False Choice and Climate Change

I have come to believe that there is a false choice represented in the debate around climate change these days. On the one hand, we are told, we may choose environmental conservation and productive moderation. And on the other, we are told, we may choose social and ecological adaptation along with unfettered development. Either we keep carbon at bay and India and China languish, or we allow the World’s populations to continue pursuing prosperity and bear the consequences of its externalities.

This analysis, obscured itself by the juvenile pre-occupation with the debate concerning the validity of global warming, obscures alternative possibilities that might preferably balance our valued commitments. Indeed, we need neither sacrifice ecological conservatism nor global prosperity.

Our attitude to China, as one example, is essentially this: if you want to deliver yourselves from poverty, you must devote yourselves to the production of endless junk that we over here do not actually need. Rather than collaborating to redistribute global resources and to harness the varied powers residing in your people, we’d prefer to relegate them to machine-like tasks for the time being, thereby subsidizing the cost of junk for us with a sacrifice in the meaning of individual lives by them. It is apparent to me that this cannot last; it is merely the most recent in a lineage of eager populations that we have mesmerized with the promise of development for a brief time. Once they have transcended the basic thresholds of industrial and urban life they, like we once did, will inevitably refuse to submit to this lifeless work.

The pollution assumed to inhere in China’s development, in short, is unnecessary, but to obviate it would require the rest of the World’s proposing an alternative path, one befitting the natural aspirations of a billion people who seek lives as full of opportunity, health, and nominal freedom as ours. Such an alternative would call upon us to sacrifice, but perhaps to sacrifice very little in the way of real freedom, real happiness, or real prosperity. It would mean that we perhaps think of our phones as more than disposable commodities. It would mean that we restrain our pursuit of bigger and bigger homes and cars, not by some arbitrary ascetic devotion but by a respect for what we know to be the limits of incremental gains in happiness. We would need to view the admission of the World’s bottom billions into our modern digital community as a far greater realization of value than incessant, and incessantly disappointing, iOS upgrades.

As always, our choices are far more plentiful than the binaries that have ossified our discourse suggest. Those who advocate adaptation and those who advocate conservation ought to commit themselves to a collaborative and dispassionate accounting of the costs associated with different blended approaches, including more radical reorientations of the global economy of the sort that I’m proposing. Creativity, generosity, and imagination — paired with a reckless disregard for scarcity — can unlock a third path around climate and development that I am eager to embrace.