The Teddy Bears Of Climate Change

Image credit : caroleb @ sxc.huHumanity is like a careless child dancing on the lip of an active volcano crater. Also on the scene is a massive asteroid that’s blazing through the sky, heading straight at the kid. And the air is filled with bloodthirsty robotic vampire bats. Which are on fire.

And we’re skipping merrily along the edge, safe in the knowledge that our cuddly teddy-bear of “individual action” will make all the bad things go away.

This is the mental image I get when I think about our response(s) to problems like climate change and existential risk. On the one hand, we have this big impending catastrophe that can potentially cripple the entire civilization and wipe out untold numbers of species. On the other hand, we have various suggestions on how we can “save the planet”. Like, for example, buying energy-efficient lightbulbs or reusable shopping bags.

There are two main issues with these calls for “individual action”.

1. Assuming Total Cooperation

Many of the articles and even scientific papers that advocate specific ways to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle usually contain a typical statement that goes something like this : “If everybody chose to do X then the amount of [carbon emissions/wasted electricity/hungry puppies] would be decreased by [a huge number]!”

The key word here is “everybody”. It is completely unrealistic to assume that everyone will willingly embrace a lifestyle change that demands a personal sacrifice (which is almost always required for anything environment-related). Four words : Tragedy of the Commons. So most changes proposed in the above manner give people unreasonable expectations about their efficacy because the expected payoff, the impressive number of saved kilowatts or fed mouths is unachievable in the real world.

Of course, you could argue that even small contributions help. That’s certainly a fair point, but when the problem in question is something like climate change and involves critical tipping points and feedback loops, a half-assed effort just isn’t good enough to avoid falling over the edge. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the commons ensures that half-assed is the only voluntary effort our society is capable of.

2. Warm and Fuzzy and Insignificant

Individual action is great for making people feel good, making them feel they’re doing their part and making a difference. Buying “green” stuff also serves as an excellent status symbol and provides a way to show off your selfless nature and environmental awareness (bought a horribly expensive plugin-in hybrid? Wow, you’re the best hero of everything forever!). However, we tend to clinically overestimate the global impact of actions that have “close and personal” effects on us.

As this slightly crazy article illustrates, individual humans only account for a tiny percentage of carbon emissions and other kinds of waste. Most of the negative environmental impact is caused by industrial sources. So even if you somehow manage to do the impossible and convince everyone to live as sustainably possible it will only lead to relatively small direct benefits.

Again, one might claim that if a lot of people go green and “vote with their wallets” then all the big companies will be forced to adopt greener practices. This may actually be a more effective strategy/argument than simply trying to save the planet directly by reducing your own emissions, but I’m still not convinced it’s possible to get a sufficient number of people to do it to have the required impact.

In Favor of Overkill

So what is one to do in this lamentable situation? It’s unrealistic to expect that humanity will carry out the current (comparatively mild) recommendations of our climate scientists in time. The governments will just dawdle around and implement a bunch of half-assed “compromises” that please voters but fail to prevent a catastrophe. Personally, I’m in favor of skipping that step and going straight to the radical, high-risk/high-payoff, long-term strategies :

  • Geoengineering. I’m not advocating deploying something like stratospheric sulfur aerosols right away, but I think more resources should be allocated to the relevant fields research so that we have ready-to-go geonengineering solutions available when the need arises.
  • Nanotechnology – sufficiently advanced nanotech (and molecular manufacturing in particular) has the potential to be one of those “solve everything” technologies. It could virtually eliminate material scarcity and make pretty much any technological process more efficient, thus drastically reducing environmental impact. Well, aside the rogue nanoparticle pollutants that can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and kill you. A minor inconvenience.
  • Artificial Intelligence – unable to solve the environmental challenges on your own? Make something that thinks smarter and faster than any human! Hell, if Vinge’s predicted timescale is correct then we needn’t worry about climate change at all – the post-Singularity humanity of 2030 would probably find the environmental challenges trivial (so I worry about runaway AI’s instead).
  • Space travel – if all else fails we could just run away.

This concludes my first-ever rant on climate change (well, except that one time). Next up : why gay marriage is a human right, the benefits of Linux vs. Windows, and a discussion of the most widespread political movements 😉

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