Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
I can imagine better metaphors for environmental degradation than gambling. Such as: eating the seed corn, pissing in your own soup.

yes, I agree, they are better -- and I've used them (and variants thereon) also...  but they don't seem to work either, as far as making any dent in the general complacency of the "average" (average that is, among the rarefied social stratum of the semi-educated and respectably affluent classes of N Am)...  "somehow" Science (I refer here to the popularised fetish rather than the serious activity of increasing understanding of ourselves and our world) will synthesise corn from sand, or immunise us against all the consequences of contaminating our food supply...  oh yeah, and we'll run our cars on peanut butter.  "scientists will figure something out," or at least that is what most people I talk to seem to believe.  it's what they say anyway;  perhaps it's just whistling past the graveyard?

sometimes I suspect that metaphors like soup and seed corn are automatically devalued in the cognition of a generation raised from birth to model everything in life as a machine or a market or a casino divorced from biotic realities.  as if a concern with food, agriculture, or any related issues were somehow declasse, infra dig, not worth engaging with...?

interestingly, several of the actual scientists I talk to think that we are very nearly at (within a generation of) "game over, reset";  one of my favourite astronomers (the Marcy of Marcy/Butler the planet-hunting team, if I may presume to drop a name) said rather sadly to me a couple of weeks ago that it seems a shame -- Terra might very well be the only planet in this galaxy, if not in this universe, to develop the astonishing complexity of life (a colossal fluke, in other words, a weird little pocket of local counter-entropic activity); and yet we seem determined to reduce our ecosystem back to the salad days of slime-molds and protists, and put ourselves (the top predator du jour) out of business for good.  as an astronomer, he said, obviously he takes a long and artificially detached view;  it's a big universe, does it really matter if we blow ourselves up or poison ourselves or veneriform Terra?  but it does seem as if we ought to try to preserve things like the astonishing variety of our music, speech, art, agriculture, etc.   the odds are that nowhere else out there can be found a gamelan ensemble or gregorian chant or chinese opera (or the chicago symphony for that matter, or a really good plate of fresh favas and pasta), ought to make our life here so precious that we wouldn't gamble the farm on grandiose anti-reality fantasies with quite such suicidal enthusiasm.  

seems like we keep wanting to prove -- from our Sky-Father religions to our more recent cyborg dreams -- that we are something somehow better and higher, cleaner and purer, more powerful and aetherial and marvelous than mere organisms;  that we can divorce ourselves from the "splendor and travail" [H Beston] of biotic life, which we call "messy" and "dirty" and "icky" (when we aren't calling it "sissy")... all the while remaining wilfully oblivious to how amazingly complex, rare, fascinating, improbable and wondrous it is for us to be what we are:  a living organism on a planet (that may well be) uniquely wealthy in this gorgeous fluke of living organisms woven into complex, entangled systems.  one bright ball of exuberant life in a very big and eerily quiet galaxy...  hey, we already won the lottery.

but returning to the original topic for a mo:  the importance of stakes as well as odds is I think relevant to all discussions of risk/benefit, even if poker isn't the most scintillating metaphor.  the magnitude of the potential downside is relevant;  if there is a 1/1000 chance that the person standing next to me w/a steaming mug will spill coffee on my best shirt, that is not something I'm gonna worry about too much, but if there is a 1/1000 chance that the person pointing a loaded gun at me might sneeze and accidentally pull the trigger, that's far more worrying.  same odds, higher stakes...  very different situation.

similarly the argument that the Universe is doomed to entropic rundown, or that we are all mortal anyway, doesn't really vitiate my anxiety about the 1/1000 chance of having my head blown off before my time, or -- particularly -- willynilly by the malice or carelessness of another person, rather than by my own agency :-)

that last part is relevant too.  the other aspect almost always left out of CoBA is "for  whom," i.e., who's making the decision to take the risk, vs who's actually most exposed to the risk, and who's reaping the potential reward?

the "impeccable" logic [thank you, Larry, for that deathless quote] of dumping US industrial waste on the third world, or situating refineries, airports, chem plants and other toxic and dangerous facilities in lower-income neighbourhoods, are perfect examples of "benefits for me, risks for you, the math looks good to me."  but one basic principle of democracy, or anything resembling democracy, is that people get to make their own decisions about what risks they want to take;  conversely they don't get to inflict, for their own benefit, risks on others that have not been consented to.  the more collective our risk-taking is, the higher the stakes get, the more we need consensus rather than authoritarianism if we're to make any ethical justification for the risk.  and at this point, the big risks we are taking are global.

climate change mitigation is another good example of "your cost my bennies" CoBA:  the nations that have least benefitted from the fossil binge and have least contributed to the problem (the equatorial, subtropical and polar environments) are the hardest hit by the costs.  meanwhile the biggest offender nations -- the League of Fossil Flatulence -- sit around debating in a leisurely fashion whether it is "cost effective" to address the problem...  since their own catastrophes may be arriving next week or next year rather than today or tomorrow.

but looking at recent news from the UK, maybe it's sooner than next week or next year that the headwaiter will be back with the bill for that long, reckless fossil pig-out...  yikes.

sorry, this is a bit rambling...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 04:47:31 PM EST
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