It is sometimes said that greens have made ‘prophesies’ of environmental doom, prophesies that have turned out to be exaggerated. And some headline-grabbing greens have sometimes done a bit of this; but, mostly, the allegation against us here is simply untrue. Prophesising is not a rational activity, and never makes sense where what is concerned is human action. For we always have a choice as to what we do. What environmentalists have done is made _hypothetical_ predictions: If x isn’t stopped, then y will be much more likely to happen, etc. .
The problem with the argument that goes ‘There hasn’t been environmental catastrophe, therefore the greens are wrong’, is that the first time a hypothetical turns out very badly, very few people will be around afterward to have the discussion…
We only have one chance to get this world right.
What the controversial and brilliant ‘limits to growth’ analysis of 30/35 years ago said was that if human habits did not change, then there was likely to be a resource environmental crisis and then a pollution environmental crisis. They turned out to be too pessimistic on the resource crisis that they hypothesised– but too optimistic on the potential pollution crisis, judging by present trends. It looks like _if_ (that’s the hypothetical — one doesn’t prophesy) we don’t change our direction, _then_ a pollution crisis — chiefly, catastrophic climate change — will finish our civilisation, before most resource constraints have time to cut in seriously (though there will unfortunately be ‘synergies’ between the two – see e.g. my http://www.oneworldcolumn.org/132.html ). But if we manage to avert this catastrophe, then it would be unwise for people to argue that that shows that greens are wrong – on the contrary, it will be because people realised that we greens were probably right, and started to act accordingly… (As even Bush is doing, in a few respects, now.)
The precautionary principle makes clear that it is rational to act as if we are right, even if we might not be – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDsIFspVzfI for a nice exposition.
The leadership that is necessitated by dangerous climate change is therefore of a subtly different kind than is needed in wartime: see my ‘The possibility of Green leadership’, at www.rupertread.fastmail.co.uk , for a full-length discussion of why. If we succeed, then the measure of our success will be that many people never had to face the pain of realising first-hand just how bad things would and could have got.
The nations of the world showed something of this leadership in dealing with the incipient ozone hole crisis, a decade or so ago now. The incipient climate crisis is far harder to deal with, because its driving pollutants are central to, rather than relatively peripheral to, the main levers of economic growth, to which our culture seems as addicted as ever.
So that is the issue: Can we prevent greens’ hypothetical prediction concerning preventable environmental catastrophe from turning out tails, rather than heads? If we do not prevent this, then, as I say, we won’t most of us be around in our old age to argue about it on blog commentaries. Or if we are around, we literally won’t have the time and energy to spend it on blogging — we’ll be too busy scrabbling together life’s necessities. Rather than, as we greens would wish, enjoying a life of plenty, of enough (See my ‘Generation Less’ post, below), a wonderful life that requires less economic and material inputs than our current wasteful and often deeply dissatisfying existence.