Thursday, 25 September 2014

Death, Climate Change, Degrowth.

Unless you are really very, very young, there is a good chance you have already witnessed an exchange like the one below:
Person 1 says, somberly: "I've got bad news…"
Person 2, suddenly concerned: "What? What happened?"
Person 1 (suppressing a sob): "You know, our friend/relative Bob He passed away. Yesterday"
Person 2, in shocked disbelief: "No! That can't be! I saw him last week, and he looked so well"
Let's think about Person 2's reaction. The fact that Bob was alive and well last week is no argument against the assertion that he died yesterday: people are alive all their lives, from the moment they were born; and they remain alive until the very moment they die.

In other words, the fact of being alive for years is no argument for immortality. Bob was alive 15 minutes before he died.


Imagine now this conversation:
Person 1: Automation shall lead to generalized unemployment and poverty
Person 2: Preposterous! Every time technology advances people say that, and every time events prove those fears unfounded. You are falling in the fallacy of the lump of labour.
In this dialogue, one can criticize Person 2's reaction on exactly the same grounds: even if history had always contradicted the assertion "automation will lead to generalized unemployment and poverty", there is no warranty this time it won't be different. The fact that there has always been jobs, doesn't mean there will always be jobs.

Don't get we wrong: the accumulated empirical evidence has a weight. But we are talking about probabilities here. And to rely on probabilities we must assume the underlying process has not changed. Person 2's reply does not address that in any way.


A last example:
Person 1: Growth cannot go on forever. We are depleting non-renewable natural resources; green house gas emissions and atmospheric pollution in general are changing the environment and the weather
Person 2: Pfff. That's the old Malthusian argument! Oil replaced coal, before coal was depleted. Increased population lead to increased agricultural output.
I suppose I don't need to comment: you get the idea.


If you allow me a little pop-psychology here, Person 2 in the first example seems to be reacting according to the usual 5 stages of grief model. The first stage is disbelief, denial.

I submit that the same may be true for Person 2's reactions in the other two examples.

Unless Person 2 offers a compelling argument, the most his/her reaction shows is lots of faith. (And, sorry, the "fallacy of the lump of labour" thingie or the Malthusian label do not make the cut for a compelling argument).

I myself remain -- in varying degree -- an agnostic. (But the lack of a compelling argument, rightly of wrongly, only adds to the credibility of the opposing point of view).

Now, as an agnostic I may well be sensitive and respect Person 2's feelings/faith. But my respect doesn't make him/her right, convincing or even remotely reasonable.

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