Saturday, April 10, 2010

Magical climate thinking

One reason why so many greens put so much faith in cap-and-trade is the belief that once the price of carbon is set appropriately, this will create incentives that will inevitably push scientists and inventors to come up with solutions to our energy needs. Several things can be said about this touching dual faith in markets and technology.

First, this claim is based on a discredited supply side economics view of invention. Just because there is an economic incentive to invent something, doesn't mean that inventing it is technically or physically possible, or even if it is invented, that other barriers to deployment won't arise. An analogy should make the point clear: vast economic incentives exist to invent pills that would cure alcoholism or drug addiction, and indeed much snake oil gets peddled claiming to provide such benefits. You may have noticed, however, that substance abuse doesn't seem to have disappeared from our society. Given the addiction of modern civilization to cheap energy, the parallel ought to be unnerving to anyone who believes that technology will pull our the climate rabbit out of the fossil fuel hat.

Second, the hopes that many greens place in a technological deus ex machina is an expression of faith in the old high modernist verities every bit as profound - and every bit as rational - as Augustine's faith in Christ. Very telling in this respect is the totemic way in which the Manhattan Project, the ultimate high modernist technological triumph, is regularly invoked as a supposed model for developing breakthrough Green technologies, despite the radical differences between building a weapon and remaking the entire global energy system. In truth, the belief in a technological fix to the climate solution is the ultimate form of high modernist magical thinking. It's no coincidence that the phrase "technological fix" was invented in the early 1960s, the heyday of modernization theory, by Alvin Weinberg, a nuclear physicist and chief administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory from the Manhattan Project period through the 1980s. (See Weinberg's essay "Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?" [1966].) Weinberg claimed that nuclear power would create limitless energy, allowing age-old social problems to be overcome while minimizing political conflict over distributional issues - an argument that should feel uncannily familiar to all those who believe that technological breakthroughs will allow the climate crisis to be overcome without fundamental political conflict.

Update: Here's Steve Chu artfully backpedaling from the idea of a green Manhattan Project.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The second great tragedy in life

This story drives home a point I've been making for quite some time:

The right is acting like the left did in the early 1970s. In both cases, it's the aftermath of having had a President who achieved virtually all the party's maximalist goals and, as a result, is widely perceived to have ruined the country. What do you do when it turns out that your cherished goals actually hosed the country? While some people (the moderates) beg for moderation and/or ditch the party, others (the radicals) double down and say that the Dear Leader didn't go anywhere near far enough and, further, that the moderates in their party were a big part of the problem anyway. Also, in both cases, the succeeding president (Nixon, Obama) is anathema to everything that the former ruling party, both its moderates and radicals, believe in, which only exacerbates the ire and craziness.

The result is an intra-party circular firing squad, threats and actual instances of violence, and all in all an unseemly spectacle that alienates the mainstream of the country.

Why modernization theory never dies

How many times does chapter 7 of this book need to be written: “Theories That Won’t Pass Away: The Never-Ending Story of Modernization Theory.”

After going through the usual suspects of modernization theory (Lerner, Shils, etc.), and pointing out all the internal contraditions and tensions, Wolfgang Knobl concludes out that modernization is a pretty lousy theory in terms of explanatory power, and is probably better thought of as a series of modernization "discourses" rather than as a "theory" at all.

But this leaves us with a paradox, he notes: "Why will the theory not die despite all its weaknesses and failures? [This] endurance is based on the fact that the term 'modernization' as well as the related term 'modernity' has a strange kind of (normative) attraction for all those — politicians or intellectuals — debating the contours of contemporary and future societies...." (p. 105).

This is correct, but it begs the question: what is the nature and source of that "strange kind of (normative) attraction"? In other words, what is the normative appeal of something positively misleading? For this, I think one must resort to explanations that are ultimately psychological:
  • Implicit in (and central to) modernization theory is a just-so story about our own civilizational superiority, and more important, our civilization finality — nothing will ever supersede "us." We are the ultimate, final perfected incarnation of mankind’s historical development. This is a deeply self-flattering idea.
  • The theory provides a neat (overly neat) closure to a lot of messiness, and so appeals to a desire for cleanliness, parsimony, clarity, and other Protestant psychic virtues.
  • The underlying historical metanarrative of modernization puts a happy gloss on various ecological and cultural losses and destruction caused by industrial and commercial civilization that might otherwise be hard to stomach. All these losses are in the name of a worthwhile higher goal, namely the completion of mankind’s historical perfection. It thus appeals to our sense of moral purpose.
  • It implies that “all good things go together” and that losers in the process can either be paid off or considered a worthwhile price in the process. The implication is that no ultimately painful choices need to be made. As anyone who's ever had a destructive habit they didn't want to break (quite yet) knows, this idea is also extremely psychologically appealing in an Augustinian manner.
  • It suggests that antinomian movements (from Marxism to Al Qaeda) that resist this narrative and lament the losses or object to the direction of change are fated no matter what to lose their struggle against. It thus provide confidence in long and painful political-historical struggles.
There are probably additional reasons why modernization theory continues to survive despite its manifest failures as an explanatory tool, but these are certainly among the central appeals of the theory. If you have other ideas, please note them in the comments.