« Out with the old, in with ... | Main | Now Hear This »

Order, Chaos, and The Environment

Someone who continues to impress me more and more is Professor Emeritus Philip Stott, who  maintains an excellent blog, EnviroSpin Watch. He shows a real philosophic grasp of the assumptions and underpinnings of current "environmental" discourse, and is able to cut to the heart of issues in a most insightful manner.

The dividing line between philosophy and science (both taken in modern senses) is an interesting question. Of course it's easy enough to distinguish experimental science - animated by the hypothetico-deductive method, expressing itself quantitatively - from philosophy. But when it comes to thinking about science, or what's "going on" with particular sciences, that is a manifestly philosophic endeavor.  Stott's strength is evidently to have an admirable conversance with the realms of both experiment and reflection.

Even though it's parenthetical to my purpose here, I should note something which I find interesting. When one lacks expertise in a certain field yet takes a stand on a question which excites controversy there, one inevitably has to appeal to experts. There's always a risk of selecting one's preferred expert the way counsel does in the courtroom: the conclusion comes first, and the expert is there to bolster it. When issues carry a political charge, often the expert is he who professes the conclusion which one "likes" - that which sits well with one's other "prejudices" (in the Nietzschean sense). I value Stott's work, in part, because he articulates positions I've limned more-or-less independently, though with the benefit of an authoritative grasp of the relevant sciences (which I most assuredly lack). And he's a damn good writer and reasoner, too.

One of his recurring themes is "Global Warming," which he understands as a myth of lamentable political potency. I feel impelled to quote at length from a recent post of his on that topic, because it's simply too good to summarize or lift a couple of sentences from:

"In any discussion of climate change, it is essential to distinguish between the complex science of climate and the myth, in the sense of Roland Barthes, or the 'hybrid', following Bruno Latour, of 'global warming'.

"The latter is a politico-pseudoscientific construct, developed since the late-1980s, in which the human emission of 'greenhouse gases', such as carbon dioxide and methane, is unquestioningly taken as the prime driver of a new and dramatic type of climate change that will inexorably result in a significant warming during the next 100 years and which will inevitably lead to catastrophe for both humanity and the Earth. This, in turn, has morphed, since 1992 and the Rio Conference, into a legitimising myth for a gamut of interconnected political agendas, above all for a range of European sensibilities with regards to America, oil, the car, transport, economic growth, trade, and international corporations. The language employed tends to be authoritarian and religious in character, involving the use of what the physicist, P. H. Borcherds, has termed the 'hysterical subjunctive'. Indeed, for many, the myth has become an article of a secular faith that exhibits all the characteristics of a pre-modern religion, above all demanding sacrifice to the Earth.

"By contrast, the science of climate change starts from the principle that we are concerned with the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system known and that it is distinctly unlikely that climate change can be predicted by reference to a single variable, or factor, however politically-convenient that factor."

Stott goes on to formulate three questions which are of singular importance for speaking intelligently to the debate over climate change:

1. Is climate (inherently) dynamic?

2. Is human activty and artifice a cause of climate change/variability?

3. " ... will we be able to produce predictable (the operative word) climate change, and a stable climate, by adjusting, at the margins, just one human variable, namely carbon dioxide emissions, out of the millions of factors, both natural and human, that drive climate?" [emphasis in original]

In light of how Stott phrases 3, the answer he would give is obvious; 1 and 2, reasonably enough, are answered in the affirmative. Clearly a crucial point of dispute would be the weight which we may reasonably assign to anthropogenic emissions out of the mix of other known and suspected factors (and the residuum of unknown factors which surely must be allowed). Even still, Stott wisely notes,

"In a system as complex and chaotic as climate, [limitation of emissions - ed.] may even trigger unexpected consequences. It is vital to remember that, for a coupled, non-linear system, not doing something (i.e., not emitting gases) is as unpredictable as doing something (i.e., emitting gases). Even if we closed down every factory in the world, crushed every car and aeroplane, turned off all energy production, and threw 4 billion people worldwide out of work, climate would still change, and often dramatically."

This raises a corollary about which I've been concerned for some time. If it's true that a modern, industrial economy cannot be successfully "planned," a fortiori a plexus as unimaginably vast and intricate as the "climatic system" is forever non-amenable to human control. Put differently: you can't manage an economy - and especially not a planet.

A further point is that, confronted with the reality of climate change and a human role therein, the central question for deliberation - What is to be done? - is an ethical-political one, not primarily a scientific one (not "primarily" because, while sober scientific judgment undoubtedly must inform deliberation, the answer eludes science's competence). In other words, to suppose that science simply "tells" us how to address this issue is a blatant category mistake .The irony is that those most inclined to berate a skeptic vis-a-vis Kyoto for "politicizing" science are themselves guilty of not seeing where science ends and ethical-political judgment begins.

I think it's to be welcomed, theoretically and practically, that science seems to be reconnecting with the inherent dynamism of nature and existence, as opposed to models which emphasize "stability." The order-chaos dialectic surely supports a case for wise and humble adapation to the flux-ridden order around us, in contradistinction to pretensions to "control" nature.

August 10, 2004 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d834205dc953ef00e55032c0808834

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Order, Chaos, and The Environment:

Comments

"If it's true that a modern, industrial economy cannot be successfully "planned," a fortiori a plexus as unimaginably vast and intricate as the "climatic system" is forever unamenable to human control. Put differently: you can't manage an economy - and especially not a planet."

Woah! Hold on there. I think the analogy isn't a crazy one, but I don't think it works the way you want it to. Command economies are terribly inefficient, but economies without any regulation or "interference" don't work either. Trying to terraform the earth isn't going to work, but neither is just throwing up our hands.

Of course the climate has been changing throughout the course of the earth's history, and nothing we do will stop that. But that doesn't mean that anything goes, or that we should stop worrying about the changes we're bringing about that really do seem within our power to mitigate.

One irony here: For all its flaws , Kyoto actually tried to harness free market forces to deal with climate change! It would have been an "artificial" trading regime, but then lots of features of a modern economy are artificial in the same sense.

Posted by: chris at Aug 11, 2004 7:55:12 AM

Chris,

You make a good point, though in reply to a claim I didn't intend to make. Agreed that we have more options than either to try to "control" the planet or remain indifferent to anthropogenic environmental changes.

I take Stott to be saying that the ensemble of assumptions undergirding "global warming" discourse is wrongheaded - especially as distilled into something like Kyoto - because those assumptions amount to the view that climate is actually something that could be "managed."

The obvious question is: what do we mean, in this context, by "control"? Stott himself provides the answer: "produce predictable (the operative word) climate change, and a stable climate, by adjusting, at the margins, just one human variable, namely carbon dioxide emissions ..."

The upshot would be that, whatever we "do" about anthropogenic environmental changes, the program should be, well, doable - we should have reason to believe that we can attain the end sought. If Stott is correct, Kyoto is a kind of fool's errand.

It's tough to discuss the proper role of the state vis-a-vis "the economy" without opening a huge can of worms. I believe where we'll disagree is what constitutes proper "oversight" of the economy. I would take the position that here the mean lies closer to the defect rather than the excess: I'd err on the side of less involvement. I take this view in part because I do believe that there's a "logic" to economic activity which entails that interventions by the state reverberate through the economy and produce unintended, economically harmful consequences.

Perhaps one who is more sympathetic to "free market" thinking - viewing the economy in organismic fashion - will take an analogy on the perils of attempted "influence" and "control" more seriously? I'll have to ponder that one ...

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Aug 11, 2004 2:21:30 PM

type pad

Posted by: type pad at Sep 24, 2004 4:48:34 AM

I think the analogy isn't a crazy one, but I don't think it works the way you want it to. Command economies are terribly inefficient, but economies without any regulation or "interference" don't work either.

Ben Cliff

Posted by: Order taking services at Aug 8, 2010 4:19:29 AM