The Fourth Way

Although we must abandon business as usual immediately on carbon, and some time in the next few decades on the larger habit of structurally presumptive perpetual growth, there seems to be general agreement that these things are insurmountably difficult.

I do not think they are insurmountably difficult. I think we have competing ideologies that say it is insurmountably difficult.

There seem to be three ideologies on offer:

1) The Way of Anger: The No More Solyndras crowd (reactionary: ideologically driven)

The world cannot afford the concentration of political power that would be required to reduce carbon and the world cannot afford the technical transition and there is no necessity for such a transition and the risks are such that absolute certainty in all details is required. Rejection of Growth is a grotesque totalitarian violation of the rights of the poor countries. Countenancing this cluster of false apprehensions as science in the sense of proven fact is dangerous and delusional. The risks from accepting it are far greater than the risks from rejecting it. The widespread confusion on these matters must be refuted at every turn. Our institutions have been corrupted by ideologues and may be better rebuilt from scratch than left alone.

The only people involved in burning carbon are the producer and the consumer. Nobody else has any business mixing in. No sign of any human-induced cost can legitimately be argued to exist.

Core audience: Republicans and their like overseas. Small business types. Victims of totalitarianism.

Intellectual champions: Political scientists.

Denialism: Science

2) The Way of Sorrow: The End of Nature Crowd (romantic conservatism: biophilia driven)

A fundamental change is required in how we approach our ethical relationship with the world. The losses we have already experienced due to our excesses are immense and tragic. The losses we can surely anticipate will be devastating. The change appears to be too late, but we must make it anyway to minimize the damage. Our descendants will pass through a period of societal decline and are at grave risk of collapse, war, or anarchy. The best we can do is pave the way for the survivors by finding low-impact ways to survive, especially low-tech low impact ways. (Unfortunately, this really is entirely consistent with radical medievalist Islamism, even though in the west it is associated with many other spiritual practices. Any us of any post-steam technology is suspect, any power source other than the wind and the sun and organic food is destructive and must be avoided.

No policy, treaty, or technology can save our current way of life, which is doomed.

Core audience: Hippies, guilty liberals, soft disipline academics, artists.

Denialism: Human Nature

3) The Way of The Middle Muddle: The Ironically Named “Breakthrough” Crowd (incrementalist: economically driven)

No fundamental changes are needed. Extremist positions on both sides of the left-right divide have proven destructive in the past. In particular for the US, the days when both political parties held roughly the same ideological position (ours) need to be restored. As far as the climate concern goes, it is one problem among others. Since both sides agree that there are no solutions available, the key is research to find new alternatives which can compete in the marketplace against carbon fuels. To achieve this, a fairly large amount of money should be spent on research, but the conversion has to be marketplace-driven. Any regulatory encouragement of the transition should be minor, because no emergency is present. It is only reasonable to demand that carbon emissions stop growing in the west, and that other countries be allowed to catch up. Dramatic changes to our economic structure are more dangerous than climate change. Damage to date has been mostly ambiguous and there is no reason to expect much worse.

Core audience: Capitalists, Corporatists, Department of Energy and hangers-on

Intellectual Champions: Economists of all stripes, the media

Denialism: Fundamental Change

I find myself quite opposed to all of these ideologies, despite having no trouble finding sympathy for each of their fundamental goals.  That is, each of them is based on a serious error.

1) That widespread corruption endemic to society is at the root of IPCC etc., which has no basis in science. This is flatly wrong, and that the belief correlates to some extent with paranoia is not surprising. This is not to say that everything is wonderful in science. But the idea that a corrupt science would or even could concoct such a hoax is already implausible in the extreme. That it has is simply delusional.

2) That the world cannot actually support the present population in comfort and dignity with most of the amenities of modern life in the advanced countries. There is simply no reason that we need to resign ourselves to collapse and decay. And there is no reason to expect such a proposition to gain wide support.

3) There are several substantive mistakes prevalent here, as opposed to the sort of broad ideological blindness that affects the other groups. First, that there is no carbon emergency. The fact that the catastrophic outcomes are on the cards if we do not reduce carbon emissions very soon is ignored. Second, the one fact agreed upon by both sides is false: there already exist perfectly adequate technical solutions. The key errors are that the solutions are in the future and will not need a policy decision to implement.

So I offer

4) The Way of Reason

We have a way out of this and we’d darn better figure out how to make it happen. Human capacities are immense. The old ways lead to disaster. New worlds are possible. Respect for creativity and competence are at the core of the transition. There is no reason for decline, no necessity for catastrophe. Government and economics are human instruments and can be bent to our will. Carbon emissions must stop, so they will. Human development must continue, so it will. Existing ideologies cannot rise to the task, so they will be replaced. Our problems are neither systemic nor technological, but social. We have to work within existing systems where possible, but we have to create new systems which stop rewarding destruction or consumption and start rewarding creativity and reuse. Capital and financial reward are and will remain powerful incentives and measures of success, but if it is necessary to rework the economic theory that sets up the incentives, let’s get cracking.

Core audience: problem solvers, netizens, realists

Intellectual champions: engineers, scientists, futurists, optimists


  1. I find myself more closely aligned with your description of the "breakthrough crowd" than I expected. Excerpt for this:

    Any regulatory encouragement of the transition should be minor, because no emergency is present... Damage to date has been mostly ambiguous and there is no reason to expect much worse.

    That is obviously wrong.

    But the rest has a fair amount of appeal for me. Dramatic changes to our economic structure make me incredibly nervous. People have in the past tried and failed miserably to do this, in my opinion because economic systems are very complex and our models of them don't have the luxury of a solid foundation (climate models by contrast do have a very solid foundation:physics). This makes the final outcome of any drastic changes to our economic system difficult to predict.

    In general I am in favour of combating climate change (and the other planetary boundary challenges) in a way that changes the everything else as little as possible. Hence my strong support for a revenue neutral carbon tax.

  2. Well, that's sort of between the third way and the fourth way.

    Let's start by agreeing that we're not accepting powerlessness or despair.

    It's a fundamentally market-conservative sane-republican approach. That is why Hansen likes it.

    As for the tax, I basically like it too. It has a lot of advantages. But it has a lot of problems attached to it. And what any energy technology costs at scale is, I think, less a marketplace outcome and more a policy outcome than market supremacists believe.

    The key problem is that it's regressive. It weakens the individual, the individualist, the creative, the rural, the idiosyncratic, and the small-scale lifestyle, especially in the large spread-out countries. Hence it drives us deeper into money-world and further from human-dignity world. The reason the right resists it so hard is because it holds to their ideology but harms their base.

    That can be fixed. But first we need to convince enough people that it needs doing.

  3. I also want to say that I agree that we should change as little as possible. But I don't think that amounts to all that small of a change. There is no guarantee that "as little as possible" is all that small, or that it can be incremental.

    I don't think it has to be revolutionary. Most revolutions fail, and we can't risk failure at a global scale. But there may have to be significant changes in our structure, even though the changes in our lifestyles may be relatively small.

    For the most crucial instance, eventually, presuming we get past our present hurdles, we still have to rethink what "growth" means, and how to have an economy that allows for human dignity but doesn't demand the sort of growth in economic activity that our current structures have baked in.

  4. "Carbon emissions must stop, so they will. Human development must continue, so it will."

    If you're going to call your way the way of reason you should avoid making unreasonable pronouncements. Sure Anthropogenic Carbon emissions must stop - sequestered atmospheric carbon is finite - but to prevent disaster they must stop short and there is no guarantee of that.

    Human Development must continue? I don't know what prophecies you've been reading, but extinction is a possibility for any species and collapse is quite likely for any civilisation on millenial timescales. If your 'Way of Reason' is predicated on the assumed infallibility of Human Ingenuity or the Certainty wise global governance/stewardship it's time for a rethink...

  5. I agree with your proposed approach, but unless it brings about some quite major changes it will not be effective and accomplishing major, global societal changes without some precipitating event/challenge/disaster is going to be difficult.

    I feel the increasing impetus for change as people become aware of the scale and immediacy of the situation but there is a lot of powerful resistance... I don't think it is a foregone conclusion by any means.

  6. Forgive me. I was waxing a bit poetic. Though I've failed in drawing Bruce Sterling's attention to my efforts, this sort of talk is explicitly lifted from him. It was more exhortatory than prophetic. (Much as I try though I'm not half the writer Bruce is.)

    That is, I'm not making a prediction. I'm making a suggestion.

    Betting on the fourth way is a long shot. But the fourth way, which is not really represented very well in the public conversation, is the only way to achieve the moral imperatives of a stabilized environment and globally available opportunity and dignity, i.e., civilization.

    What I'm saying is to presume that civilization is possible, and work the problem from there. At on the possibility.

    It is the third way that presumes that civilization is automatic and thus not in need of effort.

  7. The element that I find missing from all, and which I consider to be essential, is the way of redistribution. I'm not sure it's a separate way, or sort of a 4(b). In fact I think that it is a conclusion of reason that if you have to dramatically constrain the rate of increase in goods and services available, the only way to get cooperation from the currently under-served is by redistribution.

    Here we come up against the problem that most Americans are in the top 5% of global consumers, but nonetheless consider themselves poor relative to the top 5% (to say nothing of 1%, or 0.1%) of US consumers. So the idea that we might actually end up writing large checks to Chinese or Indian or South American or African peasants and slum-dwellers does not seem reasonable. But since we are now vulnerable to what the poor of the world choose to do, we might find it helpful to put ourselves in their shoes.

    Of course it also means that the burden of redistribution should actually fall on the top 1% in the US. But that means using income or wealth taxes, not carbon taxes.


  8. Paul, I think the first thing you need to face is how few people understand the ethical argument for redistribution in the first place. Maybe you could do a post on that - perhaps your two guys on an island thing.

    I think I have a way to finesse the problem, but before we discuss whether there is a way around it, we need to get the problem on the table.

  9. I do think the issues you raise have fairly straight forward solutions, at least in principle (in practice getting those solutions passed will be a challenge).

    More importantly I do think that at least as far as climate change is concerned the changes wont end up being very drastic at the individual level. Yes our entire energy production system will need to be rebuilt and anyone in that industry will see massive change. But the average person will still be able to go about their daily lives in much the same way, using huge amounts of energy. It just wont come from fossil fuels.

    Yes this is an over-simplification, and yes the other planetary boundaries might not be as simple.

  10. I was thinking of something less extreme, but even then I don't agree that such a civilization is not worth saving. It is. In a relatively short amount of time such a civilization can sprout a better world. It was a colonial civilization that birthed both Canada and the US.

    A climate catastrophe, by contrast, will have negative effects that will last much longer.

  11. "Core audience: Republicans and their like overseas. Small business types. Victims of totalitarianism. Intellectual champions: Political scientists. Denialism: Science..."

    My first degree was political science (we call it political studies in the UK...) - I'm puzzled by the above. Who are you thinking of?

    You also then go on to lump all 'soft discipline academics' into your ideology #2. Economists, of course, get their own as well. I'm not sure if you meant it that way, but it comes across as completely dismissing each of those groups. That's a lot of researchers to alienate...

    I would have liked to have seen you pick out particular researchers who you think have it wrong and perhaps others from the same discipline you've found something useful from. Perhaps you count Pielke Jr as a political scientist? His PhD was in political science, though his first degree was Mathematics. I think I can find you some political scientists who are about as opposite as it's possible to get... but then perhaps they just fall into ideology #2?

    I'm reminded a little of how easily you dismiss the entire of economics. I'm not saying any academic discipline has a monopoly on truth or any special claim to sole knowledge-mining rights, but sweeping overviews need some back-up. P3's meant to be evidence-driven, right?

  12. The hot-pocket-eating young man in the video thinks that it’s up to social scientists to figure out why we’re so stupid. I’ll assert that stupidity isn’t the problem as much as cultural memes that are proving themselves toxic: that the world was created just for people and that it’s up to us to bring order to this chaos by brute force as necessary. We can replace that notion with one that sees our mission here as one of harmonizing and fitting in, not ruling over. Just because we can burn fossil fuels doesn’t mean we should.

    I’d also like P3 to define civilization, especially as to how it differs from humanity.

  13. A historian once stated that civilization simply means living in cities. Dpending upon how small a settlement can be and still be considered a city that was long before

    "a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained" from

  14. "colonialism, which is a form of fascism"

    No political scientist you.

    Of course many pre-industrial societies were more or less sustainable, albeit perhaps accidentally. There was certainly plenty of pre-industrial colonialism, but I think those societies were in rapid transition almost as a matter of definition and so difficult to describe as sustainable even if their environmental footprint wasn't large. One could have an interesting academic discussion about all of this, but I don't think it would be especially useful to our present predicament, as among other things we don't plan to revert to a pre-industrial state. The value of examining those older societies is as object lessons, a la Diamond.

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