Monday, July 25, 2011

Science, Ideology, and Environmentalism

I was just reading a review of a book by an environmentalist who takes other environmentalists to task for being too ideological and not scientific enough. This author thinks his movement needs to be more "pragmatic." This is certainly what I think. Yet as the reviewer notes, this is what most environmentalists think, and they are forever accusing each other of being too ideological and not sufficiently scientific and pragmatic. These words are flexible enough to be used by almost anyone, with any agenda.

Consider nuclear power. This author is pro-nuclear power, and thinks green opposition to nuclear power is ideological and un-pragmatic. But after recent events in Japan, can it really be said that people who don't want nuclear power plants near their houses are being ideological? One thing that pragmatism has to mean for a movement involved in public affairs is understanding what is politically possible; your agenda may be thoroughly rooted in the best available science, but if there is no realistic chance of any nation adopting your recommendations, are you being pragmatic? Opposition to nuclear power has been a huge political plus for environmental and green movements around the world. It is hard to imagine environmentalism having the kind of impact it had in the 1970s without the anti-nuclear crusade. By changing their position on nuclear power, are environmentalists pragmatically responding to the threat of global warming, or are they confounding their message in a way that will cost them massive popular support? Similar arguments can be made about organic food, local food, asbestos removal, and many other little crusades that environmentalists have joined and used despite weak scientific evidence that they make the planet better.

My main gripe about environmentalism has always been the relentless negativity: no, no, no, don't, don't, don't. I think this is a political mistake and also a scientific one, because it underrates both our own inventiveness and the resilience of the planet. Instead of trying to persuade people to accept lower living standards, environmentalists should be looking for efficiencies that will allow us to live better while still polluting less and using less energy. I think this is pragmatic. Might it instead be an ideology, based on a false belief in both what is possible and what people can be persuaded to accept?

Our scientific knowledge of the big ecological systems of the earth -- climate, currents, oxygen and nitrogen cycles, and so on -- is getting better but is still quite primitive. We don't really know how badly we are screwing up the earth or how long the effects will last. I think this is a good reason to be cautious. But is that a scientific position, or an expression of my underlying philosophy?

Everybody's outlook on the world is ultimately moral and irrational. I like peace, fairness, creativity, and freedom, but I cannot offer any real defense of those beliefs. Science and, more broadly, instrumental rationality come into politics at the level of the how, not the what. Science can help us build the sort of world we want, but it cannot tell us what sort of world we should want.

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