Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The "One Percent Doctrine" and Environmental Faith

Tom Friedman's piece today in the Times on the environment ( is one of the flimsiest pieces by a major
columnist that I can remember ever reading. He applies Cheney's "one percent doctrine" (which is similar to the environmentalists' "precautionary principle") to the risk of environmental armageddon. But this doctrine is both intellectually incoherent and practically irrelevant. It is intellectually incoherent because it cannot be applied consistently in a world with many potential disaster scenarios. In addition to the global-warming risk, there's also the asteroid-hitting-the-earth risk, the terrorists-with-nuclear-weapons risk (Cheney's original scenario), the super-duper-pandemic risk, etc. Since each of these risks, on the "one percent doctrine," would deserve all of our attention, we cannot address all of them simultaneously. That is, even within the one-percent mentality, we'd have to begin prioritizing, making choices and trade-offs. But why then should we only make these trade-offs between responses to disaster scenarios? Why not also choose between them and other, much more cotidien, things we value? Why treat the unlikely but cataclysmic event as somehow fundamentally different, something that cannot be integrated into all the other calculations we make?
And in fact, this is how we behave all the time. We get into our cars in order to buy a cup of coffee, even though there's some chance we will be killed on the way to the coffee shop. We are constantly risking death, if slightly, in order to pursue the things we value. Any creature that adopted the "precautionary principle" would sit at home - no, not even there, since there is some chance the building might collapse. That creature would neither be able to act, nor not act, since it would nowhere discover perfect safety.
Friedman's approach reminds me somehow of Pascal's wager - quasi-religious faith masquerading as rational deliberation (as Hans Albert has pointed out, Pascal's wager itself doesn't add up: there may be a God, in fact, but it may turn out that He dislikes, and even damns, people who believe in him because they've calculated it's in their best interest to do so). As my friend James points out, it's striking how descriptions of the environmental risk always describe the situation as if it were five to midnight. It must be near midnight, since otherwise there would be no need to act. But it can never be five *past* midnight, since then acting would be pointless and we might as well party like it was 2099. Many religious movements - for example the early Jesus movement - have exhibited precisely this combination of traits: the looming apocalypse, with the time (just barely) to take action.
None of this is to deny - at least this is my current sense - that human action is contributing to global warming. But what our response to this news should be is another matter entirely.

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