Monday, September 1, 2014

Ecology and environmentalism

Thomas Sowell. The Vision of the Annointed: Self-congratulation as a basis for social policy. Basic Books. 1995. Amazon link

"Systemic interactions" are the sum of the all the interactions, over time, between all the participants in a system. For example:

What all the people working for a particular company know. This is called "the institutional memory."

Or all the people living in and part of a particular country. Results of these systemic interactions would include: traditions; common bonds of association such as the military, or a social organization, or a political party, or a church, or other organization; the constitution and laws. Loyalty to the sum total can be called patriotism.

Over time, these systemic interactions can change, be refined, or become out-dated. But they generally work. Not perfectly, of course.
Although the overall results of systemic interactions are not directly controlled by anyone, they are neither random nor unfathomable. Otherwise, there could be no such thing as economic analysis of market competition or scientific analysis of ecological or evolutionary patterns. 
Determining the particular characteristics of particular kinds of systems of reciprocal interaction can be a demanding task--but it is a task seldom undertaken by those with the vision of the anointed, who see little standing between intention and result, other than such subjective factors as compassion or commitment. 
Thus, systemic causation seldom plays a major role in the prevailing vision of the anointed, however important it may be in the tragic vision. 
Where the world is conceived in the tragic vision as a system of innumerable and reciprocal interactions, all constrained within the confines of natural and human limitations, individual problems cannot be solved one by one without adding to other problems elsewhere, if only by using up the resources available to deal with them. [Page 126.] 

In Sowell's telling, what he called the "anointed" are today's Progressives, environmentalists, global warming activists, and related "isms".

The "tragic vision" is closer to most Western philosophers (both pagan and Christian, prior to Rouseau) and to traditional Christianity. The tragic vision recognizes the limitations of humanity: not smart enough, not good enough, not wise enough, not knowledgeable enough.

The tragic vision prefers the order that arises out of innumerable people making innumerable decisions over long periods of time to the anointed vision that arises out of good intentions of a few people coupled with the desire to control the behavior of others.

The tragic vision may end up with a tyranny or a monarchy or a republic, but the anointed vision always end up in a totalitarian dictatorship.

Fascist Italy, Marxist-Leninist Russia, Nazi Germany, Maoist China, even Caesarist Rome, all were the results of an "anointed vision." Unlimited and unrestrained governments were the results.

The federal republic of the United States and parliamentarian monarchy of the United Kingdom, with their checks and balances, both arise out of the tragic vision. Limited and restrained governments were the results.

1. a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments
2. the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment

Advocacy of the preservation or improvement of the natural environment, especially the social and political movement to control environmental pollution. Other specific goals of environmentalism include control of human population growth, conservation of natural resources, restriction of the negative effects of modern technology, and the adoption of environmentally benign forms of political and economic organization.

Ecology is a science which studies existing patterns in a self-organizing system. The patterns may be in a tidal pool, exist up the side of the mountain or across a flood plain. The living things in those ecosystems sort themselves out in relationship to the physical environment the organisms find themselves in. Change one part, and the change ripples through the whole system.

Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park. The number of elk went down, but the number of beaver went up. Plant types shifted because of reduced grazing by elk and because of increased wetlands due to beaver dams. Change the plants, and all the insects, small rodents, birds and other animals that directly depend on those plants change, too. Change the types and numbers of insects and those changes ripple through the food chains.

Reintroduce the wolves and it gives the whole food web a good shaking.

Ecologist study those ripples all the time.

In effect, the science of ecology has to rest in a tragic vision. It asks cause and effect questions like these:
  1. "What are the effects of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone?" 
  2. "What are the effects of changing the amounts of this or that limited resource?" (Nutrients, light, water, food, nesting sites, etc.)
  3. "What are the effects of increasing (or decreasing) CO2 in the atmosphere?"
Environmentalism is a political movement focused on goals that may or may not be attainable. The goals can be set without regard to the consequences they may cause. For example:
  1. "We should restore Yellowstone Park to its natural condition by reintroducing the wolf."
  2. "We should limit phosphorus from sewage discharge and farm runoff into streams."
  3. "Our models show that increased CO2 will increase the temperature of earth and change its climate. We must reduce CO2 emissions."
Some of these are good goals, but the anointed will not/can not debate them as issues, because their intentions are good. For these goals to have a downside cannot be imagined because any negative effects would reflect badly on the anointed.

That decreasing CO2 emissions will shut down the economic progress of poor people in third world countries simply can not be acknowledged. Nor that warming temperatures may have a large number of beneficial side-effects.

DDT had to be banned because of its effects on birds; the consequence of increased human deaths due to malaria was irrelevant. The "anointed" could congratulate themselves on saving the birds. Nothing else mattered.

Banning DDT was politics and environmentalism. Not ecology.

There is currently a severe drought in California. Water is being withheld from farmers in the Central Valley, driving them to bankruptcy. Part of the reason why is that water is being diverted from irrigation into streams and rivers, to flow uselessly into the ocean, in order to save a small fish called the delta smelt. The "anointed" congratulate themselves on saving the smelt. Nothing else matters.

Saving the delta smelt is politics and environmentalism. Not ecology.

Environmentalists, and the progressive anointed, do not have the intellectual tools to study the ripple effects of their own policies. They cannot think about them because, to them, the effects are irrelevant. It is the intention and the goal that matter, not the reality of the situation.

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