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21.1.06

Salvophilia

Jamais Cascio accuses James Lovelock of "apocaphilia" for his recent article claiming that it's too late to stop global warming. I found Lovelock's article overwrought and not properly pessimistic -- more an exasperated response to the lack of action thus far, and a smug warning that nature would indict us for our foolishness (Egalitarianism rather than Fatalism, to use Cultural Theory terms). But I think Cascio engages in the reverse sin, which we could call "salvophilia" -- the conviction that salvation is always possible, that it's never too late to turn around and avoid danger.

The problem with salvophilia is brought out nicely by this exchange in the comments to Casico's post. First, Pietro offers this scenario in defense of Lovelock:

You will agree that there is a time to act and a time after which acting would not help anymore. If you are on a car, going at 200 km an hour against a solid wall, when you are at 1 meter from the wall it is too late to turn, stop or jump out. The time to act was there, it has just passed.


Frank Shearar gives a typically salvophilic response:

Regarding this 200 km/h analogy, since we know so little about the Earth and its systems, perhaps the analogy might be more accurately described by covering the windscreen. We know we're careening towards a wall, we know that if we don't stop in time we're strawberry jam. So when do we start slamming on the brakes? As soon as we can, of course. Even if we're only 1m from the wall and it's too late, because we don't know it's too late.


There are a couple interesting things to note in Shearar's comment. First is the device of covering the windscreen. This goes farther even than most salvophilics to deny the possibility that knowledge of the future is possible. Pessimism, of course, depends on having an educated guess about what the future will bring, upon which to base the claim that salvation is impossible or at least exceedingly difficult and unlikely. But so does salvation. To save ourselves, we need to be able to predict the potential for disaster as well as the effects of whatever actions we propose to take. If our windscreen is covered, how do we know there's a wall in front of us, and how do we know that slamming on the brakes might save us (as opposed to, say, getting us fatally rear-ended by the tractor trailer behind us)?

But more importantly, salvophilia takes a too-narrow view of the costs and benefits associated with salvation. The choices are made too stark -- either the danger hits or we're saved. The magnitude of the danger is amplified, a la Pascal's wager, such that any finite investment in preventing it is worthwhile. The costs of such an investment are minimized -- after all, what are you really wasting by pushing the brake, even if it does turn out to be useless? At the same time, the possibility of coping is ruled out (note that apocophilia does this as well). A driver who figured that he'd either slam on the brakes successfully or die in a dramatic fireball would not, for example, bother buckling his seatbelt, or even shielding his face with his arms. Yet a proper pessimism is a call for just such coping strategies. It does not argue for doing nothing, as the salvophiles in Casico's post imply. Rather, it argues that given what we know about the likelihood of different scenarios and the difficulty associated with them, we'll ultimately be better off if we save our energy and resources to use for coping, rather than wasting them on a futile attempt to stave off the danger event.

My own assessment is that climate change is deserving of some non-apocophilic pessimism. The danger is real and great, but it is not the world-ending, human-race-ending, or even civilization-ending event that it's often made out to be (including by Lovelock). On the other hand, the options available to us in 2006 that would prevent serious climate change are too small or too difficult (politically and economically) to make much difference. The wise route, then, is to think about ways of coping with climate change.

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