Higher ground

Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books, via Kevin Kelly:

There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world. Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists–most of whom are not scientists–holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Kevin, continues, riffing off other Freeman insights from the same piece:

But while progress runs on exponential curves, our individual lives proceed in a linear fashion. We live day by day by day. While we might think time flies as we age, it really trickles out steadily. Today will always be more valuable than some day in the future, in large part because we have no guarantee we’ll get that extra day. Ditto for civilizations. In linear time, the future is a loss. But because human minds and societies can improve things over time, and compound that improvement in virtuous circles, the future in this dimension is a gain. Therefore long-term thinking entails the confluence of the linear and the exponential. The linear march of our time intersects the cascading rise and fall of numerous self-amplifying exponential forces. Generations, too, proceed in a linear sequence. They advance steadily one after another while pushed by the compounding cycles of exponential change.
Balancing that point where the linear crosses the exponential is what long-term thinking should be about.

His bottom line:

A timeline of where we expect these cost/benefit/risk-thresholds to fall in each sector of our civilization, or a field map of places we can see where our linear lives cross exponential change — either would be very handy to have

After reading this, I wonder whether caring and generosity come into play here. Becuase those are not reckoned with the logic of exchange and transaction employed by most economic arguments. What we do for love tends not to involve exchange. The purest forms of love are what we do without expectation or desire for payback. This is the kind of love we give our spouses, our children, our good friends. As St. Paul said (and says again and again at countless weddings), love does not “seek its own interests”. It does not boast. It is “patient and kind”.

There is a morality to exhange, to cost/benefit/risk-threshold economics. This is the morality of accounting, by which we repay debts and owe favors. It is the morality of fairness, of rules in sports and business contract. It is the morality of Lady Justice, holding her scales.

But the morality of accounting is different than the morality of love, which is found most abundantly in relationship. Wise teachers, religious and otherwise, have been inveighing for the duration on behalf of a larger kind of love, in which we give to strangers, or even enemies, what we give to those we know and care about. It is embodied in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, in the atheist Kurt Vonegut‘s “You’ve got to be kind!” — and, most appropriately to the topic a hand, Hafez’ famous passage:

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth “you owe me”.
Look what happens with a Love like that!
— It lights the whole Sky.

Urgings to extend selfless love to the world — to extend one’s relationship beyond the scope of the familiar and the desired — have fallen on deaf ears for the whole of human existence.

Though not entirely, or we wouldn’t have religion. It’s there in the “compassion and mercy” of karuna, the “universal love” of Mohism, the “giving without expecting to take” (via Rabbi Dressler) of Judaism. And, as Freeman points out, in environmentalism.

Is selfless love by definition religious? That might be one reason Freeman assigns environmentalism to the “high moral ground”.

Either way, we need it. The environment itself provides a long and endless record of vast changes and stunning catastrophes. Twenty thousand years ago, the northern ice cap sat like a large white hat on the Earth. Snow dumped on its middle pressed its bulk edgeward, like dough spreading under a roller. The ice picked up and crushed mountains, scraping the shattered remains across landscapes, carving grooves and lakes and fjords. At its edges were dumped the rocks and soil that today bear the names Long Island, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. The hills of Boston and the islands in its bay are mostly drumlins left by the glacier. Likewise all the inland ponds began as melted landlocked icebergs.

The Great Lakes are puddles left by the same ice cap, revealed as that cap shrank, between 14,000 and 9,000 years ago. The cap is still shrinking, revealing more of Canada every year. While what’s left of it may be melting faster than expected, we’re dealing with a trend that’s been going on for longer than humans have been walking on the Americas, which began in what is essentially the geologic present.

Human despoilation of the planet is a catastrophe that happens to coincide with the end of an ice age. Regardless of what or whom we blame, Antactica will continue to shrink, Greenland will continue to melt, and the seas will continue to rise. Compared to what’s coming, Katrina was just a hint.

As the police chief said to the captain in Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.

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7 Responses to Higher ground

  1. I think, then, that it’s fair to say that we should structure our society to deal better with climate change, understanding that the one constant of the climate is that it changes. Right now, warming. Maybe not so bad. Later on, cooling. That will be very very bad. Imagine Chicago underneath a mile of ice; not because it happened before, but because it will happen again.

    In other words, efforts to stop climate change by reducing our emissions of CO2 are not only fruitless, but they consume wealth needed to handle the climate change which WILL HAPPEN REGARDLESS. The Kyoto Accord would have had us spend a half trillion dollars (some billions of which we’re already spending) in order to delay global warming by a total of two years over the next fifty.

    Reduction of CO2 emission is STOOPID. We must say this again, and again and again, until it gets through the environmentalists blind faith.

  2. Chip says:

    Thanks for the links

    I’ve always liked Freeman, and meeting/chatting with him was one of the highlights of the late, great PCForum.

    Sitting here on glacial till, thin soils but, locally productive with much fine ground minerals, fast growing northern hardwoods sucking up carbon.

    Spent much of my life doing “long term investing” for my daughters and now grandchildren.
    Sorting fads and fashion from true trends.

    The beat goes on …

  3. Doc Searls says:

    Russ, here’s my boiled-down view.

    1) The Earth is has been getting warmer for the past 20,000 years.

    2) Human activity is surely accelerating that warming.

    3) Reducing or eliminating human contribution to global warming is a wise thing to do; but it still may not make much difference, because it’s happening anyway.

    4) Better for humans to get a Long View and both prepare for, and adapt, to the inevitable. That requires imagining what Earth will be like when the ocean is 20 feet higher, and how its ecology will need to function when Bangladesh and Louisiana are gone and Washington, DC has reverted to tideland. We can’t turn San Diego and Miami into Amsterdams. Life starts in coastal swamps.

    5) The human species has never had a Long View, and has been pestilential for the duration. We use up natural resources like a kid eating a bowl of candy while Mom isn’t looking. Can we change that nature in ourselves? Maybe Freeman is right that environmentalism as a new religion will help.

    6) I don’t know much about Kyoto except that the left loves it and the right hates it. And that it is surely a kluge at best. There is some stuff only government can do, or that government does best. Among them are large civic projects for which the market offers no means. We’ll need those as the seas rise. We don’t need the Corps of Engineers to keep protecting Louisiana.

    7) We do need insurance companies to study geology and climate change and say the coasts are lost. But for that they’ll need frames of reference longer than the lives of humans or buildings. And that’s not their business. Yet.

    8) On the other hand, most of the glacial volume has already been lost, and there is a maximum that the sea level can rise when it’s done. Be grateful civilization is at this stage now instead of 20,000 years ago.

  4. Doc Searls says:


    It fascinates me to live on, and fly over, young landscapes like yours and mine. If I had the time and the skill, I’d love to do nothing but make movies showing the past and future of recent glaciation, so people could begin to understand the natural history of Earth in the Quaternary, and how glacial pulses and retreats are always in process.

    They could see how one slow snowmelt somewhere near Yellowknife was followed by another and another, until the Laurentide ice cap began to grow and join its neighbors in an advance that would move so much water from blue regions to white that the former would drop hundreds of feet, enlarging the continents’ ice-free perimeters by up to hundreds of miles, and join both Americas to Asia and Africa to form one giant continuous continent.

    They would see the ice plow Long Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard into place as hills that would only become islands a few millennia before the present. They would see vast coastal plains and tidelands, far outboard of today’s coasts, with paths along which smart primates could travel across the whole mass of exposed land, building villages and cities while denuding forests and eliminating large animals nearly everywhere they went.

    They would see Michigan and Ontario revealed and the Great Lakes exposed as puddles left by the melting Laurentide ice sheet. They would see Lake Bonneville and Lake Lahontan making Utah and Nevada look like Wisconsin with mountains, and then slowly shrink to white dry lakes as the Earth warmed.

    They would see the Florida Coast retreat from Nassau to Miami to Orlando, so all that’s left is an island that orange growers today call “The Ridge”.

    Then they’d see the whole process repeat, as one slow snowmelt in Nunavut is followed by another and another, and a small cap of ice starts to spread, destroying your home and mine, just as it has done dozens of times before — all in a geologic slice of time so thin that,if placed in the Grand Canyon’s portfolio of pasts, it would be all of two feet thick, if it appeared at all.

    Frankly, I don’t know what government or business can do to fix the inevitable. The average species lasts about 2 million years. Some much longer, some much shorter. But that’s about how long we’ve been here.

    Surely such movies exist already. But not in a popular form. That’s the one we need.

  5. Robert says:

    In my speech class at CCSF, I concluded my presentation on climate change thusly:

    In the Marin Headlands from Hawk Hill, gazing at the Farallons and the bay, we can see all around us the imprint of the last ice age. We live in a sand field that rivals anything in the Sahara, stretching as it does from Twin Peaks to the edge of the continental shelf, 30 miles west, at the Farallons — this sand field came from Yosemite, and all of the other Sierra valleys carved by glaciers in the last ice age. Nevada had Great Lakes sized lakes, and was cool and forested. And then, in a decade or two (or five), that all changed. Climate has been snapping from cool to warm, and from warm to cool for the past two million years during the Pleistocene — itself but one of many ice ages.

    Change is the only constant. Understanding the history of climate change is an excellent way to gain perspective on current climate. A sense of place and time — deep time — can inform all of our awareness of the world, and our place in it.

    A web version of that speech is here.

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