Thursday, May 06, 2004

Global warming is happening. Scientific option is converging towards this explanation of the increasingly freaky weather conditions occuring across the globe. Most of us have first-hand experience of extrordinary weather becoming ordinary. Last summer, whilst I was in London, I didn’t see rain for four months. Now it is May, I’m in Italy, and we are currently, according to the forecasts, half-way through an entire week of flash thunderstorms and strong winds. Certainly the first half of the week conformed to that prediction and today we’ve already had one torential downpour. As I write another is beginning.

The wind is particular strange. Well-protected – to the north are the Dolomites, to the west and south the Appenines, and to the east the Adriatic, one of the calmest seas in the world – Verona should see little wind. Instead I feel like I’m living in Chicago.

The fact of global warming is seldom doubted these days. The scale and size of the problem is still in dispute, as is, crucially, the time span we have in which to find a solution. But find a solution we must; deaths are tragedy as a result of unusual weather are occuring, somewhere in the world, now. Their frequency will only escalate.

F. – the girl I was seeing in London last summer – doesn’t take short-haul flights. She highlighted to me the damage that this boom-industry is doing. Although I can’t recall the exact figures, the environmental damage wrought by cars is a small fraction of that caused by planes.

Unfortuanately individual action is not, and will not, be sufficient to get us out of our self-created quagmire. Evolutionists have, for decades, known of the inevitable consequences of what is termed the Tragedy of the Commons. On English Commons in the middle-ages, where cows grazed on shared land, all the grass was consumed because no cow-owner wanted to stop their cow from eating; they’d lose money when they came to sell it, after all. Ultimately this meant that all the grass was eaten and the long-term benefits of commonly shared grass were lost. Similarly any shared but finite resource will ultimately be exhausted, since it is in no single individual’s benefit to make the sacrifice of doing without the resource, since others won’t be so noble and the resource will be consumed anyway. The reason they won’t be so noble is that the fitness of the selfish individuals – in our example the wealth of the cow owner – increases with consumption of the resource, and they survive at the expense of the more noble – since, having sold their cow for a good price, they can afford to feed their family properly.

F. – and others like her – deserve nothing but respect for their stance, but any wish or insistance that all follow is doomed. Such unselfish strategies have been evolved out of us, since cheats – those who continue to consume the resource despite a mutual agreement otherwise – will prosper at the expense of the honest. This is evolution in progress.

So, since individuals cannot be expected to act for the collective good, then action must come from higher bodies that will. This is precisely why Governments were invented. If Governments across the globe continue to pay only mere lip service – or worse, far worse, in some obvious examples – to the problem, then they will have failed in their purpose. Unfortuantely here we meet twin demons: Party Politics, and the shortcomings of Democracy. Any Government that does pursue an agenda that includes the radical steps necessary will instantly be voted out or, more accurately, not be voted for in the first place.

Awareness of the immediacy of the problem is low, which is one reason why voters give the issue little weight. But thinking beyond that, we again meet the Tradegy of the Commons. One country may vote in favour of radical policies, but by doing so it penalisies itself against other, competing, nations. The organisms here – nation states – are different to those we met earlier – individuals – but the principle remains the same: cheats – those that ignore mutually agreed rules – will prosper, since there is no effective vecihle for punishment. So why vote for a Government that will penalise your nations competitiveness? This is – sadly, but truefully – human nature, and eventually all lose. The Bush administration’s ripping up of the Kyoto accord is a good example: America and Americans will lose out through rigourous application of its principles and so, since there’s no punishment for breaking the rules, why bother adhere?

(Note to observant pedants: I know that Darwinism doesn’t occur at the group level, and that would appear to be a flaw in the above paragraph. However I don’t think that applies here since elected Governments mean the group can only act as one. This is because there is no scope for an individual to cheat the rules of international convention: I can’t, for example, individually opt into the Euro; I’m instead tied to the actions of my Government, and we can only opt in collectively. Group selection doesn’t normally occur because an individual can abuse the system but, on international matters, that potential for abuse is negated: I’m unable to cheat the norms of (British) society for my own (perceived) benefit.)

And so we come to an impasse. Acting individually we cannot make sufficient change. Acting collectively requires not just a nation – or even a group of nations – to agree to a set of rules (with, crucially, appropriate punishments in place for rule-breakers), but instead all nations to agree to such rules. We live in an interconnected, interdependant world and thus the scope for systemic abuse – taking advantage of the good nature of others (be they individual or collective) – is large, and hence the spectre of the Tragedy of the Commons haunts us all. Enlightened attitudes need enlightened voters, and that can only be acheived through education and information. We can only hope it’s not too late to learn.

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