Friday, January 27, 2012

Catch of the Day

To Ed Kilgore over at Washington Monthly, who read the WSJ editorial page, and so he deserves some sort of compensation. In this case, it was the WSJ's crazed support for the idea that the only reason anyone is concerned about climate change is immediate self-interest. As Kilgore says:
Gee, you’d think in all this tough-minded truth-telling about those with a financial stake in the climate change debate the Journal might have noted in passing that the most powerful economic interests on the planet have an interest in doing nothing about it.
Oh well. Kevin Drum piles on:
Climate change isn't merely wrong — that would be boring — it's an immense conspiracy being waged by a group of nerdy scientists (who want funding) and tree huggers (who are desperate to control everyone else's lives). And it's a damn successful conspiracy, too. Despite the fact that it requires thousands and thousands of participants from nearly every country in the world, with new collaborators earning PhDs every month, not a single one of them has broken the climate omerta yet and blown the whole thing open. But someone will, any day now. Just you wait.
Just to try to add a bit of value of my own here...while Drum, I think correctly, talks about long-term conspiracy theorizing on the right, I would add that a lot of the way conservatives talk now is very much driven by embarrassing presidential candidate and failed and disgraced Speaker Newt Gingrich. The other thing I'll say, and I should mention that this is purely speculative, is that in my view this kind of rhetoric is utterly ineffective at persuading anyone, and if anything tends to hurt with undecideds; what it's mainly good for is manipulating people who are already inclined to agree with you. Which is great if your goal is to squeeze more money out of your marks, but not particularly useful if you actually want to achieve policy goals.


  1. In general, I think you make a good point about the persuasive power of the conservative-talk-radio-style.

    Unfortunately, action on climate change seems to be a case where the right has, effectively, won. Human activity is making the earth warmer. Quickly. Most people don't buy into the notion that it's a big conspiracy. But the consensus does seem to be that doing something about it would be too hard, or would destroy the economy, or maybe we should study it more...

    At this point, nobody is really pushing for adequate action on the issue.

  2. It's also about generating enough "differing opinions" rhetoric and salience in the political discourse, so that sclerotic, embarrassingly passive "objective" news sources -- main news shows on network and cable TV, major newspapers -- are forced (i.e. force themselves) to treat the issue as "in dispute," having to misleadingly dignify this conspiratorial view with acknowledgement.

    It's a media strategy in the service of constructing demonizing rationalizations.

    1. It's definitely in the service of achieving a policy goal: stymieing measures that would lead to a re-composition of energy sources and that would shift political and social power toward government regulation and away from certain interest groups of private businesses.

  3. All true or true enough, PF & Swain - but, oo put things in the plain perspective, what reason is there to believe that a polity dominated by short-term economism - except under perceived emergency conditions or other extreme contingencies - could ever embrace truly effective climate change-related measures?

    1. CK. We haven't. It looks like we won't. You have to get the country to undertake substantial action now to mitigate and inevitable, but not immediate, disaster. And you have to get most of the world to play along as well or it's all a waste.

      It's a difficult problem. But it would be nice if we could agree it was a very real problem which we will try to solve. Or not.

      Ultimately, the global cost of addressing the problem would be much less than the cost of ignoring it.

      But I agree we probably won't get our collective act together.

    2. A rational left-liberal response might be to set down markers, remain open to unexpected alterations in the political terrain, and carefully prepare for the eventual crisis, which will probably arise "too late" from multiple perspectives.

      The deeper problem is that climate change/catastrophe, as the ultimate externality, is inseparable from our political-economic system. Catastrophic "climate change" appears to be the inevitable destination of democratic capitalism because full comprehension of the problem of externalities requires practical acknowledgment of ultimate social-collective ownership of the means of production. In other words, it requires democratic capitalism to embrace its own absolute contradiction. The neoliberal right and left - "conservatives" and "liberals," as per the plain Sunday questions - each respond with their own versions of denial, and JB can likely produce reams of literature explaining why they will never overcome it before it overcomes them instead.

    3. So are you somewhat implying that the rise of conspiratorial discourse on this subject is inevitable? Since "'climate change' appears to be the inevitable destination of democratic capitalism," as you say, then a significant portion of the population will deal with this fact by reacting with an extreme form of psychologically protective denial?

    4. There's perhaps something penetrating about that bleak perspective, but can it account for the fact that our political system was almost prepared to pass cap and trade in 2009, but for a contingent set of circumstances and a seriously major economic crisis (which always erodes support for tough measures across the board)? A working liberal-centrist majority to fight climate change was emerging over the course of the 2000s up until the economic crisis. But I guess the proper disposition is something like your pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

  4. PF - one problem is that, even if passed, and before we get to the question of what exactly might have passed, cap & trade wouldn't have solved the problem or even have come close. Purely on a level of output, the economic crisis itself was a more effective anti-carbon measure than cap & trade or any other global ecological regime so far contemplated. Under current and foreseeable circumstances, high economic growth plus cap & trade would be worse for carbon output globally than relative stagnation without cap & trade. (Doesn't help that the carbon cycle may not even be our biggest ecological problem, but that's another discussion, if to the same effect.)

    You have to imagine c&t and the various international pacts as baby steps on the way to a virtuous, harmonious, and smooth adoption of a worldwide regime of ever greater industrial restraint and control. Not saying it can't happen. I tend to think it will happen and must happen, the only question being how long, hard, and bloody-ugly getting there will be, since it's, again, the contradiction of autistic/autonomic property-sacrosanct democratic capitalist nationalism as we know it, advance it, advertise it, fight for it, enjoy it, etc.

    It is correctly understood as such, as an elemental threat to our "way of life," by the right, while the left is afraid to confess the truth publically. As Kilgore points out, the left or what passes for it in the U.S. seems afraid even to admit that it likes little iddy biddy green energy projects, even with public opinion on its side!

    So in answer to your first question: absolutely. Denial is not only a result of the system or an aspect of the system or a natural reaction to the system. It is the basis of the system. It is the system, and it works until it doesn't, until its failure becomes undeniable in fact. The apparent determination of a significant minority to defend "our way of life" as they understand it provides a large margin for error from the perspective of system maintenance. And that's why catastrophe seems built in. If ecology doesn't get there first, and possibly even if it does, the denialists - not just WSJ op-ed writers, but the political majority more passive or unconscious regarding its own denialism, even including liberals who consider themselves climate change-persuaded - and -concerned - seem disposed to insist on it anyway.

    1. Thanks for this interesting answer. I unfortunately don't have the time to continue the discussion, but if I were to, I think I'd try to emphasize that we should be careful not to understand capitalism too unitarily as a system/logic/process, even as some degree of schematism is necessary and valid. I fear that your understanding of capitalism -- as helpfully critical as it is -- edges too close to the simplifications of those you oppose. Capitalism has always been a contradictory, complicated, differentiated beast, and throughout the 20th-century has evolved and changed in different configurations of a 'mixed economy' form, guided and conditioned by policy, not simply a relentless force of logic.

    2. Don't really disagree, but I'm arguing that the idea of global ecological catastrophe - the ultimate, non-externalizable externality - forces us to confront the nature of the political-economic system at just such a high level of abstraction.

  5. If I understand you correctly, a long way of saying we're too stupid to survive.

    There's certainly plenty of evidence for that view.

    I remain of the view that people and societies do create and re-create their psychologies with every decision of every moment, that people and societies also create and re-create their explanations, their philosophies, religions and sciences with every decision of every moment, and indeed they also do this creation and re-creation with their politics (their decisions on order, rank and status within societies, and the elaboration of this into current governmental institutions) and they also do this with their economics (their decisions on systems of value, and on goods and services to fulfill those values). True, 99.99% of these decisions are made on the basis of tradition, default and repetition, yet changes are being introduced at all points all the time.

    We can empower each other's intelligence better than we are now doing, we can make a better stand against our stupidity in fouling our own nest than we are now doing. And a big part of problem lies in just bucking-up each other's confidence, it is worthwhile to live a balanced life of fighting the good fight against human stupidity.

    1. No, I don't think we're too stupid too survive as a species, and that's not what I said. I discussed climate change and the somewhat broader notion of ecological catastrophe as the ultimate externality of the mode of production typical of our civilization, a term that includes our political system or systems and governing ideologies. To put the worst gloss on what I was describing, we appear to have catastrophes in store, ecological or social-political or combined, but catastrophe isn't extinction, and in many respects our current way of life is already an ongoing catastrophe, if not first and foremost in any material sense for those of us virtually gathered here.

      What makes this discussion relevant for this blog in particular is the manner in which the theory of politics under which the blogger operates appears to contradict any notion that we can, in fact, win your "good fight" other than through or on the other side of the destruction of that political system or, perhaps, a process of social evolution that would have to occur beyond the horizon of politics. Maybe the latter alternative is what you're getting at. If so, that's an even bigger, broader, and un-plainer discussion!

    2. I've re-read your 1st and 2nd comments several times now, and I guess I am a bit bewildered about the point you would like to be making.
      You think a catastrophe is coming, but you're not that concerned because it won't lead to extinction of the species. Maybe there will be that last guy reduced to foraging through the rubble. I'd like to see us turn the ship around before it gets to that point.

      So just to clarify my perspective one more time: I very much appreciate the forum our host has given us here, for a relatively high-level discussion. And I enjoy his thoughtful and well-informed knowledge and opinions on the current status quo. However I'm realizing I do have a fundamental disagreement with Mr. Bernstein; I really want some fundamental reforms, and I'm beginning to understand that he doesn't.

      I think the evidence is pretty clear: anthropogenic global warming is real. We have a choice: we can have children and grandchildren living healthy lives, or we can continue the petroleum-based economy. I'd prefer that we had children and grandchildren living healthy lives.

      And I fundamentally reject the idea that "politics" is a sphere separate from culture, psychology, philosophies or economics, that ordinary people can choose to participate in or not. This deeply ingrained, yet fundamentally misleading perspective is near the roots of our civilizational problems. Every personal choice, every psychological choice, every economic choice is also a political choice, and every political choice is also a psychological, philosophical and economic choice. Digging ourselves out of this hole may ultimately be impossible, yet we can choose to begin, individually and socially, at any moment, and at every moment.

    3. Thanks for taking the time to try to understand, phil-ron. Since this thread is probably near death, I'll just make one last try: I don't know or claim to know exactly how climate change or any other ecological catastrophe (or other system-level crisis) will arrive, and what resources the human race might discover in the face of it. Climate change in particular is a problem demonstrably beyond conventional politics. There really is no reason to have expected anything else. Coping with a system-level challenge requires a system-level response. You can imagine some long series of minor reforms building cumulatively to something more comprehensive, but sooner or later, however it's articulated in word and deed, it has to amount to a revolutionary project, not a plain one.

  6. I tend to think of Anthropogenic Global Warming by any name as a con. The reasons why go far beyond the simple fact that one cannot talk about predicting the future as either science or accomplishment.
    Where is the proof ! Not happened.
    Nor is climate change any evidence except the obvious inference of self revelation.
    This is not a catalogue of your usual Search returns.
    Rather, I was disturbed by the operation of the Denier meme using Logical Fallacy to Poison the Well of Scientific Method via Strawman Argumentation.
    That and I happened to recall what a couple of futurists wrote about the topic decades ago, having a novel dealing with global cooling and anti-technological uprising sitting on my bookshelf.


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