Infinite Regress

In a recent post, we looked at some of Green MEP Caroline Lucas’s arguments for action on climate change. One of them has stuck with us as especially absurd, and merits further attention:

this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet. 

This appeal to ‘physics’ pops up frequently in environmental debates. Interestingly, it’s a tactic also popular with Creationists and their ilk, who cite Newton’s second law of thermodynamics to suggest that evolution contradicts fundamental physical truths. In each case, a woolly argument about how the world should be is patched up with sciency-sounding facts, figures and laws. This is not the tactic of groups confident about their political position; it is a sign of the desperation of groups that are failing to capture the imagination of the world’s population.

In Lucas’s world, the appeal to physics is used as an argument against economic growth and technological development. It is principally a criticism of capitalism, which requires growth and is, therefore, inherently environmentally destructive. It is worth repeating a point we made at the time. The objection to capitalism on the grounds that it contradicts physical laws is a departure from prior objections to capitalism from the Left and is not a criticism of the kind that we would expect the Left to produce. Instead of offering a description of social problems – for example poverty – arising from the social relations produced by capitalism, Lucas seeks to explain social phenomena in terms of geological and biological processes. This is similar to James Garvey’s claims in The Ethics of Climate Change, which appeals to scientific authority to make a case for environmental determinism. In Lucas’s argument, there is a causal chain, from capitalism, via the natural world, to social problems such as poverty, which can be described ‘scientifically’.

Lucas might argue that she could hold both positions simultaneously. But if that were the case, why would it be necessary to emphasise the environmental aspect, let alone mention it at all, given that the social, human-centric perspective is a lot more powerful? The major reason is that the two perspectives are irreconcilable. One looks at social problems as the product of social relations, the other looks at social problems as the consequence of exceeding ‘natural’ limits – ‘unsustainability’. They are further contradictory because we can conceive of non-capitalist growth which is, in the green lexicon, ‘environmentally unfriendly’, but which produces a social good – we could build dams, relocate cities away from coasts, reclaim coasts, create ways for the developing world to have much cheaper access to energy and industrialise agricultural production, and so on. We can also conceive of capitalist growth that is environmentally destructive and yet produces a social good. After all, it’s not as if cars and labour-saving devices and all that stuff have no utility and have been foisted upon people against their will. And it’s not as if economic and technological growth has occurred against a backdrop of lower living standards and declining indicators of social progress. On the contrary, things have got better and better. Lucas – who is unable to make the argument that things are worse in order to challenge capitalism – needs to make the argument that things are about to get worse, and that development of any kind is necessarily environmentally destructive, and so creates a haunting spectre of ‘unsustainability’ and imminent social, ecological and economic collapse.

In this respect, Lucas does not offer us a principled objection to capitalism – she claims that it is wrong in the same way that arguments against gravity would be wrong. Whatever your thoughts about capitalism happen to be, and even if you still believe that environmentalism is a continuation of socialism, it is worth recognising environmentalism’s distance from the traditional Left. It highlights the Left’s political exhaustion, and the environmental movement’s intellectual bankruptcy.

On a similar note, it is not true that notions of sustainable development are antithetical to the economic Right or capitalism. After all Malthus, on whose ideas Lucas’s are based, was a classical economist, whose ideas were debunked by Marx himself. More contemporary conservatives have also embraced the rhetoric of ‘sustainability:

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century 

The second problem with Lucas’s argument is that her conception of ‘resources’ is itself flawed. Malthusians – especially environmentalists – misconceive resources as ‘substance’. In a finite universe, never mind a finite world, all substances are of course finite. If our ‘dependence’ on Earth’s resources are ‘unsustainable’ because they are finite, then so too would our much more real dependence on solar, wind and tidal power, be ultimately unsustainable. They are not merely unsustainable in the sense that one day the sun – which drives all renewable sources – will collapse, they are also unsustainable because continued and increasing dependence on this form of energy itself cannot be sustained against growing numbers of people – there is only a limited amount of recoverable energy entering the system at any time. According to environmentalists, this is why we must therefore limit the number of people and ration the amount of energy they are entitled to. We are in favour of some of the large projects which have been conceived of as part of a ‘post-carbon economy’ for their own sake, particularly the idea of large, solar energy collecting arrays. Covering the uninhabited land of the Sahara with solar panels, for example, might provide 50 times the power used currently across the globe. But such projects, including hydro-electric, are met by environmentalists with anxiety about the environmental destruction that large scale developments necessarily cause. And, as we have seen, Environmentalists are against environmental destruction, even where it produces a social benefit.

And anyway, development itself is not intrinsically bad for nature. First, as economies develop, they are inclined to pay increasing attention to the environmental effects of development as wealth allows. Compare the once filthy development in the West to the comparatively cleaner industries of today. Even the destructive process of open-cast mining reinstates wilderness. Indeed, yesterday’s open cast mines are today’s nature reserves. They are clean ecological slates on which Mother Nature can work her magic of colonisation and succession, and are often home to rare, specialist species that are not found elsewhere. Similarly, landfill sites are recovered and repopulated with trees, and what’s more, nobody would want to develop on top of them, whereas nature hardly cares. Second, technological development allows for the possibility of moving away from a dependence on natural processes, resulting in a reduced industrial footprint as both science and economics permit. It would not require a leap of imagination to consider the shifting away from rural agriculture, to an indoor process, under perfect conditions. The reason for not doing that now is that ‘solar power’ makes using fields for crop production far cheaper. But a more abundant form of power would render such forms of production obsolete and inefficient. Of course, organic food faddists would baulk at the idea of lentils grown indoors. But such a step would create the possibility of safer, healthier, more plentiful food, protected from pests and other natural problems, and, of course, would be environmentally non-destructive. This would be a ‘green revolution’ second to none, as agricultural land would be freed up for other uses, including, if we so wished, nature conservation. What environmentalists should be calling for is a world-wide push for new ways of producing more and more energy, and more wealth, not arguing that it should be rationed and limited. Rationing is a guaranteed way to cause environmental problems. That they don’t reinforces the idea that Environmentalism is less about saving the planet per se and more to do with a discomfort with human aspirations.

Access to substance and its existence in sufficient quantities are only part of what constitutes a resource. The remainder is intellectual. Lucas herself must recognise this to some extent, because, as she knows only too well, methods such as domestic solar panels are not currently economically viable alternatives to centralised, fossil-fuel power generation. She argues that huge investments and massive infrastructural changes are needed to develop technology, and for the economics to be adjusted to make alternatives viable. So in this respect, solar energy and other renewables are not yet the ‘resources’ that she hopes them to become. So Lucas’s argument for renewable resources to be exploited in place of fossil fuels is predicated on a transformed relationship with a substance, and the development of the technology to make that exploitation possible. She cannot deny, then, that politics – as much as physics – are what determines which substances are resources.

Back to Lucas’s blind faith in the laws of physics… 500 years ago, oil was not a resource. Neither was uranium. People around at the time didn’t know how to use them. Things that weren’t resources became resources. Our ability to use new resources made old resources obsolete. Now, no home in the UK needs to burn wood for heat, for example. Or, as Bjørn Lomborg has put it, the Stone Age didn’t come to an end because we ran out of stones. What Malthusians forget is that development begats development. After all, you don’t make a jump from rubbing twigs together to atomic energy. Critics of this perspective on this site suggest that this represents some form of contemporary Lysenkoism – that blind faith in science’s ability to rescue us from future resource depletion is a dangerous, politically-motivated folly. They argue that science will not be able to continually provide ‘techno-fixes’ to the problems which emerge from our ways of life. We must come up against some ceiling sooner or later, the logic goes.

But anxiety about ‘growing indefinitely on a finite planet’ forgets that our abilities to make use of the finite space and finite resources increases the effective space and amount of resources that are available. And there is a colossal amount of space, and an abundance of resources out there. For example, we hear a lot about the looming ‘water wars’ that are to be fought because of apparent shortages. A quick look at any map will reveal that the Earth isn’t running out of it any time soon. The problem is simply technological. Instead of concerning themselves with how to provide for a growing population by coming up with desalination, distribution and irrigation schemes, the environmental movement instead uses the prospect of conflict to arm its arguments in favour of restricting development and of rationing what water comes our way through natural processes. What better way could there be of guaranteeing a ‘natural’ disaster than limiting the supply of resources – super abundant resources, never mind oil – to human populations? Environmentalists simultaneously warn of shortages, yet stand in the way of developing any alternatives that might not last ‘indefinitely’. There is only one way out of the resource-depletion scenario that is presented, they say, reduce the number of people, and the amount of resources they are entitled to.

What environmentalists refuse to consider is what a resource- and energy-abundant society might be like. What if stuff in the world just got cheaper? What if access to water and energy wasn’t an issue for anyone in the world? Perhaps, just perhaps, it is this very democratisation of resource use that the environmental movement is a response to. The possibilities that are opened up by technological development for our way of life and our politics are the real locus of anxieties about the future.

Environmentalists demand an impossibly high standard. Nothing the human race has ever done to improve its conditions has been ‘sustainable’. As technologies have changed our lives, and created new problems, so too have new politics arisen out of these changing conditions. If this process had been stalled during any era on the basis that it was unsustainable, we would still be living in stone-age conditions, with stone-age politics – at least, that is, until we really did run out of stones.

The Ethics of 'the Ethics of Climate Change'

James Garvey didn’t like Ben’s review of his book on Culture Wars. But instead of responding to it, he seems to have merely laid out the same argument again.

Science can give us a grip on the fact of climate change. (For a start, have a look here: http://www.ipcc.ch/). We know that temperatures are rising; the sea level is rising too; sea ice is thinning; permafrost is melting; glaciers are in world-wide retreat; ElNino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense; and on and on. We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards. It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

Again, Garvey defers the understanding of the problem to ‘science’, and directs us to the IPCC. There are two main problems with this. First, the IPCC is not beyond scientific challenge as Garvey suggests it is. Second, the imperatives seemingly generated by that scientific definition of the problems – even if the science is true – do not follow necessarily from it. Yes, we may well be inducing climate change, but there may be – in fact, there is – a moral argument that places industrial and economic development over mitigation, in spite of its effect on the environment. Garvey just doesn’t get it. But science cannot and must not be allowed to generate moral and political imperatives. To allow it to do so is to undermine Garvey’s own discipline. In doing so, the best he can offer from moral philosophy is a reduction of complicated scientific, political, and economic arguments to facile comparisons of ‘business as usual’ to ‘standing around, watching a child drown’. Garvey’s inconsequential and trite prose isn’t moral philosophy, it is just standard moral posturing.

But, if Garvey wants to wave science around as a moral weapon, let us look at his understanding of the ‘science’. He says that “we know that…”

“… temperatures are rising”.
But we also know that they are falling. It’s very clear from the following graph that temperatures are lower in recent months (in fact, lower than at any point) than they were a decade ago, according to any of the four main observations. There doesn’t seem to have been much warming over the period either. Of course, this is not to say that there is ‘no such thing as man-made global warming’. The problem is with factoids like ‘temperatures are rising’ being used to arm moral and political arguments. Facts and data require interpretation. Factoids require bins.


“… the sea level is rising”

As indeed they have been for quite some time, at various rates. As IPCC TAR shows there has been 120 meters of sea level rise in the last 20 thousand years. Sea level rose nearly 20cm over the last century – little, if any of which could be attributed to global warming – without too much fuss. Why is it suddenly so problematic? Whether or not human CO2 has contributed to sea-level rise, and whether or not it will continue to, or make things worse, mitigation will have very little effect in the near and mid term, and the problem of ‘natural’ sea level rise will still exist, regardless of what we do or do not do.


“… sea ice is thinning”
Arctic ice extent – not thinning – does seem to be following a negative trend.

But the Antarctic shows the opposite trend.

So to what extent can we say “sea ice is thinning”? What was the rate ‘before’, and how is it different now? What ‘should’ it be doing? In fact, there isn’t much data available. AsIPCC AR4 reports, “Thickness data, especially from submarines, are available but restricted to the central Arctic, where they indicate thinning of approximately 40% between the period 1958 to 1977 and the 1990s. This is likely an overestimate of the thinning over the entire arctic region however.” There is no substance to the claim that Garvey makes. The science is most certainly not in.

“… permafrost is melting”
While this poses some practical problems for people, melting permafrost also creates positives, with new areas being opened up for human use in agriculture. Expensive action to mitigate climate change creates little or no net benefit, especially given that we are, apparently, committed to some level of climate change, leaving fewer resources available to local adaptation. As we often say, ‘environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy’. We mitigate at the expense of our ability to adapt, which makes it a destructive folly. Garvey can only think of one course of action to follow because he needs there to be a black-and-white matter of absolutes and imperatives. He doesn’t want us to be able to do a cost/benefit analysis on human terms. Furthermore, we know that permafrost was melting anyway, before any human-induced change.

“… glaciers are in world-wide retreat”
They were anyway. As IPCC AR4 reports “Most mountain glaciers and ice caps have been shrinking, with the retreat probably having started about 1850 [NB: the end of the ‘little ice age’]. Although many Northern Hemisphere glaciers had a few years ofnearbalance around 1970, this was followed by increased shrinkage.”

“… El Nino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense”.
This is simply nonsense. Here is a graph, plotting ENO since 1950

There has not been any unusually intense or persistent El Nino event since 1997/8. A graph we posted back in April shows the danger of looking at ENO to substantiate claims made about anthropogenic global warming.


This goes to show that temperatures are more closely related to ENO than temperatures are related to CO2, let alone ENO is related to CO2. Hence the Hadley Centre’s making of some fairly safe bets, but changing them, not as new scientific evidence emerges, but according to what they expect theENO to do in the near future, or is already doing. Claims made by sceptics that the effects
of the current ENO as it enters a negative episode, since last year, yielded temperature anomalies much lower than in recent years (in fact, very much average at near zero), have been waved away by alarmists claiming that they are the result of ‘natural variability’. So, isENO the product of anthropogenic CO2, or the source of natural variability? This is a question Garvey does not seem to ask nor answer, yet wants to draw moral authority from, as though it had been answered.

From the science, Garvey moves on to the human effects, as if they were inevitable.

We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards. It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

The first thing to point out is that an ‘environmental refugee’ is not the same thing as a ‘climate change refugee’, let alone a human-induced-climate-change refugee. The claim that people are ‘already suffering as a result of climate change’ is totally unsupported. Climate is a problem for people, regardless of whether it is changing or not. The Red Cross, never mind scientists, however noble their intentions, cannot make the distinction between a human caused climate event, and a ‘natural’ climate change event. And what is spectacularly absent from this kind of calculation is the extent to which industrialisation – the process which has put distance between environmental effects and human suffering, and which is blamed for causing climate change – has obviously reduced the extent of human suffering. It has brought benefits to a great deal more people than 25 million, and is evidently what is missing from the lives of the vast majority of those 25 million ‘climate refugees’. It is this absence of development which is the problem, not the fact of different climatic conditions. But without this form of environmental determinism, Garvey cannot make a case that climate change demands a new ethical perspective on ‘equality’.

Science can give us the facts, but we need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more has at least a little to do with what we think is right, with justice, with responsibility, with what we value, with what matters to us. You cannot find that sort of thing in an ice core. You have to think your way through it. It helps to start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing.

And without that form of environmental determinism to provide him with imperatives, Garvey would find it very difficult to explain what ‘justice’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘values’ actually are. It is only in the face of a problem that he can generate any meaning to provide these terms with. He can’t conceive, for example, of an argument for equality in human terms, he needs environmental crisis in order to legitimise an argument for negative equality. He can’t conceive of an argument for justice without a crime. Not, notice, a crime against a person, but a crime against the environment, which is later visited on people by consequence. This is ‘environmental justice’. He cannot conceive of any human values without connecting humans to the environment. This empty perspective is finally shown in his appeal that we ‘start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing’ – he cannot conceive of big things like solving the material inequalities that allow people to suffer from the effects of climate. He cannot conceive of a genuine form of justice, where people are protected from the climate. He doesn’t value that sort of justice. He doesn’t think we have that kind of responsibility. This ‘thinking small’ mentality barely registers as even thinking at all. According to this ‘small’ doctrine, justice is done, equality is achieved, and your responsibilities are met by having a shower instead of bath, recycling your newspapers, and not using plastic bags. Who would have thought that ending world poverty was so spectacularly easy?

If walking past a drowning child is wrong, particularly when one is well-placed to help, then the West is doing something wrong by carrying on with business as usual. It amounts to walking past, to doing nothing, in the face of human suffering. It stands out even more given the West’s capacity to do the right thing. Maybe it’s a kind of moral outrage.

Garvey compares our ‘inaction’ on climate change to walking past the drowning child. Perhaps Garvey doesn’t sense any problem with this patronisation of both his readers and those he wishes to save from climate change.

Yes, the industrialised world can help the developing world. But, only by virtue of its industrialisation – the very thing that ‘the ethics of climate change’ asks us to turn back the clock on. All he has to offer the poorer inhabitants of the planet – assuming firstly that the ‘science’ is true, and secondly that mitigation will have any noticeable effect – is marginally different weather. Slightly different weather will not end poverty. It will not create opportunities for development, it will not even make soil more fertile, nor irrigate fields. It will not change the economic or political circumstances in the Third World. All it will do is put a greater number of the world’s population into a relationship with nature where human suffering is far more directly influenced by environmental changes; it is a necessary fact that increasing your dependence on nature makes you more vulnerable to it. As we have said before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are the ‘ethics’ of climate change. What they reveal is an intellectually bankrupt moral philosophy, which cannot conceive of the world in terms other than culpability and victimhood; it lacks a positive conception of ‘good’. This in turn reflects the political exhaustion which drives political elites towards such vapid ethical constructions to attach themselves to. It is only by jumping aboard such a hollow vessel as ‘the ethics of climate change’ that today’s politicians can claim to be offering the world anything, without actually committing themselves to anything meaningful. But in truth, this is a ship of fools.

Despite Garvey’s claims that there is more to understanding climate change than the ‘science’, without the ‘science’ narrating the apocalyptic story driving environmental ethics, there is nothing for the moral philosopher to consider; it is ‘unethical’ not to ‘do something’ to ‘combat climate change’. Therefore, the only role that ethical philosophy plays is in explaining – rather than informing – the decision to ‘act’. Garvey asks us to take the scientific ‘facts’ of the matter for granted. But the truth is there are many ways other than mitigation to approach climate problems – whether or not it is changing, and whether or not we are causing change. He claims that science provides facts which cannot be questioned. But by forcing ‘nature’ and ‘science’ between people with environmental determinism, he naturalises the way real people actually relate, and demands that people accept the limits that he sets for them, and lower their expectations. It prevents a genuine understanding of real inequalities in the world in favour of a hollow, surrogate system of ethics that exploits images of inequality for its own ends and offers nothing other than an empty promise not to make it worse.