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Technology and the environment (a response)

It's not often you get to have nice arguments about things. I saw Laurence at Commentary refer to a post by Ian Gilfillan responding to some of Laurence's posts on environmental issues. Much to my surprise, I saw my own name mentioned in Ian's post.

Ian refers to a comment I'd made on an earlier Commentary post, which started out with me saying "I have no time for Luddite environmentalists and I don't buy into the peak oil thing." Ian regards my comments as "utterly idiotic". Well now.

First, a Luddite in a modern sense, is someone opposed to technological change. You know, someone who's anti-technology. You don't have to look too hard to find people who regard abandoning our modern way of life and returning to simpler, if not all-out subsistence lifestyles as a way of dealing with the environmental issues our planet faces, as a good thing. It's pretty hard not to see people espousing these sorts of views on every second BBC environment-related segment, which is yet another reason why I find my mood inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend watching BBC News.

Ian reckons he doesn't know a single person who has an anti-technology approach to environmentalism. Well, jolly good for Ian and his hip mates, but if they're not Luddite environmentalists then I wasn't referring to them. Perhaps the term Luddite doesn't quite apply to Ian's admirable decision to live within walking distance of his job, or his espousal of the 'stop what you're doing' principle. I still think his beliefs are a little flawed, not because I disagree with the principles, but because I disagree with the means by which he believes those principles should be met. More below.

Secondly, Ian doesn't like the fact that I don't buy into the Peak Oil thing, by which I mean the rather popular notion in some circles of an economic and social apocalypse when we run out of oil (and not the notion that oil supplies aren't going to one day run out. I understand the meaning of 'finite'). Laurence was addressing this issue in his post and he said everything far better than I could.

Never thought not buying into the peak oil thing would be so controversial, but I guess Ian sees me as some puppet of the Conservative Corporatist Establishment or something, which is kinda odd given what I said in the rest of my original comment:

At the same time, the thing I don't like about the *other* side of the spectrum is that the economics of scarcity and finite resources should spark natural, economically efficient price rises and encourage the investment needed in alternative technologies, and I have a sense that a lot of people in high places will gladly pander to vested interests instead of allowing the pain that's needed to really drive the move to alternatives.

Be it finite oil supplies or any other aspect of the world's environmental woes, I think the biggest problem is not aligning the true costs of our environmental footprint with our lifestyles. In a word: the problem is externalities. Hypothetically and empirically speaking, when transactions between people on this planet more accurately reflect the true cost of the environmental impact of those transactions, then you soon find three things happening:

  • People choosing to limit their consumption, because certain polluting activities are too expensive.
  • People choosing more energy-efficient solutions to common problems, all other things being equal.
  • Higher costs driving innovation and uptake of new technologies which are more efficient and less pollutive.

How you mitigate externalities is a separate discussion, and I sure don't have the answers, but if you don't start with the premise that we're not going to effectively solve environmental issues if people are being exhorted to do things which are out of line with what they can afford and not afford to do in their daily lives, then a 'stop consuming or you're gonna die' approach is about as effective and persuasive as 'stop sinning or you're going to hell'.

Ian might not like my idiotic comments, but I suspect that many of our views are not that far apart. Not that I care if they aren't. What it really boils down to Ian's insinuation that I'm some conservative anti-environmentalist authoritarian reactionary, and that's ridiculous, although having read his blog for a while and having crossed subcultural paths in another lifetime a long long time ago, I can see why he'd think that based on what I said. Regardless, he's wrong.

I never once said that there weren't real environmental issues that need resolving, but I don't for one second believe that unrealistic exhortations to austerity or externality-absorbing populist politicians trying to suck up to voters are the solution. My views are decidedly classic liberal, libertarian, call 'em what you like, and I simply don't believe that things work just because politicians or moralists say they should.

PS. I think terraforming other planets is a ridiculous idea, too.

{2007.07.26 - 00:30}


1 Ian (2007.07.26 - 14:16) #

Thanks for the response Colin. Andreas gives a good response to the Luddite/technology question on my original post. As for the problem of externalities - you're absolutely correct in identifying that as key. It's particularly important to consider what to do if that can't be solved.

I suspect our key difference is in our understanding of just how much austerity (and one person's austerity is another's bliss) may be necessary to improve things.

I also happen to think that terraforming other planets is a great idea, just not as a solution to any of our problems in the next few hundred years.

I can't quite pin down when we crossed paths in that other lifetime, perhaps a photo or description will jog my memory?

I'm also very glad to hear you're not a conservative anti-environmentalist authoritarian reactionary :)

2 Colin (2007.07.26 - 22:17) #

Thanks for replying, Ian. I try not to be too much of anything, other than an opinionated and disbuggerable git, which comes naturally :)

I mailed you re the crossed paths thing.


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