Sunday 23 November 2014

Thoughts on a Book: Don't Even Think About It

Don't Even Think About It

I had this book by George Marshall recommended to me recently. It's written by an environmentalist involved in the PR game. The author takes man made climate change as his base assumption. From there he seeks an answer to why no one cares about it enough to make any changes. Essentially it asks why people ignore it. My summary would be: energy consumption is awesome. People will justify it's consumption in whatever manner works or them. Simple as that.

I find this approach useful. The eco movement struggles on two fronts: convincing people that there is a problem and then convincing them to implement a solution. But they never truly recognize how much people enjoy consuming energy.

So my take on global warming: yeah there's an issue that we should be addressing, but until we have a replacement for all of that awesome energy we consume, we won't address it. Simply put, people know there is a problem, and don't care enough about it to do anything about it. I say 'know' there is a problem because the evidence is so overwhelming. I say that no one (even among those that 'know' there is a problem) do anything about it, because all you have to do is not consume the products, and everybody consumes the products.

This book doesn't necessarily conclude similarly, but that narrative is woven into the story line. Not surprisingly my viewpoint aligned with Daniel Kahnemen (of 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', which would be on my short list of my favorite books):
"No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people's reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that's my bottom line: There is not much hope..."
I liked that this book wrestled with the basic idea that people don't care enough about climate change/global warming to sacrifice anything close to what's needed. I take this as fact, and so I don't often find discussions and books on the topic terribly interesting.

My base assumption, for anything in life, is that people are idiots. And while I say it that way for effect, I think it's obviously true. Of course, the follow up question should be: How do you define idiots? And the answer, for the most part, comes from the aforementioned Daniel Kahnemen and Thinking, Fast and Slow. We simply aren't wired optimally for this world we've created. And yet, we're incredibly confident that we are. I call that idiocy. I also spend alot of time trying to identify and address my own idiocy.

We're built for reflexive decision making meant to keep us alive, healthy, and happy in the now.

Climate change is the perfect problem to demonstrate this. It's a long run problem. Sure we have pretty solid evidence that current weather phenomenon are being magnified by these long run trends. But our brain is wired to construct a narrative to explain things that inconvenience us in the now. These events are far away, it could be natural cycles, there have been hurricanes/tornados/droughts always, who's to say these are any worse?

And I think this is the key, that this book points out (alright, alright, I take some liberty with the interpretation), but is a bit light on in it's conclusion: it's not about getting the message out, everyone basically knows what the problem. Sure they say they don't, but they do.

It's like evolution. Everyone basically knows it, but accepting it doesn't matter enough to people to go through the mental work to sort out the cognitive dissonance of competing religious/science, consumption/science world views.


Where this book is lacking, in my opinion, is it's failure to address the vast difference in energy consumption across borders. The book reads like it was written by a rich white guy to inform the debate in countries populated by rich white people. There isn't anything wrong with that. But that discussion is an extension of the "energy consumption is awesome" line of reasoning that I think is entirely lacking in the typical discussion. While it's present here, how do you not it extend it beyond borders?

Parse out some relevant stats on India's energy consumption habits (or lack thereof), as described in this article:
“India is going to use coal because that’s what it has,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, a prominent environmental group. “Its strategy is ‘all of the above,’ just like in the U.S.” 
Each Indian consumes on average 7 percent of the energy used by an American, and Indian officials dismiss critics from wealthy countries. 
“I don’t want to use the word ‘pontificate’ when talking about these people, but it would be reasonable to expect more fairness in the discussion and a recognition of India’s need to reach the development of the West,” Mr. Goyal said with a tight smile.
Being rich is awesome. Rich people consume lots of energy. Poor people want to get rich (since being rich is awesome). One result is that they will need to consume more energy. Therefore, as current options are, that increase in energy consumption will exasperate climate change dynamics. There is no way around that. Particularly given that the vast majority of people are incredibly poor (from my Canadian lens of reference).

So again, if we accept that we need to consume less energy derived from fossil fuels. And if we have no economically viable option to replace that energy with renewable/clean energy. Then we, by definition, need to reduce energy consumption levels.

Since, really poor people consume so much less energy then rich people, and if you accept (as I do) that poor people getting richer (and enjoying all of the benefits that accompany that) should be our greatest hope, than we can't expect them to bear the burden of that reduction.

Therefore, the burden would fall on rich people to carry the burden of marginally lower consumption rates that would still be far beyond the reach of those billions of poor people increasing their consumption levels.

How is this not fair/realistic/obvious? But we can't even bring our own energy consumption levels down from their ridiculous heights. We've made strides to clean it up a bit and we pat our selves on the back for some stagnation/reductions (instead of admitting that the economic meltdown and terrible job we've done implementing rebound policy was the cause).

This book doesn't really address this, and I think is the worse for it. Someone explain to me how you'd justify telling really poor people who consume way less energy then us, to consume less. I've yet to hear a logical argument.


So the basic argument that most environmentalists face (or think they face) is two fold: explaining the problem, and getting buy in on a policy set that addresses the problem.

The eco-movement's problem (to me) is that often they think the first part of that problem is objective. It's the future, it's not objective, and it's not uniform. Pointing to past data and saying: therefore, in 40 years this will happen. Is a guess, by definition. Which is fine, but not at least acknowledging that is problematic.

The other issue is a bit more subtle: a). environmentalists often conflate not buying into their second argument (policy changes, future predictions, etc.) with not buying into the first argument (that there is a serious issue) and b). they often don't have any real answer to the second problem that is at all feasible (thus taking things back to point a).

This book reinforced my habit of ignoring conversations on this topic that don't, as a central topic, address how awesome consuming energy is.

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