food sources. Once there he and his family met and talked with people they knew. After that we popped over to the farmers' market, where he met yet more people and arranged meetings related to his work as a college professor. Then, there was the pleasant socializing with the vendors at the market, many of whom raise or make their own products. We were never in a hurry and yet we got much done, all as part of a family outing.

As we walked back to his home, he pointed to a delivery car in which the driver went all of two blocks to make her delivery. "She needed to save time so she can go to the gym and get some exercise later," he quipped.

While it's true that people who live in the center of large, walkable cities experience "braided" time quite frequently, those of us who live in smaller, but sprawled out towns and cities find ourselves reaching for the car keys to "save time." The question is, "Save time for what?" Why do we consider the time we spend in transit as wasted time? Why can't the time we spend getting somewhere be turned to some good use?

As we walked those streets along the Mississippi River, I didn't get the sense that time was contracting or being wasted. In fact, I felt time expanding as the things we needed to do that day got done naturally without any special sense of urgency and without any need to "save time."

In his book Fooled By Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb divides the world into maximizers and satisficers (people who try to blend satisfying with maximizing). We think that the fossil-fueled world which allows us to annihilate space is helping us to maximize our lives by giving us concentrated doses of exercise and entertainment and socializing in different places all connected by automobile travel. In the end, however, we spend oodles of time in the car and in traffic.

With "braided" time my friend and I managed to get many tasks done at once--all to our satisfaction--but perhaps not with the intensity of a racquetball game. Which sounds better to you?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Why I Love Coal (In Its Proper Place)

Many people have accused me of hating coal. But nothing could be further from the truth.

I recognize that without coal the greatest achievements of human history in art, architecture, and literature would never have occurred. Without coal the world would never have been investigated and explained to us by science. Without coal the ascent of man (and woman) would not have been possible.

I love coal in all its forms: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite. I especially love anthracite because it represents the purest form of coal containing the most carbon per unit of volume. Coal has quietly, magnanimously given of itself so that all of us air-breathing creatures could have life. It has labored without complaint under layer after layer of sediment which progressively increased the pressure and heat that formed it.

And, as more and more coal formed, the air was cleared of its excess carbon dioxide; the world cooled and cooled moving toward a more beneficent climate, one that ultimately provided a suitable environment for the aspirations of homo sapiens. As a byproduct of this process, the air also filled with oxygen, a substance that enjoys an even greater reputation and inspires an even greater love among the human race than coal.

For millions of years--no, hundreds of millions of years--coal has asked nothing more than to be left alone. And, until recently coal had its way, that is, until seacoal fell from the seams extruding out of Britain's ocean cliffs and caught the attention of the native population. Since then we have scratched at it, clawed at it, picked at it, dynamited it, scooped it up in giant shovels--which in the way of the cannibal were first powered by the very coal they attacked--and gathered coal into great mounds awaiting transport across the world.

Torn from its true home, coal began an unwanted journey from its resting place in the earth to kilns and furnaces and boilers in every corner of the globe. Fire now continuously dissolves coal, returning its essence to the heavens. First, the amounts were small and inconsequential. Now, they are like rushing torrents. Wherever coal is found, coal cars rattle day after day and night after night without ceasing. Smokestacks which signal the coal cars' destinations belch endlessly with visible haze and invisible gases.

The spectacle must be distressing to the coal I love: the gradual wasting away of its bulk, the irretrievable transformation of its body from a solid into a gas. Driven from its home, coal exacts a revenge in the only way it can on the creatures whom it helped to foster. It raises the world's temperature--not by the heat of combustion, but by coal's now gaseous carbon which traps heat in the worldwide blanket we call the atmosphere.

I can't help but wonder if people only loved coal as I do--that is, enough to leave it alone as it so clearly wants us to do--how different the world would be, how different our future would look.

(Go see "An Inconvenient Truth" as it opens across the country and learn to love coal the way I do.)