Tuesday, December 15, 2009

People: Problem vs. Solution, Hope vs. Despair

RealClearPolitics was unusually astute in pairing off two op-eds on the Copenhagen summit. Both address the issue of global warming (both from the point of view of a believer). Both further focus on the nature of humanity, as it relates to what both regard as a crisis.

The conclusions the two reach, though, could not be more different.

First, writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot:

The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.

The summit's premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint. No longer may we swing our fists regardless of whose nose might be in the way. In everything we do we must now be mindful of the lives of others, cautious, constrained, meticulous. We may no longer live in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow.


Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.

Monbiot, it's easy to see, is on the side of the "restrainers." (Later in the essay, in fact, he goes on to advocate a complete moratorium on prospecting for new reserves of fossil fuels, which is essentially a call for complete economic suicide.)

Anne Applebaum, on the other hand, is most emphatically not:

The assumption behind this calculation is profoundly negative: that human beings are nothing more than machines for the production of carbon dioxide. And if we take that assumption seriously, a whole lot of other things look different, too. Weapons of mass destruction should perhaps be reconsidered, along with the flu virus: By reducing the population, they might also reduce emissions. Perhaps they should be encouraged?

Coupling all that with a firm conviction that the end of the world is nigh, you can see how homework is rendered pointless. As for hopes for the future and faith in humanity -- forget about it. But while we're at it, we might as well forget about reinventing our energy sources, too.

For while it's true that humans are often greedy, stupid and destructive, it's also true that we got to where we are at least partly thanks to human creativity, ingenuity and talent. Electricity is a miracle, an invention that has brought light and life to millions. Modern communication and transportation systems are no less extraordinary, helping to create economic growth in places where poverty and misery were the norm for centuries.

All of them depend on fossil fuels, but they don't have to: A profound change in the nature of human energy consumption is possible -- thanks to the entrepreneurship that created the Internet, the compassion that lies behind the advances in modern medicine and the scientific reasoning that sent men into space. As for nihilism and hatred of humankind, it teaches us nothing, except to give up. And we shouldn't be passing that on to our children either.

I have long argued that the only possible way out of this problem--if it is indeed a problem--is to go forward. It's good to see that at least a few people are following the only sane approach to combating global warming, rather than heeding China's calls for a global suicide pact.


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