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Jim Morris's Thought of the Week (or month, or year, ...)

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Selfish Gene vs. Global Warming

Why would greedy US investors create clean technology and desperate Chinese buy it so as to spare some cheese-eating Europeans from catching a chill? That is our global warming problem in a nutshell.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond presents extensive evidence that humans faced with a disaster that is generations away won’t act to avoid it. Each chapter covers a collapsed or threatened civilization—Easter Island, The Greenland Norse, Haiti, etc.—and leaves the reader asking, “What were they thinking?” Then he describes the environmental challenge the earth is facing and asks “What are we thinking?”

We are thinking it’s not our problem. Most Americans alive today will be inconvenienced, but not threatened, by global warming. Only altruism will move us to action. Reciprocal altruism won’t work since the potential reciprocators are in the future. What about our descendants? The evolutionary psychologist William Hamilton suggested a simple, selfish gene calculation: Since each child contains half your genes you should sacrifice your fitness for that of two or more children--assuming you are driven by your genes. Similarly, your genes must expect four or more grandchildren to make you worry about the earth fifty years hence. I'm not optimistic; people who resist paying for public schools are not likely to pay a carbon tax.

This is a global tragedy of the commons. Not only are the consequences remote in time, they may be positive for some people depending upon location. It will get too hot in the tropics, but Canada will get warmer. The US might suffer a little from rising sea levels; but, if the Gulf Stream stops working, the Europeans may see another Ice Age. Not even the most adamant Cassandras have said the human race will perish, only that there will be major economic and demographic changes. You might convince yourself that your grandchildren will be smart enough and vicious enough to profit from the general disaster. However, the uncertainty of who will suffer is canceled out somewhat by the remoteness in time. Your grand children might be living in Bangladesh as the seas rise.

Of course, there will be surprise consequences. In Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade says that the last Ice Age drove tough Northern Europeans south, and they eradicated the earlier races resident there. As if the Africans didn’t have enough problems, they might be attacked by vicious Swedes someday.

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posted by Jim Morris @ 10:12 AM 

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