Climate Change: Good Luck with That

cloudsRather than a complot against the planet and its inhabitants, capitalism in its present form – much maligned but little understood – developed as haphazardly as mankind did. There was no master plan, nor a blueprint for the takeover of the world. Economics, the “dismal science,” is not unlike sociology: both study human collectives as they go about the business of living. Economists and sociologists have embarked on a quest to predict human behaviour and both have found their job to constitute a quixotic endeavour – interesting but ultimately destined to fail.

Hordes of highly intelligent people make a good living as oracles predicting the moves of stock markets. Others willingly pay top dollar for the advice, though they might as well throw a few peanuts at a monkey. As Burton Malkiel – an economist and a traitor of sorts to his profession – pointed out in A Random Walk down Wall Street: “A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.”

The premise was promptly tried out by the Wall Street Journal (…no animals were harmed…) and proven correct with a minimum of caveats. Which goes to show: human behaviour is not necessarily based on reason. Supporting proof is offered – in copious amounts – by game theory.

Australian mathematician Peter John Wood in 2013 released a research report entitled Climate Change and Game Theory in which he concluded that attempts at cooperation between nation states in order to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases are doomed to fail. Nations so engaged will face the prisoner’s dilemma – originally framed by the RAND Corporation in the 1950s – which holds that betraying a partner offers greater rewards than cooperating. It also shows that reason oftentimes does not prevail, even between reasonable people.

As grave as climate change is perceived to be, it will not be tackled through international cooperation, lofty though that goal may be. Denying humankind its human traits is a sure-fire way of guaranteeing the utter and complete failure of whatever endeavour undertaken. If climate change is to be addressed at all, the only salvation is to be found in an appeal to humankind’s ingenuity.

Collectively, the world’s seven billion or so inhabitants possess an almost immeasurably large reservoir of intellectual power. Instead of doggedly pursuing international cooperation, global entities such as the United Nations could devise better ways of harnessing and expanding the world’s cerebral prowess. Here’s an idea: invest the untold billions now earmarked for fighting climate change in education and research. This may require a leap of faith, but policymakers would be betting on human resourcefulness rather than on the fallacy of global cooperation.

The misguided idealists who clamour for global action on climate change – the likes of Al Gore and Naomi Klein – recognise the shortcomings of their approach and propose the creation of international bodies with broad remits and ample powers to impose limits on the use of resources and cap the emission of pollutants.

Given the experience with current global entities and their often crippling lack of effectiveness in solving even the most mundane of issues, such a supranational entity would either be a paper tiger or need be equipped with policing powers that stretch far beyond present notions of sovereignty. The unmarked black helicopters conspiracy theorists believe will herald the coming of a world government, may yet become reality.

All talk about planetary boundaries ignores the inconvenient truth that human beings cannot be treated as a commodity, lest the goal is to unleash the wrath of billions. People want more and better: the latest model iPhone, a bigger home, a larger or faster car, a new fridge, or – indeed – an improved spinning wheel. As new markets emerge in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, billions are lifted out of dire poverty and will want to claim their slice of the consumer society. Ecologists may deplore this base lusting after materialism; their laments do not change reality.

The solution posited by the luddites is de-growth: the West should shift its attention away from quantity to embrace quality – and keep smiling. Do more with less and shrink your carbon footprint accordingly. The entire economic model needs to be dumped and replaced with something vaguely top-down that assigns production permits and quotas to businesses. Private enterprise would be subjected to draconian regulation that aims to ensure no goods deemed superfluous would be produced. Ladies, kiss you Gucci bags and Hermès silk scarves goodbye. Hungry for a steak? Not so fast, buster: have a tofu burger instead.

While merrily de-growing and ridding itself of excess wealth, the self-deprecating West should still help eliminate poverty and social inequality around the globe. This is perhaps the most vexing of briefs dispensed by the luddites: as the engines of economic growth are slammed into reverse – and now subtract from, rather than add to, wealth – the developed world is to share its vastly reduced resources with those countries less fortunate still, in an all-out effort to do away with want.

This proposal – and others like it – contains such an overwhelming collection of fallacies, it is quite a challenge to pick one in order to start addressing the delusion. Any model that negates the most basic of human traits – the accumulation of wealth, be that berries, livestock, SUVs, or real estate – depends for its success on bringing about a profound change in behavioural patterns. In other words, a change in the course of psychological evolution would be called for.

In order to save the world, greenhouse gas emissions need to be limited which requires international cooperation and the adoption of a new economic model that can only succeed if man is transformed from an avid gatherer to a selfless giver, lovingly cared for by a global police state. Good luck with that.

No matter how urgent the need to check climate change, all this is not likely to happen – not even if all of humanity was destined to fry by tomorrow 10.15 am and could miraculously escape its fate and demise by agreeing to all of the above by 10.14 am.

Crackpot ideas and wishful thinking aside, this leaves us with only two options: do nothing and hope for the best, or encourage technological innovation and trust human ingenuity to provide a lasting – and effective – solution. Since international bodies excel in doing little to nothing – apart from producing vast quantities of reports written by experts highly qualified in claiming cushy jobs – it is probably best to steer clear of them and go with option number two.

Rather than entrust the acquisition of knowledge to globe-trotting universalists, a simple system could be devised that encourages sovereign nation states to invest heavily in education and research. According to statistics compiled by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the 29 member countries of its Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2013 disbursed over $470bn in aid. This number excludes donations from non-member states such as China, Turkey, and the newly rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

There is plenty of cash sloshing about the world with which to finance a global education and research drive aimed at finding the generation of geniuses now forced to lurk in ignorance – blissfully or otherwise. The force of numbers dictates that offering educational opportunities to the hundreds of millions now deprived of advanced schooling will, over time, result in a further acceleration of the already dizzying rate at which sciences advances.

Since knowledge equates power, it is only to be expected that such an education drive may not be welcomed everywhere. All too often, the powers that be prefer their charges remain uninformed lest they get “funny” ideas. As it is, the all-pervasive nature of the Internet – and the multitude of technologies the worldwide web carries – offers a unique and lasting opportunity to disseminate knowledge on a grand scale. Great Walls and other traffic blocking technologies are easily circumvented and constitute but the outward signs of desperate rearguard battles fought by the promoters of collective ignorance.

In fact, it would not be unreasonable to argue that a global education drive is superfluous as knowledge is already now illuminating the darkest corners of the world. Dictators and faith-based authorities find it increasingly difficult to control the restless masses. As communication technologies extend their reach, more people will discover the power and possibilities offered by knowledge. A second renaissance is in the making, its contours already visible.

Instead of allowing climate change to immerse the world into a dark and uncertain age of de-growth, the existentialist questions facing humankind could easily herald the coming of an exciting new world that can accommodate the quirks and peculiarities of individual people out to improve their quality of life. Solutions will follow not from the defeatist and alarmist attitude of luddites and doomsayers, but from the curiosity inherent to man. Just ensure that curiosity is awarded the free rein it requires in order to produce the answers needed.

By Wim Romeijn, Editor,

This is a response to Quantitative Easing: Another Shot for the Caffeine Junkie (09/06/2015)

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