Often, for some reason, when you want to make a simple point, before you know it it mushrooms into something much bigger. Like in this case, blasphemy. All I started out with was the notion that if we put a dollar value on something like an Arctic melt, or the extinction of species, we are making fundamental mistakes. Which invariably show in the way we reach the conclusions, presented as "scientific", that make us put such values on potential or already final events.
It may be getting increasingly hard to accept in our present worldview, but it's still true that not everything can be expressed in dollar terms. We may still find this to be obvious when we talk about losing our loved ones, our children, but other than that, there are hardly any questions raised when some individual or institution reports a $100 billion price tag for the loss of the bumble bee, or, the example that led me here, that a sudden Arctic "methane belch" could cost $60 trillion.
These reports come with such regularity these days that we have come to see them as normal. In reality what they depict is our loss of values, and a tendency towards moral bankruptcy. The problem in all this is that as long as we keep expressing the damage done by climate change, pollution or extinction in dollar terms, we have no chance of turning any of it around. Putting a dollar value on our very own destruction of our very own and sole habitat (which we share with all other species) carries with it an unspoken suggestion that there also must be a dollar value price tag we can put on halting the destruction, as well as undoing and repairing it. Which is, just like the original claim that an arctic melt would cost $60 trillion, the peak of absurdity.
But still, for 99% of people who read a headline with such numbers, their first reaction will be: that's a lot of money. If you are one of those people, you have some thinking to do. It makes no difference whatsoever what the financial cost is of an animal going extinct, or half the arctic melting. The fact that we increasingly tend to describe destruction in monetary terms is precisely why it will continue, since if a dollar value is all you have left, you might as well have no values.
What makes discussing these things blasphemous is that while you can't escape a critical look at how capitalism functions, in our world capitalism has taken on the role and characteristics of a religion, which typically rejects critical looks. You're not supposed to question it, and if you do anyway, before you know it you get to be Galileo. In the case of capitalism, if you dare criticize the prevailing system, you are a communist or a socialist. And like Galileo, a heretic.
From where I'm sitting, all the isms through history have led to the same result: a ruling elite and gagged masses. Most forms of Marxism promise those masses a voice in how their societies are structured, but few if any deliver. Our capitalistic societies call themselves democratic, but doubts about that are self-evident. When you only get to choose between options that are pre-selected by ruling classes, that's at best democracy between huge and thick brackets. Point in case: the masses don't tend to opt for a choice of rapidly increasing income inequality (which leaves them poorer), but it is what we experience. In short, capitalism leads where all other isms lead. People may claim that it's the least worst option, but that remains to be seen. Let it run its course, and then perhaps we can judge.
In any case, the pseudo science that comes up with the numbers mentioned above badly needs to be called to task and revealed for what it really is. So let's give it a shot.
Here's an article in New Scientist last week:
A sudden methane burp in the Arctic could set the world back a colossal $60 trillion. Billions of tonnes of the greenhouse gas methane are trapped just below the surface of the East Siberian Arctic shelf. Melting means the area is poised to deliver a giant gaseous belch at any moment – one that could bring global warming forward 35 years and cost the equivalent of almost a year's global GDP.
These are the conclusions of the first systematic analysis of the economic cost of Arctic melting, which delivers a sobering antidote to other, more upbeat assessments that say melting in this area would improve access to minerals on the ocean bed, increase fishing and create ice-free shipping lanes.
Previous work has estimated that more than a trillion tonnes of methane lie under the shelf, trapped inside lattices of ice known as hydrates, at depths as shallow as 20 metres. Concern about a possible eruption has grown since 2010, when research cruises over the shelf by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, both now at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, found plumes of methane as much as a kilometre wide bubbling to the surface.
The pair calculated that a release of 50 billion tonnes would be possible within a decade, through known areas of melting and geological faults. Since methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, such a scenario would trigger a "climate catastrophe", they say, increasing the methane content of the planet's atmosphere twelve-fold, and raising temperatures by 1.3C.
Now, environmental economist Chris Hope and Arctic Ocean specialist Peter Wadhams, both at the University of Cambridge, together with climate policy analyst Gail Whiteman of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, have analysed the likely consequences of such a release occurring between 2015 and 2025. They did so by adding the extra emissions to an existing model used in the UK government's 2006 Stern Review, designed to assess the economic cost of coping with climate change between now and 2200.
There's so much wrong with this, where to begin? For starters, an environmental economist is not a scientist, since no economist is. Math and physics are sciences, since they deal in formulas and laws that can pass the fallibilty test. Economics deals with human behavior, which we don't know nearly enough about to formulate any such laws. The fact that papers like Nature and New Scientist publish this stuff anyway just goes to show where these publications have been heading for a while.
The entire piece is based on guesswork only, and that's not exactly scientific. To wit, the inevitable rebuttal in Live Science is just as credible:
A scientific controversy erupted this week over claims that methane trapped beneath the Arctic Ocean could suddenly escape, releasing huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas, in coming decades, with a huge cost to the global economy.
The issue being debated is this: Could the Arctic seafloor really fart out 50 billion tons of methane in the next few decades? In a commentary published in the journal Nature on Wednesday (July 24), researchers predicted that the rapid shrinking of Arctic sea ice would warm the Arctic Ocean, thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea and releasing methane gas trapped in the sediments. The big methane belch would come with a $60 trillion price tag, due to intensified global warming from the added methane in the atmosphere, the authors said.
But climate scientists and experts on methane hydrates, the compound that contains the methane, quickly shot down the methane-release scenario. "The paper says that their scenario is 'likely.' I strongly disagree," said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
But I don't intend to get into such controversies; they just keep our eyes off the ball. Environmentalism tends towards too many of the faults of all isms already. We know that human activity, burning fossil fuels, and the use of energy in general, tends to raise CO2 levels, and we know that higher CO2 levels tend to raise temperatures, but that's about it. We're dealing with systems that exhibit such elevated complexity, we should be very careful about drawing conclusions. Far too many people blame a local heatwave or flood on climate change that may well be simple fluctuations in existing models, and that's just as counterproductive as denying the whole mechanism to begin with (that we raise CO2 levels and they, over time, tend to raise temperatures). We should all stick to science, to what we can prove, not what we wish to believe.
But that was not my point. I wanted to address a different fallacy: that of trying to put dollar values on – sections of – our destruction of the world we inhabit. Capitalism tends to express everything in dollars, and that's where it fails: it has no other values, and therefore might as well have none. If we convince ourselves to believe that the demise of the polar bear or the bumble bee or, for that matter, half the population of Bangla Desh, can be expressed in numbers or dollars, we lose all hope of understanding the issues involved, let alone doing anything to counter them.
Nor is that $60 trillion number the only one that's floating around. The Christian Science Monitor has this:
Research on threats to harp seals joins surging attention to the effects that melting in the Arctic will have not only on the wildlife there but on the entire planet. This week, a team of researchers found that, by 2030, the release of methane gas from just the melting Arctic ice is likely to accelerate the rise in temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. That increase in temperatures would cost the world some $60 trillion in damages – a sum almost as large as the size of the entire global economy last year, which measured about $70 trillion. That number tacks on an additional cost of about 15% to the already $450 trillion that global warming is expected to cost the world.
Now people start to do the math in their heads: If we pay it off over a period of 10 years, or 20, or 100, 200, it doesn't look so bad, does it? The worst case scenario from that point of view is we could go temporarily bankrupt. But that's not very likely either, because our economists and central bankers seem to have found the solution to that: just watch the economy flourish in the wake of the banking crisis.
The problem is that while such discussions continue, the destruction continues too, and aggravates unabated. Which more pseudo scientists can then do more pseudo modeling for. None of it leads us anywhere but down. We need to take the discussion away from this nonsense, and put it on less shaky ground than blunt denial or fantasy number games. We don't even need to wonder what an environmental economist bases his figures on – though that could be pretty revealing -; we should figure out how people can even consider going this route. And that inevitably brings us back to religion.
A few quotes from finance journalist Cynthia Freeland's book "Plutocrats" put it into a clearer perspective. She cites Matthew Bishop, co-author of a book named "Philantro Capitalism", on the topic of people like Bill Gates, who "re-invent" philantropism (he labeled it “creative capitalism"), presenting what should at the very least raise serious questions, as something unequivocably positive:
"… in each era going back to the Middle Ages, the entrepreneurs have been among the people leading the response to the destruction caused by the economic processes that made them rich."
To my amazement, and I kid you not, both Freeland and Bishop leave no doubt that they find this a good thing. Which makes me think they must be either poor readers or religious zealots.
You saw it in the Middle Ages, you saw it with the Victorians, you saw it with Carnegie and Rockefeller. What is different is the scale. Business is global and so they are focusing on global problems. They are much more focused on how do they achieve a massive impact.
You see? It all tends towards the same theme: putting a dollar value on the destruction that made them rich. And then pay it off. And there's no way they would stop there either:
Marx famously observed that early generations of philosophers has sought to describe the world; he wanted to change it. Gates and his plutocratic peers are having a similarly dramatic impact on the world of charity. They don't want to fund the social sector, they want to transform it.
One example is their impact on education in America. With their focus on measurable results, Gates and his fellow education-focused billionaires have spearheaded a data-driven revolution. The first step was to put tests at the center of education, so that the output – student learning – could be measured.
The next step is to try to make the job of teaching more data -and incentive – driven. As Gates said in a speech in November 2010, "We have to figure out what makes the great teacher great." That effort includes videotaping teachers in the classroom and paying them based on how they perform".
Anyone thinking that what Gates' education efforts are aiming for is for people to learn NOT to do what he did to get rich? Yeah, me neither. All I can think is this guy is dangerous, like so many self-appointed high priests of so many religions are. I know his foundation saves some babies' lives in Africa, but does that balance out this megalomania? There's still more:
Strikingly, the ambition of the philantro-capitalists doesn't stop at transforming how charity works. They want to change how the state operates, too. These are men who have built their businesses by achieving the maximum impact with the minimum effort – either as financiers using leverage or as technologists using scale. They think of their charitable dollars in the same way. "our foundation tends to fund more of the up-front discovery work, and we're a partner in delivery, but governmental funding is the biggest," Gates told students at MIT on a visit there in April 2010."
If I may summarize: We should all want our children to emulate Bill Gates, so they will learn how to destroy things first and then pay off their guilt about it, preferably by buying up government influence. And feel good about it! Like they're the most worthy citizens of the earth that history has ever seen. If everything in our lives can be data-drivenly expressed in dollars, then Bill Gates must of necessity be right about all he says and does, because he has more dollars then just about anyone else.
It's hard to believe people allow their minds to go there (and still claim they love their children). Fortunately, just as I was starting to get really depressed about this, I read something that gave me back at least a glimmer of hope.
A July 11 interview in the Guardian paints a portrait of Doug Tompkins, a rich man by just about everyone's standards with the possible exception of Bill Gates. Tompkins, a good friend of Steve Jobs, clashed with the latter on issues that are very similar to those raised by Bill Gates' words. Tompkins became rich through the sale of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands, got out decades ago, and directs his efforts in different ways. He looks the much saner man.
It has become something of a mantra within the sustainability movement that innovations in technology can save the world. But rather than liberating us, Doug Tompkins, the cofounder of retail brands The North Face and Esprit, believes technology has enslaved us and is destroying the very health of the planet on which all species depend. Tompkins, 70 has used his enormous wealth from selling both companies to preserve more land than any other individual in history, spending more than £200m buying over two million acres of wilderness in Argentina and Chile.
He challenges the view that technology is extending democracy, arguing that it is concentrating even more power in the hands of a tiny elite. What troubles him the most is that the very social and environmental movements that should be challenging the destructive nature of mega-technologies, have instead fallen under their spell.
"We have been poor on doing the systemic analysis and especially in the area of technology criticism," says Tompkins [..] "Until we get better at that, I think we're cooked, we're going to continue to extinct species and we're going to continue to dig the hole deeper of the whole eco-social crisis.
Tompkins [and] his wife Kris, the former CEO of the outdoor clothing and equipment company Patagonia [..] have been instrumental in creating two huge nature reserves and are in the process of creating another one in the South American region of Patagonia, despite opposition within Latin America [..]
[..] ..they also fund numerous small activist NGOs, arguing that more established organisations such as WWF and Greenpeace have become too closely enmeshed with corporations. "When WWF started out, they were doing some good stuff," says Tompkins. "Now, they're burning up money like crazy and they don't really get too much done. "
Tompkins derides those who pin their hopes on technological developments in areas such as wind, solar and nuclear as coming from the smart resource management school, saying they fail to understand that this will not address the core issue, which is that capitalism is addicted to growth.
"Resource efficiency is the wrong metric," he says. "We should use nature as the measure, using nature's wisdom as a template for our economic systems."
"Capitalism doesn't function when it starts to contract and we can see that quite clearly right here in the eurozone. It's like pushing a giant monster underwater that's gasping for air. It goes nuts. Capitalism may have all sorts of things that are good, but ultimately it's bad for everyone."
He believes most sustainability practitioners have made the mistake of spending their time creating strategies and projects, without taking the time to gain a deep understanding of how we got into a mess in the first place. As a result, they may end up doing more harm than good. "As we get sucked more and more into the technosphere, we become less and less capable of understanding it because it becomes a technological milieu that we're in," he warns.
"If you extinct all the biodiversity and we end up living on a sandheap with a Norwegian rat and some cockroaches, that doesn't have too much logic to it. That would show that our behaviour as a civilization today is to the pathological. But, if you make a systemic analysis, that's exactly where we're going."
Tompkins recalls the Apple advertising campaign that highlighted the 1,001 great things that the PC was going to give to us and would tell Jobs that these represented a mere 5% of what the computer did while the other 95% was all negative and exacerbating the biodiversity crisis.
"He'd get mad at me when I'd tell him that," says Tompkins. "He was locked into a view that these technologies were going to bring all these good things. But that's typical of the purveyors of new technology. They're selling their product and their idea, and their prestige, their power and their influence. Their self-esteem is wrapped up in that. It's impossible for them to see it or to admit it, you see? Because, it pulls the rug out from underneath their purpose, especially when it's attached to a moral purpose."
Tompkins foresees a dark future dominated as he puts it by more ugliness, damaged landscapes, extinct species, extreme poverty, and lack of equity and says humanity faces a stark choice; either to transition now to a different system or face a painful collapse.
"Of course I'd prefer the transition, because a crash will be highly unpredictable," he says. "It could exacerbate something terrible."
"The extinction crisis is the mother of all crises. There will be no society, there will be no economy, there will be no art and culture on a dead planet basically. We've stopped evolution."
Now we're getting somewhere. Capitalism has nice traits, but it also has a built-in self-destruction mechanism: the demand for never ending growth. And that wouldn't be so bad, if that mechanism didn't also spell destruction for much of the planet is has been unleashed on. Spearheading education systems towards producing more Bill Gates clones in a sorcerer's apprentice fashion is definitely not the answer. Gates would do the world a lot more good if the curriculum were based on the exact opposite. But then, he just goes to proof that you don't have to be smart in a wider, "uomo universalis" kind of way, in order to get rich. In fact, you're more likely to succeed in that if your view is narrow.
The entire notion of being data-driven turns a society, bit by bit, into one that is controlled by numbers such at the $60 trillion or $450 trillion ones "calculated" for climate change damage, based on hollow guesswork derived from fake science that is devoid of any actual meaning. When Doug Tompkins says: "We have been poor on doing the systemic analysis and especially in the area of technology criticism", he advocates the opposite of what Bill Gates does, who would rather see only people just like himself, since he thinks he is a really great specimen. If you count the value of a human being in dollars, that may make sense, but it also leads to counting the value of everything else in dollars. And that's where the logic stops. Because you simply can't.
"Capitalism doesn't function when it starts to contract", as Tompkins puts it, is not even so much contested as it is flatly denied these days: every crisis is seen as but a springboard to the next high. To the true believers, a crisis is a sign that the system functions, and any contraction can only be temporary. But we can destroy, and we're actively doing it as we speak, more than we can rebuild, and that has nothing to do with how much money we have or how many technological advances we can yet produce.
We simply can't express our feelings, our love, our grief, our hope, in data or numbers. And no-one, not even Bill Gates, would dream of that. Techno-dreams involve robots that develop human features, like consciousness, grief and love, not humans developing into robots.
Capitalism, technology and the eternal progress they promise form a belief system increasingly built around the justification of the destruction we unleash on our world. And we need to question that belief.
Then again, I don't agree with Doug Tompkins that we have stopped evolution. Evolution, which is another word for life itself, is a force much grander than mankind. We are but an afterthought in the scheme of evolution. And if we don't fit that scheme, we will end up as just another one in a multi-billion years' series of billions of failed species. If we wish for our progeny to survive, we need to focus our efforts on understanding, not ignoring it. We are not bigger than life itself. At least that we should be able to agree on.
Photo top: Russell Lee The Law of God February 1939
"Child of migrant sitting by kitchen cabinet in tent home near Edinburg, Texas."