Sunday, 1 May 2005

Consumers and Conservationists

Most of us are both.

Whether we define ourselves as Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, evangelical or agnostic, rich or poor, most Americans do want to protect the environment, and almost all of us want to be able to purchase goods at competitive prices. All but the most rabid libertartians will concede that it's worth a few cents of increase in the cost of goods to have regulations which, for instance, prevent industry from contaminating our air to toxic levels. Where the debate grows fierce is both in how and by whom regulation should be applied, and what level of regulation is necessary to forestall catastrophe.

There is a lot of macro speculation that is necessarily part of the analysis, and many on both sides of this debate are guilty of taking certain facts as articles of faith while dismissing arguments to the contrary as stupid or uninformed. The precautionary principle reasonably warns that if there is a significant risk of global catastrophe, it is prudent to take steps to curtail that risk rather than gamble our future on the rosier speculation of those who think the risk is overblown. The precautionary principle can be taken too far, however, and stultify the possibility of our working through a problem and developing new technologies which may render the dirty ways of doing things unnecessary. The idea of nothing ventured, nothing gained can apply to civilization as a whole. In spite of the possibility that we may have planted the seeds of our own demise in following the cultural mandate beyond our planet's capability to sustain us, who among us is really wishing that we still lived in the stone age?

In these times, however, dire warnings about global warming, topsoil loss, disappearing fisheries and forests, and population growth seem supported by enough top scientists to warrant taking a precautionary approach in BOTH curbing the excesses which exacerbate these frightening trends, AND aggressively pursuing new technologies which can bring more comfort to those in developing nations without depleting our resources for future generations. Whether it's already too late for our species, or we are on the brink, or our survival instinct will keep us innovating out of self-destruction, or the "doom and gloom crowd" are just wrong, can't we find the grace to undertake respectful dialogue on these issues without resorting to mockery of those who disagree with us?

At the very least we need to separate the most compelling risks from the lesser ones, and stop assuming truth or falsity by association. Wrong once doesn't mean always wrong, and right once doesn't mean always right.

When our future is at stake, it is more important that we get it right together, than that we win any particular argument.

1 comment:

Jerry George said...

My vision does clash with yours.

I have always felt that the human condition was substantially more outrageous than most are willing to admit. It's a kind of affliction where one sees the current voice of reason and the interactions of popular discourse as being dangerously out of whack with the times. This condition leads to deep, self-digesting pessimism that can never find a place in civil society, unless the times become grotesquely extreme.

So, hello there. I'm visible. Instead of spending the last chapters of my life as a recluse, which I had anticipated, I'm surprisingly engaged with the demos. The world needs pessimist now because our times are, indeed, grotesquely extreme.

The statements that I've been muttering all my life-- those gibes that everyone found so disgusting-- have become plausible, if not likely. What if we really are in the grips of a peculiar, shape-shifting plutocracy that has immeasurable power on the one hand, and is certifiably insane on the other? What if we really are ruled by a coterie of the criminally insane? What if they will murder us the moment we demonstrate the slightest hint of power to oppose them?

What if the reasonable engagement you offer, as admirable as it is, as difficult as it can be, is nonetheless the precise requisite of our doom? The often-used analogy is frog soup. I'm sure everyone has been told that when you place frogs in hot water they simply jump out. But when you place them in warm water and slowly raise the heat to boiling, the frogs simply go to sleep and cook tenderly. What if being civil and thoughtful is, by analogy, the warm water that will cook us?

That's what happened to the "Good Germans" in the late thirties. They tried to abide in the warmth of complacency. They got cooked. Right now, as I see it, there are a lot of "Good Americans" in the pot. It follows that the only way out is by leaping into radical actions that are necessarily discontinuous with our recent past. Being reasonable, in any traditional sense, can be a grave error.

Remarkably, the current landscape is so fanatical that we find ourselves on the same side, standing together.