Hair Club for Men

June 4, 2010

It appears that one effect of climate change on at least a few otherwise imperiled pacific islands is not to sink them, not to shrink them, but to grow them… like hair, or bananas, or chimpanzees:

Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji used historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images to study changes in the land surface of 27 Pacific islands over the last 60 years. During that time, local sea levels have risen by 120 millimetres, or 2 millimetres per year on average.

Despite this, Kench and Webb found that just four islands have diminished in size since the 1950s. The area of the remaining 23 has either stayed the same or grown (Global and Planetary Change, DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.05.003).

This is all very interesting given Tuvalu’s shenanigans at COP 15.

At its highest point, Tuvalu stands just 4.5 metres out of the Pacific. It is widely predicted to be one of the first islands to drown in the rising seas caused by global warming. Yet Arthur Webb and Paul Kench found that seven islands in one of its nine atolls have spread by more than 3 per cent on average since the 1950s. One island, Funamanu, gained 0.44 hectares, or nearly 30 per cent of its previous area.

Holy smokes. That’s pretty interesting. Turns out, climate change is good for you. Which raises  a further very interesting point: what if it is good for you, or at least good for many or most? I pose that question, among similar such conundra, to my students at least once a semester.

Seems to me that it doesn’t make one silly bit of difference if it results in a net gain or a net loss for humanity; or for life; or for the earth, however conceived. Seems to me that we still should be concerned with our actions, and that climate change serves basically as a proxy for concerns about reckless behavior.

Carry on.


  1. Ben, this is disturbing.

    1. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying, “The Republicans are right. We environmentalists aren’t really worried about global warming. We just want to use that as an excuse to impose our preferences on other people.” Speak for yourself.

    2. Analogy: “Addiction, as any philosopher will tell you, is bad. So it doesn’t make one silly bit of difference whether it’s to alcohol or exercise. Alcoholism is just a proxy for our concerns about loss of personal autonomy.” That may be true in a sense. But it’s also true that drunk driving kills tens of thousands of people per year, while fit driving doesn’t.

    Ethics may be important as a challenge to prevailing ideology, but not as a solution in itself. Should we, e.g., interfere with personal choice by discouraging use of heroin? Probably. Is that the end of the story? No.

  2. Hey Howard:

    Nice to see you here.

    I think you’re misunderstanding my point. I’m just saying that it’s not the harm that makes it wrong. To use your addiction example, I would agree that addiction is bad, but it’s bad because it usurps your control, not because it’s better or worse for you. Maybe you are a workaholic, say, and this workaholism allows you to earn lots of money, which is (arguably) good for you. I might acknowledge as much. But I would want to say that _even if_ you are given all sorts of gifts and rewards for your workaholism, that your workaholism is still bad _because_ it usurps your control over you life.

    Also, I most certainly am not agreeing with the republicans. (That cuts deep, man.) I think, instead, that many environmentalists are, of course, concerned about global warming, but they’re concerned about global warming primarily because they’re concerned about the things we’re doing that are giving rise to global warming. I suspect that many of the things that we’re doing — driving hummers back and forth to the liquor store, purchasing beanie babies for no clear reason, building cities out well beyond their natural boundaries, over allocating our water resources — many of these things are done not for good reasons, but rather because there has been some bureaucratic or market capture, some bureaucratic or market failure, that enables these things to be done. And it’s that that the environmentalist, in principle, objects to.

  3. I think the problem was not so much that I misunderstood you as that I couldn’t articulate my objections very well. (And yes, I was needling you about the Republicans.) I’ll flail around some more.

    The big issue is the line between public and private. Economists have the luxury of saying they’ll take people’s preferences as given, but ethicists don’t. I think as a result the line gets a little blurry.

    Personally, I think human nature is (theoretically) perfectible. But political movements aimed at achieving this have eventually found themselves up to their elbows in blood. (Same with consistency, btw; you start out decimalizing the clock and end up with the guillotine.)

    So even if I think a lot things that people do are pointless, even if I think some of their wants have been artificially created, we should be very, very suspicious of attempts to change this by fiat, unless we can make an argument that it’s doing harm to somebody.

    Also, I certainly think environmentalists have an ethical obligation to be honest about their goals– if they care because telescopes will ruin the view they should say so, rather than weeping for the Mt. Graham red squirrel.

    There’s some stuff about democracy in here too, but I’m too tired now to figure out what it is.

  4. Yeah, I am absolutely not about to take a person’s preferences as a given. Having had many moments in my own life where I’ve been duped into believing that I want something that I don’t actually want, or been also sometimes under the impression that the things I didn’t want are things that I actually do want; or even wanting things that I know are bad for me, or bad for others, I’m fairly confident that preferences aren’t a reliable indicator of much.

    I’m in complete agreement with you on perfectionism. My book, currently in preparation, deals with this problem in some depth. And at least one of the demons of perfectionism, it seems to me, is the good.

    Ah, Mt. Graham. Haven’t thought about that issue in a long time. Memories! I think the issue there wasn’t so much about the view as it was about the destruction of the wilderness…and the squirrel was just a leverage point.

  5. OK, so to get to the conclusions:

    1. If global warming is *not* a big threat (I think it is, and I suppose you do too) then environmentalists shouldn’t run around saying it is.

    2. If I think that your preferences are silly and artificially induced, I can try to persuade you of that, but I can’t use that as a justification for forbidding you to do things. I can try to forbid you to do things that cause harm, but even then I should not drag the validity of your preferences into it.

    3. I would like to think a society can democratically decide to organize itself to promote virtue, enlightenment, etc., but when we get down to cases (the Puritans, the French Revolution) those are not reassuring.

    4. When I said being able to take preferences as given was a “luxury,” I meant it: not that they *should* be taken as given, but that those who can do that in their professional lives have an easier set of issues to work on.

    5. If you say waste is bad because it’s harmful to the natural world, then you’re an environmentalist. If you say waste is bad for psychic or spiritual reasons then you’re a philosopher (or something). You could be both, of course.

    As for Mount Graham: Yes, it damaged a certain (small) amount of wilderness, but I thought the benefits justified it, which they might not have if it were an oil well or a strip mall. You can’t put a serious telescope in Scarsdale or Encino. I don’t think many people would want to restore Mount Palomar to its natural splendor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: