Not With a Bang But a Burp


Cross-posted from AmbivaBlog, a few days ago, with updates

“One of the more bizarre and frightening ways in which global warming could devastate our planet” is detailed by Nick Kristof in the April 18 Times — in money jail, needless to say. This column is too new to have been “liberated” yet, but here’s a Kristof column from March with some of the same information.

In brief, there are vast stores of frozen methane hydrates at the bottom of the ocean that rising temperatures might melt, releasing an enormous “methane burp” that would devastatingly accelerate the pace of warming, since methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It’s speculated that just such a vast belch (though not triggered by human activity, obviously) could have caused the “Permian extinction,” 251 million years ago, “that came close to wiping out life on earth.”

Well, if they do the movie (“Gaia on Gas-X”!) — or at least the South Park version — I have a brother who could singlehandedly provide the sound effects.

This provides me with the occasion for a rant that’s been building up in me — not unlike a giant burp, actually — for quite some time now. It is about the smug and self-congratulatory groupthink of conservatives, among whom the password for admission to the club is to knee-jerk pooh-pooh human-caused climate change. As in this post and comments at Sisu (a blog I love and learn from, by the way), this often takes the form of congratulating themselves all around on how superior they are to the alarmist, anti-progress (read anti-business), human-hating groupthink of liberals and their pet scientists.

Conservatives of course also have their pet scientists. If far fewer in number than those who express alarm about the consequences of uninhibited carbon emissions, those scientists have provided valuable balance: they have reminded us that climate fluctuates through cycles anyway, that we might have been headed for a sudden global cooling event that global warming has actually saved us from, etc.


Precisely because climate is such a vast and delicate and powerful phenomenon, with multifactorial interactions of a complexity far beyond our mapping abilities, and with unknown yet catastrophic tipping points, to be heedlessly meddling with this system on an enormous scale, and hoping for the best, is nothing short of insane. Because the effects are so unpredictable, panic and apocalyptic scenarios may well be excessive. Prudence surely, surely, is not. One can only conclude that those who favor going full steam ahead on our current reckless course either a) care about their profits but not about their grandchildren; b) figure their grandchildren will be among the very rich who can afford to dodge the consequences, and in the words of a famous joke about Carter, Nixon, and JFK on the Titanic, “F*ck the people”; or c) figure Jesus is coming back so it doesn’t matter.

Or, actually, there’s a d), which Sissy has identified as “the importance of being noticed”: scoffing at environmental concerns is simply part of one’s conservative bona fides, the way to be accepted by one’s cool crowd of choice. A conservative once confessed to me, in deepest confidence, that she or he . . . recycled, with the warning that if this ever got out, s/he would be ruined. It’s ironic that the word “conservative” comes from the same root as “conservation,” and implies the conserving of commons and resources as well as of values and traditions. Recycling as presently practiced may be of dubious economic value in many places, more a symbolic action than an efficient one, yet it is a personal discipline of conserving, of not wasting, and as such cultivates an awareness and a willingness that could be harnessed for many worthy “conservative” ends.

As blind and reckless as is the sexual libertinism of the left, so is the environmental libertinism of the right. Both disregard the delicate balance of life. Both will reap the . . .

Now if only I could end this with a sound file of a big, wet belch.

UPDATE: For the record, a correction: Sissy Willis of Sisu is not a conservative, but a “Darwinian libertarian.” (A designation on which Jack Whelan, a postmodern faith-based progressive, paints a villain’s mustache, by the way.) While those who accuse scientists of an almost religious dogmatism are usually referring to their “faith” in the theory of evolution and their closed-mindedness towards Intelligent Design, Sissy embraces the theory of evolution, accuses most scientists of an almost religious dogmatism (and heretic-persecution) on climate change, and finds an equivalence between Global Warming and Intelligent Design as politically-driven pseudoscience!! In a comment on this post at Sisu I called this “strange headfellows.” You could also call it “original thinking,” or quote Emerson and say “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

A commenter on Sisu links to this L.A. Times Op-Ed by Jonah Goldberg which well represents the conservative and libertarian dissent from global-warming orthodoxy. It’s utterly fascinating to me that this point of view is, indeed, “Darwinian,” coming from people (at least on the conservative side) who have a major beef with Darwin. How do they reconcile their muscular willingness to play rough in the game of evolution, to be part of the high-stakes brawl of a constantly changing nature (see my comment on Sisu, copied below), with faith in a God who created all this, and supposedly created the human species with special love? Because one of the stakes in the game of evolution, as played headlong and let the chips fall where they may, is human extinction. From a Darwinian point of view there’s nothing special or teleological about Us. We could and probably will die out, or kill ourselves off, and be replaced by other, perhaps more intelligent species. How the hell do they reconcile this? By saying God made a special home for us in heaven when we’re finished with the earth? Will we meet the dinosaur and the dodo there, or is it just for us? Come on.

Here’s my comment, trying to describe the point of view that says human-caused climate change is just another move in the great game of nature:

There’s certainly a sense in which you could see the “explosions” of human population and technology as a sort of slow-motion volcanic eruption, bringing much of the energy and chemistry of long-dead plants long-locked-up as fossil fuels into the atmosphere. As such it is only another one of the cycles of nature. No catastrophe, short of falling into the sun, is “unrecoverable” for life on earth. From this point of view, both the great blessings and the great sufferings that have been and will be caused by our teen-age-driver careering-around with technology, and a brain too powerful for its driver, are simply another one of nature’s adventures. We as a species may or may not survive. Those who do will be different; like the animals at Chernobyl, they may be radiation-resistant. Assuming this Nietzschean-Olympian-Darwinian point of view, we do not identify with our own local and temporary species [as it is now] but with the ruthless joy of the sovereign spirit of destruction and recreation, moving ever on. As Kafka wrote, “There is infinite hope, but not for us.”

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