On Conservatism and Global Warming

May 11, 2011

EarthI had a conversation a few days ago with a (liberal) friend of mine about conservatism and liberalism, liberty and tyranny, regulations, “entitlements”, and other things.  It was a good conversation, but she asked one question that got lost in the back-and-forth and I never answered:

What is the conservative answer to global warming?

It’s a good question.  I have some thoughts.  My answer can be divided into two parts. 

1 — Maybe the problem will work itself out.

Technologies come and go.  Right now, our whole economy very much depends on fossil fuels—we burn coal for electricity, we drive cars (and buy food and manufactured goods shipped over distances) fueled by gasoline, etc.—but it wasn’t always that way, and presumably it won’t always be that way.

I’m told that a hundred years ago, people worried that cities would get filthier and filthier with the excrement of the horses that were used for transportation.  Nowadays, we’ve forgotten all about that form of pollution; cars replaced horses, and solved the problem just like that.

Perhaps in a generation, cars will have been replaced by something we can’t now imagine, and our former worries about global warming will strike our children as quaint, even hilarious—from the point of view of the present, the past always looks inevitable.  (Perhaps we’ll even go back to worrying that the world is due for another ice age, as people did a few decades ago, before fears of global warming really took off.)

I said “maybe”.  I’m not saying that I’m sure that technologies will succeed each other fast enough before an accumulation of greenhouse gases causes permanent changes to the climate, but I am sure that
(a) liberals can’t be sure of the contrary,
and I’m sure that
(b) our economy currently depends on fossil fuels,
which means that
(c) the more the government interferes in the economy to restrict the use of fossil fuels, the more it will slow down that progression of technologies and so reduce the likelihood of the most likely solution to the problem it was trying to solve in the first place.

I also love liberty.  Given the limits of human knowledge, I don’t think it’s a good trade (knowably) to reduce liberty and hurt the economy (which is to say, destroy some Americans’ jobs and make Americans poorer) for the sake of (possibly) preventing some unknown fraction of damage to the environment.

2 — You could stop driving.

You may not believe that the problem will work itself out.  That’s fine.  I think you should do what you think right.  But you shouldn’t use the state’s monopoly on force to make me do what you think right.  How I live is my choice, not yours.

I used to go with my family to an annual conference of Quakers from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.  The Quakers are at least as environmentalist as the next guy, and sometimes they made it sound pretty apocalyptic—as if the world would be really ruined, and soon, if man didn’t stop pumping carbon into the air.

Then it struck me that if they really meant it, none of them should be there.  Here they were, telling me (telling anyone who would listen) that cars are some kind of environmental ticking time bomb—and yet they drove their cars (from a three-state area) to come to this conference every year.  Most of them drove their cars the rest of the year, too.

Sure, you answer, but they have to—they have to drive cars to get to work (which means, by the way, again, that to the extent that they use the government to make fossil fuels less legal or less economically feasible, they will be putting other people out of work as well).

But these are the Quakers—they’ve certainly been willing to be countercultural when they wanted to.  At least according to the stories they tell us growing up, Quakers used to be willing to go to jail, not only rather than fight in a war, not only rather than rat out an escaped slave, but even rather than doff their hat to the king (because of their understanding of the equality of persons).  They also retain their tradition of “living simply” as a cultural value, or at least as part of their identity.  They could buy up rural land, learn to farm, and form intentional communities living by subsistence farming—not using electricity, not driving cars, totally “off the grid”.  (Maybe that’s not possible in all countries, but America is a pretty free country, and there’s a lot of land.)  If there’s any group of liberals who could do it, surely the Quakers could.

Indeed, the Amish already do, and I was surprised to learn that they’re doing great—according to a newspaper article I happened to see last summer, the Amish have an average of five children per couple; about 20% of Amish children decide to leave the community and join the modern world when they grow up—which sounds huge—but that leaves an average of four children per couple, meaning that their population roughly doubles every generation.  The article reported that Amish scouting parties were exploring other states, areas the Amish have never farmed before, for their booming communities to expand into.  (The same week I saw that article, I also went to a few days of that annual Quaker conference, where a Quaker elder happened to say, What’s the difference between us and the Amish?  He answered his own question:  They double their population every twenty years; we halve ours every fifty.)

But the Quakers don’t.  Despite their tradition of “simplicity”, to a significant extent, they live comfortable, middle-class lives, just like the rest of us.  So do the rest of the liberals.  Again, I think that’s fine—it’s their choice—but I don’t think they can have it both ways.  If the planet really can’t take it, then stop driving (and stop taking advantage of the rest of the benefits of a modern, fossil-fueled economy)—you really could if you wanted.

Otherwise, stop trying to use the government to drag the rest of us down.

12 Responses to “On Conservatism and Global Warming”

  1. Snoodickle Says:

    Solution # 2 will not work, people are addicted to cars, so your solution is do nothing and hope that problem works itself out?

  2. Snoodickle Says:

    Also, I strongly disagree with your assertion that restricting the use of fossil fuels will slow down the progression of other technologies. This is an extremely abstract proposition (which you are sometimes fond of), and I’m not sure how it makes sense.

    If the government tomorrow were to prohibit gasoline powered cars, I guarantee you that the car companies, and the fuel companies, would all race to develop alternative technologies to keep their companies viable. Far from slowing down the progression of alternative technologies, it would speed it up. Companies would not just sit there and go bankrupt.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    But car companies totally DO just sit there and go bankrupt.


    Different problem. But incentive systems can be complex. And the more complex they are, the weirder the system behaves.

  4. To “Snoodickle”: I’m not sure I can help you understand what I’m saying if you can’t handle abstract thought, but I’ll try!

    You might as well say that if the government had banned reel-to-reel film for home movies in the 1960s (because it was too much of a fire hazard, let’s say), companies would have come out with affordable videotapes and VCRs then, in the 1960s, instead of in the ’80s or ’90s.

    Inventing new technologies, and bringing them to the point where they’re affordable for mass consumption, takes time and money. If the government made car companies’ main business illegal, they would have less money for research and development, not more—and they’d have a lot less time, because making a business illegal will bankrupt it and put it out of business pretty fast.

    Of course the people who invent the technologies of the future don’t have to be the same ones who used to make past technologies; so, more importantly, my argument is that putting the car companies out of business makes it less likely that anyone will have the money to invent. As I said above, our modern economy depends on fossil fuels—we need things shipped over distances and we need electricity. If you take that away, the economy will collapse to something more like the nineteenth century, which means a lot less money floating around to invest in promising new ventures. There may always be people trying to invent things they think there would be a demand for (such as whatever replaces gasoline-powered cars), but the less prosperous the economy is, the less money there is for people to invest in those inventors—and also the less money there will be for customers to buy the new product, which means less incentive to invent it in the first place.

  5. Snoodickle Says:

    Ah yes, Chillingworth, but you’re missing a key point – the car companies have already developed the alternative technologies necessary to make the transition to a gasoline-free world. The technology for electric cars exists, but car companies continue to produce gasoline powered cars because it is more profitable for them under the current economic structure. If the government were to ban gasoline powered cars, the car companies would simply begin production on electric cars with the technology they have already developed.

    Thus, your analogy with the videotapes fails in that videotapes had not already been developed in the 1960s. Electric cars, however, have.

  6. Nice try.

    You may not be aware that more and less electric cars are already being produced and sold, but they’re not very popular with consumers—they represent a tiny fraction of one percent of total U.S. car sales—partly because they cost a lot, and partly because they’re not nearly as useful as normal cars. Are you claiming that Chevrolet and Nissan already have the technology to make much cheaper and more useful electric cars, but they’re making crummy cars that no one wants because that’s somehow more profitable for them?

    More importantly, think through what you’re saying. If a car is powered not by gasoline but by a rechargeable battery, that means the battery has to be plugged in to the power grid, which means it will be powered largely by coal-fired power plants. That may or may not be somewhat better, in terms of greenhouse gases, than the internal-combustion engine, but on the alarmists’ view, marginal changes in the rate of greenhouse-gas production won’t be nearly enough; we need to stop pumping carbon into the air almost entirely, and we need to do it yesterday. That would mean not even just electric cars but also an all-nuclear power grid, or cars with enormous wind sails sticking out the top, or cars powered solely by the smugness of the environmentalist in the driver’s seat, or something even more revolutionary that we can’t now imagine. Such technologies may well be possible, but developing them and bringing down their price will take time and money. Car companies aren’t magic; they can’t produce some futuristic marvel just because the government orders them to.

  7. Snoodickle Says:

    So you’re conceding your videotapes analogy was not well thought out?

  8. […] no doubt) more important than either economic or scientific considerations. Related entry: “On Conservatism and Global Warming” […]

  9. […] “On Conservatism and Global Warming” […]

  10. […] — As I’ve suggested before, I’ll take reducing carbon emissions seriously when the warm-mongers show by their actions […]

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