Monday, July 21, 2014

#203 / A Two Worlds Analysis

My "Two Worlds" idea is, in essence, a prescription for thinking. It is probably not a prescription that fits every circumstance, but I believe that it is often very helpful to analyze the specifics of our human situation by hypothesizing that we live, simultaneously, in "Two Worlds," a human world, which we create, and which is our immediate home, and the World of Nature (which we have not created), the world upon which we ultimately depend. 

Pictured above: one reality within our human world (an energy facility dependent on hydrocarbon fuels). Pictured below: the World of Nature (the world upon which we ultimately depend for life itself).

On July 5th, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial it titled "Climate of Conformity." The editorial discussed the dismissal of Caleb Rossiter from the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC based "think tank." According to The Journal, Rossiter is a "loyal left-winger."  While The Journal doesn't say so, it clearly believes that the Institute for Policy Studies is "left wing," too. Wikipedia confirms that this is a designation frequently applied to the Institute for Policy Studies. 

As it turns out, the "left-wing" Rossiter was discharged from the "left-wing" Institute just five days after writing an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in which Rossiter argued that "the computer modeling used to support claims that the earth is headed for a climate catastrophe is far from definitive." The Journal's editorial denounced what it regarded as a left-wing demand for "intellectual conformity." 

Rossiter's article was called "Sacrificing Africa for Climate Change." I do not presume to comment on whether Rossiter's views about climate change modeling are correct, and I also don't want to comment on whether or not the Institute for Policy Studies was seeking to stifle legitimate debate about an important issue, which is what The Journal obviously believes to be the case. 

I want to cite to The Journal's July 5th editorial to illuminate how a "Two Worlds" analysis can be applied to statements about the human situation. Here is the quotation from the editorial that grabbed my attention: 

Mr. Rossiter ... an American University adjunct professor of math and statistics, argued that the computer modeling used to support claims that the earth is headed for a climate catastrophe is far from definitive. But more important from a moral point of view, he wrote that limiting fossil fuels would make it harder for Africa to escape poverty.

The two aspects of the debate mentioned above are incommensurable, and The Journal is arguing that decisions affecting the World of Nature can legitimately be based on what humans want to do in their human-created world. Whether or not Earth is headed for a climate catastrophe is essentially a question directed to the realities of the World of Nature. Complex interactions involving physics, biology, and chemistry will determine what will happen to the World of Nature, as humans continue to add carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. 

"Poverty" is a category applicable to the human world. "Politics" will determine whether or not Africa remains in poverty or moves from it.

As we make decisions that impact the World of Nature, we should pay attention to the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern that World of Nature. Ultimately, all life on Earth, and our human civilizations, depend on conditions within the World of Nature. Rich or poor, we will all perish if the World of Nature is so damaged that it will no longer support the human "world" we have constructed within it. 

If it is true that our "human world" is dependent on the World of Nature (and that is the basic premise in my "Two Worlds" hypothesis), then we need to address the issue of poverty, in Africa and elsewhere, in terms of the "political" decisions that can eliminate that poverty, without undermining the conditions in the World of Nature that support our civilization.

If continued global warming might (or will) destroy the foundations of our human world, it becomes obvious that eliminating poverty within that human world is not a justification for continuing to destroy the World of Nature. We need to address poverty another way. There is nothing "moral" about destroying the World of Nature to solve a human problem. In fact, it's a misguided attempt. 

My own belief is that global warming is "real," and is caused by human activity, and that global warming poses a major threat to human civilization. That view is regularly contested by others who comment on the assertions about global warming that I make in this blog. I am happy for the debate! If I am right, though, about the dependence of our human world on the natural systems that support it, it becomes clear that our human "politics" must protect Earth First. That is a "precautionary" approach. 

It is the only "right" approach, in my opinion.

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  1. This is an excellent summary of the current problem, Gary, with one slight quibble (as you might expect!). Well, OK, two slight quibbles.

    It is true that climate variation (aka, Global Warming) is real. It is inaccurate to say that it is “caused” by human activity. Climate variation continues apace, as it has done for millennia. Human activity, particularly production of greenhouse gases and modifications of the landscape that affect atmospheric water vapor, modify, to a greater or lesser extent, this natural climate variation.

    There are many factors that pose major threats to human civilization, in addition to climate variation. The most immediate threatening factor is Peak Oil, which will change human civilization much sooner and much more drastically than will climate variation.

    It is certain that oil will soon become an uneconomical source of energy. It is certain that human civilization is unalterably based on abundant, inexpensive oil and other finite fossil fuels. It is certain that renewable energy sources are less energy dense, less portable and less reliable than fossil fuels. It is certain that no combination of renewable energy sources can replace the amount of energy now consumed by our civilization (if that’s what it is) at present population levels, let alone with any future population growth.

    The effects of present and future climate variation are uncertain. Beyond consideration of the accuracy and precision of numerical global climate models, which are only as good as their data inputs, climate variation is chaotic and nonlinear, and thus, virtually impossible to predict with less than hemispheric accuracy over a limited time period.

    It seems to me that the one problem facing us, Peak Oil, will cancel out the other, human modified climate variation. Either we will find a way to lower our energy demands and switch to renewable energy sources, thus lowering our “carbon footprint,” or we won’t, thus lowering our “carbon footprint.” The former will allow some maximum cultural continuity, the latter will entail considerable cultural chaos and collapse.

    Laid out thusly, in glowing black and white phosphors, the choice seems clear to me. We must do everything we can to lower our energy demands while at the same time using our remaining fossil fuel energy sources to develop as much renewable energy as possible… and here’s the catch: We must accomplish all this without laying waste to the natural biosphere that supports all life on this planet.

    It’s a big prescription, to be sure. One way or the other, a thousand years from now, all will be well, as humans will have found a way to live within natural cycles of resource availability and waste assimilation, either by our own determination, or by Nature’s own resolute requirements.

  2. Thank you, Michael! I pretty much concur, with maybe only one significant reservation. I think we should not grant ourselves the latitude to "use [all of] our remaining fossil fuel energy sources." I'd put it this way: "We must do everything we can to lower our energy demands while, at the same time, moving to renewable energy as quickly as possible, using the least amount of fossil fuel energy we can on our way to that goal." NO quibbles with the LAST paragraph!


Thanks for your comment!