Statistical Insignificance
25 months ago, Andrew Simms, Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF), warned that there are only 100 months to save the planet. Writing in the Guardian today, he reminds us that there are only 75 months of his deadline remaining…
To minimise the danger of alarmism, but without hiding from the facts, we set our parameters to assume that humanity would be on the lucky end of the spectrum of environmental risk. We were optimistic, perhaps too much so, about the speed and likelihood with which ecological dominoes might fall in a warming world. Nevertheless, what we found was startling. One hundred months on from August 2008 we were set to cross an atmospheric threshold.
Simms tells us nothing new, of course. The story is merely in the significance we attach to each month as though it were a meaningful period — a quantum of progress towards doom — such as with the date of a wedding anniversary, birthday, or moment of historical importance like an independence day. But each of these forms of significant dates ask us to remember something that happened while Simms’ miserable little countdown asks us to remember something that he promises will happen. Its significance depends rather on what you think will happen. Dates of historical importance become ways of reflecting on shared values, and perspectives. As we’ve pointed out before, political environmentalism struggles to give itself historical importance, and so borrows significance from events and heroes from the early-mid 20th Century to compare itself to them — World War II, moon landings, the Suffragettes. Or it simply creates a mythology from scratch: natural order; tipping-points; balance; biodiversity; and sustainability.
And the eco-mythology in Simms’s prose is stark. He claims that he intended to ‘minimise the danger of alarmism’, yet if you visit the site set up by him and the NEF at http://www.onehundredmonths.org/ you will even find a a calander counting down to the deadline, clicking with each passing second. Each tick…tick…tick a notch closer to… what, if not alarm? And as for ‘ecological dominoes’… The natural world is no doubt full of interdependent systems, but Simms’s allusion to them depending on each other like so many carefully arranged slabs here is simply crass.
Without such imagery and mythology of course, the ‘new economics’ — i.e. ‘new politics’ — that Simms and the NEF want to argue for, really do collapse. The NEF’s arguments for poltical and economic change really are precariously arranged, such that the moment their alarmism topples over, so to do the arguments for what they call ‘progress’. Simms sees fragility in the world. But he projects his own insecurity onto it.
More mythology…
The accumulation and concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would make it more likely that global average temperatures would rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. That point was significant because 2 degrees is generally thought to be the temperature around which a number of complex environmental changes start to feed off each other, making their dynamics harder to predict and harder to control.
Let us understand Simms correctly… 2 degrees is significant because it is ‘generally thought’ to be significant. But 2 degrees too, is an arbitrary figure. Why not 1.9,1.95, or 1.975? What is it that causes 2 degrees to be the significant figure, such that the arrangement of ‘ecological dominoes’ is vulnerable to this degree of change? The answer is not something as definitive as the boiling point of water, or melting point of wax — something which causes a qualitative transformation of substance or mode. Instead it’s a political target that has been later given through some superficially empirical reasoning. It’s just convenient, just like ‘100 months’ is convenient. 2 and 100 are numbers which lend themselves easily to campaign efforts, like slogans. They give superficial parameters, or goals, but don’t actually have any foundation in science.
Simms concludes,
And what will the future look like? The severe droughts during August in Russia, and the huge floods in Pakistan may not be directly, causally related to current patterns in warming (although their scale and severity might well have been influenced by it).
But these are the kind of extreme events set to become more common in a warming world. High and volatile food prices are another intimation of the weakening security we all face.
Simms would never let a good crises go unexploited. There is no reason why the ‘kind of extreme events’ seen in Russia and Pakistan this summer could be entirely eliminated. The world could produce a surplus of grain, and Pakistan’s civil infrastructure could be developed, such that people could be at least protected from so much moving water. It’s worth pointing out that problems of drought are fundamentally problems of relying on natural processes for sustenance – which the NEF want us to do more of. But increasing our dependence on natural processes necessarily means risking more to the whims and changes of nature, making us more vulnerable to what happened in Russia, not less. In the case of Pakistan, once again it has been shown that it is those who live ‘sustainable’, ‘low-impact’ lifestyles who are most vulnerable to nature. It’s people who live under those ‘ecological dominoes’.

25 months ago, Andrew Simms, Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF), warned that there are only 100 months to save the planet. Writing in the Guardian today, he reminds us that there are only 75 months of his deadline remaining

To minimise the danger of alarmism, but without hiding from the facts, we set our parameters to assume that humanity would be on the lucky end of the spectrum of environmental risk. We were optimistic, perhaps too much so, about the speed and likelihood with which ecological dominoes might fall in a warming world. Nevertheless, what we found was startling. One hundred months on from August 2008 we were set to cross an atmospheric threshold.

Simms tells us nothing new, of course. The story is merely in the significance we attach to each month as though it were a meaningful period — a quantum of progress towards doom — such as with the date of a wedding anniversary, birthday, or moment of historical importance like an independence day. But each of these forms of significant dates ask us to remember something that happened while Simms’ miserable little countdown asks us to remember something that he promises will happen. Its significance depends rather on what you think will happen. Dates of historical importance become ways of reflecting on shared values, and perspectives. As we’ve pointed out before, political environmentalism struggles to give itself historical importance, and so borrows significance from events and heroes from the early-mid 20th Century to compare itself to them — World War II, moon landings, the Suffragettes. Or it simply creates a mythology from scratch: natural order; tipping-points; balance; biodiversity; and sustainability.

And the eco-mythology in Simms’s prose is stark. He claims that he intended to ‘minimise the danger of alarmism’, yet if you visit the site set up by him and the NEF at http://www.onehundredmonths.org you will even find a calander counting down to the deadline, clicking with each passing second. Each tick…tick…tick a notch closer to… what, if not alarm? And as for ‘ecological dominoes’… The natural world is no doubt full of interdependent systems, but Simms’s allusion to them depending on each other like so many carefully arranged slabs here is simply crass. Without such crass imagery and mythology, the ‘new economics’ — i.e. ‘new politics’ — that Simms and the NEF want to argue for, really do collapse. The NEF’s arguments for poltical and economic change really are precariously arranged, such that the moment their alarmism topples over, so to do the arguments for what they call ‘progress’. Simms sees fragility in the world. But he projects his own insecurity onto it.

More mythology…

The accumulation and concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would make it more likely that global average temperatures would rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. That point was significant because 2 degrees is generally thought to be the temperature around which a number of complex environmental changes start to feed off each other, making their dynamics harder to predict and harder to control.

Let us understand Simms correctly… 2 degrees is significant because it is ‘generally thought’ to be significant. But 2 degrees too, is an arbitrary figure. Why not 1.9,1.95, or 1.975? What is it that causes 2 degrees to be the significant figure, such that the arrangement of ‘ecological dominoes’ is vulnerable to this degree of change? The answer is not something as definitive as the boiling point of water, or melting point of wax — something which causes a qualitative transformation of substance or mode. Instead it’s a political target that has been later given through some superficially empirical reasoning. It’s just convenient, just like ‘100 months’ is convenient. 2 and 100 are numbers which lend themselves easily to campaign efforts, like slogans. They give superficial parameters, or goals, but don’t actually have any foundation in science.

Simms concludes,

And what will the future look like? The severe droughts during August in Russia, and the huge floods in Pakistan may not be directly, causally related to current patterns in warming (although their scale and severity might well have been influenced by it).

But these are the kind of extreme events set to become more common in a warming world. High and volatile food prices are another intimation of the weakening security we all face.

Simms would never let a good crises go unexploited. But there is no reason why the ‘kind of extreme events’ seen in Russia and Pakistan this summer could be entirely eliminated. The world could have easily produced a surplus of grain, and Pakistan’s civil infrastructure could have been developed, such that people could be at least protected from so much moving water. It’s what didn’t happen which cause these problems, not what nature threw at the world. It’s worth pointing out that problems of drought are fundamentally problems of relying on natural processes for sustenance – which the NEF want us to do more of. But increasing our dependence on natural processes necessarily means risking more to the whims and changes of nature, making us more vulnerable to what happened in Russia, not less. In the case of Pakistan, once again it has been shown that it is those who live ‘sustainable’, ‘low-impact’ lifestyles — advocated by the NEF — who are most vulnerable to nature. It’s poor people who live under those ‘ecological dominoes’, not the policy directors of self-regarding ‘think’ tanks.

11 Responses to Statistical Insignificance

  • You’re back. And with a tidy summary of NEF alarmism too. Good!

    I have to admit that, while I maintain a rational facade, the mere mention of the NEF or Simms has the inner me chewing its fingers off.

    Perhaps when the remaining 75 months have expired, Simms will be good enough to explain what went wrong with his absurd, anti-scientific prediction and publicly retract and apologise.

    I know, I’m being silly.

    Dominic

  • But there is no reason why the ‘kind of extreme events’ seen in Russia and Pakistan this summer could be entirely eliminated….do not forget the drought in the Amazonas Basin and the floating ice cubes.

    The world could have easily produced a surplus of grain, … and cotton? and potatoes? and 2 to 3 million heads of cattle lost?

    and Pakistan’s civil infrastructure could have been developed,

    you dont have a protection against mass flows of solid rock not mud flows ….rock flows your biggest dam can’t support a 20 ton’s impulsion per square inch and you dont create big dam’s in the rockies only small ones

    constructions for extreme events does not pop out from the land are very expensive New Orleans have feable defenses in comparasion with the netherland (Dutch) and the hazards are high

    such that people could be at least protected from so much moving water…..and mud and solid rock and turbulent flow and speed’s of 60 miles
    really????
    ok

    [EDITED FOR CLARITY BY ADMIN]

  • Banda n’Bolota seems keen to stress the impossibility of responding to environmental crisis.

    But he misreads my point. I talked about protecting people from the disaster, not necessarily ruling out the possibility of damage to the landscape altogether. He raises the case of New Orleans, but this doesn’t help his point. First, Katrina did so much damage because poor maintenance had allowed levees to be breached. Second, although the area was quickly inundated, causing a vast amount of damage, compared to events of similar magnitude in poorer parts of the world, many fewer people died. Third, it was not beyond the means of the US to pull people out of NO. It didn’t happen because poor organisation prevented it — Katrina could have been a much smaller disaster had contingencies been better arranged, and if the protection had received sufficient investment.

    Of course, in Pakistan, the creation of infrastructure to cope with such a huge deluge over such an expanse of land would be a major — perhaps even unprecedented — effort. But water management infrastructure in any country did not happen overnight. In more developed regions, the means to carry away or store water was built over the course of decades, if not centuries. In the UK, it still happens — as do the occasional flood. Banda n’Bota imagines something standing in the way of the torrent at its most extreme, but there’s no need for such a comparison, because infrastructure further upstream could have slowed, held back, or diverted water, lessening the impact downstream. Furthermore, such infrastructure could allow for advanced warning of anything that would threaten to overcome whatever protection was put in place.

    He is right to say, however, that infrastructure is very expensive. And that is precisely our point. The focus then, should not be on ‘reducing our impact’ on the premise that it will prevent the risks of such events increasing, but instead should be on creating the possibility of such infrastructure being put in place: the creation of wealth. Simms rejects that principle.

  • From the main article:

    ‘Pakistan’s civil infrastructure could have been developed, such that people could be at least protected from so much moving water. It’s what didn’t happen which cause these problems, not what nature threw at the world.’

    As I understand it, the lack of civil infrastructure was only part of the problem.

    Decades of excessive diversion from the Indus to irrigate ever-expanding field systems slowed the flow, caused silt deposition that raised the river bed. The shallower channel exacerbated the flooding.

    Further, decades of deforestation, especially higher up the Indus valley, meant more and worse landslides – some of the ‘mass flows of solid rock’ banda n’bolota refers to above. The trees were felled for fuel and building materials.

    Finally, Pakistan’s population has grown and more people were in harm’s way.

    Like most disasters, nothing is really as simple as A B C.

    Dominic

  • I didn’t intend the article to be a comprehensive account of what happened in Pakistan, and how it could be avoided. As interesting as it is, I confess that I don’t know enough about it, as I’ve been too busy to follow the development of things there. It may also be premature.

    The reason I pointed it out was because Simms did. He seemed to be using the case to argue about the inevitability of such things, and their increasing, while my point is that development is the fundamental factor determining the human outcome of ‘natural’ disasters. Simms prefer that we try to ‘stabilise’ climatic systems, rather than develop the means to protect ourselves from them. I see his as a dangerous prophecy which may create the very thing it intends to avoid. Less wealth means more ‘natural’ disasters.

  • You call environmentalism a mythology created from scratch. “And what’s wrong with that?” many environmentalists – at least the Stern and the Strong among them – might retort, “if it leads mankind on the paths of righteousness?”
    Mythology has played an important part in rendering a complex world comprehensible to man, not because it’s true, of course, but because it provided an intellectual structure around which society could coalesce, formulate ideas, and – dare one say it – progress. Simms’ world-view hardly deserves such a title. “Miserable little countdown” is much nearer the mark – a ritual act borrowed from the golden age of space exploration, as interesting as the scratches made by the condemned man on the wall of his prison cell.

  • Ben, I’m sorry; I wasn’t having a go.

    You say above: ‘my point is that development is the fundamental factor determining the human outcome of ‘natural’ disasters’. I completely agree. The human factors I describe worsened the toll of the Pakistan flood substantially. Improved infrastructure would have saved lives.

    You say: ‘less wealth means more ‘natural’ disasters’. Again I agree. See above.

    Simms clings to the absurd belief that just because he believes in a ‘decarbonised economy’ that China, India, Brazil and Indonesia will immediately cease industrialising. That is delusional and a prime indicator of just how far away from reality Simms and his co-fantasists have now got.

    Dominic

    You do not say that Simms is a buffoon and an alarmist one at that. I admire your self-control.

  • Dom – I know, I just wanted to be clear about what I was saying.

    Geoff – I think it’s implied that Simms and co make a poor and transparent attempt at constructing myths.

  • I think Simms is a post-modern necromancer. He’s proclaiming the beast’s future death from its entrails.

  • Andrew Simms started his countdown to doomsday in Augut 1998, citing Churchill and Roosevelt and saying:
    “I don’t want you to panic, but […] in just 100 months’ time, if we are lucky, and based on a quite conservative estimate, we could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change”.
    A month later, he reported that:
    “The response to pointing this out was astonishing. In just the first three weeks, via the website, more than 135,000 people … signed either themselves up to take regular monthly actions on climate change, or were directly asked to do so by friends”.
    Commenter Roger pointed out that:
    “The Guardian’s own attempt at spreading climate delusionism – the “Tread Lightly” campaign, launched with big fanfare, attracted just 4000 ‘world-savers’ over a year (most of whom ‘signed up’ in the first couple of weeks) and was quietly put out of its misery a few weeks ago after near total lack of interest”.
    Since when Simms’ own campaign has been quietly put out of its misery, and replaced by the Guardian’s 10:10 campaign.
    For people worried about the state of the world in 2050, they have an extraordinarily short attention span.

  • Had we evolved with 8 fingers (including thumbs) then we would probably be using Base 8 for our number system and not Base 10. Therefore he would have chosen 100 in Base 8 for the number of months which would have given us only 64 months to save the planet ! That’s how arbitrary it all is.

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