Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Last Saturday we saw in the New York Times two columns addressing the question of caution: One decrying it in favor of some sort of confusion of middle-aged excess with courage and decisiveness, and the other fretting over the absence of caution in recommending caution among environmentalists. First we will deal with the trivial instance. I am still puzzling over what could possibly have motivated David Brooks to write his "Saturday Night Lite"(Source: NYT 03/12/05). In his column he flails around–in search of self-deprecating humor among other things–while trying to blame facetiously his middle-age caution on anyone but himself. >And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code. For Brooks, his preference for decaffeinated coffee is some sign of the times, some revelation of our pusillanimous age, some general failure to have the courage and heroism of excessive indulgence of the pleasures of the obese or of the intemperate nobility. This sounds like one of those standard complaints of the grouchy wing of the conservative party: "When I was young. . .." and you insert a complaint about any product, activity, etc. that has been made safer or healthier. At least, and this is about all that can ultimately be said about Brooks' facetious argument, he does not indulge the popular explanation of this phenomena, which schizophrenically blames scientists and the health experts for the truths, or for passing on the results of their research that might–there are of course no implicit promises though many act as if there are–allow us to live longer, healthier, or simply better lives. Instead he facetiously blames his "friends"–the Bush administration, corporate america, and parents. Nicholas Kristof also turns his complaints against his "friends" though this time without Brooks' thin defense of the attempt to be funny. Kristof tries to explain the ennervation of the environmental movement by their "alarmism," in "'I Have a Nightmare'" (Source: NYT 3/12/05). Prompted by a forceful critique and call for self-examination presented at the Environmental Grantmakers Conference in 2004 entitled "The Death of Environmentalism" (Source: The Grist 1/13/05)–or at least, by the title of the presentation, Kristof tries to explain the condition of environmentalism today. The authors of the presetnation, Shellenberger and Nordhaus, offered a critique of the environemntal movements' political strategies, which they claimed had not adjusted to the changes in the social and political climate since the early successes of the 1970's. Environmentalists are, in effect, fighting new wars with weapons created to fight the battles of the 60's and 70's. It is a thoughtful and rigorous critique rooted in exstensive conversations with environmental leader, though certainly it is also controversial. > But in their public campaigns, not one of America's environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards–proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem. Their argument is that environmentalists think of their failures in entirely "tactical" terms. What is really needed is a fundamental re-orientation of the framework within which "environmental issues" are presented. The seriousness of the present risk from climate change requires more than "technical policy" proposals like increasing gas mileage incrementally. The authors are not arguing, as Kristof is, for more caution, but rather for better frameworks and strategies for effectively communicating the dangers and offering possible solutions. Kristof acknowledges his familiarity with the title of the presentation: >"The Death of Environmentalism" resonated with me. I was once an environmental groupie, and I still share the movement's broad aims. Yet, it doesn't resonate strongly enough for him to take its content seriously. No, instead Kristof finds an easier fault: > The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. What evidence of "alarmism" is there? >When I first began to worry about climate change, global cooling and nuclear winter seemed the main risks. As Newsweek said in 1975: "Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend … but they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century." This record should teach environmentalists some humility. The problems are real, but so is the uncertainty. So the argument that Kristof seems to be making is something like: 1. Environmental science has not been correct about all of its predictions. 2. Many of its predictions have been alarms (i.e., information about impending danger). 3. Some of these alarms have been incorrect and hence have been needlessly sounded (i.e. alarmist). 4. This alarmism has caused people to become suspicious of environmentalism. 5. The environmentalist movement should be less alarmist. (i.e., it is reasonable not to raise alarms (warn of impending danger) so readily). Now the crucial step here is probably the move from sounding alarm to the judgment that the alarm is needless. Kristof lists several incorrect predictions that environmentalists have made including global cooling, Paul Ehrlich's population bomb, and the environmental cost of the Alaska pipeline (for a response to these factual claims see, "The Death of Environmentalism? Mr. Kristof's Kool-Aid" (Common Dreams (3/15/05)). But beyond the accuracy of Kristof's environmental science, or the question of how far he might have read the article from which he begins his reflections, there are interesting questions about this argument. It claims a disproportion between the likelihood of danger and the degree of fear expressed by the alarm. The environmentalists have too often, Kristof is suggesting, claimed that a great danger was looming where none occured–that they have raised the environmental "terror alert" to orange when yellow would have sufficed. For a society that is suffused with science and technology, we have a curious ignorance about the meaning of scientifc claims. We seem to expect far too much and far too little of science because we do not understand enough about the nature of scientific research. That global cooling has been replaced by global warming may seem ridiculous to many, but what, of course, is crucial is that the underlying mechanism of both of these effects is the same–to the best of our understanding human transformation of the composition of the atmosphere causes climate change even if we are unable to predict exactly what change will occur, or how much our transformation is affecting climate. There seems then to be an ambiguity in the notion of "alarm" here. Alarms are not predictions of harm, but predictions of danger, i.e., of the increased risk of harm. This ambiguity leads us close here to the fallacy of argument from ignorance: we don't know x is true, therefore x is false. This certainly isn't the argument that Kristof is making, but it hovers around the margins of this argument: perhaps we would come closest to it, if we argued: >We don't know that this harm will occur, therefore it is unreasonable to sound the warning of danger. This isn't what Kristof is arguing, but he comes troublingly close to it. It would suggest that all warnings of increased risk are unjustified. It may be true that the public perception of the environmental movements' dire predictions as unreasonable alarmism is the cause of the movements political ineffectiveness. It is a different question whether that perception is correct. Kristof thinks it is. His reasons for thinking that it is point to a fundamental confusion shared by the public of the prediction of risk and the prediction of harm. Environmental scientists–like medical scientists–attempt to make us aware of the risks of our behavior not predict the certainty of harm. The anecdotal smoker who lived to be 90 and died peacefully does not refute the claim of increased risk of dying early from lung cancer brought about by smoking. Environmental alarms function here like hazard signs perhaps. They do not tell you that you will die in a flaming car wreck, but only that there is an increased risk at certain points in the road and the intelligent thing to do is adjust your behavior.

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