Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thomas Homer-Dixon on Climate Change

Canadian political science wrote yesterday in the NYT about preparing for global climate change in his article "Disaster at the Top of the World". In his last two books, Homer-Dixon has ventured forth from the cloister of academia to travel to places where change and challenges are occurring (without, I might note, diminishing the intellectual component of his work). In this article, he's traveling in the Arctic and finding open sea instead of the vast expanse of ice that used to be there not long ago. Homer-Dixon, like many others, seems to have arrived at the conclusion that we won't do anything about climate change until a very stark, undeniable catastrophe arises (Pakistani & Chinese floods, Russian forest fires, and the like just don't cut it in U.S. politics—ask the U.S. Senate). Homer-Dixon therefore argues that we'd better prepare ourselves to respond to catastrophes, such as insufficient water in the American South. He argues that "protective cognition", manipulated by powerful (economic) interests invested in the status quo, has prevented us from acting so far. However, while I agree with Homer-Dixon that such catastrophe planning needed, the same myopic outlook will probably prevent any action in preparation, just as this myopia has discouraged us from directly addressing the causes of climate change.

One other comment on climate change: we're going to have to change a great deal as a society. I, for one, admit that I'm dependent on my car way too much of the time. However, until we offer alternatives, governed by market pricing, we won' see real change. We don't really pay for the energy we use: we off-load most of the cost into the environment and on to future generations, only "future generations" has come to mean now. Homer-Dixon has thought a great deal about all of this, and he deserves our careful consideration.

David Brooks on Mental Courage

David Brooks in the NYT today, "A Case of Mental Courage", once again uses contemporary cognitive science, mixed with older ideas of character, to ask us to step away from our tendency to have great faith in our personal opinions. In contemporary terms, he asks us to use "metacognition". Be forewarned, Brooks relates a horrific tale at the beginning of the piece to demonstrate the commitment to truth and honesty held by at least some of our forbearers. His point, properly tempered by reference to what's good in our contemporary culture, is valid, especially in politics (and one might add about any other field of human knowledge). Compare this article, by the way, with my recent cites to Lerner & Thaler. Also, note how his line of thinking melds into virtue ethics (see Haidt "The New Science of Morality", which deserves its own post), as well as Buddhist and ancient Western thought (Stoics, Epicureans, and early Christian ascetics). Some gold there.