by | Feb 8, 2011

Bishop Hill points to a paper by Ross McKitrick. The Bishop himself points to the following passage, a thought experiment in which an Intergovernmental Panel on Economics, analogous to the IPCC is imagined.

Suppose the International Monetary Fund (IMF) created an economics version of the IPCC, which proceeded to issue an Assessment Report and Summary for Policymakers every five years that was promoted as the consensus view of what “every mainstream economist believes.” Suppose further that the IMF was committed to one particular school of economic thought, such as New Keynesianism, that they ensured that all the lead authors of the IMF report were dedicated New Keynesians, and that the report inevitably concluded the New Keynesians are right and their critics are wrong (or do not even exist). And finally, suppose that the IMF report was sponsored and endorsed by government departments who benefited by promotion of New Keynesian ideas, and that major funding agencies and university oversight agencies also began to endorse, support and promulgate the views in the IMF report.
It should be obvious that all of this would, over time, degrade the intellectual climate in the economics profession. It would do so even if New Keynesianism is true—and moreso otherwise. Members of the research community would be forced to respond to the warped incentives created by such a dominant institution by embracing, or at least paying lip service to, New Keynesianism. Over time it would be costlier and costlier to be publicly identified as a critic of New Keynesianism, and as critics became marginalized by political forces the IMF’s declaration of a “consensus” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But how hard do we have to try to imagine such an institution, premised on such an orthodoxy?

The World Commission on Environment and Development, was established in 1983, and chaired by then Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. In 1987, the group published its report, “Our Common Future”. The blurb on the back of the report proclaimed:

Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology, so that governments and their people can take responsibility not just for environmental damage, but for the policies that cause the damage. Some of these policies threaten the survival of the human race. They can be changed. But we must act now.

It was here that “sustainable development” became part of the global political and economic agenda. According to the report:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present wihtout compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

It’s interesting to note how concern for the world’s poor quickly turns into a prison for them. ‘Sustainability’ in the first instance promises to prioritise their development, but with the caveat that any development is ecologically ‘sustainable’. Nobody, anywhere, gets to decide what kind of development is appropriate for themselves; Brudtland decides for them. She gets to define everybody’s needs, present and future. She gets to decide what’s an appropriate speed and form of development.

This blog argues that, as important as it is to look at and criticise climate science, the real substance of the debate should be about the politics. If I understand McKitrick’s point correctly, it is that we wouldn’t accept an orthodoxy in an economic organisation such as the IMF. I would suggest that an orthodoxy has already been established, long before the IPCC was even established. The reason it doesn’t get noticed as such is that it appears as though the argument for sustainability is premised on ‘the science’. I suggest that much of the science is in fact premised on the orthodoxy. That is to say that the IPCC, presupposing the orthodoxy’s rectitude, imagines society to be as vulnerable to climate as climate is sensitive to CO2.

McKitrick points out that, ‘the IMF’s declaration of a “consensus” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy’; but worse than this, so to would be the object of the prophecy/consensus. The more we believe that society is vulnerable to climate, the more vulnerable it becomes. Imposing the limit of ‘sustainability’ over the development of the poor precludes an economy which can withstand the elements — it’s climate resistance — sustaining only that economy’s vulnerability. Sustainability make people more vulnerable to climate.


  1. Craig Loehle

    Insisting on short-term sustainability can prevent sustainable development. For example, in the settling of America, one of the big engines of growth was abundant natural resources. Consider the forests of the Midwest and South. These were exploited in a non-sustainable way (cut over much too fast for that label). The result of this exploitation was that money was available for building roads and railroads and canals, for schools and towns, for harbors and factories. The same is true for the abundant game, for grazing lands, etc. Without the boost from this “unsustainable” exploitation, it would have been much harder to develop a modern economy. The dogma of sustainability is a roadblock to development. The early development period in any economy is inefficient and messy. Land is cleared that is lousy for farming–that gets sorted out later. Businesses are started that fail.

  2. Donna Laframboise

    Craig, regarding your comment:

    The early development period in any economy is inefficient and messy.

    I couldn’t agree more. It seems to me that the climate debate suffers badly from a lack of historical perspective. Economies pass through a series of stages as they progress from subsistence farming to technologically sophisticated. Some of those intermediate stages are, indeed, ecologically harmful. Witness China’s current situation.)

    But once a nation passes through those stages and emerges on the other side, they are prosperous enough to pay attention to environmental concerns. When you’re barely surviving there’s nothing extra to spend on environmental protection.

  3. Joe

    It’s a sign of how confused the debate is that the organisers of the conference Ross McKitrick wrote that for explicitly tried to exclude discussion of politics. When Gavin Schmidt then (justifiably I think) turned down an invitation on the grounds that, while there is unresolved science, the root of the conflict is political he was attacked for refusing to engage on the grounds that the science is settled!

    (Widely covered on the ‘other side’ of the blogosphere, e.g. )

  4. Ben Pile

    Joe, I wonder what Schmidt means.

    Schmidt : Since, in my opinion, the causes of conflict in the climate change debate relate almost entirely to politics and not the MWP, climate sensitivity or ‘ice’, dismissing this from any discussion did not seem likely to be to help foster any reconciliation.

    According to the same article, he goes on to say:

    None of the seemingly important ‘conflicts’ that are *perceived* in the science are ‘conflicts’ in any real sense within the scientific community, rather they are proxy arguments for political positions. No ‘conflict resolution’ is possible between the science community who are focussed on increasing understanding, and people who are picking through the scientific evidence for cherries they can pick to support a pre-defined policy position.

    Seems to me that Schmidt’s rejection was not justifiable in the sense I think we would understand. He’s just accusing the debate’s organisers — naive as they are — of ‘political-motivation’, with the implication being that he, his science, and his view on what the policy should be are above mere politics.

  5. Joe

    Why is having – or ‘accusing’ someone of having – a political motivation a terrible thing? I think it would be much better if all participants in the climate debate were much clearer about their political motives.

    Part of the problem is that often neither side can articulate their political position, even to themselves.

    While in some senses I am obviously open to changing my mind, in another sense I do have a ‘pre-defined policy position’. Prior, I think, in the way that you often make the point here that politics is prior to science in the climate debate.

    That position is based on the capacity of human society to make progress through the active transformation of nature rather than passive submission to supposedly natural limits.

    However, I don’t think that this can be established through sniping at climate science. It needs to be argued through a wider understanding of politics, economics, history, humanity and nature. (I would concede that in certain respects it is also informed by science.)

    I think many (by no means all) skeptics are motivated by an instinctive humanism and understanding of freedom which leads them to reject the scientised green consensus. In my view that is a good thing. But it is the absence of a language in which to express humanism that can sometimes lead to ‘picking through the scientific evidence for cherries they can pick to support a pre-defined policy position.’

    (I also think that skeptics have made some correct criticisms of mainstream climate science and that mainstream climate science is far from perfect.)

    The flip side is that Realclimate was fairly clearly set up in the hope that technical clarification would lead to political consensus. Contributors there tend to keep off explicitly political subjects. Maybe it is frustration with that experience which has led Schmidt to the conclusion that the causes of conflict in the climate change debate relate almost entirely to politics and not the MWP, climate sensitivity or ‘ice’, dismissing this from any discussion did not seem likely to be to help foster any reconciliation.

  6. Ben Pile

    Joe, I think it’s fair enough to claim that someone has a political position. My point was that Gavin sees himself as above that sort of thing, and his putative opponents in the debate as merely motivated by some kind of politics. I.e. I disagreed that Schmidt’s argument was ‘justified’.

    We agree about the futility sniping at climate science.

    Isn’t the entire thing preceded by the need for a political consensus, anyhow? We shouldn’t take the RC project at face value either. They were surely frustrated before they began.

  7. geoffchambers

    Craig and Donna argue persuasively that sustainability can be a dangerous criterion to use in evaluating development strategies, citing the USA and China – countries which are big enough to correct mistakes as they advance. Environmentalists would doubtless cite others – Haiti for example – where environmental destruction seems irreversible, given the country’s means. To cariacature a little: in a country without trees, trees can’t be planted, because they’d be too scarce and valuable a resource to survive. This might be an example of the kind of environmental “tipping point” which Greens like to warn us about.
    Another example might be British North Sea Oil policy. Thatcher agreed to oil industry demands to extract 10% of reserves per year, while other countries limited extraction rates for reasons of long-term economic strategy. This allowed her to destroy swathes of “overpriced” British industry (and thus weaken the trade unions which she saw as her political enemy) without provoking a balance of payments crisis. It “worked” in Thatcher’s terms, but left the country economically weakened when the oil revenues declined. Wouldn’t “sustainability” have been a valid rallying cry to oppose her vandalising of the economy?
    In other words, is sustainability an illegitimate concept, sneaked into the politico-economic debate to fill the void of political ideas? Or is it simply an idea which is prone to exaggeration by a Green movement which is suspicious of any technological advance?
    As so often at Climate Resistance, I’m intrigued by the concept of seeing the politics as prior to the science, but frustrated by the lack of political / historical flesh on the bones of what remains just an intriguing idea. The fulcrum to lever this idea off the ground must lie in the reality of actual historical events. Most attempts to find it seem to lapse into conspiracy theories – how much money Strong / Pachauri / Stern have tied up in carbon credits or whatever. Despite all the marvellous work done on blogs like this (and Ben and Donna are at the forefront of the effort) I still feel we’re missing the big picture.

  8. Dominic

    This is a cracking blog. Thank you Ben, and all commenters on this thread.

  9. Mooloo

    Environmentalists would doubtless cite others – Haiti for example – where environmental destruction seems irreversible,

    Environmentalists need to find an example of a country which has a strong democratic government but where the environment is going backwards. (Japan might work, at a stretch, ignoring than it has been more or less a one-party state for 60 years.)

    The correlation between poverty, ecological degradation and poor governance is pretty easy to see.

    Haiti’s problem is governance. Otherwise the differences with the Dominican Republic is very hard to explain, since geography and early history are so similar.

  10. Philip

    I noticed a recent post from John Redwood that I thought was relevant:

    He criticises the style of argumentation across a range of issues, including climate change:-

    “Sometimes those who argue strongly for toleration and civil liberties are the ones who are harshest in seeking to censor or silence people of differing views. … These and other commanding ideas need to be properly exposed to challenge and criticism for us to have a vibrant democracy.”

    It strikes me that this intolerant defence of orthodox positions is exactly the modern PC way of approaching issues: a willingness to deny actual facts in a good cause; to categorise people; and to rank categories by worthiness. All of these tactics seem present in spades in the climate change debate. Like Geoff, I feel frustrated by the lack of the bigger picture of environmental politics, but perhaps there is no meaningful bigger picture – simply another good cause inflated by PC. If so, then the painstaking untangling of each specific point is all that anyone can do – and we all owe our thanks to Ben, Donna and all the rest of them for taking so much trouble to do exactly this.

  11. Peter S

    I think Ben is right to expose the politics hiding behind the climate change curtain. But hiding behind the political curtain is psychology – and it is here we find all motives. Perhaps what is so tantalisingly un-nourishing about resolving on the politics is that it mistakes the anteroom for the dining hall.

    If so, a purely political description of the state we are in leaves everyone feeling as short-changed as the environmental one does. In both instances, the motives are still ulterior.

  12. Ben Pile

    hiding behind the political curtain is psychology – and it is here we find all motives.

    For the love of god! So the hell what? People have motives?!

    In both instances, the motives are still ulterior.

    And so we are stuck in an infinite regress of motives.

    It’s just pointless, Peter. Who cares? I don’t, and I think it’s really, really boring and has not yielded anything of interest to any discussion here.

    Go and start a blog about climate change psychology, or something. But try to do it without ‘ulterior motives’.

  13. Ben Pile

    Geoff – As so often at Climate Resistance, I’m intrigued by the concept of seeing the politics as prior to the science, but frustrated by the lack of political / historical flesh on the bones of what remains just an intriguing idea.

    The point made above about the ‘politics is prior’ is not so deep. It seems to me that the ‘sustainability’ Brudtland talks about is necessarily prior to any attempt to identify any problems of ‘unsustainability’ — we have to make a lot of assumptions about our relationship with nature before we can go with Brudtland’s idea. The scientific (i.e. ‘apolitical’) approach to criticising the idea of sustainability can only go so far, and almost has to accept that, if the ‘science’ relating to some claim about an unsustainable activity is right, then the sustainable agenda more broadly is right. But I suggest we can do perfectly good science on a flawed premise: sustainability.

  14. geoffchambers

    The Brundtland Report can be found here.
    It’s very long. Has anyone read it? I mean anyone, anywhere, ever? It would take me weeks of hard work to say what I think of it, and I’m not sure I want to bother. On the other hand, I’m sure Ben is right that it’s only by taking these crucial policy documents seriously, and subjecting them to detailed analysis, that we can begin to understand environmentalism.
    The first thing that strikes me is the confusion of morality and politics which annoys anyone expecting an intellectually rigorous argument. But the document can’t be accused of hiding the politics behind the science. E.g.
    “Yet in the end, sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs. We do not pretend that the process is easy or straightforward. Painful choices have to be made. Thus, in the final analysis, sustainable development must rest on political will.”

    This is not a message that can easily be distorted by environmentalists into a demand to obey the science and ignore the will of the people. It seems to me that sustainability is a legitimate political concept which reasonable people can discuss. Extreme interpretations can be misused to push hidden agendas; moderate interpretations can be reduced to commonplaces; but that’s true of any political concept. I’d suggest that the concept becomes extreme when “future needs” is interpreted in terms of centuries instead of decades.
    I note Ms Brundtland worries about a lot of things, including nuclear war and species loss, but not climate change.

  15. Ben Pile

    It’s not just long, Geoff, it, like so many documents like it, is bloody boring. I often wonder if the point of so many reports-after-reports-after-reports is to reduce any political criticism to state of terminal boredom.

    Interesting point about the politics, though I think you’re too generous to say that it hides no politics behind science. The point about political will just speaks about political reality: will is a necessary condition of change.

    “This is not a message that can easily be distorted by environmentalists into a demand to obey the science and ignore the will of the people.”

    Who says anything about appealing to the will of the people? ‘Political will’ might only about needing to persuade a dictator or two!

    Brundtland mentions global warming much more than climate change. But this is before the IPCC, and before even Rio.

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘legitimate political concept’, or by the implication that there can be an illegitimate political concept. What is the test of a political concept’s legitimacy? Surely any concept can be political if we decide it has implications for the way we organise ourselves?

  16. geoffchambers

    My first thought, as I put a toe in Brundtland’s lukewarm soup of fine sentiments, was: Why do it this way? Why not just put out a request to leaders of developing countries (elected or not) “Describe how you want your country to develop, and our UN team of experts will tell you how to do it”?
    You could then cover all the same subjects (health, education, alleviation of poverty, resource management etc.) in detail, without the need for conscious-racking sentiment, or the development of a general pseudo-theory applicable to the whole globe.
    Secod thought: This document is not meant to be read. It’s meant to be talked about, by experts, to the population, in the pages of the Guardian, for the benefit of liberal consciences everywhere. Like the Holy Scriptures in Latin, it’s there to be interpreted, quoted, but above all, respected.
    Third thought: The insets with quotes from third world spokespeople are really degrading. It’s marketing-style voxpop to disguise the authoritarian nature of the exercise.
    Enough cynicism. Time to read another Pratchett novel to convince myself of the basic decency of humanity (not forgetting trolls, dwarfs, and physics students). I’ll get back to you on the subject of legitimate political concepts.

  17. Ben Pile

    Geoff: Secod thought: This document is not meant to be read. It’s meant to be talked about, by experts, to the population, in the pages of the Guardian, for the benefit of liberal consciences everywhere. Like the Holy Scriptures in Latin, it’s there to be interpreted, quoted, but above all, respected.


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

    I have spoken about my own commitment to science and to the environment. And I have given you some idea of what government is doing. I hope that the Royal Society will generate increased popular interest in science by explaining the importance and excitement of your work. 1988 Sep 27 Tu. Margaret Thatcher.
    Speech to the Royal Society

  18. geoffchambers

    I see Mrs Thatcher seems to be equating “sustainable economic development” with “protecting the balance of nature” in the speech you quote. I understood that the “balance of nature” was a concept you regarded as incoherent, which is probably a better formulation of what I meant when I questioned whether sustainability was a legitimate political concept.
    I’d call “illegitimate” concepts which smuggle in secondary meanings by the back door. Perhaps it’s lexical conservatism, rather than political science. I’m basically arguing Alice’s case against Humpty Dumpty, when he says he can make words mean what he likes. So, I’d accept sustainability as meaning “paying attention to long-term needs as well as short term advantages” but be very careful that it didn’t morph into meaning something like “never using anything up in case our great grandchildren might need some”. The report’s definition of: “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” needs some clarification.
    Legitimate political concepts are the tried and tested ones like liberty and equality. Much of politics consists of discussing how much of the one we’re willing to sacrifice in order to get more of the other. Much of the frustration expressed on climate change threads which is aimed at the “illegitimate” entry of politics into the discussion is, I think, due to the fact that most of us are not well equipped for discussing politics at the abstract level. Delingpole, to take an example, is more profound talking about climate science than he is discussing his own libertarian politics, though he certainly believes the opposite.
    Every school in France has “Liberté Egalité Fraternité” written above the door. Pétain replaced that with “Travail, Famille, Patrie” – fascism as a category mistake. Thinking about it, I’d object strongly if the current slogan was replaced with “Liberté, Egalité, Durabilité” – and my objection would be political.

  19. Peter S

    Ben – “Peter. Who cares?”

    That’s a good question. Of course, it would be better framed as ‘Why should I care?’

    The answer could be that caring about – or attaching an importance to – something that is inseparable from being human (the ability to act from ulterior motives) might provide a more whole and meaningful understanding of the climate-change phenomenon in society. If so, that would be a far better position from which to effectively respond to the claims it makes and to the demands it places upon us, as well as providing viable, less anaemic, language to use for that response.

    – “We shouldn’t take the RC [Real Climate] project at face value either. They were surely frustrated before they began.”

    If we ‘shouldn’t take the RC project at face value’, one wonders how it should be taken – or what value it should be given instead of its face one? Are you not simply stating here that RC has an ulterior motive (born of an unspecified frustration) and therefore… ‘who cares?’. That sounds to me like continually throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  20. geoffchambers

    There is a very big question as to where you insert psychological interpretation in a discussion. When all else fails? Everytime you want to take a dig at your opponent? This question can be dressed up as the philosophical problem of reductionism, or reduced to a rule of the discussion. It then becomes interesting to see when and why the rules are broken, as they certainly will be.
    If it’s any consolation, Ben once suggested I go away and start my own blog. I didn’t take his advice because I prefer talking to other human beings I don’t always agree with to talking to myself.
    While each blog is a perfect dictatorship, the internet as a whole is perfect anarchy. We can hope that this is where the Judaean Liberation Front will start talking to the Liberation Front of Judaea.

  21. geoffchambers

    Prince Charles is onto this:
    “He challenged the green lobby to start selling the benefits of sustainable living instead of focusing on what people should give up”
    and points to:
    “the corrosive effect on public opinion of those climate change sceptics who deny the vast body of scientific evidence. The implication, he said, was that those who accept the evidence of hundreds of scientists around the world are ‘secretly conspiring to undermine and deliberately destroy the entire market-based capitalist system which now dominates the world.’”
    So Prince Charles knows what’s going on in our heads – conspiracy theory; should we speculate about what’s going on in his?
    He also worries about what will become of us sceptics:
    “I wonder, will such people be held accountable at the end of the day for the absolute refusal to countenance a precautionary approach?”
    Not much chance of a royal pardon then, when we’re hauled off to the Tower.

    The tone is not the same as Brundtland’s; the content is identical. The future head of state was addressing a European Parliament Conference.
    Climate Resistance is right to point out at every opportunity the seemless join between climate science and millenarian ecological fantasies which predate the IPCC. I wouldn’t dismiss any intelligent contribution to the debate. You never know where the breakthrough in understanding may come.

  22. Jean Demesure

    Geoff : “This allowed her to destroy swathes of “overpriced” British industry (and thus weaken the trade unions which she saw as her political enemy) without provoking a balance of payments crisis. It “worked” in Thatcher’s terms, but left the country economically weakened when the oil revenues declined. Wouldn’t “sustainability” have been a valid rallying cry to oppose her vandalising of the economy?”

    For any events, there is always a simple, logical and … false explanation.
    No exception, your interpretation of events is demonstrably false.
    First, UK’s oil & gas production has declined (mainly for lack of exploration and investment) but has been more than compensated by price hikes, so the oils revenues have not declined but have increased (source ). So all reasonning on the premisse that oil revenues have declined falls apart.
    Second, oil revenues are incredibly small (about 15 B$/year) compared to the country’s GNP so using it to explain the sustainability or not of the economy is like saying the tail wags the dog.

  23. geoffchambers

    Jean Demesure
    Sorry, I shoud have said decline in production, not revenues. The effect I was talking about was on the balance of payments, not the government’s budget. The oil revenues you mention are the tax on all oil consumed, independent of where it comes from.
    The fact remains that North Sea Oil enabled Thatcher to weaken British industry without provoking a financial crisis, ostensibly for sound economic reasons (progress towards a service-based economy, eliminting old-fashioned manufacturing) though in reality for reasons of class prejudice and short-term political gain. British coal, though temporarily uneconomic compared to coal from China or South Africa, was an eminently sustainable energy source in the long term. What Thatcher couldn’t sustain was organised opposition from outside the establishment, in the form of powerful trade unions.

  24. Luke Warmer

    Geoff – your ‘weakening’ British industry was actually deemed “refusal to subsidise dying industries” in this fascinating 1978 memo from the inside:

    No mention of services or old-fashioned manufacturing. Don’t get drawn too far on the service shift – a lot of it stems from a) reclassification i.e. if payroll staff are in-house = manufacturing, if ‘outsourced’ = service, b) productivity gains in manufacturing, and c) aggregate demand. See here:
    In fact the Green Alliance amongst many others, has argued that shifting towards services actually reduces environmental impacts:

    The dynamics of capitalism i.e. Schumpeter’s creative destruction are the fly in the ointment (or the tautology creator) of sustainable development.

    Some of the previous commenters are also hinting at the Environmental Kuznets Curve, whereby economic growth leads to environmental improvement.

  25. Luke Warmer

    … and by ‘tautology’ I of course mean Oxymoron.

  26. Ben Pile

    The dynamics of capitalism i.e. Schumpeter’s creative destruction are the fly in the ointment (or the tautology creator) of sustainable development.

    Can you expand on that? I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Are you saying that sustainability precludes ‘creative destruction’, or is an instance of it?

  27. geoffchambers

    Luke Warmer: Working through your references:

    The Green Alliance document you link to talks of developing “a new strategic business model, where companies shift from selling products to selling services.” And gives this as an example: “Traditionally, business profits are tied to increased product sales. If suppliers instead supply a service, rather than a product, alternative opportunities for profit are created. For example, a company could shift from selling barrels of chemicals, to selling the service the chemical is used for, such as cleaning or degreasing.”
    Sounds like the privatisation of hospital cleaning services – less expensive polluting detergent, more sustainable East European non-unionised elbow grease. It’s interesting to see the Green Alliance adopting the outsourcing philosophy beloved of company accountants.

    The Thatcher document is riveting (unlike Brundtland. After all, it’s written before attaining power, while Brundtland’s was written after losing it). It’s Maggie’s Mein Kampf.
    She outlines her “Good Housekeeping” philosophy, proposes “deregulation of the private sector” and says:
    “Such a ‘fresh air and exercise’ régime is fine for an economy which is above some threshold of structural health. It is increasingly recognised, however, that the British economy is below the threshold … however quickly we are able to shift resources to the newer growth industries and the service sector.”
    That’s two self-contradictions in the first couple of pages; with the proposal of a policy which she acknowledges is unsuitable for the British economy, and a demand to deregulate the private sector at the same time as “shifting resources to the newer growth industries”.
    But first, she proposes a four point plan to achieve “Turn-Around”, each of which comes down to “the phasing out of free collective bargaining”.

    “Anti-union hysteria gets us nowhere,” she says. Instead, “[Tories] must make the electorate feel a sense of shame and disgust with the corrupting effets of socialism and the labour-union leadership axis – class war, pilfering, tax-fiddling, intimidation, shoddy work – the ‘Sick Society’.”

    So that’s two documents: a Conservative leader in 1978 raving in the terms of Mussolini circa 1920, and a Green charity in 2003 proposing to save the world from species loss and climate change by a policy of leaner meaner corporate outsourcing.

    I’ll come back later on Schumpeter and Kuznets.

  28. geoffchambers

    Schumpeter had Caroline Lucas’s number:
    “.. intellectuals invaded labour politics. They… supplied theories and slogans… radicalized it … Having no genuine authority and feeling always in danger of being unceremoniously told to mind his own business, he [the intellectual] must flatter, promise and incite, nurse left wings and scowling minorities, sponsor doubtful or submarginal cases, appeal to fringe ends …”

    I note on the Wikipaedia article that environmental Kuznets curves get twice as much discussion as Kuznets’ original version, which applied to income distribution – neatly mirroring the relative attention given to the environment and the eradication of poverty in progressive circles.
    Apparently, environmental Kuznets curves work in the case of cleaning up car emissions because localised pollution provokes local pressure to improve the environment , whereas CO2 emissions are generalised and so subject to the “tragedy of the commons” (I typed “tragedy of the cosmos”, which would be a good title for something or other).
    Which explains why CO2 is a global problem and therefore central to environmentalist concerns and exhaust fumes from smelly buses aren’t.

    The difference between Schumpeter and Kuznets is that the former’s thought is anchored in sociology, via a dialogue with Marx and Weber, while the latter’s is just a graph, which applies to some things and not to others. The modern world is a sucker for graphs and not too keen on thick books by dead Germans.

  29. Lewis Deane

    In fact, Ben, it seems what Ross puts forward as a hypothesis has, in some radical sense, already happened. The speculators and rentiers of the West (but, counter intuitively, the East more so) are banking on it. Keynes always the fake ‘social conscience’ balm for the parasitic and unproductive (and, indeed, viscously destructive – for what is more destructive, in recent history, than inflation).
    I, personally, am tossed between hope and despair. On the one hand, with this viral destruction of the enquiring mind that has become a ‘climate’ weltenschaung, I despair of all those hard won victories of rigorous enlightenment that began with Montaigne and then Voltaire and Hume and Adam Smith. On the other, I see people in the ‘real world’ throwing of a tyrannical ‘dogma’ and ignoring the cynics and the politics of fear. Is this a blind reaching out (a revolution bought for a mess of military pottage) and, even if it is, isn’t this moment, at least, something that should be joyed over and not destroyed by that impotent bitterness we feel welling up in us?
    The questions cannot be technical and scientific. They must be a matter of ‘self-determination’ – how do we wish to be? Not what the fading and peeling wall paper might, for some, be useful for telling us we’re living badly.

  30. gus steen

    “Christopher Monckton is to climate scepticism what James Bond is to the UK.”
    Well, he is, isn’t he? A blonde in one hand, a temperature anomaly graph in the other… Actually he reminds me more of Lord Peter Wimsey. Arisocrats are not supposed to be that intelligent; they don’t need to be.

    In fact I disagree most strongly with the thesis of this article.

    However much money is wasted on “Saving the Planet”, however much chaos and misery it causes, the really worrying thing as far as the survival of our civilisation is concerned is the attrition of science, as scientists increasingly do the work of politicians and spin merchants. The only way to counter this is to actually do science – in other words, challenge the orthodoxy at every turn. From this point of view it doesn’t even matter if the sceptics are right, so long as they are sceptical.

    It’s not the nonsense that the warmists diseminate that does the damage, it’s their assumption of authority. What is worse, their growing tendency to make flat statements based only on their reputations, unsupported by any evidence, actually increases their standing with the general public. It sounds more certain, and people respond to that. Politically, the truth is the only weapon the sceptics have.

  31. Andrew McRae

    Sustainability make people more vulnerable to climate.

    This is a non-sequitur until proven.

    Sustainability does not mean anti-human. Sustainability does not mean awful. Sustainability does not even imply “environmentally conservative” under some definitions of “green”. “Sustainability” just means there is a plan to make society sustainable for as many generations into the future as we can presently foresee. It connotes a large scale optimum that avoids the uncontrolled side effects of tunnel vision. Sustainable simply means sustainable. No need to hijack this simple English word and load it up with extra straw so you can tear down your imagined enemy.

    Unsustainable practices that the industrialised societies have come to depend on must (by dictionary definition) eventually end and so bring disappointment and perhaps additional suffering in some cases where substitutes are inadequate. The practices of “undeveloped” societies that may be fairly called sustainable on the basis of them being unchanged for 1000 years collectively form a lifestyle which the industrialised West sees as primitive, uncomfortable, and intensely undesirable.

    Pile’s non-sequitur originates in conflating these two distinct concepts of the sustainable and the pre-industrial.

    I would further argue that the inability to understand these two concepts as distinct, or the inability to imagine how the industrial could be sustainable, is the result of psychological denial, rather than any great lack of symbolic intelligence or engineering ingenuity. If I was cynical I’d say Pile had an anti-hippie pro-1960s axe to grind, but malicious intent is difficult to prove.
    Like the Easter Islanders before us, we will have a sustainable society or we will have no society. Recognising objectively physical constraints will eventually bring about both the adjustment of lifestyle expectations and the invention of technological substitutes that together will arrive at a sustainable compromise, which need be no less sophisticated than the present. Making society’s economy sustainable does not mean we are going to instantly abandon all the high technologies and scientific knowledge gained in the 20th century.

    There are simple counterexamples to the “sustainability make people more vulnerable to climate” nonsense. The village huts of Vanuatu are often (though not always) constructed with a curved roof to give increased cyclone resistance in this most cyclone-prone country in the world. If destroyed, these houses are relatively cheap to reconstruct. By contrast most houses in north Queensland, Australia, are box-shaped and ground-level, and the houses devastated by the recent cyclone Yasi are expensive to rebuild. The worse impact of category 3+ cyclones on northern industrialised Australia compared to Vanuatu is clearly not due to Australia having inferior housing technology but is more due to Australia being less sustainable (not more).

    Also consider that in the recent floods of north Queensland, houses would not have been inundated if they had been constructed A) on stilts like the first “old Queenslander” style houses were a century ago, or B) anywhere other than in a known floodplain.

    No loss of quality of life needed, no new technologies needed, no technologies need to be thrown away, yet here an increase in both sustainability and climate resistance can be achieved through a recognition of the variability in nature and the willingness to solve tomorrow’s foreseeable problems with today’s money – by putting curved roofs on houses built on steel poles.

  32. Philip

    Andrew, “Sustainability does not mean…”

    The meaning of “sustainability” seems to depend on who is using the term. Indur Goklany had it like this…

    “Sustainable development” means different things to different people. Its definition is intentionally vague to increase the possibility of compromise on thorny issues on which reasonable people may differ. To those inclined toward balancing economic and environmental goals … “development” implies economic growth, and “sustainable” implies full consideration of environmental factors. It is becoming abundantly clear, however, that to others the term implies virtually no additional economic development. The latter position is based on the argument – made with great emotion but insufficient facts and analysis – that the current path of development is clearly unsustainable because the planet is about to choke on humanity’s wastes and there is not enough land to meet everyone’s demands.

    If sustainability is taken to mean “balancing economic and environmental goals”, then I’d find it hard to think of anyone who seriously objects to it. On the other hand, if it is taken to mean “virtually no additional economic development”, then I think it’s very reasonable to suggest that “sustainability makes people more vulnerable to climate”. To my understanding, the aim is to argue against those who use “sustainability” in this second sense – and unfortunately there appear to be many on the deep green side who do.

  33. Mooloo

    The practices of “undeveloped” societies that may be fairly called sustainable on the basis of them being unchanged for 1000 years

    Undeniably false.

    Pre-industrial societies have ravaged their landscapes time and again. From goats ripping up the soil in Greece and the Norse Icelanders badly over-extending their range, through to the Maori burning down the forests of the South Island of New Zealand on their way to exterminating the Moa. We tend to notice the successes of pre-industrial lives, but the failures are in the past, so tend to be invisible.

    In any case, styles that work with small populations do not always work with large ones. Africa will not be able to feed itself until it gets rid of subsistence agriculture: once it does that, it will feed itself easily. There are two choices for “sustainability” in Africa. Modernise, or reduce the population back to about a quarter of what it is now.

    The worse impact of category 3+ cyclones on northern industrialised Australia compared to Vanuatu is clearly not due to Australia having inferior housing technology but is more due to Australia being less sustainable (not more).

    The Australians may have inferior houses in storms, but not because of any issues of sustainability. They could have built much more storm-proof houses with exactly the same materials.

    It’s a red herring anyway. In non-extreme situations the Australian houses are better in every respect. Just cherry picking the one time they are not is silly.

    I’m not sure how an Australian can build a house out of “unsustainable” materials. They have thousands of years worth of iron, cement, sand etc. Wood is possibly the least sustainable in their case. The energy they use is in no danger of running out any time soon (hydro and coal mostly). The only issue is CO2 production, if you believe that is a danger.

  34. Philip

    Gus, “The only way to counter this is to actually do science – in other words, challenge the orthodoxy at every turn.”

    I agree it is necessary that scientists do science and challenge the scientific orthodoxy, but I don’t believe this is sufficient by itself. After all, the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by eliminating fossil fuel usage was there right at the start, when the mainstream scientific view was still that negative feedbacks dominated the system. Therefore, it must also be necessary to argue directly against the world-view that motivated this original goal – and scientific arguments alone cannot achieve that.

  35. Lewis Deane

    gus steen,

    ‘Arisocrats are not supposed to be that intelligent; they don’t need to be’

    Being an ‘aristocratic radical’ myself, I resent your Wodehousian (that viscious, viscous, fascist pettit beorgois a- licker, that voice and acme of parvenus!) carricature. If there are any of us left (most of us dead on the Somme) we are not represented by Lord Monckton, 3 generations down from a chimney sweep! Or Prince Charles, a good lesson for us as regards inbreeding (is his love of plants a kind of reflection and projection of his own families reproductive traditions?)

    Only joking!

  36. Lewis Deane

    The big question, Andrew McRae, is society, at present, proving itself to be unsustainable? The ‘null hypothesis’ that Ben is maintaining is that history and mankinds ingenuity sustains itself. It is you that has to prove otherwise.

    ‘Sustainability’ is a weazel word for many things, many of which we all can agree on in theory – the question is how is it used in the real world? Always, it seems to me, as a bar to developement, not as its encouragement. Tell us otherwise?

  37. Lewis Deane

    Ben, please join this to my previous comment, as you see fit.

    ‘Unsustainable practices’ – your examples being Easter Island and Vanutu huts! You give, curiously, no real examples of modern, industrialised, capitalist society being ‘unsustainable’! Next you will be saying that because the Roman Empire was eventually ‘unsustainable’ we must revert to Sumarian practices! Incredible!

  38. Lewis Deane

    Correction, Ben, as above.

    Correction – you do mention the recent Queensland flooding. I always remember (and love) Voltaires Candide, a book provoked by the strange indifference of Europe to the Lisbon, Portugal, earthquake – I think 30,000 died, though I maybe wrong on the numbers – have we advanced, Andrew, when we compare the numbers? That is ‘sustainability’!

  39. Lewis Deane


    “The only way to counter this is to actually do science – in other words, challenge the orthodoxy at every turn.”

    Actually, Philip, this is disengenuity itself, to be charitable. Maybe we should say that the public, ‘people’ should do the ‘science’, but even that would be wrong. We will do what we always do – the politics!

  40. j ferguson

    I apologize for the lack of links and research supporting the following observations, they’re speculative at best.

    It is late 17th century in Virginia and a landowner has gone for a sustainability review prior to commencing development. He wants to clear the land and plant tobacco.

    Permission is denied. Tobacco ruins the land. It’s growth as a crop is unsustainable.

    Through the fortuitous intervention of a minor rebellion, the Sustainability Board is removed and the denial vacated.

    The landowner clears the land, plants tobacco, contributes to the cost of the market roads, the construction of the dock for shipping, etc.

    A few years later, the planter finds that the sustainability people were right, yields are dwindling. He sells his land to a farmer, and moves his operations west where he repeats the process on virgin land, again contributing to the construction of roads and providing a market for the products he and his “staff” need.

    As the land loses it’s capacity to support tobacco growth, he again sells out and moves west. Another farmer is now set up with cleared and drained fields.

    What’s going on here? Tobacco as a crop will support more land clearing than other agricultural activities. The farmer who buys the used-up tobacco fields couldn’t afford to do the first clearing, but can afford to plant different crops sequentially to keep the soil depletion under control. he isn’t making as much return as the tobacco plater did, but he doesn’t need to; he didn’t pay the full cost of clearing and draining the land.

    As an aside, the tobacco is shipped and marketed by Scots with such profit that they can fund a world class university where the intellectual bases of the modern world are invented.

    Assumed stasis (or lack) of innovation is where the Sustainability Board goes wrong. On the face of it, growing tobacco wrecks the land – it can’t be sustained. Without considering that another subsequent use might be beneficial, maybe more beneficial, the permit must be denied.

    Lack of imagination seems the real hazard of so much of this drive to manage our activities. Judgments are made without taking all of the plausible possibilities into account.

    I suspect that few who favor these sorts of controls have much imagination at all. Too bad.

  41. geoffchambers

    jferguson’s example of the “unsustainable” tobacco farmer is an excellent illustration of what Schumpeter (mentioned by Luke Warmer above) meant by the “creative destruction” implicit in capitalism. (Schumpeter, incidentally, was quite fond of capitalism, but thought it would inevitably be superceded by a form of socialism).
    The problem everyone has defining sustainability is not limited to that term, but is found also with many concepts which refer to the future, such as “prediction” “limits” “progress” etc. I’m wondering whether there isn’t some kind of unconscious change in our relation to the future (a very slippery concept in itself) which hasn’t caused a change of meaning in all these terms, without us noticing.
    A simple example: there is a definite limit to how much work I’ll get through today (only so many hours in the day…) Is there a limit to how much work I can do this year? It’s not so clear, is it? Not because I have infinite capacities for work, but because, at a certain scale, it’s not time that’s limiting me, but other factors. And the same kind of argument can be made for any other limiting factors, from money to space to raw materials to psychological or social factors. Is making the average global temperature THE limiting factor simply the most stupid of a number of erroneous “category mistakes”?

  42. j ferguson

    Hi Phillip,
    Craig’s note was my inspiration. btw, I finally realized that my effort to identify an historical precedent to the present environmentalism was a fool’s errand. Although I was able to find plenty of analogous episodes particularly in the adoption/conversion of Christianity to a state religion in the 4th century, I soon realized that I was cherry-picking my episodes and ignoring those that seemed irrelevant.

    I suppose that for an historical analogy to have any use, it would need to be instructive, show events and their consequences that would help us to foresee consequences of similar current events.

    I didn’t think I could do it; maybe no-one could.

    If there was a lesson in the comparison, and if there is anything to the idea that environmentalism has become a state religion, then I regret to say that it’s likely to be so for a very long time indeed, or at least until someone important shows up needing an officially non-sanctioned act ….. another marriage, perhaps?

  43. j ferguson

    Did you intend to say that there has been a change in our understanding of “future” which has caused unnoticed changes in our understanding of the other words you mention? Or have I misunderstood what you’ve written above?

    A very interesting thought. Certainly worthy of more discussion.

    I think Matt Ridley has been juggling with this in his recent efforts.

  44. Vinny Burgoo

    From a blog today at the Climate and Health Council’s website:

    ‘”There’s a 50% chance that humans will be extinct by the end of the century because of climate change,” said Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health, at last week’s conference on environmental sustainability.’

    (The conference was ‘NHS Sustainable Development 2011’. Montgomery was the keynote speaker. He was a founding member of the Climate and Health Council and sits on its executive board.)

    The quote above is such an extreme statement of climatic doom – by far the most extreme I have ever heard, though the blogger says he has heard it before – that I have doubts about whether a figure as eco-orthodox as Montgomery can have said it. He’s certainly a doom-monger, and a somewhat sinister one at that, but a 50/50 chance of human extinction because of climate change by 2100?

    Transcripts or videos of Montgomery’s speech aren’t available online. You have to register to ask questions at the Climate & Health Council’s blog and I can’t be arsed. I can’t be arsed to do any phoning, either.

    Perhaps you can.

  45. Lewis Deane

    Is it my influence that every post after mine sounds nonsensical? For instance, Geof Chambers, who always seems to speak the most reasonable sense, suddenly is incoherent? O my wickedness, to encourage this absurdity!
    On topic – what is absurd is this ridiculous ‘sustaining’ believe in other peoples rationality?

  46. Lewis Deane

    In polite circles, Geof, they always say, ‘Don’t talk of Schumpeter!’ No, Marx would be better – have you read ‘Theories of Surplus Value’? No, we are not talking about economics or science, we are talking about politics!

  47. j ferguson

    Gosh, Lewis, Mine nonsensical?

  48. geoffchambers

    Vinny Burgoo
    The prediction of a 50% probability of extinction was made a few years ago in a book by Sir Martin Rees, ex-President of the Royal Society. Ben had several articles about his Reith lectures last year. Rees, who describes his politics as “old Labour”, was probably talking about the danger of nuclear war / winter. But it’s a handy “heads or tails” image for all seasons.
    Yes, I did mean that there is a change in our understanding of all concepts related to the future. The clearest example is the prevalent identification of the Precautionary Principle with Pascal’s Wager, with its evident confusion between the ideas of “the world after my death”, and “my survival after my death”.
    A concept like “sustainability“ has no sense without a time scale. We gaily mix “the world we’re leaving to our grandchildren” with the disappearance of the Greenland icesheet and the explosion of the sun in one concept called “the future”. Instant graphics and a vague consciousness of they mysteries of cosmology destroy all sense of perspective. Think of all the temperature graphs you’ve contemplated without bothering at first to note whether the time co-ordinate was marked in months or hundreds of millions of years.
    In a sense it’s no-one’s fault. Mass education, mass-media, and a succession of authority figures (like the past three presidents of the Royal Society) chosen by committee who are clearly inadequate – it’s a recurrent historical pattern, and fourth century Rome is probably as good a place as any other to look for understanding.

  49. Luke Warmer

    Ben, to answer your question it really depends on how you define sustainability (and SDev). I certainly think that the phenomenon of Creative Destruction precludes many “limits to growth” type arguments, also planned economies, and perhaps therefore sustainability itself.

    Geoff – I wasn’t meaning to have a blow-by-blow argument on the documents, rather to make two points – the first that Thatcherism was not intended to weaken British industry – but it does depend on how you define weaken. That document was not written by her and makes more sense than I think you give credit, although we both agree a fascinating insight. Protectionism and subsidy is widely recognised as weakening national industry, although it gives a veneer of ‘sustainability’ which might explain your view, but not if you drove a British Leyland car. The second was the idea of services being inherently bad, which is more complex than most realise.

    The other thing which we appear to be on different sides of might be outsourcing. Do you make your own bread, coffee, cheese, paper, laptops etc or do you outsource this? Outsourcing is frequently more efficient (economically and environmentally) and like the lawyer who’s also the best typist in a town analogy, frees up time for your comparative advantage to get more done – productivity or opportunity cost, kind of. Speaking of which, back to the grindstone…

  50. Philip

    Geoff, “The problem everyone has defining sustainability is not limited to that term, but is found also with many concepts which refer to the future, such as ‘prediction’ ‘limits’ ‘progress’ etc.”

    I assume this reflects the way in which these words are now being used in a polarised political argument – George Orwell and all that? As to why they should have become used in this way, a couple of possible reasons come to mind:

    1). The political argument is far more concerned with the distant future than is normally the case with political arguments.
    2). A couple of the terms you mention have precise meanings within physical science (limit, prediction) and this is likely to be true of many words about the future – therefore the cause is the embedding of a scientific argument within a broader political one.

    You also suggested, “Think of all the temperature graphs you’ve contemplated without bothering at first to note whether the time co-ordinate was marked in months or hundreds of millions of years.”

    I have to tell you that absolutely the FIRST thing I do is to note how the time co-ordinate is marked. This may be evidence of a culture clash – there are endless opportunities for getting wires crossed and speaking past people, whenever a political discussion involves scientifically trained people.

  51. geoffchambers

    Luke Warmer
    The danger of speed blogging is misunderstanding and “speaking past each other” as Philip nicely puts it.
    I understand that Thatcher didn’t intend to weaken British industry, but simply organised labour. I agree with you that he document from the Thatcher archives makes a tremendous amount of sense. Even if not written by her, it exemplifies her philosophy perfectly, expressing more clearly than any other source I’ve seen the idea that the Labour Party is morally defective and therefore illegitimate. You’d have to go to the further reaches of the far left to find a similar view of the Tory Party.
    The component parts of British Leyland made good cars as private companies, then bad cars and lost money, then were nationalised. No conclusions can be drawn from the failure of nationalisation to cure lame ducks.
    Other European countries practise a mixture of creative destruction according to Schumpeter’s account of capitalism, plus creative accounting and creative breaking of EU rules. Fiat and Renault won’t go bust because their CEOs don’t want to be kidnapped by their workers, and the friends of the CEOs in government and finance know what they have to do.
    I do understand competitive advantage à la Adam Smith and don’t craft my own laptops from sustainable materials. Outsourcing has been extended from the provision of specialised services to the provision of decision-making and therefore of excuses for failure by both large companies and governments. Think tanks, qangoes, and PR companies are the brains of government now. The Brundtlands and Kofi Annans retire from politics and become figureheads for spurious international organisations providing the policies which politicians put forward as being inevitable, because backed by the higher authority of science, international agreement, or simply some glossy “study”.
    The long time scale favoured by environmentalists (“think of the grandchildren”) can certainly be linked to the decline of religion and a natural tendency towards the irrational when it comes to contemplating one’s own mortality. Previous freethinkers have no doubt been influenced by their atheism in their tendency to mythologise the future (Spencer, though not Marx, I think …). What’s new is that we’re living in a world where atheism is the norm. Just calling environmentalism “a new religion” misses the point I think, since religion demands a conscious decision on the part of its believers.
    If “prediction” has a precise meaning in science, then someone should explain it to Kevin Trenberth and the IPCC. This lead author famously stated that the various extra degrees of warming bandied about for the coming century are “not predictions, but projections”. I’ve been waiting for some philoopher of science to point out that, if there are no predictions for warming, there is absolutely no basis for the policies based on predictions. This is a doomsday cult with no doom.

  52. Philip

    Geoff, “…someone should explain it to Kevin Trenberth and the IPCC”

    By “prediction”, I think people normally mean a value or values that can be calculated mathematically and then tested against observations. One reason the IPCC models do not make predictions I understand, is because it is not possible to start them in a state known to hold at some definite initial time – say last Wednesday. In my day – old fogey that I am – would-be physicists took Feynman as their role model. I cannot recognise the attitudes of people like Kevin and Gavin – they do not behave in the way I would expect decent responsible scientists to behave. I rightly know that it is counter productive to use words like “scam”, “hoax” and “dishonest” in this regards, but frankly that is often how it appears to be.

  53. geoffchambers

    Whatever people mean by prediction, it’s the basis for the entire green philosophy. The Brundtland report describes sustainable development as containing the “key concept” of: “…limitations … on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs”.
    If you accept this view of development, you must accept that nothing can be done until future needs, future ability to meet those needs, and future limitations have been thoroughly explored and quantified. The Club of Rome had already tried that and made a complete mess of it. Ad hoc forecasting of specifics like food production, resource depletion etc. was such a spectacular failure that greens turned to global warming as something which, they hoped, could be predicted “scientifically”. It can’t. Any philosopher or historian of science could have told them that. In earlier times, when the scientific and intellectual élite was much smaller, more compact, and less attached to government funding, this simple fact would have been diffused among the governing classes, instead of being suppressed by a system of self-selecting committees and bureaucratic structures.

    If Trenberth and the IPCC were serious, they would attach the label “This is not a prediction” to every graph which trails off into the future, like the Magritte painting “This is not a pipe”.

  54. Philip


    Nigel Lawson had a nice essay a couple of weeks ago – “Five Myths and a Menace” – that talked about the bind you describe in quite an entertaining way (myth #2)…

    Insofar as it [the precautionary principle] has any meaning at all, it oscillates between the precept “be careful”, to which the correct response is “of course”, and the precept “you can’t be too careful”, to which the correct response is “oh yes you can”.

    This oscillation presumably mirrors the confusion over the meaning of “sustainable development” as well. All in all, it just seems far more sensible to make choices that benefit the present, rather than trying too hard to predict the distant future. Probably John’s friendly tobacco magnate would have thought the same way too.

    When you say “this simple fact would have been diffused among the governing classes”, I think you mean that the relationship between scientific institutions and government is too close at the moment. Have I understood you correctly?

    Anyway, since I’m feeling a little ranty today about the warmist scientists, I was pleased to notice a nice little exchange on Australian breakfast telly – via Daily Bayonet if you’re interested – between a warmist Mark Diesendorf, and a sceptic Stewart Franks:-

    IMO, Franks completely wiped the floor with Diesendorf, who really didn’t seem to have a clue. Just listen to his description of the 20th century temperature record starting around 1:40 – according to him, the best evidence for AGW – and his tremulous “we are the criminals” somewhere towards the end. Wonderful!

  55. George Carty

    Isn’t one of the biggest Green fallacies the belief that pre-industrial agrarian societies are usually sustainable, while industrial societies can never be sustainable?

    The very reason we started using fossil fuels in the first place was because biofuels were inadequate — in fact Europe destroyed most of its forests in the early modern era because of the need for firewood, prompting coal to be re-legalized (in medieval times it was banned because of the air pollution it caused). Soil erosion and salinity caused by irrigation water also doomed several pre-industrial societies.

    Industrial civilization by contrast could be made almost indefinitely sustainable if breeder reactors or nuclear fusion were used.

    A related fallacy is the notion that we should go back to a predominantly agricultural employment structure (as was the case in pre-industrial times), even though it would be utterly unworkable at today’s population levels. Nathan Lewis (himself a growth sceptic and enemy of car culture) points out this in Let’s Kick Around the ‘Sustainability’ types and The Problem with Little Teeny Farms.

  56. Mooloo

    In a sense it’s no-one’s fault. Mass education, mass-media, and a succession of authority figures

    This is the conservative version of the environmentalist “it’s all going to the dogs”. It’s equally bogus.

    The world has never been better educated. What do you suggest replacing “mass education”. Private tuition?

    The media have never been trustworthy. All that has changed is our awareness of their bias whereas many used to believe, rather naively, they were impartial. The media now are certainly more diverse, which I would suggest makes them better, because it decreases group think.

    Non-elected authorities have never had competence as their prime characteristic. A brief examination of the political cronies that ran the world in the pre-democratic era soon stops any thought that their was a golden age when authorities knew what they were doing. Modern concepts of transparency are helping to make the situation better, I believe, rather than worse.

  57. Philip


    If you haven’t already, see where Terry Oldberg really bears down on the topic of Trenberth, predictions and projections. He also states, “Physical scientists fabricate information by assuming that a complex system can be reduced to cause and effect relationships, the false proposition that is called reductionism”. I reckon this is fair enough, and reflects the view of climate as a emergentist chaotic system that has recently been outed on some other fascinating posts at Curry’s blog – by Robert Ellison and Tomas Milanovic – as well as on WUWT I think. I find these ideas very convincing. The point is – if I understand correctly – that both the unpredictability and the risks of climate are emphasised. So no change in understanding there at least – simply 1970’s retro. It also re-emphasises the unpredictable risk from human perturbations, and to my mind makes Lomborg’s ideas for a crash course in energy technology seem even more compelling and ideas for geo-engineering even more reckless.


    I notice that Ben downplays the kind of “world domination” dangers proposed by Christopher Monckton and others. If your comments about the media, education and so on are true – I expect they are – then the reasons for Westerners to worry about environmentalism seem to come down to energy supply and the environmental damage of wind-farms. The reasons for Africans to worry – and for us to worry on their behalf – are no doubt far more serious.

  58. geoffchambers

    When I mentioned “… Mass education, mass-media, and a succession of authority figures …” I was most definitely not putting forward the conservative argument that “it’s all going to the dogs”
    I continued “… it’s a recurrent historical pattern”, and in a later comment (February 15, 2011, 7:41 pm) I tried to be clearer, when I spoke about “… earlier times, when the scientific and intellectual élite was much smaller, more compact, and less attached to government funding…”.
    I’m certainly not saying that bygone days were better. The current climate consensus, covering practically the entire intellectual élite of the Western world – from the world’s top right-on stand-up comics right down to the past three presidents of the Royal Society – is a unique event in our experience, and we’re floundering around when we talk of cults, groupthink, ecofascists, follow-the-money, etc.
    Of course more education, more media diversity, more transparency, is better than less. Who could deny it? But an explanation of the climate consensus must explain why it has happened here and now, in an era when information has never been more available; why it affects the most able members of the establishment; and why the normal methods of reasoned argument seem to have so little effect.
    I suggest that a line of enquiry may lie in the social sciences – more likely in sociological thought than in the exploration of the unconscious. Mass university education, and mass media treatment of political and scientific themes previously reserved to a tiny élite; – these are characteristics of the members of the “chattering classes” among whom climate consensus is found.
    The joy of sociology is the possibility of discussing groups – the rich, the poor, the stupid, the Nobel prize winners, the Brighton voters and the retired prime ministers in search of the meaning of life – as groups, without judgement.

  59. Mooloo

    But an explanation of the climate consensus must explain why it has happened here and now

    I don’t believe there is even remotely a “climate consensus”, either politically or scientifically.

    The warmist scientists have more or less agreed to keep their peace rather than be seen to aid the “deniers”. Underneath it however there is very little agreement on the size and causes of warming. The number of hard-core CO2 alarmists is quite small, but lukewarmers know that any disagreement with them is likely to have unfortunate consequences. Just look at the rubbish thrown at the Pielkes – and they actually believe in the science of the warming (albeit not the economics justified by it).

    Politically, as Ben astutely points out in this blog, warming is largely a convenient symbol for those in charge to show they care. The proof of their conviction is the lack of any drive by any of them to seriously cut back carbon to the amounts the Greenies want. They put out those lovely reduction targets, but have not the slightest interest in meeting them.

    Meanwhile the bulk of the population are half-hearted at best. They don’t want to be seen to be nasty people destroying the earth. Then they fly to Barbados for their holidays. And buy a 5 litre car.

    For many of the people pushing hard for meaningful CO2 reduction the facts of CO2 warming are of no relevance. The important feature is that it is a useful stick for a political message of less consumption.

  60. Luke Warmer

    Ben a comment with three links has crashed into your filters, I think. It is possible to retrieve? First time I played with tags as well on this site.

  61. Peter S

    geoffchambers “I suggest that a line of enquiry may lie in the social sciences – more likely in sociological thought than in the exploration of the unconscious.”

    The choice you present is a daunting one, not least because the unconscious is, as its name suggests, unexplorable… if it was, it wouldn’t be unconscious. But it is wholly different to suggest that we are all influenced by unacknowledged – yet powerful – wishes when responding to the demands our spaces make upon us and when thinking about how best to organise those spaces (which include, of course, the frustrating reality of ‘other’ people). Any line of enquiry into the climate change ‘craze’ which takes these human truths onboard might start to come up with a more usable answer than one which doesn’t. The value in any such answer could be in that it has a universal resonance, rather than being mere intellectual grandstanding.

    Indeed, we may wonder how much we unwittingly collude with – and enable – the environmentalists by excluding human nature from a discussion about humans and nature. Our first line of enquiry might be – when does climate resistance become climate refusal?

  62. geoffchambers

    You say: “I don’t believe there is even remotely a ‘climate consensus’”.
    While I agree entirely with your analysis, ‘climate consensus’ exists as a social phenomenon, however shaky its philosophical foundations. Just as racism would exist, even if no individual would admit to being a racist; just as CAGW is all about predictions, even if, asTrenberth insists, there are no predictions in the IPCC reports.
    The scientific consensus is what drives the politics of the EU and the British government and opposition. Whether it’s the considered opinion of 97% of scientists, or a figment of the media’s imagination, is almost beside the point. It’s an active ingredient in the story.

  63. Mooloo

    Geoff: there are different ways a “consensus” can operate. It can be one where the vast bulk of the population buy in, even if they disagree on details. The need for belief in God say in the US, where it is almost impossible to become a political leader and be irreligious. Meanwhile in NZ the opposite consensus holds: it is pretty much impossible to be taken seriously as a politician if one is overtly devout.

    But often the agreed formula is believed by almost no-one. Towards the end of the Soviet Union the official position was that the USSR was a leader, economically and politically. Their press was unanimous and all their politicians followed the party line. Yet from top to bottom people knew it to be untrue. Most people were still Socialist, to be sure, but not in the form of the USSR. The whole edifice crumbled almost overnight.

    I believe catastrophic CO2 climate change is the second case. There are a few devout believers, to be sure. The bulk of the population though is concerned about the environment but finds the polarised nature of the catastrophe/no-warming-at-all debate painful. They are happy to adopt a moderate position regarding the need to care for the environment. The politicians try to keep both these groups happy by, on the face of it advocating serious emission controls, while in reality doing nothing of the sort. That makes them look modern and progressive, without any real risk.

    Those that won’t play along, scientifically or politically, are labelled “deniers” or worse (deliberately leaving what they deny undefined). What matters, as in the late USSR, is not that you believe but that you appear to believe. Since no actual changes are being made in our lifestyles, most people are prepared to keep quiet in order to avoid harassment from either side.

    One feature of real consensus is that it doesn’t need to be defended much. In NZ no-one comes out to defend the dislike of overtly devout politicians – that would be crass and, in any case, unnecessary. It is when the “consensus” is weak that the shouting of supporters gets strongest.

  64. j ferguson

    “Scientific consensus.” It seems to me that there can be no such thing. Consensus must be a concurrence or shared acceptance by a group of a pattern of beliefs, beliefs being usually irrational understandings accepted either by habit or from authority. Why would you need a consensus had the thing been proven?

    Scientific must describe a rational inference and include the rationale.

    Nothing new; is there?

    “The Closing of the Western Mind” by Charles Freeman describes in great detail the purposeful evolution of a “consensus” in the early Church by people who understood exactly what they were doing; people who realized that “consensus” was necessary to their purposes (mostly political) and that it was not within their grasp to develop it rationally. They knew what they were doing and chose irrational consensus over a rational foundation, and for the usual reasons.

    I found Tertullian to be especially interesting as an inventor of consensus. The guy was very bright.

    The problem we’re confronted with today is that our inventors of consensus do not understand that they can only succeed if their system of beliefs is irrational. “They know not what they do.”

    Or maybe they do.

    As an aside, I find Freeman very difficult. It may be my unfamiliarity with his subject, or I think more likely, his exposition lacks rhythm. He writes compactly, but the rhythm of the words and ideas is unsynchronized. Two or three sentences can provoke a thought needing twenty minutes to absorb and two or three other sentences can be plowed through in an instant.

    Further aside. One of my surprises in reading on a Kindle was that if I varied the type-size and displayed more text or less on a page, the ease of comprehension of the material varied wildly. It is more than the choice of how much to put in a paragraph since these would not vary.

    Further evidence that climate consensus is irrational is its identification and excoriation of heresies. In science, you can simply be unproven or wrong, but in a “consensus” you are heretical.

    Again, Freeman is very instructive in his descriptions of how and for what reasons differing irrational views came to be deemed (not considered, deemed) heretical.

  65. Lewis Deane

    And, so, what does it matter, debating, the thin shaved, fading of ‘sustainable’ living when people, very close to us, are being bombed by their own govermnent – are being machine gunned by bought in mercenaries to protect a gangsta regime! Very little, realy. I would sell all my ‘freedoms’ just that one more person would not be shot!

  66. geoffchambers

    Tertullian is the supposed source of the much quoted “credo quia absurdum est” – “I believe it because it’s absurd”. Perhaps environmentalism is due for a thousand year reign as the official religion of Europe. Christianity, with its endless heresies and bloody conflicts, didn’t stop the continent from founding modern civilisation. Civilisation doesn’t seem to require a rational basis – just enough freedom for rationality to exist in the unswept corners.
    On your Kindle comment – I have a typeface problem with Climate Resistance. I have to cut and paste the comments to read them, and I find my reaction depends on the typeface chosen.

  67. Ben Pile

    OT: Geoff, can you let me know a little more about the problem with the typeface?

  68. geoffchambers

    OT: Previously, the capital As in top right corner increased the size of the type for the article, but not for the comments. Now they don’t function. With alt+ I can increase the size of the page, but the type size remains the same. This is on a Mac, using Safari.

  69. Ben Pile

    Lewis Dean, your comments will be treated as spam unless they at least attempt to be a conversation with the post or any of the comments from other visitors.

  70. j ferguson

    Thanks for your comment. The rationality in the corner is a comforting thought. We were religious church-goers – congregationalists – when I was young. Dad’s father was excommunicated by the Arch-Bishop (Catholic) of Minneapolis in the late 20s for refusing to send his children to what we call parochial school – they went to prep schools run by the Episcopalians instead.

    Dad has a healthy skepticism. When I was 12 and got to sit through sermons we would count sheep references. Shepherd got half credit. When we got home, we’d each write down the score and then compare.

    I was never able to understand how I could be a sheep. I understand that the only sheep in Judaism were/are? the ingredient in offerings.

    I have a theory on this fixation with sheep, but it is better conveyed in person over a pint. But think Gene Wilder.

    If you Google quotes of Tertullian, you will find him working both sides of the street re: the example you gave which when I read it in Freeman, caused me to choke. You might remember in the earlier thread where I was pondering religion as an analogy for environmentalism, I suggested that rational improbability was fundamental to “faith.” After all, if it’s logical why would you need the appeal to faith. Think Goebbels’ “Lie.”

    Our proscription (here in US) of governmental acts with regard to the establishment of religion only works if the candidate looks like a religion. So here we have all these believers in public office and the media who can relate even a high pulse rate to Global Warming, it sneaks into the most innocent observations.

    This speaks to the brilliance of our hosts observation; politics comes before environmentalism. You can’t run a political force on rationality; too few people would get it. Better to base it on articles of faith.

    At least here in the US, we have a political party with a skeptical view. They, too, have their articles of faith, but ….. I keep hoping they will come up with an adult to run for Pres, but am not optimistic.

    I suppose, I don’t really care what the environmental cult thinks so long as they don’t try to do anything about it, or worse make me do anything about it.

    I keep thinking that eventually someone will look at the cost of significantly reducing CO2 emissions if it is born only by the countries so inclined and conclude that trying to do it is nuts.

    best regards, john

  71. Lewis Deane

    Fair enough, Ben. I don’t mean to write ‘spam’ but , perhaps, I am too ‘poetic’? Sorry.

    [BP: Lewis, the issue is that you post a number of comments, apparently without thought, or at least only as thoughts occur to you; and which do not easily relate to the discussion here. This is disruptive. It’s ‘poetic’, frankly, only in the sense that it appears indulgent and hard to follow. Sort it out. No more apologies.]


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