Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

Are We Doomed?

June 24, 2015

My two favorite columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, have now weighed in on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, here and here. While both give Francis high marks for bravely tackling the subject, and both appreciate his wonderful personal qualities, neither one of them sees the encyclical very favorably.

Brooks approaches it more practically, noting that “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.” He’s consistently against any market-driven innovation and any technological advance. There’s no acknowledgement that market-driven economic growth (as in China and India) and technological advance (as in crops that grow more food) have led to a huge diminishing in world poverty and hunger in the developing world, and to environmental improvements in the developed world. Brooks concludes: “The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.”

I agree with that, but I thought Douthat’s comments were more penetrating. Douthat divides social commentators between “dynamists and catastrophists.” Dynamists recognize severe problems but have moderate hope that human society is capable of innovative solutions. They “see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful society.” Catastrophists are sure the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and nothing can stop it. They are “united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.”

These two are more rhetorical style and temperament than developed philosophy. You can find both liberals and conservatives on both sides. Living in Sonoma County, I often encounter liberals who see utter ruin just ahead: to the environment, to the economy, to education, to democracy. And being an evangelical Christian, I often encounter conservatives who also see utter ruin just ahead: to the family, to traditional values like love of country, to freedom of religion (or any other kind of freedom.)

Dynamists of the left believe in the power of governmental and technocratic solutions, while dynamists of the right believe in the power of market arrangements.

According to Douthat, Francis is a catastrophist. He sees nothing but ruin ahead for God’s creation, given our current political and economic relations.

As I say, I catastrophism is a rhetorical style, beloved of the prophets. Such doomsday verbiage captures the attention and the imagination. It may help motivate people to take global warming seriously, before it is too late. That, I feel sure, is Francis’ intent, and I suspect he is willing to pass by nuanced discussion of economics in favor of getting his message across. He is a preacher by nature and calling, it seems.

As Douthat suggests, however, there are other possible outcomes that could make Francis ultimately look as foolish as Paul Ehrlich and his population bomb. “It’s possible to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes ‘the present world system … certainly unsustainable,’ as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.” Or perhaps we will settle into stagnation, unable to deal with our threats, but also unable to triumph over them.

“In that case,” writes Douthat, “the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in ‘Laudato Si’ ‘ will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.”

As I read the Bible, stagnation is not the main threat to worry about. Neither is ecological destruction, significant as it certainly is. I find the Bible offering no hint whether environmental degradation will destroy us in the end or not. I do find a clear warning that our sin—our selfishness, self-worship, arrogance, lack of concern for our neighbor, refusal to care for the poor and to steward God’s beautiful world—will lead us to be judged and found wanting by our creator. That catastrophism requires a different kind of analysis—not one based on our environmental survival, but on our standing before a God of love and power.

The Unexpected Results of Global Warming

April 3, 2015

Let’s not argue about whether 98% of climate scientists are correct in predicting global warming. Assume for the moment that they are right and that at least some of their catastrophic predictions will come true. What will be the result?

I don’t mean economically or ecologically. There will be hard facts—sea levels, temperatures, storms—that will play out, and we human beings will make our responses. We will build sea walls, move away from the coast, migrate from hot areas, change our crop rotation, and so on. We will do our best to cope with change, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Who knows just how successful we will be?

As I imagine it, however, one change will be almost certain. There will necessarily be a change toward revering science. If and when those predictions come true, scientists will gain a lot of credit. They predicted it, and we ignored it.

These days, appreciation of science is mixed up with a great deal of skepticism and even hostility, from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Lefties tend to despise GMO foods, anything with man-made chemicals, and sometimes vaccines. Righties fight to deny evolution and global warming. All sides include people who believe instinctively that alternative medicine (diets, supplements, naturopathic medicines) is better and safer than what scientific medicine recommends.

Most of these are small-scale issues, and the consequences of getting them right or wrong is hard to measure. With global warming, though, something really huge is at stake. We are making a global gamble that science is wrong. We’re letting skepticism about science have the decisive word. It will take some time to see how that gamble works out, but my guess is that our grandchildren will ask us, “How could you sit by and make no serious attempt to arrest climate change? Didn’t you listen to what the scientists said?”

Our grandchildren will grow up believing in science much more than we do. They will be a lot less tolerant of the science skepticism that animates so many people today.

There’s always this reversal after a national failure. The failure to address the Depression led to the New Deal and the government-enmeshed economy. The failure to face Hitler early led to the lasting popularity of the military-industrial complex after WWII. And the failure to address climate change will lead, I expect, to an era where science rules.

Whether that is a good thing is another matter.

The Psychology of Indecision (I Feel Cranky)

November 13, 2009

It’s hazardous to psychoanalyze your family members, obnoxious to psychoanalyze your friends, and downright dubious to psychoanalyze a nation. Nevertheless:

I’ve been thinking about the national mood, which is cranky. In four critical areas we are teetering on the verge of decision: health care, Afghanistan, financial regulation and climate change. All four are extraordinarily complex, all four appear urgent, and as a nation we are finding it very difficult to make up our minds about all four.  For each of these concerns I give at least even odds that we will not reach any decision of consequence in the coming year.  (Of course, not to decide is to decide, but in most of these cases the same issues would then be back with us next year.)

This indecision feels bad. I find myself looking back longingly on our election just slightly more than a year ago, when it seemed that we had made up our mind to something fresh and new. That felt good. Elections, however they turn out, give the sense of decision in a way that Congressional deliberation very rarely does. (It was the Republicans’ turn to feel good in last week’s gubernatorial elections—their turn to feel as though they had accomplished something.)

I relate our current crankiness to the dis-ease I myself feel when I am trying to make up my mind about a personal matter. Whether the decision is big or small, I am restless, crabby, and unproductive. I can’t sit still. I look for distractions. (Bless the internet for providing them, better than TV ever did!) All the alternatives seem bad. I need to spend more time analyzing their flaws. So many unknown aspects could go wrong.

Some people get so overwhelmed that they literally cannot make a decision. But healthier minds usually manage to move ahead. We decide on the Grand Tetons as our vacation destination, we plunk down money to reserve a cabin (lots of unknowns there), we put the dates on our calendar, we begin to get dog sitters and house sitters and all the rest.

And then we feel better. The unknowns remain. So do the imperfections of our choice. But we are in motion. We will work out the problems as we go. We will live with the imperfections.

In all four areas of national choice, we’re stuck in the crabby land of indecision. Added to that, we have a constitution that was deliberately crafted to make decisions difficult. (Thank God it’s not California’s constitution, which was crafted to make us crazy.) Added to that, there’s a partisan spirit in the land that sidetracks deliberation.

Beware of governments making decisions that aren’t thought through. (Remember Iraq?) I’m glad for the deliberative process. I realize that making a decision, any decision, feels better in the short run, but it doesn’t necessarily feel better in the long run.

At some point, though, you know all you are going to know, and it’s time to decide. Will we? Will we decide on a direction for any of these four matters within the next year? I hope so. I want to move on. I want to feel better.

Any More Food?

October 28, 2009

Two old friends called a week ago to talk about food. No, not recipes, food. John Vendeland and Steve Savage are consultants in agriculture, and they foresee a slowly unfolding disaster in food supply. The world population is growing, and according to projections will peak in the next 50 or 60 years. We need to grow more food to feed billions of new lives. John and Steve know a whole lot about food production. They point out that increasing agricultural production is a slow process. You can’t just invent a better wheat and produce it worldwide next year. Innovation depends on multiple crop cycles, if only to increase the supply of seed.

They say that current trends suggest a big food shortfall is coming, and that it will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable citizens on the planet. They worry that several trends are holding back agricultural innovation.

On the left, they see a romantic preoccupation with organic farming, which will never be sustainable. They see the paralyzing power of the precautionary principle. They see an active dislike of corporations that provide much of the investment and invention in agriculture. They see distrust of science. Such forces have restricted research in genetically modified food to just a handful of major crops in a few major markets. That means the most powerful tool in the 10,000-year history of agriculture is currently not addressing some of the most pressing needs on the planet.

On the right, they see a similar distrust of science and technology, a dreamy hope for home gardening, and an unwillingness to contemplate the impact of global warming, which they believe will force us to innovate much more quickly as climates shift. It distresses both John and Steve that some of their fellow Christians most vocally distrust science and deny global warming.

For them, these are not just interesting questions. They have moral dimensions.

If you are interested in getting into the details, go to and search for Steve Savage articles. He’s posted a great many lively and not-too-technical articles on various issues related to food. You might start on this one on 700-year-old technology in agriculture.