We are coming to the end of this series on Everything Must Change. One final passage before I offer some reflections.
In Chapter 33 of McLaren engages in a curious thought experiment. He wants to highlight the fact that the dominant world system gives us a curriculum that corrupts how we relate to the world. Ideologies of left and right, just as with differing ideologies of Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus day, end up playing by the same script. The dominant ideology of our day “…teaches us we can live without limits in a carefree pursuit of what we want.” (289)
The thought experiment compares opposition to abortion (associated with the right) with opposition to greenhouse gas emission (associated with the left.) With regard to abortion, nobody goes about with the purposeful intent of creating a situation where they are going to need an abortion. Yet people know what causes pregnancy, so in an important sense they don’t get pregnant by accident. Because people don’t exercise proper responsible restraint, abortion presents itself as a very attractive fix for the problem they’ve created.
Similarly, McLaren would argue that no one sets out to warm the planet and threaten the environment. Yet “…people know what causes global warming, so in that sense, they don’t create an atmospheric greenhouse gas by accident.” (287) But, “…they want the quick profit and high return on their investments without having to be environmentally conscious, so the unintended consequence of global warming feels like an accident.” (287) Now we are looking for fixes and no satisfactory ones present themselves.
I agree that dominant systems can create curriculums that feed opposing ideologies. For instance, I would argue that autonomy and individualism are driving forces in our Western narrative. There are versions of libertarianism on one extreme that oppose virtually any governmental restraint on individual economic or social behavior. This gives the individual the maximum freedom to create their own positive consequences in a “live and let live” or “let die” world. Some versions of progressivism go to the other extreme. Government is to be responsible for our every need. Government is to provide for all of our needs so we can “be ourselves” without having to alter our behavior or be accountable to others. They are polar means to a similar end.
McLaren’s comparison doesn’t work. First, as I pointed out in the posts toward the beginning of this series, we are living through the most dramatic explosion in global prosperity in the history of humankind. Global life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century. Infant mortality rates have plunged. The percentage of people living on less than a dollar a day has fallen to about 15% and continues to fall. Literacy is expanding rapidly across the world. The number of people living in relatively free democracies has been growing. Economies in emerging nations are growing faster than the ones in developed nations. Diseases have been wiped out. We accomplished all this despite a six fold of the world population over the last two centuries. There is still much misery in the world and we are far far from utopia. But the advances are absolutely breathtaking. It strikes me as rather myopic to reduce recent economic history down to greedy pleasure seeking capitalists looking for a “quick profit and high return on their investments.” The antipathy McLaren has for the most life-giving economic system the world has yet produced, to the point of labeling it a “suicide machine,” is just peculiar.
Second, it is known (and has been known for a long time) where babies come from. :) The same is not true of global warming. It is unclear how much impact human generated greenhouse gasses have on warming. Should temperatures rise to the level organizations like the International Panel on Climate Control expect they might over the next century, the consequences (good and bad) are unclear. To the extent that it has been “known” that greenhouse gases are what is driving warming, it has been “known” only in the last decade or so. Therefore, most of what was done to produce the greenhouse levels happened before we knew “the facts of life.”
I have a better comparison for the climate change issue. I know a way we can save thousands of lives and prevent tens of thousands of injuries every year. We can do it by creating a simple law that we could put in force tomorrow. We simply reduce the speed limit, anywhere in America, to 5 miles per hour. Why don’t we save all these lives and protect people from injuries? We know what is causing these deaths. Isn’t it just our greedy pursuit of quick travel and high return on our time invested? Why don’t we stop these suicide machines?
We don’t act on this because we recognize there are trade-offs. The sacrificed good of personal rapid transit (some of it for frivolous pleasure) outweighs the benefits. Furthermore, reduction in death by this means could result in an equal or far greater number of deaths by other means through unintended consequences of the new law.
It has always been understood that zero pollution is not attainable. We balance the benefits of productive capacity against the pollution consequences. As pollution has become better understood, the optimal balance has changed over time. CO2 has not even been considered an issue until very recently and we are now trying to find the appropriate balance in the midst of uncertainty. Prudence is the answer.