Ignorance, Meet Unreasonable Optimism

By David L. Brown

Yesterday was Earth Day and nothing much happened. Well, the organizers claim that a billion people around the world celebrated the event. Hmm, I am skeptical of that, unless “celebrating” might include glancing at the sky, scraping one’s foot in the dirt, or otherwise recognizing the planet on which we live. Defined that way, more than six billion may be said to have celebrated the event, albeit without realizing it.

Meanwhile, the charge is on in Washington to tackle all the problems of the world’s environmental threats. A cap-and-trade plan is in motion to “solve” our CO² problems by adding taxes to any entity that emits carbon. The money the government receives will supposedly go to further R&D directed to “clean” energy, but you know how that goes. Just remember that all the money we have paid into the Social Security system was supposed to be there for us in our old age, but the government squandered every last dime of it on other things and stuck future generations with the bill. Will the cap-and-trade revenues be used any more wisely?

I continue to be astonished at the ignorance displayed on both sides of the climate change question. On the one hand we have the deniers, those who claim there is no such thing as global warming or climate change, and that even if there were it wouldn’t mean much if anything. This flies in the face of a vast body of scientific evidence, almost all of which points to a serious threat as global warming continues. Deniers are neither optimists nor pessimists on the question, since they refuse to even acknowledge the problem exists. In effect, they are putting their fingers in their ears and saying “Nyah, nyah, I can’t hear you!”

On the other hand we have those who happily think that we can just wave a kind of magic wand over the problem and make it go away. In previous essays I have discussed what I call the Rabbit of Unreasonable Hope, waiting be pulled out of a magician’s hat to amaze and reassure the audience. These eternal optimists can be compared to the followers of cults, laying aside reason in order to accept unlikely “facts” that make them feel good. They follow the principles set down in the children’s book Pollyanna, in which the main character makes a “game” of finding something positive in every situation, no matter how grim. These modern day Pollyannas believe that if only we start right now today we can undo all the troubles in the world in just no time at all.

As I have explained in previous essays, I think of myself as a realist. A realist is someone who looks at the facts as they are and determines the best course of action. On the question of climate change and environmental decline, I come down neither on the side of the deniers nor those who are preternaturally optimistic on the question. Deniers are either ignorant, evil or both. Pollyannas are watching that magician with no doubt in their minds that the Rabbit of Unreasonable Hope will soon hop out and make everything swell again. These ideas are fed upon by politicians such as Barack Obama, who said during the campaign last year that if he were elected “that was the moment the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” Statements such as this are reminiscent of the empty promises of cult leaders promising special, magical events for their followers. They have no basis in reality, none whatsoever.

Let’s probe a little deeper into this serious question, and it is serious for the very future of human civilization may depend on what occurs in the next few years and decades. For now let’s ignore the deniers, who simply want to discount the problems that face us and keep on running the world the same way it always has. Reality will soon enough rise up to squash these blissfully ignorant thoughts.

What about the Pollyannas? What do they imagine we can do to turn things around? Well, let’s take a look. As mentioned, a cap-and-trade plan is working its way through Congress. This is a means of raising revenue while punishing the “bad behavior” of the industries that support our national economy. On a scale of carrot to stick, this is a large club with a nail in it. It takes away money from energy producers at the same time it proposes that they should invest in cleaner alternatives. Assuming the government remains true to form and squanders the money on social programs or elsewhere, that will only beggar our energy sector and raise costs to consumers. In the long run it will threaten our very supplies of energy, creating future brownouts and possibly catastrophic power failures. If things get bad enough some areas may lose power completely.

The underlying concept of the cap-and-trade plan appears to be that if only energy companies that burn fossil fuels are punished, they will immediately change their ways. The Rabbit of Unreasonable Hope will hop out of the hat and all our troubles will be forgotten as we enjoy a wonderful future world of clean and sustainable energy. Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Consider that our present energy sector has been built up over more than a hundred years and represents a huge investment. To sweep away and replace that infrastructure will take lots of money, and more importantly, lots of time. We are woefully short of both. What do we do in the meantime? Well, each of us better prepare for energy that is more expensive, more scarce, and more of a burden on the budgets of the American people.

I will state the obvious: The time to have begun to change our energy system was two or three generations ago, not today when the wolf is already howling outside the door.

Another initiative now wending its way through the halls of Congress is a major push for high-speed rail systems, trains able to swish across the landscape at more than 200 m.p.h. to replace highway commuting. Again, this is a very expensive, very long-term idea. And who says it would even have much value, except possibly as a phony way of “stimulating” the economy by creating make-work jobs and juicy contracts? In a future world of reduced expectations, who is to say that most people would demand to be able to travel at warp speed to visit Grandma? Perhaps citizens of the future will be content to slow down the hectic pace of their lives and travel at a more sedate pace. Who is to say they would even want to travel by rail at all?

Twenty-nine years ago in his groundbreaking book The Third Wave, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote of the coming end of the industrial era (which he termed the “second wave;” the emergence of agriculture was the first wave). In his view the old world order would be replaced by new lifestyles based in part on telecommuting, teleconferencing, and other more efficient alternatives to the model in which people felt obliged to spend half their lives traveling from one place to another, a form of behavior encouraged by cheap and plentiful petroleum. Since that book appeared, the incredible growth of the World Wide Web and computers having become ubiquitous in nearly every home and office have brought Toffler’s “third wave” into reality—so is this the time to turn backward and begin to recreate the “second wave”? No, I don’t think so and yet in too many instances that is what the proponents of direct action against our climate, energy and environmental problems seem bent on doing.

If we want to reduce energy requirements, which is the most practical choice: A) to invest a few hundred billion or perhaps a trillion dollars or more to build and operate a system of bullet trains that few may actually need, or B) to encourage and reward greater use of tele-communications as an alternative to travel? Seems like a pretty easy choice to me, but the key is what will really happen? Right now, businesses are scaling back their travel budgets. Corporations are unloading their jets and setting up simple and effective teleconferencing systems to replace face-to-face meetings. Assuming that in ten or fifteen years a system of high-speed railways is in place, do you think companies will begin to send their staff out on the road again, after trimming travel budgets to an almost insignificant line item? To emulate a model dating back to the 19th century? No.

So who will use these high-speed monstrosities? For one thing, they will by no means connect every place in the nation, mainly just the major cities in the East and along the Pacific coast. The cost will be shared by all, but the benefits, if any, will be limited to the liberal BosWash corridor and the West Coast cities. Most everywhere else will still be reachable only by other means, if at all.

Similarly, we appear to be engaging in the paradoxical and conflicting aims of discouraging the widespread future use of automobiles, while at the same time proposing to virtually rebuild the deteriorating Interstate Highway System. Will we really need the Interstates fifteen, twenty or thirty years from now? Will it be worth the cost? Well, if travel continues to decline, probably not. The fact that this effort has been tied to the “stimulus” mantra indicates it is merely a way for the government to throw money around, in this case into the hands of contractors who build roads and bridges and, not incidentally, contribute to political campaign coffers.

Look closely enough at most of the proposals being floated around and they appear to be pork barrel programs through which politicians transfer money into the hands of constituents. The potential of these programs to solve climate and environmental problems is minuscule. It’s the money that counts, the flow of cash, some of which is sure to end up in the hands of the political pork pushers.

Taking a global perspective, the way ahead is even more murky. Let us assume that the United States does all of these many things and that at great economic and social cost we are able to significantly reduce our emissions of CO². Will that change the future of the Earth? Not really, for unless you believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy we can expect that China and India and other “developing nations” will continue down the road of re-inventing the industrial era. China puts new, dirty coal-burning power plants on-line at the rate of about two a week. Even in advanced regions, European nations such as Germany and Great Britain have failed to meet their already stingy goals under the Kyoto Accords.

And anyway, climate scientists are beginning to agree that it is probably too late to solve the problem through reductions in CO² emissions. The thawing tundra of the Arctic may well boost greenhouse gas to new heights even if human emissions were somehow stopped dead. To have an impact we would not only have to reduce or completely eliminate emissions, but also somehow (and there is no credible engineering or scientific model as to how it might be done) reverse the process by removing huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

It is a disagreeable fact that the only thing that will slow the rise of the oceans and allow the healing of the Earth to begin is for economic and social disaster to bring the world economy to a screeching halt, and keep it that way. Fortunately for the Earth—if not for we mere humans—something like that is going to happen, if not quite soon at least not very far in the future. And because of a simple fact that politicians and others don’t talk about very much, that prediction is not some mere conspiracy theory, but a virtual certainty. That fact is that the Earth is running out of resources on which to continue to run the industrial, growth-oriented economies that have been the model of the past. Without adequate water, soil, iron, aluminum, lead, platinum, oil, natural gas and all the other raw materials upon which our industrial economy depends the growth cannot continue.

Economist Herbert Stein, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, once said: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” That could almost be a motto for Star Phoenix Base, for I have been beating on that drum for three years. All of the natural resources mentioned above and more are being used up to feed a flawed economic model that absolutely requires growth. Because resources are not infinite, growth cannot be sustained, thus causing the entire structure to collapse. Many basic resources have already passed their Hubbert peaks, are becoming scarce and prohibitively expensive, and in many cases will virtually disappear in the foreseeable future.

We are in the process of entering a post-resources era. When that happens, will it matter that we may have taxed our energy producers out of business, that we may have constructed high-speed rail systems at great expense, that we may have re-built an obsolete Interstate highway system originally built more than a half century ago to provide mobility for our armies in the case of invasion by the Soviet Union? No, it won’t, not if the motors of human civilization have come to a screeching halt, never to turn again for lack of resources.

Change is coming, and the future will be vastly different from our familiar world. But unless we find different paths, the change will not owe much if anything to what is presently being proposed. The cost of facilitating sweeping change is too high, the time in which to do it too short. The needs are now and we are beginning to address the challenges far too late to avert disaster. We cannot expect to enjoy a smooth transition from the old order to whatever future awaits. Therefore we can expect it to be a rough transition. It’s coming whether we want it or not, and nothing we do can stop it. But making desperate and wrong-headed eff0rts aimed at shoring up the old industrial system will only make things worse.

Deniers and Pollyannas alike had better be ready for an emerging new world order beyond anything they could dream of even in the sweaty throes of psychotic nightmare. Because we will soon have used up most of the resources of the Earth, that future must be starkly different from the past.

Toffler no doubt imagined his “third wave” would carry civilization into new heights of achievement for many centuries, just as first wave and second wave advances transformed civilization. Sadly, I suspect his “third wave” has already peaked and an unanticipated and destructive “fourth wave”  is beginning to emerge. In fact, you can bet on it.

I’ll leave you with this quotation from Benjamin Disraeli: “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” But the real problem is getting the ignorant to make that connection to self-realization.

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