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Rankin On Thursday

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

Countering Doom and Gloom

27 January 2000

A few days ago I watched a programme made by Nicholas Booth in 1997 for the BBC Counterblast series, called "The End of the World?". As with John Pilger's documentaries, viewers were warned that this programme represented a critical "personal view" for which the broadcaster could not be held responsible. The programme suggested that environmentalists are merchants of doom who overstate their case.

While nominally addressing two environmental issues, global warming and atmospheric ozone depletion the programme - intentionally or unintentionally - raised important questions about:

a.. whether we as a species enjoy wallowing in doom and gloom a.. our homocentric tendency to attribute catastrophes and lesser disasters to human foolishness rather than to the chance forces of nature that are beyond our control 1.. our tendency to polarise controversies by setting up "straw men" versions of our adversaries' positions, and then placing the burden of proof on the straw man 2.. the ways that politically correct doom scenarios bias the allocation of public science funds and hence discourage scientific objectivity 3.. whether we can behave well without being coerced to do so through blackmail

Nicholas Booth claimed that touted environmental disasters tend not to happen, that man-made environmental disaster is far from a certainty, and that doom-mongering serves some deep-seated psycho-social need in many human beings.

Many people do seem to look forward to scenarios of doom and discomfort with some excitement, especially when allegedly foolish or wicked people are likely to get their comeuppance. I guess that is reflected in our attraction for the story of Noah's Ark.

It's far from being a problem unique to ecology. Economics has yet to adjust to what is common knowledge to other social scientists; namely that "consumers" get "utility" from hurt suffered by others. We are motivated to maximise our relative rather than our absolute wellbeing. Many happily anticipate a disaster (eg one of the more dramatic Y2K scenarios) so long as we, through being prepared, stand to be less badly affected than others. Many of us who did not own shares gloated when the sharemarket crashed in 1987. We gloated even more when the "entrepreneurial" (meaning speculative) companies folded, and more again when some of the sinners were incarcerated.

Opposition politicians gain traction when the news is bad. Treasury economists gain social standing when the national economy can be said to be in a mess. If they have a solution that's in need of a problem, then they will be predisposed to call their nation's economy a "basket case" (strange metaphor) or a "cot case" (what have they got against babies?) that can only deteriorate further if their remedy is not applied. Such tactics are a form of blackmail.

Reserve Bank economists depend on the spectre of inflation for their mana if not for their livelihood. If there is no inflation threat on the horizon, they must invent it. More importantly, they tend to make a mountain out of a minor problem, while making a molehill out of the more important problems (eg the balance of payments deficits) to which none of their unproven remedies can be applied. Like the snake oil salesmen of the wild west, they operate by convincing us we are ill, or are about to become ill, when we are not.

There is a joke which says that economists correctly forecast 9 of the past 5 recessions. No-one ever jokes that economists have correctly forecast 9 of the past 5 expansions. Indeed the Reserve Bank economists are too busy making sure that there will be no expansions to forecast.

It is the same with some environmentalists. They claim that imminent disaster is a near certainty, and that we as a species must therefore radically change our ways. They expect to "win" either way; ie by successful blackmail or by saying "I told you" when the catastrophe comes. Deep Greens echo the sentiment common in past period of change characterised by luddism and eschatology - the early 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was an era dominated by evangelism; by Malthusian prophecies of demographic catastrophe and readings of Revelations.

Yet the point that Nicholas Booth missed is that many environmentalists do not believe that human activity will destroy the world this or next century. Rather they see catastrophes as possible rather than certain events in an inherently uncertain world; events made less unlikely, however, by prodigal human behaviour. Their argument against profligate behaviour is based on morality, not deterrence.

Public property in all its forms is sacred. It is our moral duty to respect it, and to sustain it. We should treat public property as if we owned it (which we do) and are sustained by it (which we are). It is such moral behaviour - "social capital" if you will - that has been shown to have underpinned past national and international economic success. Leaving all decisions to an amoral marketplace or to planners with agendas is a recipe for failure.

We are not Hobbesian creatures who only respond to threats of unpalatable outcomes. (Indeed we often respond perversely to threats of blackmail.) We are sympathetic, social beings, who most of the time place public responsibility ahead of private interest when they clash.

Science can be depoliticised. But it's hard. We like to take adversarial positions. In doing so, we seek to use and create scientific knowledge for the purpose of bolstering those positions. Indeed, to gain public good research funds, it helps to be seen to be in a politically correct camp that is predisposed to the current biases of the funding authorities.

How do we choose our adversarial positions? A human propensity to wallow in doom and gloom - a propensity derived from our desire to improve our relative standing by knocking those who display the trappings of success - leads many of us to choose a catastrophe that levels the "playing field". Others choose scenarios in which allegedly high taxes and "welfare bludgers" are the culprits driving the doom-wagon. Having selected our doom scenarios, we tend to give value only to knowledge that seems to support that scenario.

Whether doom for us is global warming, inflation in excess of three percent, profligate public servants, or beneficiaries exacting a free lunch from grafting taxpayers, we could relax a bit, accept the 80:20 rule that Auckland Blues coach Gordon Hunter has reminded us of (that 80% of what happens to us individually and collectively is beyond our control), and just get on with living our lives through maintaining a moral respect for public property. We can behave well for ourselves and for our environment without having to control other people's behaviour through the use of overstated scenarios of doom.

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© 2000 Keith Rankin

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