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.