Thursday, January 18, 2007

The problem with fear

It often comes up in arguments about global warming, Y2k bugs and nuclear armageddon. People feel vindicated in sending and propagating alarmist arguments, whether or not the aftermath ends up completely benign or not. For the Y2k bug for instance, people who wildly exaggerated the dangers felt that it turned out well at least in part because fear focused peoples minds to fixing the problems. I will argue right here and now that widespread fear is neither sufficient nor necessary to "fix" global warming (I'm using the word fix loosely, to indicate the avoidance of civilisation threatening disaster). The example I am going to use is Easter Island and the emptying of the Aral sea. These are the kind of situations we are trying to avoid with the Earth in a sense. There was very likely widespread fear in both of these cases. The math/science was not very hard to work out and well within the grasp of the citizens involved. The problem on Easter Island was in one sense statutory - given the location of the island, human nature, and the technologies and cultures they had at the time, the island was doomed from when the first settlement took place. The problem is easily described in game theory as the "tragedy of the commons", and the various "fixes" are completely "structural" in nature. They generally involve some kind of "ownership" of the common resource (ownership leads to good stewardship by correctly valuing it), and a central arbitration of competing interests on the resource. In other words if applied to global warming, the Kyoto protocol, carbon trading, and the continuing measurement and tracking of all the variables is vital and probably sufficient if it doesn't completely break down in acrimony. The continuing risk is both cheaters, and a lack of central authority which may enforce aspects in the future. Fear, as it stands may not even be helpful, as it breeds mistrust of any future central arbitrer.

4 comments:

Dr. Clam said...

I have put forward my thesis before that all this fear-mongering is a Boomer plot so they can hang on to the 'eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die' decadence of the late unlamented 20th century.

Parenthetically, you still seem to be suggesting that we do something about anthropogenic global warming. Maybe I should re-read your earlier posts on the subject. I am still of the opinion that the optimal response to global warming by our generation is to ignore it completely.

Marco said...

I am mainly using a "rambling" style argument similar to the Freakonomics text. I am framing my arguments discrediting perceived truths. It is hard to convince a generation to "ignore" an issue which others are successfully fearmongering about. My spin now is that we need to realise that the very things we should fear the most are made more dangerous with widespread fear. It is exceedingly important in this regard to look at the whole system and its structure. To convince people that something should be ignored, the Boomer plot must be busted, and fearmongering must be discredited for all "dangers" of this type. I assume by ignore you mean assuming little future indication of civilisation threatening disaster. At this stage, no civilisation threatening disaster "looms", but it would be nice to have some structures in place for if that happens in the future. Nothing else really matters that much to me. It would be much nicer if our generation could ignore AGW, but it seems incapable. All the "feel good" measures people take thinking it makes a difference is their own problem.

Dr. Clam said...

Hmm, just thinking, I'll have to put in an order for a 'Death to the Great Satan!' t-shirt for the next time I have to fly anywhere...

Dr. Clam said...

There was a good suggestion in the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald today- 'My Dad went to an Al-Qaida training camp and all I got was this lousy t-shirt' - whaddaya reckon?