Precaution

Some risks are just not worth taking. Some possible futures are so bleak, you should do everything in your power to avoid them, even if the chances of them eventuating are slim. That’s the precautionary principle.

It’s what motivated 17th Century French mathematician Blaise Pascal to argue that we should all believe in God. Because, even if the chances of God existing are minuscule, the consequences of non-believing are so bad (literally, Hell), it’s rational to believe in Him. And it’s what motivated so many New Zealanders to push for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Because, even if the chances of nuclear winter are small given the in-built deterrence mechanism of the balance of arms, its consequences are so bad (possible human extinction) that we should do everything in our power to avoid it.

Precaution is something that underpins Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a new book by Jared Diamond, a biogeographer and evolutionary psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles. Collapse is the subject of an interesting review in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, by Princeton Professor Clifford Geertz. According to the review, Diamond believes societies breakdown in:

a gradual, cumulative affair, accelerating only toward the end when some hard-to-fix tipping point is mindlessly passed. There is a progressive misuse of the natural resources upon which the society is based to the point where collective life collapses into a self-consuming Hobbesean state of nature … Everywhere and every time, when societies have perished they have done so through their own neglect and self-delusion. It was not their environments, however severe, that did them in; or anyway not their environments alone. It was their failure to rise to the challenges those environments posed … The modern world is caught up in an “exponentially accelerating horse race” between bigger and bigger environmental problems and increasingly desperate attempts to deal with them.

This sobering analysis raises some problems – or, “challenges”, in PR-speak – the Greens face this year.

First: the general view we’re taking is so broad, so long-term, and thus so intangible, it doesn’t really gel with how the political game works. The dangers we speak of (with respect to climate change, or peak oil, or GE) are hard for voters to get to grips with because they are not always evident right here, right now. The Greens are about the long-term, the future of humanity. The political game is won and lost in the day-to-day.

Second: prophets of doom aren’t often popular. Western civilization, at least in the way it’s framed in popular consciousness, is about progress, about striving ahead, about doing better every day, about moving forward. We’re getting bigger, better, more interesting, more vibrant, etc. That’s the message of the major parties. The raison d’etre of Labour and National is about growing the economy, using more resources, making more stuff. The Green message – that there are aspects of this culturo-economic juggernaut that will pose existential threats to humanity – is not an easy one for voters reared on “bigger is better” to stomach. Some reactions in the blogosphere (here and here) to Jeanette‘s State of the Planet speech made this clear: her warnings about oil production not being able to keep up with demand were derided, in part because they threatened the perception that we can go on the way we are forever.

But doing something now about energy efficiency (i.e. tackling the chief challenges of climate change and peak oil) will be much easier than doing something when the crisis point is upon us. Partly, because cool heads can’t be guaranteed when passions run high (and oil shortages are upon us). Diamond’s book makes clear that once societies reach a certain point of no return, they quickly descend into chaos, violence, and misery, in which existence is, to paraphrase Hobbes, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The Greens’ challenge this year is to offer New Zealanders a description not just of the massive problems we face if we don’t change course, but also of the bright, dynamic, exciting future in store if we do. We need to do some pulling as well as pushing.

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