Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Global Warming and Critical Thinking

I still watch The Real World even though I'm too old to be on the show. I like to think that watching helps me keep in touch with something that I can't be in touch with directly in my own life. After this season's shows, the cast has been doing these little 30-second spots about how we can save electricity (and the planet) by unplugging our cellphone chargers when we're not using them... and that kind of thing.

Saving the planet is really big right now among 18-27-year olds, it turns out. Everywhere I turn lately I hear them saying things like, "We just gotta get the message out, you know -- spread awareness" or, sometimes more urgently, "We need to fundamentally change the way we live."

I do not mean to question their earnestness -- in fact, I'm certain that all of this is well-meaning and generated by the best intentions. I admire the optimism and even aspire to this kind of active engagement.

However, I genuinely believe that this movement has relied on the sloppy and uncritical thinking that has almost been nurtured in this generation, and I think the evidence is growing. This website carries an interesting banner/headline-thing: "There's nothing wrong with a fourth grade understanding of science. If you're a fourth grader." On this part of that site, you can watch a clip from a segment put together by Penn and Teller of "magic" fame and of HBO's series, Bullshit. In the clip -- which can be enjoyed whether you're nervous about global warming or not -- Penn and Teller lay bare the problem with critical thinking that these young people seem to share.

I have written before about my suspicion of science and my desire to see a "Scientific Reformation" in which money would be removed from the field of science (never happen, I know). Might be worth revisiting.

To this day, I've never talked to a person who believes in the man-made global warming crisis who has been able to cite any specific reliable information as the reason for their belief. Instead, they've heard it all over the place, seen Al Gore's movie and, well, that's been good enough for them. (Apparently having numbers on the X and Y axis of your graphs is superflous these days, Mr. Gore?)

Now, none of this would be a problem if "fighting global warming" was harmless -- but I am increasingly convinced that our imbalanced drive to "conserve" natural resources and to clean up our environment is beginning to cause human poverty. Gas prices are only the most obvious culprit -- food prices have risen. Taxes are heavier. While America's upper-middle-class works to ban fossil fuels and to convince us that we should worry about offsetting our carbon footprint (buying indulgences, anyone!?), the rest of us are stuck with a price tag that is becoming increasingly unmanageable. Read even a little about malaria in Africa and the way that DDT would wipe out the disease altogether if only Rachel Carson's vision were not so influential.

I've used this scenario before, but it bears repeating: imagine that "scientists" discover next week that (somehow) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increases the health of the planet and its species -- after all, plants "breathe" CO2, and perhaps they could be spurred to grow better. Whatever. If that happened, and Al Gore got on the air and said, "We were wrong -- CO2 is a good thing. Keep those factories pumping. In fact, step it up a little bit!" -- If all of that happened, what do we think would happen to the contemporary environmentalist crowd? Would they agree to urge industry to Go Go Go gangbusters?

I have a suspicion they wouldn't, and it's because the global-warming crowd is fundamentally motivated by a dissatisfaction with capitalism, and they're using (more or less consciously) the "Green" movement as a means to an end (that is, to moderating or ending capitalism).

Don't misunderstand: that's a viable argument, and I'd like to talk about it -- capitalism does seem rough, and sometimes I think it only "works" for about 10% of the population. Maybe we should get another system where we can all dress up like big bird and dance more and never work for "the man." But as Penn and Teller point out, I wish that we could call a duck a duck and talk about what we're really talking about.

Oh, and because I know somebody's going to be a wise guy and tell me I don't have the facts to back all of this up and maybe I'm the one being uncritical.... well, no. I was going to provide a series of links just then questioning the "science" of global warming. But you're big kids now -- look it up yourself.

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