Polymaths I would like to have met

For a while now I’ve read the global warming debate on this site but, not having sufficient knowledge of the arguments to be able to contribute, have not added to the comments of JQ, bark, draino and sMiles flying back and forth. Anyway, I’m much more interested in the ‘big picture’ rather than whether the statistics support one side or the other; will the world end due to a D-O event and if so, will I have enough time to complete my age 60 goals such as fly a jet plane and have sex with women from all the major ethnic groups etc etc.

I have to admit to being influenced by the 70’s greenies who, 30 years ago, forecast the end of the world should have already happened. Perhaps the doom meisters of today have got it just as wrong and Bjorn Again is right when he says we should concentrate more on what we can do TODAY and let tomorrow take care of itself. (link via Jason Soon and Russell Brown).

The idea of worrying about tomorrow as a waste of time is reinforced by an extract from a review of the third volume of Keynes biography – Robert Skidelsky (2000), John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain .

I’ve always thought that Keynes was a dry-as-dust economist, only interested in politics and money. But it seems he exhibited all the hallmarks of a true polymath and was quite a hit with the Bloomsbury group, whose passions, according to Virginia Woolf’s diaries, had more to do with sex and dope than ‘the half-science half-witchcraft discipline of macroeconomics’.

But the most interesting thing I read was;

One argument from Edmund Burke, especially resonated with Keynes. As he wrote: “Burke ever held, and held rightly, that it can seldom be right… to sacrifice a present benefit for a doubtful advantage in the future…. It is not wise to look too far ahead; our powers of prediction are slight, our command over results infinitesimal. It is therefore the happiness of our own contemporaries that is our main concern; we should be very chary of sacrificing large numbers of people for the sake of a contingent end, however advantageous that may appear… We can never know enough to make the chance worth taking…” (ES, page 62).

I agree; can all the studies, statistics, prognostications, debate and argument arm us with ‘the powers of prediction’ to ensure that by ‘sacrificing large [amounts of money] … for the sake of a contingent end’ we are passing up an opportunity to achieve a very tangible objective, for example, clean water for the whole world, now ?

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mgl
mgl
2021 years ago

Wayne, that’s a great quote, and I agree entirely. But we shouldn’t pretend–as Lomborg does–that the resources wasted on Kyoto would otherwise go to supplying clean drinking water to those in need. It won’t, at least not in any direct foreign aid sense.

It may be enough to point out–as Lomborg does–that “business as usual” over the past 40 years has brought unprecedented improvements in health, life expectancy, nutrition, and wealth to many of the poorest people in the world. To the extent that they are wealthier, they are better equipped to deal with all sorts of unexpected calamities, including the putative dangers of climate change. Diverting resources to the gigantically ineffectual central planning experiment of Kyoto could conceivably slow the ability of others to do the same.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Mgl,

I agree with you as far as your analysis goes. However, for me the central shortcoming in Lomborg’s work is that he generally assumes, both for the first and developing world, that improvements in living, health and environmental standards have flowed wholly from market forces. He invariably adopts a neo-liberal stance of opposition to just about all regulatory/government intervention, of which opposition to Kyoto is just the most obvious example.

Yet just about any sensible examination of 20th century history shows that regulatory/government intervention has been critical to the improvements that have occurred in just about all areas relating to health and environment. Markets won’t operate to improve the environment unless there’s a buck in it. Cleaner air in the first world has come about largely because of stringent vehicle and industrial emission control laws, not because of rugged private enterprise competition. If you don’t believe me, visit places like Jakarta or Bangkok, where regulatory action is largely absent or ineffective.

mgl
mgl
2021 years ago

Thanks for your comments, Ken. I’m not sure that you don’t fall into the post hoc fallacy in your claim above, but then I’m hardly qualified to judge the relative contributions of regulatory vs. market action in cleaning up the environment. I wasn’t defending the market uber alles so much as pointing out that Kyoto seems likely to lead to huge deadweight losses, given how governments operate in the real world. (The Canadian government, for example, has opted for a wide range of highly visible, top-heavy, bureaucratically expensive programs that will likely have little to no effect on that country’s CO2 emissions. Glossy brochures, home insulation subsidies, voluntary measures, you name it…) These losses–replicated to some extent in every ratifying nation–will suck resources away from productive uses, with negative effects for poorer countries which depend on capital from the developed world.

But what do I know? I’m not an economist.

woodsy
woodsy
2021 years ago

Hear, hear mgl, you may not be an economist but you have put my thoughts into words much more eloquently that I could have. On second thoughts, that’s probably BECAUSE you’re not an economist.