Politicians, Economies and Climate Change


As I watch the runup to the elections here and in the US I wonder at how a bunch of fairly intelligent people could look at the same reality and draw such divergent conclusions of its current state and probable end state. But then I am reminded of the research work my good friend Tim did with lizards in the Caribbean many years ago. When he found that there were many species all living on a type of bush he expected to find a lot of conflict but in fact there was little. He theorized that each lizard variety partitioned the space into areas that may intertwine but did not overlap. Over the years I realized that people tend to do the same thing. Since our memories determine much of what we perceive of the world around us, someone from a ghetto and someone from a very wealthy family could look at the same situation and draw very different conclusions. To some extent our experience and beliefs enable us to construct a framework of rules and filters that help us extract key information from our perceptions and guide our responses down the most successful (for us at least) path. Some people would look at the social effects of drugs and alcohol and think Prohibition and War on Drugs with assault and ever more severe punishment as the only possible ‘cure’. And yet others look at the same situation and think ‘business opportunity’ – Canadian distillers and US criminals, drugs gangs are too obvious examples. Because of the intrinsic conflicts between different conceptual models of the world I would suggest that progress is only possible when we can share a common world view (or a shared delusional framework if you will).

What is so fascinating about the current political season is both the extremity of world views being expressed and the lack of recognition of the efficacy of proposed economic policy when applied in the past. Tax cuts and deregulation have been the recipe for prosperity from the right for a long time. The US has applied it repeatedly over the past twenty years or so but no one seems to recognize the growing unemployment and declining wages of the middle class.  It is perhaps not surprising that the high income beneficiaries of these cuts get richer — perhaps the right was thinking of job creation as more maids, butlers and manservants. So we keep hearing the same recipe over and over, shouted louder every time, and yet there is this weird faith that maybe this time the same failed recipe will actually work.

Then there is this faith that austerity will make things better. I don’t understand this one at all. It hearkens back to the old days in medicine when the popular idea was to bleed the patient due to an excess of bad humors. The patient may eventually survive, in which case the bleeders will congratulate themselves on a cure well done. Or the patient may die, in which case the likely interpretation would be that it wasn’t done soon or aggressively enough. But never an admission that it was the wrong thing to do. My father came through the Depression working in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) building trails and facilities in the US Park system. We may want to think of doing something like this to syphon off the overflowing pool of unemployed as an alternative to social unrest. But this was a government program – if we bleed off too much then how could we do anything this useful even if we could see the need?

But then there is this other thought that troubles me. Money is an abstraction of value exchange supported by shared social conventions – a religion, if you will. Unlike the matter/energy duality it can be both created and destroyed – sometimes at the same moment. And it is governed by no natural laws – if I jump off the top of the CN tower without mechanical aids, I will go splat when I hit. Gravity, as far as we know, plays no favorites. And this whole crisis started with money creation on the part of the banks multiplied by unreasoning speculation that pushed the players imaginary pool of money to dizzying levels. But when the faith that sustained this delusional framework collapsed our leaders turn to us to make it good – so we endure ‘austerity’ while the bonuses at Goldman’s and others go on. Seems to me we need a new shared, delusional framework around money to make these problems go away and make the world a nicer place for the many, not just the few. I hope someone with the imagination and courage necessary comes up with one soon – other than a few select executive suites the world is getting to be a more ugly place all the time.

Which brings me to the subject of climate change. The problem with economies is that despite our elegant theories of how they work and the oh so confident assertions of what needs to be done, which never work by the way, economies prosper or decline. I am sure the problem is people… But compared to the natural world, the universe of human interactions is a tiny and simple place. There are only a few billion of us after all and we live for such a short time. The natural world is much, much larger and more persistent.  I suspect that we have glimpsed only a few of the possible interactions among its components. But we persist in making grand statements about what is happening as though we controlled it – and I suspect we do to some small degree, but with a lesser success rate than with our economies to be sure. But there are clearly other factors at play and how much they each contribute to current and future conditions we have likely not even guessed. This makes me humble about the degree of our influence on the outcome although perhaps less so on our contribution to some of the changes.

But there are others who are much less humble and I suspect are pushing us down a dark road. We stop work on nuclear power because there might be a problem. (Let us not forget that Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were first generation power plants.)  And we want to raise the prices on burning fossil fuels to encourage us to stop doing it or somehow release their energy without any of the chemical reaction byproducts being released. Or we cover rural areas with wind turbines and convince ourselves they are ‘green’, ignoring both their intermittent output and the huge environmental costs of the concrete and steel that go into these short-lived monsters. And even better, we make the electrical grid ever more interconnected despite frequent warnings for the need of stable inputs and the impossibility of managing grid stability with uncontrollable variable inputs and loads. The failures of 2003 and 2011 where cascading failures were triggered by what should have been a minor problem are just a foretaste of the world we are building.

And yet with all this concern about rising carbon dioxide levels we are still aggressively cutting down the great forests – the things that naturally sequester all this carbon and provide us with the oxygen we need. And we build with the idea that structures are temporary and can/should be discarded as soon as fashion changes. This is the same madness, in my mind, as fueled the explosive growth of consumerism – where the US economy ended up deriving 70% of its GDP from people buying and discarding things as quickly as possible. The remark of a friend of my daughter-in-law still sticks with me – ‘what does it matter, it is just a starter home…’.

As long as the model we use says that it is desirable for the few to get all the chips and leave everyone else in poverty or worse we are doomed. Money is being made stripping the earth and burning it – so there is no hope of altering our contribution to climate change. And we persist in thinking that we can take the jobs from a well-paid group of people and ship them elsewhere and remain prosperous while the wages that built that prosperity decline. And these unemployed people accumulate while robots produce more and more of the basic goods. Like our paradigm about money I suspect our model of work needs to be addressed. As a society, what do we do with this growing population of unemployed and underemployed people? Not everyone has the intellectual ability or inclination to pursue advanced education, or increasingly, the wealth. Even farming is an intellectually demanding profession (it was always demanding in other ways). Do we gear up for continued social unrest, urban terrorism, rioting and so forth as the new norm? (So more police, prisons, domestic spying and social controls…) Do we actually consider Soylent Green? Or do something else?

At the core there are billions of delusional frameworks at play – and their lack of tangency with each other probably explains our increasing disfunction. What we need are more points of congruency and more creative re-interpretations of our old social rules to get out of this mess. Otherwise our future probably looks like something out of ‘Idiocracy’ or ‘Planet of the Apes’.

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