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On environmentalism [Jun. 9th, 2008|06:01 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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At the end of the nineteenth century—the fin de siècle— the major cities of the world were gripped by a great environmental crisis, so great that it was feared that civilization itself might collapse. It was thought that cities would soon be buried under (make sure you're not drinking anything) horse manure, because of the growing buggy-based transportation needs. Remember, it was just before automobiles took off.

This is an excellent analogy for the current environmental crisis. To someone who is informed by history, the earnestness with with Al Gore and his ilk issue their dire predictions for the future is downright comical. In fact, twenty years from now, we will possess technology (likely nanotech) that can clean up decades of pollution in minutes and reverse global warming as easily as remodeling a piece of clay.

If you know me, you know I'm prone to a rather childlike optimism about technology. It should surprise no one that I should be saying this. But what did surprise me is that right after I articulated the arguments above about a week ago, I saw this in the news:

I think I should make more public, naively optimistic predictions about technology :-) So far they've mostly come true.

I can't help making the comparison between the whole horse-manure thing and this:
As the new century began, an epidemic of terrorism spread panic around the globe. In world capitals, leaders fortified their security and curtailed public appearances. Ordinary citizens felt unsafe walking the streets of major cities, while the terrorists themselves were like phantoms—everywhere and nowhere at the same time, seemingly able to strike at will. Terrorism became the preoccupation of police and politicians, bankers and business leaders. Headlines screamed out news of the latest outrage: "WASHINGTON STUNNED BY THE TRAGEDY" in one paper, "IN GREAT PERIL" in another. One horrific September terrorist attack, in the United States, sent the stock market reeling and sparked anti-immigrant sentiment. Another attack, in Madrid, plunged Spanish politics into turmoil over issues of war and peace. Politicians in the U.S. took to describing the war on terror as a struggle of good versus evil, while some religious leaders, quoting scripture, proclaimed that the end of the world was at hand.

The year was 1901.
As a species, we seem to have some sort of hard-wired need to be scared of something. Kinda makes sense -- as a prehistoric human, you couldn't afford to be too careful. So if there isn't anything to be scared of, we make stuff up. Explains the mass media, politicians, and almost everything else. As kids, it's the demons in the closet. As adults, the left wing has found environmentalism just as the right as found terrorism.

They're not quite the same thing, however. While the war on terror is almost entirely bogus, we are indeed causing a ton of harm to the environment. I don't believe we're going to invent technology to bring back extinct species any time soon. There are billions of people in the developing world whose health is harmed by harmful industrial practices; this has nothing to do with the future.

Perhaps the most important reason that don't have much of a problem with environmentalism is that even if it stands on flimsy logical ground, it's going to help us do better than the free market in terms of energy prices. This is what per-unit energy costs are going to look like over the next couple of decades:

Once the world transitions to solar, energy prices will fall flat, a fraction of the current level. However, the investment needed to get there won't happen in the free market unless there is a threat of oil running out. That's because most of the benefits of transitioning to solar are reaped by the average person over time, and not by the investor (a positive externality). One way to hasten the change is for everyone to start choosing environmentally friendly products, spurring the market in that direction. Thus, we will have a solar infrastructure well before we run out of oil, and everybody wins.

If you think you can handle not being scared, watch Steven Pinker deliver one of the most awesome talks ever, on how the world is getting better in every conceivable way, not worse:


[User Picture]From: forvrkate
2008-06-10 02:03 am (UTC)
I heart Steven Pinker. And I have hearted Steven Pinker since 1998, when I first* read "How the Mind Works."

*: I have read it probably a dozen times since then, and although some of his ideas have fallen out of favor since the time of publication, I still enjoy it and learn things from it all the time.

Edited at 2008-06-10 02:07 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: haran
2008-06-10 03:10 am (UTC)
Nice post.

They say that environmentalism is the religion of liberals.

(Disclaimer: I consider myself mostly liberal so I'm allowed to make these jokes!)
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-06-10 07:32 am (UTC)
The analogy between dangers of (Islamic) terrorism in Western socities and dangers of horse-shit might be fine. You just have to travel outside the Western world to see that terrorism is hardly a global concern. Currently I am in India (where terrorist attacks are far more than in Israel-Palestine) and yes, it is present here in minds of people but it is certainly not the thing that they see as ending the world. They see terrorism mainly as a nuisance. Ofcourse the western-looking (english) media is buying more and more into this islamo-fascist taking over the world bullshit (or should I say horse shit).

Another thing I hate is the term "post 9/11-world". The world hardly changed after 9/11. What did change is America and, I must say, for the worst.

On the other hand, environment is a different phenomenon. People everywhere are noting it. Irregular rain patterns, increasing temperatures, lower water tables, fish disappearing are some of the things people are noticing. I must say a lot of this might not have to do with global warming but is a direct effect of human intervention with nature.


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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-10 07:47 am (UTC)
oh, i'm not at all disputing that we are causing harmful effects to the environment. i'm not even claiming it's exaggerated. what i don't agree with is the projections for the future. in particular, what we should do to minimize future harm. i believe the answer is more/better technology, not less.

for instance, carbon sequestration by seeding the oceans with iron or spraying the stratosphere with sulfur can reverse global warming at a ridiculously low cost, so low that bill gates can probably fund it with his personal wealth. of course, we need more research before we can actually do so because we don't know what the side effects will be.

the problem is, research on geo-engineering gets zero funding. in fact, no one is even willing to talk openly about it. there is this distinctly religious aspect to it: it is as if interfering with the earth in a fundamental way is sacrilege. and yet, that is exactly what we've been doing for the last century, and geo-engineering is simply about cleaning up after ourselves.

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From: harrysdiary
2008-06-10 08:16 am (UTC)

Use and Abuse

That exactly is "the" problem with "Technology". The side effects you talk about can never be comprehended in its entirety, no matter how many years you spend researching on it.

Human beings will find ways to progress, thats probably why human race is still alive. It is an inherent trait, the progress could be Technology, Spirituality, Wealth, Medicine... whatever. It cannot be and should not be stopped. But the process of achieving progress should be SHOULD change, so that one learns the discipline to handle the progress during the course of achieving it. The debate should not be about "less" technology or "more/better" technology, it should be about the discipline required in using the technology.

A martial art student has to sweat and struggle for years to master the art. Once he becomes a true master, he will not go on a bone-breaking spree hurting people. He won't abuse his power, because he has acquired the discipline and discretion to use the power when he struggled for it.

But, that is not the case with modern technology. Power is something that money can buy - so, why not buy it!? Why bother understanding precisely why and when a revolver can be used, when one can buy it over the counter and shoot others at will?

Technology should be "used" and not "abused". This fundamental change of view could possibly solve most of our problems.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-11 05:34 am (UTC)

Re: Use and Abuse

perhaps you should watch that video, and then explain why if guns are so easy to abuse, why murder rates in the modern world are several orders of magnitude lower than our ancestors.

"A martial art student has to sweat and struggle for years to master the art. Once he becomes a true master, he will not go on a bone-breaking spree hurting people. He won't abuse his power, because he has acquired the discipline and discretion to use the power when he struggled for it."

let me guess.. were you reading jurassic park? :-)

the notion that pre-industrial cultures used discipline or whatever with technology is nonsense. the romans hunted the lions out of existence, upset the ecosystem and created the sahara. the native americans caused drastic changes to the vegetation of the americas. forest fires everywhere burned out of control. they managed to do so much harm with so little. in contrast, we've been a lot more humble about our technology, identifying (and usually panicking about :-) potential problems well before they cause harm that's on the same scale as the benefit we receive from them.
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From: harrysdiary
2008-06-11 05:59 am (UTC)

Re: Use and Abuse

You are right about jurassic park. I am not reading it.. in the sense of present tense, but that has definitely influenced my thought process.

But wrong about your assumption about my notion of pre-industrial cultures using discipline. My only suggestion is to think and do the "right thing", and not do the the thing right. There is no point in creating something, just because we could and worry about the problems it would create and panic later. There could be thousand such examples of how we are better than our ancestors, the debate could go to and fro, but the solution resides in our own thinking.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-11 09:10 pm (UTC)

Re: Use and Abuse

you know what's funny? my arguments in the original post were influenced by some of crichton's arguments i read a long time ago :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-06-10 05:20 pm (UTC)
Yes, I got that but I wanted to make things clear before stating my next point. You suggest the example of cars as a technological advance solving the horse shit problem (or even showing the ridicolus nature of it) and somehow want more funding for geoengineering. Firstly, it is very difficult to say what solution the technology will provide, even if actually succeeds in providing one. For every success of technology I can point out 10 fields where technology (or the chimera of technology) has hampered development. Energy being the foremost. Nuclear fusion comes to mind which used up a lot of money from basic research programs (improving efficiency, local use of solar , wind power, reducing usage of energy) and did not deliver anything. When (fusion) energy is going to be free and unlimited why worry about efficiency. Geoengineering seems to be climbing up the same tree and it would take a lot of convincing before it gets any credibility.

What is the answer for the energy problem and the related environment problem? I frankly do not have the courage to even pick an answer. It might be solar as you suggest or a portfolio as Al Gore suggests. One thing I'll bet against is Geoengineering as a solution.
Most likely there is no answer, that is, there might be more usage of solar , wind power etc but we will still use oil/coal to a large extent. The environment will suffer and so will people. But most of damage will be borne out by the poor people on a local scale (the poor people in New Orleans) and on a global scale (countries like Bangladesh, India, African countries). Unfortunately, it will not always be an event but a process which has already started. We will hardly notice it.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-12 08:13 am (UTC)
something i'm watching you might be interested in

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From: kupamanduka
2008-06-10 05:57 pm (UTC)
They see terrorism mainly as a nuisance.

True. So many get killed and still others see it only as a nuisance. No value for life!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-10 10:12 pm (UTC)
get your facts straight, and don't be a troll.

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From: kupamanduka
2008-06-11 02:18 pm (UTC)
My statement was in the context of Mohit's comment about India, not developed countries. And one doesn't need to be a Bush-supporter to consider viewing terrorism as merely a nuisance to be really beyond the pale. Even dar-ul-uloom doesn't seem to agree with that comment :-)

There are people who attribute increased terrorist attacks during UPA rule to the abrogation of POTA. However, I am yet to see good studies on whether the correlation in this case stems from causation, and whether the abuse of POTA is bad enough to justify the abrogation.

And what in the world gives you the conviction that further laxity will not cause the issue to blow over beyond control ( given the circumstances in India ) - look at the damages created by terrorists in Iraq and know for yourself who is talking trollish.
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From: kupamanduka
2008-06-11 02:20 pm (UTC)
I didn't mean "blow over" - I meant deteriorate.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-06-12 06:04 am (UTC)
Firstly, it is incorrect to label violence in Iraq as terrorism. You can call it civil war or resistance but do not label it terrorism.

Secondly, India has seen worst times and circumstances and I would add that past 5 years (period after state sponsored terrorism in Gujarat) have been one of the most peaceful from a short term as well as a long term viewpoint.

Thirdly, I mention a somewhat controversial statement. One must never forget that today's terrorist could be tomorrow freedom fighters/revolutionaries. Recent history in India, Ireland, Algeria, China and numerous other places suggest that. Not every terrorist would be looked at in a good light tomorrow (reasons may vary) but being aware of such an idea might force one to look at things more objectively and even tackle the problems correctly. I think this might be digressing from the topic at discussion a lot. On the last note, I highly recommend the movie "Battle of Algiers".


ps: I forgot to sign my previous post.

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From: kupamanduka
2008-06-12 02:49 pm (UTC)
Good, at least you aren't calling me a troll.

1. I am not sure - random armed groups targeting people from a section of the society sounds like terrorism to me. In any case, my point is this : the article arvindn linked was about what happens in developed countries - I claim that it shouldn't be extrapolated to make comments about situations in countries like India where you can't expect the police to be that efficient
[ I am editing : and whose geopolitical and such circumstances are vastly different - proximity to Pakistan among other things ]

2. I have a different opinion about Gujarat but it is perhaps best not to argue that now. But I don't see why the peacefulness of the period stems from looser anti-terrorism measures ( eg. the annuling of POTA ). And the post-Gujarat-riots-peace may well be like the post-second-world-war peace, but I am not very sure about that.

3. What people may think tomorrow doesn't matter right? Conscious, explicit violence on the innocent is reprehensible - it is different from Bhagat Singh shooting Sanders. In a lighter vein :


the part about history books :-)
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From: kupamanduka
2008-06-10 03:03 pm (UTC)

Questions questions questions

1. So have you officially rejected the Eurabia theory as necessarily false?

2. When you recommended that everyone start choosing environmentally friendly products were you referring to only solar products or other stuff like organic food etc.?

3. Just for curiosity - do you have any predictions as to how long you will live ( based on what you expect of medical technology etc. )?

Thanks for the info on geo-engineering.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-10 09:39 pm (UTC)

Re: Questions questions questions

eurabia is vastly overblown, but i don't like europe's culture of appeasement. however, i don't see this as having anything to do with terrorism. europe's being a giant pussy when it comes to integrating immigrant cultures, that's all. (i have some opinions on why they're being a pussy, but no time to elaborate. sorry.)

choosing products -- i'm not recommending anything! i'm just describing what's happening. how much you want to bend over is entirely up to you. personally, i recycle, i use cfl's, i'll probably buy a prius when i have a real job, etc. i don't buy organic food often. but when in-vitro meat is invented i'll be the first to switch to it.

how long i'll live? i'll probably do something stupid and get killed real soon :)
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[User Picture]From: tomtomtomtomtom
2008-06-10 09:58 pm (UTC)
Hey Arvind! Sorry I didn't meet you for coffee while I was in Austin; I was there for literally one day. Next time, though!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-06-10 10:04 pm (UTC)
oh, no worries.. i was actually in sf at the time (where, funnily enough, forvrkate said she'd meet with me. somehow that never happened either.)
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