As a general rule I’m an optimist. I believe the present is better than the past and the future will be better still. This, of course, is the opposite to the third law of thermodynamics which insists that eventually all things decay and the heat death of the universes is the only end to which we can look forward. And that’s not wrong – but fortunately it is a long way off. As Keynes said: In the long run we’re all dead.
So – let’s say my optimism is a collective one rather than a personal one (I’m not likely to get stronger, taller or smarter over the next twenty years – no matter what some health guru may recommend). It is also a relatively short term one: not billions of years but a handful of decades.
Still, sometimes, in the darkness of my worst thoughts, I think maybe it won’t work out all that well, that we will discover that the answer to Fermi’s paradox is that we are just smart enough to destroy the world but not nearly clever enough to save it.
Take recent developments on climate change. Having failed to come up with a viable short-term plan, the world has reluctantly agreed to stop the use of fossil fuels by the dawn of the 22nd century. Some leaders were more reluctant than others. At the same time, a leading economist – considered one of the most influential in the world – has stated that spending money to prevent climate change is a waste of effort. It should rather be spent on more urgent issues that will deliver short term benefits. There is a greater return on tackling certain developmental issues than worrying about the health of the planet.
This demonstrates the fatal weaknesses of both politics and economics. Politics tries to propose solutions that have no immediate costs to the politician. It sounds good to say we will stop burning oil. But if the end date is far enough away – 85 years is kind of distant since 90% of people alive today will be dead then – then you get all the benefits of a bold statement with none of the pain of really coming up with a plan to get there. It is an aspirational goal.
As for economics, there are certain intrinsic flaws to economic theory. It tends to reduce everything to monetary units – if things can’t readily be converted to money then they tend to fall out of the equation. While great work has been done to try to draw these externalities into economic thought, they still tend to be discounted. Similarly far future costs and benefits are discounted so they seem less valuable than those a few years off. Economists also don’t usually believe in ‘limits to growth.’ Their general theory is that if you run out of one thing, you can always replace it with something else. And generally speaking, that is true. If you don’t have one food, you can find a similar one with equivalent nutritional value. One energy source can be replaced with another, given technological advances.
But both economics and politics run into a wall when we consider environmental tipping points – when systems utterly change, old rules and processes no longer apply. Ocean acidification and runaway temperature rises – both scientifically possible – cannot be understood by either standard politics or cornucopian economics.
Still, aspirational goals and economic substitutions also offer important tools to make progress. Though it may require change at the local level to drive action on the world level. The old ‘act local but think global’ adage may yet provide a route out of our troubles.
But that’s ten minutes.