(Reprinted from July 13, 2009.)
You-all regular reader types know, by now, that I really really don’t like lazy articles that drum up an impression of a false symmetry where there is none to be had in reality. But I’ve stumbled across a very striking and real symmetry, and one that I think is at the core of our lazy polarization.
In my talk last week, I attempted to take the edge of the partisan global warming debate by emphasizing that neither “yes” nor “no” are meaningful answers to the question “how much CO2 should we tolerate?” So many people, though, aren’t thinking in those terms, but rather in absolutes.
On the one hand, we have the “precautionary principle”:
No action of any kind should be tolerated unless it can be proven beyond doubt that it has no net negative impact on the earth as a whole system.
On the other, we have a libertarian philosophy which can be summarized as almost the diametrical opposite:
No restrictions of any kind on individual behavior should be tolerated unless it can be proven beyond doubt that they infringe on the rights of others.
It doesn’t really have a name that I know of, but it certainly has some proud adherents.
Now, see, most people think science is about “proof”, which shows what a terrible job we are doing of conveying the stuff of science to the world, but that’s another topic. The point here is that in both cases the person making the claim is asking for a sort of proof that is totally impractical even in the best of circumstances. To take matters further, of course, people who choose not to be convinced by evidence of something they find intuitively distasteful just won’t be convinced. Your evidence, no matter how well corralled and paraded before them, will surely be insufficient, and they will have a vast array of well-formatted pseudoscience, replete with charts and graphs for every legitimate piece of work you show them.
Yes, as I look at it the symmetry to me seems almost perfect.
What’s more, both principles, that of maximum self-determination, and that of maximum respect for future generations, have a core dignity and appeal to them. It’s a hard heart that isn’t tempted to sign up for both sides!
Unfortunately, both principles, however noble in intent, are unworkable. The real world is one of guesswork, tradeoffs, and tightropes. Neither principle offers useful guidance. The implicit contention of the two is doing real, fundamental damage to our ability to compromise and reason about our circumstances.
Life is uncertain. We might just screw up the economy AND get no real benefit on the climate change front. That’s an easier and likelier outcome than the opposite one, really. As long as we are pulling in opposite directions, the odds of us coming through this mess in a semblance of dignity keep going down.
The times don’t call for small measures, but they don’t call for digging our heels in and sticking to absolute principles either.