This is reprint from October 8, 2012. This post covers some of the deep confusion that always goes along with discussions of global warming, and thus anticipates tomorrow's post — Dave
I have had occasion to mention the writing of New Yorker science correspondent Elizabeth Kolbert from time to time, most recently in Global Warming? Paul Ryan? No Contest! That post prompted me to look at some of her older writings. Subsequently, I came across a 2009 gem called Hosed! Is there a quick fix for the climate? Kolbert's report beautifully illustrates a number of the most important points I've made on this blog over the last few years.
For the most part, Kolbert does not herself illustrate those points. She was talking about SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt is an economist at the University of Chicago. Dubner is a free-lance journalist. Together, these two windbags manage to represent the most delusional aspects of human "thought" in the 21st century, but there's a catch, as you shall see.
This post is long, so I hope you will have the patience to read the whole thing and absorb its many lessons. For many readers, this will constitute an interesting review of my writing on DOTE.
Kolbert starts off with The Parable Of Horseshit, which Levitt and Dubner discuss in Superfreakonomics. She is not trying to be profane; the story is literally about horseshit.
In the eighteen-sixties, the quickest, or at least the most popular, way to get around New York was in a horse-drawn streetcar. The horsecars, which operated on iron rails, offered a smoother ride than the horse-drawn omnibuses they replaced. (The Herald described the experience of travelling by omnibus as a form of “modern martyrdom.”) New Yorkers made some thirty-five million horsecar trips a year at the start of the decade. By 1870, that figure had tripled.
[image left: horse manure piled up on the streets of New York City in 1893. Source ]
The standard horsecar, which seated twenty, was drawn by a pair of roans and ran sixteen hours a day. Each horse could work only a four-hour shift, so operating a single car required at least eight animals. Additional horses were needed if the route ran up a grade, or if the weather was hot. Horses were also employed to transport goods; as the amount of freight arriving at the city’s railroad terminals increased, so, too, did the number of horses needed to distribute it along local streets.
By 1880, there were at least a hundred and fifty thousand horses living in New York, and probably a great many more. Each one relieved itself of, on average, twenty-two pounds of manure a day, meaning that the city’s production of horse droppings ran to at least forty-five thousand tons a month. George Waring, Jr., who served as the city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, described Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another observer wrote that the streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” In the early part of the century, farmers in the surrounding counties had been happy to pay for the city’s manure, which could be converted into rich fertilizer, but by the later part the market was so glutted that stable owners had to pay to have the stuff removed, with the result that it often accumulated in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies.
The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days.
Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed. This was not brought about by regulation or by government policy. Instead, it was technological innovation that made the difference. With electrification and the development of the internal-combustion engine, there were new ways to move people and goods around. By 1912, autos in New York outnumbered horses, and in 1917 the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar made its final run. All the anxieties about a metropolis inundated by ordure had been misplaced.
Regular DOTE readers will be quick to recognize the point of this horseshit story—human ingenuity, expressed through technological cleverness, solves all problems, even apparently insurmountable problems. Along came the automobile, and all the horse dung disappeared. Problem solved!
Levitt and Dubner offer up another horseshit story, this time about reëngineering the planet to solve our global warming problem. City streets covered with horse manure? Inexorable warming of the planet's surface? Same thing!
I'll let Kolbert tell the story, since I have not read Superfreakonomics, and would not permit that kind of ... excrement to foul the place where I live and work.
According to Levitt and Dubner, the story’s message is a simple one: if, at any particular moment, things look bleak, it’s because people are seeing them the wrong way. “When the solution to a given problem doesn’t lie right before our eyes, it is easy to assume that no solution exists,” they write. “But history has shown again and again that such assumptions are wrong.”
Levitt and Dubner tell the horseshit story as a prelude to discussing climate change: “Just as equine activity once threatened to stomp out civilization, there is now a fear that human activity will do the same.” As usual, they say, the anxiety is unwarranted. First, the global-warming threat has been exaggerated; there is uncertainty about how, exactly, the earth will respond to rising CO2 levels, and uncertainty has “a nasty way of making us conjure up the very worst possibilities.” Second, solutions are bound to present themselves: “Technological fixes are often far simpler, and therefore cheaper, than the doomsayers could have imagined.”
Levitt and Dubner have in mind a very particular kind of “technological fix.” Wind turbines, solar cells, biofuels—these are all, in their view, more trouble than they’re worth. Such technologies are aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, which is the wrong goal, they say. Cutting back is difficult and, finally, annoying. Who really wants to use less oil? This sounds, the pair write, “like wearing sackcloth.”
Wouldn’t it be simpler just to reëngineer the planet?
Kolbert goes to some lengths to show just how absurd geoengineering the planet would be. First, she discusses some crazy schemes put forth by Levitt and Dubner—prima facie, the schemes they propose are insane—and then she discusses Al Gore's more reasonable take on Heroic Engineering as expressed in his book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis—
Just about the only strategy for coping with climate change that Gore isn’t interested in is geoengineering. Indeed, the very idea strikes him as delusional. “We are already involved in a massive, unplanned planetary experiment,” he writes. “We should not begin yet another planetary experiment in the hope that it will somehow magically cancel out the effects of the one we already have.”
It is important to know that Levitt and Dubner know nothing at all about climate science.
Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming.
Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate.
“The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them,” he observes. “The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking.” Pierrehumbert carefully dissects one of the arguments that Levitt and Dubner seem to subscribe to—that solar cells, because they are dark, actually contribute to global warming—and shows it to be fallacious. “Really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you,” he writes, that this claim “is complete and utter nonsense.”
It is now time for me to step in and clear up some of this confusion. Levitt and Dubner not only don't know anything about the climate science, they don't care to know anything about the climate science. And why? They don't need to know anything.
Levitt and Dubner's arguments are based on Faith, not Reason. What do they place their Faith in? In human ingenuity and cleverness, which their Faith tells them is unbounded. Theirs is a religious mode of belief, unmuddled by mere Reality, as John Gray has recently reminded me in his book Straw Dogs. (I have not emphasized this aspect of human cognition enough on this blog.) And what is Levitt and Dubner's secular religion called? It is called Humanism. Economics is an integral part of the Humanist Project. Gray's point is that humans moved smoothly from a religious posture which was God-centered in the pre-Industrial Era to a religious posture which is human-centered now. (This transition was made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuels).
For Levitt and Dubner, Humans are Gods. Progress is Destiny. The Earth, the Solar System, and ultimately, the Universe are ours to do with what we wish.
However, it is at this point in Kolbert's tortured narrative that a very remarkable thing happens. I can not stress enough just how astonished I was to read this, to wit—
Though Levitt and Dubner couldn’t have read [Al Gore's] Our Choice, they nevertheless manage to anticipate Gore’s position.
The two argue that Gore's views are the ones that rest on magical thinking.
Gore's views do rest on magical thinking! (See here.)
“If you think like a cold-blooded economist instead of a warm-hearted humanist...
Like there's a difference!
... Gore’s reasoning doesn’t track,” [Levitt and Dubner] write.
“It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere...
Here it comes!
We don't want to stop, or aren’t willing to pay the price.”
Yes, Yes, Yes! Elizabeth Kolbert, to her credit, must acknowledge the Great Truth Levitt and Dubner have hit upon.
Here the two have a point. By the end of Our Choice, it may be clear that we possess the tools needed to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, but the book has also shown—intentionally or not—that deploying them would require a lot from us.
It would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.
Yes, again! In fact, if we followed Al Gore's path to solving the global warming problem—wind, solar, geothermal, and so on—we would basically have to shut down Industrial Civilization and start all over again—we would have to change the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.
But humans don't want to do that. As I've written on DOTE, I would go further—humans can not change the way they eat, shop, manufacture and all the rest. There's simply no way they will give up (voluntarily) the considerable material Progress they have achieved over the last two centuries.
Thus the inherent contradictions of the Human Project on this planet, which assumes endless Growth and Progress, are laid bare for all to see. Kolbert finishes with a flourish—
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that SuperFreakonomics takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness.
All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.
Kolbert has failed to think the problem all the way through. All of these stories, every damn one of them, from Levitt and Dubner's geoengineering schemes, to Al Gore's wind and solar farms, are horseshit. Humans want to believe science fiction, they want to believe these various horseshit stories. They don't want to give up the Industrial Civilization they struggled so mightily to build. That's a price they will never be willing to pay.
And why? Because that's who we humans are. Homo sapiens, take a bow—we know you at last!