The Art of the Possible… And the Impossible

I’m so bored… BORED… of climate change. Environmentalism is such a boring, boring, boring thing. It’s mundane. It’s banal. It obsesses about the minutiae of biological functioning only to the extent that it wants to limit the possibilities of human life, rather than extend them. And it is mean spirited — it nags you about whether children need those Christmas presents, if you need that holiday, if you really need to take the car. It’s a joyless, nihilistic chasm, which sucks the life out of life.

According to some definitions, ‘politics is the art of the possible’. I was reminded of this by two videos I came across recently.

The first is this misery-fest from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI).

Yeah. Merry Christmas.

What we have in that little animated skit from the greens is the art of the impossible. On the Post Carbon Institute’s view, “We have to live within nature’s budget of renewable resources at rates of natural replenishment.” These limits become the parameters of our existence: the complete regulation of our productive lives.

But there are other ideas in the world, which don’t seem to conform to this stifling orthodoxy.

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY from jason silva on Vimeo.

Taking his inspiration from physicist, David Deutsch, Jason Silva says, ‘If you look at the topogaphy of the island of Manhatten today, that topography is a topography in which the forces of economics and culture and human intent have trumped the forces of geology… extrapolating… that will be the fate of the whole universe.’

Trumping the forces of geology is, of course, anathema to the PCI.

I have no idea whether Jason Silva and David Deutsch would thank me for offering them as examples of thinking which sits at the opposite end of an axis to rank gutless miserablism. Perhaps the climate debate is one they would rather avoid — sensibly. It strikes me, however, that this should be the geometry of the debate about the future. To the PCI, history is a series of mistakes, which have taken us to the point of crisis. To the optimists, it is the foundation of ever greater leaps. The PCI speak of constraint, whereas the optimists speak about unleashing ever more creative potential. But there is an even more important difference.

Whereas the likes of the PCI have been able to turn their bleak vision into a system of ‘ethics’ and politics, the optimists’ ideas don’t seem to have any immediate moral consequences. There is no Intergovernmental Panel on Trumping Geology. On the contrary, there is only an intergovernmental panel on sobbing at our utter vulnerability in the face of geology. The impossibility of overcoming it — to any extent — is presupposed in the very foundations of the UNFCCC process: it discovers natural limits, and we are expected to codify them in international law. This is bizarre, not least because there are so many problems that can be faced by not taking seemingly ‘natural’ limits for granted. But also, because so much positive good cold be done in genuinely transforming the conditions of our existence by transcending such boundaries. Environmentalists seem to want them to remain in place. ‘Science’ in that arrangement is restrictive. On the optimists view, however, it liberates.

Environmental politics is about nothing more than regulation of eating, shitting, sleeping and f***ing: human life is reduced to these things, and each must be done ‘sustainably’, lest any opportunity for a more meaningful life opens up between them. So, the pessimists’ approach to the immediate problems facing the world is to regulate them out of existence. But poverty, war, famine and disease could not be abolished from the world by acts of international law intended to make the weather more ‘predictable’. Even if that did succeed, what would human life look like? A drab, miserable existence characterised by subsistence, in which each generation’s existence is identical to its parents’.

We see in the PCI’s animation, active hostility to progress — it is impossible. In the optimist’s video, there is dedication to the idea — the possibilities of human life expand indefinitely. We can argue forever about what ‘science says’ about the climate; the real debate is about its interpretation. The optimists need to recapture the moral and political ground from the miserablists.

20 thoughts on “The Art of the Possible… And the Impossible”

  1. If you are bored, you should definitely put “The Beginning of Infinity” on your Christmas reading list. It is an amazing and surprising book, and I’m sure you’ll like it!

  2. Enviros are tapping into the zeitgeist of weary pessimism that they have helped to shape – a world where many people are scared of the future and scared of everything else as well.

    It hasn’t always been this way – I am of the “apollo” generation – growing up at the time of the moon landings when we really felt that anything was possible. The zeitgeist was upbeat – a confidence in the future.

  3. I have no idea whether Jason Silva and David Deutsch would thank me for offering them as examples of thinking which sits at the opposite end of an axis to rank gutless miserablism.

    I haven’t yet read all of my copy of “The Beginning of Infinity” but being the AGW trainspotter i am, I peaked in the index to see what Deutsch says about climate change. I think I fairly sum him up by saying that he is no “denier” and he believes that human CO2 contributions will inevitably be detrimental, but he also sees as inevitable the fact that humans will have to adapt, and are more suited to adaption, because we really can’t predict everything. I think this passage from the book illustrates this:

    Tactics to delay the onset of forseeable problems may help. But they cannot replace, and must be subordinate to, increasing our ability to intervene after events turn out as we did not forsee. If that does not happen with carbon-dioxide-induced warming, it will happen with something else.

  4. Ben:
    Sorry you’re bored. We’re not. Don’t lose heart. Your blog is great group therapy for many of us. Life would be less sustainable without it.
    Technical question: when I click on a video or a link, do they know I’m coming from CR? I hope so.
    The Post Carbon Institute film was a concentrated summary of everything that’s wrong, not just with environmentalism, but with the whole liberal left (of which I count myself a member, more or less).

    Jack Hughes:
    What killed the Apollo programme? I believe the immediate cause was Republican oppposition in Congress, but I remember that for my generation there was something profoundly uncool about exploring space, possibly because we’d been keen science fiction fans in childhood. I believe there was already the idea around that going to the moon might somehow spoil it.

  5. “What killed the Apollo programme?”

    Once the propaganda victory was won, the cost was too high. They made a terrible decision to move to the space shuttle. Once that first space shuttle blew up it was all off, since the already poor return on money was now totally spoiled by the dead bodies.

    Apollo was never about science, and the Space Shuttle even less. They could have done that level of science with a tenth the budget, and the real scientists kept saying so.

    In the meantime real science is still getting amazing telescopes into space, flypasts of distant planets and probes onto Mars.

    Losing the manned space flight program was a victory for science, not a loss.

  6. Ben, I don’t think you ended up right.The “optimists” are too focused on actually building the world they envision rather than whining and whining which seems all the pessimists can do. Not that the whining isn’t causing trouble, but when I think about people like Steve Jobs, for instance, I don’t think he spends one yota of his time “troubling” himself with climate change. He may have Al Gore in Apple’s board, but it’s more like an after thought. People like this are too interested in their own fantastic visions to be actualized to be bothered by the usual pricks.

    These pricks are also a human tradition. In portugal, we had a very well known theater in the 16th century, and one of the key characters were the “Old of the Restelho”. These would always lament on the ridiculousness of the crazy adventures of the discovery heroes and how they would just die away doing nothing worthy.

  7. Ben,

    Here’s to the spirit of what you say (I’m bored of that accursed ‘climate change’, too, as might have guessed!) and here’s a glass of ruby red and a quick draw on my roll up for, to Christopher Hitchens, a mensch if there ever was one, confused, often, contradictory but always thinking and with the cojanes to prove it. For him latterly, it was the frightening prospect of an (underwhelming) overwhelming of religious cant and fanaticism that might snatch, someday soon, the crust of civilization from our hand, the dark stench of it’s fellow travelers, it’s pickpockets, jackanapes, mountebanks and other ne’er do wells, its murderers, its assassins, that sometimes darkened his day, but only, precisely because he embraced the wonders of the enlightenment and this unsteady 300 year experiment in trying to think! To think – that was what Christopher tried to do and would ask us to do. I will miss his voice. He was a man.

  8. Sorry for this, Ben, if its too much just cut it. But I think this is better and more represantative of my, for the moment, yes, hero, Christopher Hitchens – a debate on free speech in Canada (a country, as you know, without a constitution and, therefore, first amendment rights). In fact, I think, if I follow the links, I think I’ll be able to watch the whole debate. We’ll see. :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=fvwp&NR=1&v=KIU96N7ciXM

  9. “We have to live within nature’s budget of renewable resources at rates of natural replenishment.” And thereby lies a dead end and humanity’s eventual doom. We’re told that the vast majority of all species that have ever lived, are now extinct – obviously, living within nature’s budget did not save the trilobite, the plesiosaur or the woolly mammoth. Like aboriginal humans who live at the subsistence level, they all relied totally on the “ecosystem services” supplied by the biosphere, and when the biosphere was finished with them, they were gone and other forms took their place.

    If humanity does not want to go the way of the sabre-tooth tiger, we will need to continue along the road of decoupling and freeing ourselves from the restraints of “nature”, and – I would argue – expand eventually from our terrestrial cradle.

    Back here on 21st-century Earth, I’m not bored with climate change, as I see this debate as part of a bigger war that we optimists need to win. Many future generations of humans – perhaps living in fabulous cities out in the asteroid belt, exploring and settling the Jovian moons, sailing in vast colony ships towards Gliese 581 and Kepler 22-b – will thank us for it.

  10. Hi Ben,
    I’m a little late to this thread – I hope it is still on your radar. It’s an interesting post and I agree both whole-heartedly and whole-headedly.
    WUWT isn’t my usual watering hole but there was a relevant discussion there last week kicked off by Willis Eschenbach. As happens a bit too frequently he started spouting without really having thought or researched the subject. As happens all too rarely there, a lot of the ensuing comments [even mine] showed a great deal of understanding – of the pernicious hidden background of ‘sustainability’ and its stultifying vision of life, nature and the future. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/12/22/nothing-is-sustainable/
    While I was there, I also noticed this post on N Korea which to my mind also pertained to Environmentalism, albeit indirectly. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/12/21/the-two-koreas-19502008-an-unplanned-experiment-in-economic-systems-the-carbon-footprint-and-human-well-being/
    A merry Christmas to you and yours – keep enjoying the interglacial 🙂

  11. George. I think the Stross stuff is a bit silly. The colonisation of space over the distances he discusses is of course only a far, far off possibility. So considering which contemporary mode of politics is best suited to interstellar journeys lasting 4 centuries or longer is a bit like prehistoric man contemplating the politics of the internet/digital rights.

    He seems to be bashing libertarians in the present by complaining about the longevity of political institutions, which is insufficient to maintain a deep space exploration programme. I’m tempted to say, ‘well, d’uh’. Surely the development of (i.e. towards) the technological means to carry humans into space is concomitant with new political possibilities. A ‘post economic’ society, perhaps, or certainly an abolition of scarcity.

    Jason Silva — the chap in the optimistic video above — has produced another at http://vimeo.com/34182381 . I have to say, I’m disappointed. The problem with pattern-fetishism is that it forgets that ‘patterns’ are the way the mind organises information, not necessarily the way the universe organises itself. The discover that phenomena across different scales seem to be similar may merely be prosaic, rather than the revelation of a cosmological secret. ‘To understand is to perceive patterns’, says Silva. But what would ‘understanding’ mean, were it not for the ability to perceive patterns? The patterns are in the perceiver, not the perceived. Patterns are a clue that something that can be understood is going on, but not necessarily that the same thing is happening. The sound of footsteps is a pattern repeated all over the world, but one that says nothing about where the people to whom the footsteps belong to are going to, and why.

  12. There seems to be an attempt to relieve the boredom by CAGW proponents, by linking “climate change” to war and civil strife. Judith Curry quotes some of the literature at Climate Etc. Here’s my take on it:

    Essentially, all the work cited suggests that in poor, ill-governed countries, where crop failures can cause social and economic stress, bad growing/harvesting seasons can add to the stress. Nothing new there. Nor is there anything new in the solution: economic and social development, good governance. In the period of rapid world growth over the last 60 years, billions have come out of poverty and conflicts are at an historic low. Yet CAGW proponents want to destroy the very basis of that peace and prosperity with costly anti-emissions measures.

    If those cited were serious about the well-being of those in poorer countries, they would not recommend measures which reduce economic growth. Attempts to link war and civil strife to (ever-present) “climate change” seem to be a desperate response to the fact that governments and the public are giving less credence to the warming scare stories and the drastic measures sought to address them. Pathetic, IMHO.

  13. Michael @ 16
    Indeed. Most of the people allegedly vulnerable to climate change are merely vulnerable to climate, which is a somewhat pretentious way of saying they are poor. It baffles me to see people imagining that while accepting the poverty, they are following a righteous path by attempting to control changes in average windiness or raininess, by transferring wealth from the less well off in the first world to the corrupt rich in the third. You are right, the solutions/improvements will be what they always have been – economic and social development and good governance. One or two people have made the observation over the years that ensuring some basic education for women seems to have a remarkable correlation with population stability, civil order and prosperity.
    I sometimes think that research can leave us worse off than we were before it was undertaken. Matt Ridley has an article in the WSJ here http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/when-less-means-more which suggests that we often have more information than we need to make sensible decisions. However, sometimes the opposite is true [see this remarkable talk by Esther Duflo on research into the efficacy of aid – http://www.ted.com/talks/esther_duflo_social_experiments_to_fight_poverty.html%5D Perhaps there’ll always be some of both.
    In the case of the ‘research’ into links between climate change and strife, I think the funding might have been better spent on a few thousand mosquito nets.

  14. Michael, – There seems to be an attempt to relieve the boredom by CAGW proponents, by linking “climate change” to war and civil strife.

    It is ‘environmental determinism’. Once you take the view that you are wholly dependent on climatic/biological processes, human history goes out of the window. Wars are simply fought because there’s no rain/etc. (And my favourite answer to this claim is that, if scarcity causes war, then environmentalism causes war). The point made on this blog is that the determinism is ‘ideological’, and precedes the science. Yet this rarely gets exposed or interrogated in the wider debate about climate change and what to do about it.

    To your point linking climate change and war/etc in order to connect with the public, I think it’s worse than that… Public opinion is immaterial to the construction of climate change institutions and policies — indeed, it goes on well beyond democratic reach. The basis for this — as far as I can tell — is maxims such as ‘global problems need global solutions. But this little mantra is easily inverted: global solutions need global problems. The real ‘problem’ is the disconnect that you’ve identified. The linking of climate and war/etc is not intended to overcome the gap between the political establishment and the public, but exists because of it. The desire is for supranational political institutions.

  15. You may be interested in Lorenzo’s 2010 blog post I live by manipulating symbols so I am a politically correct environmentalist. I think it explains a lot about why both environmentalism and political correctness are fixtures of the Information Age.

    What is striking is how much environmentalism is environmentally destructive. Because there is a real difference between environmental concern – where consequences matter – and environmentalism – where signalling adherence to the appropriate markers of concern (based on human action being presumptively destructive) matter.

    While the arguments over DDT are particularly fraught, the attempt to ban ivory trade entirely when giving local residents elephant ownership rights to harvest ivory had proved much more effective than outright bans is a classic case of premises over consequences. In my own state of Victoria, the opposition to active management of public lands, the restriction on property rights (regarding tree clearing) and the opposition to dam building (despite a 30% increase in population since the last major dam was built) has (predictably) created water shortages and increased bushfire hazards.

    Global warming becomes the perfect issue for the inner city symbol manipulators, since it is both grandiose (an alleged looming global catastrophe) and the ultimate sign of the “wickedness” of the Gaia-damaging stuff producers.

  16. George Carty, just a quick word of thanks re the link to the Thinking Out Aloud site – some interesting and insightful posts there, and another good blog to follow!

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