Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Apocalypse Now

An amusing anecdote from Abigail Zuger the NYT:
"I was crossing Third Avenue yesterday and I was coughing so hard I had to stop and barely made it across," a patient told me last week. "I'm really scared I'm getting the avian flu."

I just looked at him. What could I say? He has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the last 50 years. He has coughed and wheezed and gasped his way across Third Avenue now for the last 10 years. His emphysema is not going to get any better, but it might stop getting worse if he were to stop smoking.
Zuger's article is about the way disease fears in the media help us avoid confronting real problems in the here and now. Her thesis has rich analogies in other domains, particularly mine, environmentalism.

Environmentalists are often parodied as doomsayers and chicken littles, constantly predicting an ecological crises that never arises. This image is facilitated by environmentalists like Lester Brown, who really are doomsayers constantly predicting an ecological catastrophe that never arises. Brown's failed predictions about everything from population to the price of copper make it hard to talk about global warming and peak oil. Every time I try to talk to my colleague Steve Horwitz about resource issues he reminds me that the predicted copper shortages never came.

So here’s the deal: I’m never making dire predictions about the future again, because the present sucks enough. Let’s start with peak oil. I officially no longer care whether oil production has peaked or will peak, because excessive demand for oil—greed for oil—has already launched two Gulf wars. Here’s a charming anecdote from the current Gulf war, included in a recent Human Rights Watch report excerpted in the NYRB, describing the treatment of “Persons Under Control” (PUCs).
Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all US soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn't be in with no PUCs
You don't need to predict the end of civilization to argue for an end to our oil dependence. All you have to do is show that we don't quit oil, things will stay the same. A similar argument can be made, no doubt, using the current hurricane season and global climate change.

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