Oh, I Guess It’s Okay Then

October 20, 2009

Greenwire reports that a new study reveals how global warming could spur growth in Northwest forests.  Here’s a relevant clip:

Overall, forest productivity could increase about 7 percent annually in forests west of the Cascade Range and 20 percent in forests east of them under one scenario that researchers said largely reflects current trends of energy use, globalization and economic growth. However, the study did not take into account management practices, disease, insects and fire, which can affect productivity and could also be affected by climate change.

The study was published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.

This is all interesting and important research, of course; and it’s very important to anyone interested in adaptation, mitigation, or remediation, but ultimately it’s a distraction from the wicked problem that characterizes climate change.  The problem with climate change isn’t that any given environment will be made better or worse, nor that the world as a whole will be made better or worse, but that as a collective of human beings, we’re doing something that’s making the world better or worse, and this something that we’re doing can’t be justified.  There’s much more to say on this issue, on the issue of justification, for instance, but I won’t do that here.  For now, let’s just say that focusing on whether it is all bad, only somewhat bad, or maybe even good, starts the entire conversation off on the wrong foot.


  1. Really? Seems like you’ve made some fundamentally flawed assumptions right from the start.

    Are we (meaning humans) doing something that “can’t be justified”?


    How so exactly??? What is it that you are worried about???

    You’re first assumption is that humans are causing “climate change”. Well, it’s likely that humans are causing changes on a local level that impact temperatures, but probably not on a global level… or at least, probably not in the way that is commonly imagined. But, nevermind, let’s continue.

    You next assume that whatever it is that we’re doing is bad for the environment. Why? Because we’re human and can do no right? Are humans somehow the problem? Are we not “natural” or part of nature???

    You seem to forget that as the world prospers, the environment improves. The developed world is far cleaner than the undeveloped world. The US is cleaner (objectively cleaner air, water, soil) now than it was 40 years ago and is WAAAAYYYYYY clener than it was 100 years ago.

    Why is that? Because the developed world has the luxury of worrying about the environment rather than literally worrying about feeding their families and surviving the day.

    Yet, efforts to control “climate change” will do nothing to control the “climate” (even if you believe that CO2 is THE problem, cap and trade won’t decrease CO2 release, it will just move it elsewhere… making so the called pollutant more analogous to a middle ages “indulgence”) yet such moves will result in increased energy costs (and all other costs) for all and outright energy rationing… the result will be an overall lowering of the standard of living of the developed world and a continued low standard of living in the undeveloped world. Lowering the standard of living will result in more pollution, not less.

    The reality is that if you really cared about “the environment” you would be clamoring for global development and clamoring for increased energy production.


    • Actually, the first is not my assumption at all. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if we are responsible for climate change. What matters is what we’re responsible for, whether it’s climate change or not. The second is also not my assumption. Climate change could be good for the environment, and I’d still say that what we’re doing can’t be justified.

      While I’m worried about the prosperity of the world in general terms, and I’m also worried about the health of the environment, I’m not at all clear that one entails the other, nor am I opposed to the view that development might help the environment.

  2. I’m not sure I follow your logic. You said that what matters is what we’re responsible for… so what exactly IS that??? What is IT that you believe we may or may not be doing? And, why do you automatically assume that whatever it is, it’s bad??

    I’m sorry you’re not clear about things. One thing is remarkably clear: more wealth equals improved environment. The more wealthy a country becomes, the cleaner it’s environment becomes.

    The reality is that there have always been environmental problems and there always will be environmental problems. They are simply different in the developing world than they are in the developed world.

    In underdeveloped parts of the world, the environmental problems are things like lack of clean water (and we’re not just talking about minor problems… these are fundamental water quality problems that end up killing people and the local flora and fauna); lack of access to clean sources of energy (people burn dung or use charcoal) in open fires, which releases thousands of compounds and particulates into the air. These are real problems that affect real people and actual plants and animals, not imagined problems like those from CO2.

    Few cars or trucks means livestock are needed to work fields or transport goods and services. Livestock release a lot of, umm, “pollution”. No sewers means that waste (human and animal) gets dumped wherever. What industry IS present is largely unregulated, and pollutants are dumped or disposed of wherever. Farming is inefficient, meaning more energy needs to be input to produce a given output and more land needs to be tilled to give a given output. Large numbers of poor people mean there are opportunities to poach native animals and/or opportunities for other less desirable activities (e.g., squatters cutting down swaths of protected forested land).

    People with money can afford to CARE about the environment and can afford to do something about the environment. When you are struggling just to survive, you don’t have that same opportunities to care or to respond.


  3. “The problem with climate change…as a collective of human beings, we’re doing something that’s making the world better or worse, and this something that we’re doing can’t be justified.”

    Three trips I took:

    1991, India: 600,000 villages across the nation. Sooty cooking fires, smoke-belching traffic between villages.

    2000, India: A maze of electric wires criss-cross everywhere you look. Air’s a bit more breathable. Animal feces has increased due to increased wealth resulting in more ownership.

    2005, India: Now there are (dirt) roads. Pollution controls on vehicles. And they’re beinning to recognize the value of clean cities. Hordes of women hired to sweep streets at night. (And researchers have developed methods to collect methane from dung and use it to heat villages.

    So, what’s the “this” that cannot be justified?

    All of the above are scenarios involving human impact on the environment, simply due to human presence.

    What are you saying?
    Is presence of humans unjustified?
    Is improvement of the human condition unjustified?

  4. The story here is too long to spell out in the comments section of a blog. Ultimately, you’re right that there is no “it” that is justifiable. Some actions are justifiable, some actions are not justifiable. I’m interested in what justifies an action. One thing I don’t think is that what justifies an action is whether the outcome of the action is bad. Moreover, I don’t assume that whatever it is that we’re doing is bad. I think that the badness of an action depends on its right or wrongness, on its justifiability.

  5. Ben, I seriously have no idea what you’re getting at.

    Whether something is considered right or wrong is very much in the eye of the beholder.


  6. Most ethicists would beg to differ; and I bet you would too, if pressed. I assume you don’t think that this is true about hideous ethical breaches, like rapacious cannibalism for fun. I can’t just run out into the city streets and eat my neighbors.

    I assume also that you hold fast to your views about right and wrong not because you assume them to be primarily and privately yours, but rather because you think they’re right, because you think you’ve got the right position, by which I mean, that other positions that are not yours are wrong. So something there is pushing you away from the strong relativism that you seem to imply. No?

  7. Have the bark beetles been consulted on this?

  8. Ethical breaches are different (and you know this perfectly well). That’s an issue of knowing right from wrong and choosing to do wrong. Absolute rights and wrongs are a very different category.

    Are there absolute rights and wrongs? I wonder. Is killing wrong? Depends who you ask and when you ask them. Capital punishment exists. You can argue whether capital punishment is right or wrong, but that’s my point… it depends who you ask and when you ask them.

    Is cannibalism wrong? Depends who you ask and when. Donner party comes to mind (necessity), as do certain Pacific island groups (cultural practices and beliefs which you may not agree with, but that’s a separate argument from absolute right or wrong). If there are exceptions to the rule, then it’s not an absolute.

    All of this is a long way away from whatever point you were trying to make in the original post:

    “The problem with climate change isn’t that any given environment will be made better or worse, nor that the world as a whole will be made better or worse, but that as a collective of human beings, we’re doing something that’s making the world better or worse, and this something that we’re doing can’t be justified.”

    Humans are part of the world, we’re part of nature, and we change the immediate world around us to suit our needs. We’re not the only creatures that do this…nearly all other animals do this. Think bird nests, ant hills, beaver dams, deer paths, coral reefs, etc.

    The difference is that we can do it on a much larger scale than other critters. We change landscape to build shelter, schools, factories, malls, universities, etc. We cut down trees, build roads, build stuff. All of this has been going on for as long as humans have been around, again, just the scale has changed. From your above statement appears that you don’t believe humans should be doing these things, things which would be impossible for humans NOT to do and things that other animals on the planet do.

    So, really, what’s the point of the post??


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