Saturday, December 30, 2006

More dour defeatism to brighten your day

I think that leftist intellectuals must hold contests to see who can think up the most meandering and unlikely path of connections between some terrible social or ecological malady and capitalism. Like intellectual Rube Goldberg devices, they stand out more for the aesthetic appeal of the creativity of the devices used rather than the efficiency with which they accomplish their intended task, if they manage to at all.

The winner of this week's contest must have been Anatol Lieven, for his dire pronouncement on capitalism entitled "The end of the West as we know it?"

WASHINGTON: Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting. The Confucian ruling system of imperial China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, has some claim still to be the most successful in history, but because it was founded on values of stability and continuity, rather than dynamism and inventiveness, it eventually proved unable to survive in the face of Western imperial capitalism.

For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.

If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.

Even the relatively conservative predictions offered by the Stern report, of a drop in annual global gross domestic product of up to 20 percent by the end of this century, imply a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s; and as we know, the effects of that depression were not restricted to economics. In much of Europe, as well as Latin America and Japan, democracies collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian regimes.

As the report makes clear, however, if we continue with "business as usual" when it comes to the emission of greenhouse gases, then we will not have to wait till the end of the century to see disastrous consequences. Long before then, a combination of floods, droughts and famine will have destroyed states in many poorer parts of the earth — as has already occurred in recent decades in Somalia.

If the conservative estimates of the Stern report are correct, then already by 2050 the effects of climate change may be such as to wreck the societies of Pakistan and Bangladesh; and if these states collapse, how can India and other countries possibly insulate themselves?

At that point, not only will today's obsessive concern with terrorism appear insignificant, but all the democratizing efforts of Western states, and of private individuals and bodies like George Soros and his Open Society Institute, will be rendered completely meaningless. So, of course, will every effort directed today toward the reduction of poverty and disease.

And this is only to examine the likely medium-term consequences of climate change. For the further future, the report predicts that if we continue with business as usual, then the rise in average global temperature could well top 5 degrees Celsius. To judge by what we know of the history of the world's climate, this would almost certainly lead to the melting of the polar ice caps, and a rise in sea levels of up to 25 meters.

As pointed out by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth," this would mean the end of many of the world's greatest cities. The resulting human migration could be on such a scale as to bring modern civilization to an end.

If this comes to pass, what will our descendants make of a political and media culture that devotes little attention to this threat when compared with sports, consumer goods, leisure and a threat from terrorism that is puny by comparison? Will they remember us as great paragons of human progress and freedom? They are more likely to spit on our graves.

Underlying Western free-market democracy, and its American form in particular, is the belief that this system is of permanent value to mankind: a "New Order of the Ages," as the motto on the U.S. Great Seal has it. It is not supposed to serve only the short- term and selfish interests of existing Western populations. If our system is indeed no more than that, then it will pass from history even more utterly than Confucian China — and will deserve to do so.


The last paragraph contains the real laugher. He's saying that capitalism is a faiure because it benefits those nations that practice it but does not help those nations that don't. Did you get that? That's like saying that antibiotics aren't successful because they only help the people who take them. It is impossible to make this stuff up! There must be a fallacy gene that some people are born with that allows them to think like this.

Capitalism works because it allows individual, working class people to work for their own self interests. It won't work where ordinary people are prevented from doing so by socialist or tribalist regimes and mindsets. Western selfishness is not the problem, it is insufficient selfishness in the rest of the world that is.

The failure of Pakistan and Bangladesh, rather than an indictment of Western capitalism, is a shining counter-example of its efficacy. How will India survive, asks Lieven, if these two basket cases collapse? Gee, what is the main difference between India and its two sister states? Oh right, India isn't dominated by a premodernist death cult. It also doesn't treat its lessons learned from the hands of the British on how to run an economy and a democratic government as a humiliating surrender to the Great Satan. India is already largely insulated from these two basket case nations. There is no domino scenario here. Pakistan and Bangladesh are already failed states, they don't have far to fall.

Lieven's argument is also fallacious in attributing the ecological depradations of modern civilization to capitalism. Human technology has always had an impact on the environment, and the further back in time and technological sophistication you go, the worse that impact was in many ways. Most of the Meditteranean landscape were deforested by Bronze Age agriculture practices. The eastern half of the US has more trees now than when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. The soils of Mesopotamia were ruined by centuries of irrigation. As modern technologies have progressed, we have been able to gain greater incremental yields from environmental resources with lesser negative impacts. And those advances in technology have only been possible under the capitalist system that rewards innovation and risk.

If one looks at the state of the environment in advanced capitalist nations and in developing or socialist industrial nations today, you will find that it is much better in the former. Most of the desertification that plagues Sub-Saharan Africa is due to the total lack of private land ownership, which leaves ono-one in a position to profit from wise stewardship of the environment. Capitalism can only help Africa's plight, but decades of socialist and tribalist resistance to free markets, as well as the corrupting and market disrupting effects of well meaning foreign aid have nipped the growth of market economies in the bud.

Lieven's biggest error may be in his reliance on studies that purport to forecast the economic effects of environmental trends, themselves which cannot be forecast accurately, forty or fifty years into the future. The market mechanism gives capitalism the ability to adapt to changing technological, social and environmental conditions in a way that no command economy can possibly replicate. All markets will adapt to whatever climate conditions are realized over the coming century. New genetically modified strains of food crops will be introduced that are optimized to the prevalent conditions in each region. New energy technologies will emerge that offer the lowest cost and lowest ecological impact based on the existing supply and demand conditions of the time. If low lying regions are flooded by rising sea levels, then people will move. There will be gains and losses, but this is nothing new in human history. A capitalist future is the only imaginable one in which the gains will more than offset the losses.

3 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

[T]he existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system.

Global warming can't possibly destroy our system either. Oceans rising 100 ft.? Who cares? It just means oceanfront vacation homes in Arizona.

And, it's not as though this will happen overnight. Given fifty years to adjust, I expect the developed nations to do just fine, thank you.

As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

Yes? Which market failed, exactly? If there is a failure, it lies in the fact that there isn't a market for climate change.

Even the relatively conservative predictions offered by the Stern report, of a drop in annual global gross domestic product of up to 20 percent by the end of this century...

Balderdash. A pure WAG.

Barring the collapse of America, if 21st century economic trends follow 20th century trends, then global GDP will HAVE TO be higher at the end of the century, since in real terms American GNP will be 600% - 800% of what it is now. If it's only 600%, then by 2100 AMERICA ALONE will be producing twice today's annual global gross domestic product.

But hey, I can understand why Lieven would get it so wrong; as Duck puts it, "Lieven's biggest error may be in his reliance on studies that purport to forecast the economic effects of environmental trends..."

After all, understanding why the Stern report is absurdity on toast would require "research" and "acquisition of knowledge", which as everyone knows are simply euphemisms for "work", which is to avoided at all cost. Better to accept that we're all doomed, spend twenty minutes banging out ill-considered nonsense, and go have lunch, followed by a nap.

December 30, 2006 11:38 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

I do love a lot of logic though.

Consider a statement of the form (A and B) implies C. If either A or B are false, then it is guaranteed to true. An if-then style statement is false if and only if the premise is true and the conclusion is false. If the premise is false, the assertion is true no matter what. So the following statement is indeed perfectly true:

"If the latter proves the case [so dependent on consumption...], and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations."

Since neither A ("the latter proves...") nor B ("world suffers...climate change") are (likely to be) true, the assertion (likely) holds.

If pigs fly and the sun comes up in the west then I'll be president! Also a true assertion!

But really, for me, the 1st sentence is the most important (and true):

"Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting."

In other words, "all we are is dust in the wind." One of the primary reasons I simply can't get worked up about "climate change" is that I don't really care if humans become extinct in 1,000,000 years, or 1,000 years, or even 100 years. Same for life in general.

If you asked me to choose between humans living miserably for 1,000,000 years or happily for 100, I'd choose the latter. That's why it's extraordinarily easy for me to say, "let come what may, we'll either deal with it - or not."

December 30, 2006 1:32 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

For LogoRealists, it is about the language, not the logic.

December 30, 2006 2:04 PM  

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