Monday, September 14, 2009

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - walking cliche

'Climate Change. I am hyper-conservative ecologically (meaning super-Green). My position on the climate is to avoid releasing pollutants in the atmosphere, on the basis of ignorance, regardless of current expert opinion (climate experts, like banking risk managers, have failed us in the past in foreseeing long term damages and I cannot accept certainty in a certain class of nonlinear models). This is an extension of my general idea that one does not need rationalization with the use of complicated models (by fallible experts) to the edict: "do not disturb a complex system" since we do not know the consequences of our actions owing to complicated causal webs. (Incidentally, this ideas also makes me anti-war). I explicitly explained the need to “leave the planet the way we got it”.'

By the time you get to the word 'pollutants', you realise that this man does not use language like a philosopher. From the point of view of planet earth, and not from a human perspective, there is no such thing as a pollutant. There are simply the chemicals, minerals and organics that are on the planet. Just because they may be toxic to us in some concentrations and combinations is planet-wise of virtually no consequence. Which tells us that Taleb is talking about what is good for US and not what is good for the planet. I would agree with his point that disturbing FIXED complex systems is a bad idea; and counter that on planet earth there are very few FIXED complex systems. The tales of life over the past 250 million tells us that as far as life is concerned, the planet is in constant flux. Whole families of species evolve and disappear. It has happened thousands, possibly millions of times.

What does that mean for us humans? Well, hominid species have been around for about 3 million years. During that time, the earth has mostly fluctuated between long periods (100,000 years approx) of freezing, and short (10-15,000 years) periods of warming. We have been very good at tolerating the great switches in climate during these periods, apart from the near-extinction 84,000 years ago caused by a massive volcanic eruption.

In fact, we may well be the most successful species of the last 3 million years. Does that guarantee us ANYTHING? No. Does that mean that in 10,000 years from now there will be 8 billion humans living the same way they do in 2009? Very unlikely. Will there be some human beings? Almost certainly. Should we trash the systems which maintain human existence? Only idiots would approve. Do we know how this planet works? No, hardly at all. Are there a lot of pompous scientists/journalists /politicians going around claiming they DO know how the planet works, and we are in charge of it? Yes, sadly there are.

My sense is that no matter how we act, no matter what tinkering we do with the materials we find on the earth's surface and just below it, on a planetary scale it won't make much if any difference. Below that scale, we may well ruin some parts of the planet for human existence. Some parts of the planet are always very difficult for human existence, and some may even be impossible. Should we destroy the industrial capacities of the United States and Europe to 'make' portions of lets say Mali inhabitable? Will destroying the industrial capacity of our nations 'save' portions of Mali from becoming uninhabitable? Almost certainly not. Then why do we have political parties and mainstream politicians saying we should do exactly that; indeed that morally we MUST do exactly that. Or pay the people of lets say Mali enormous bribes for NOT destroying our industrial capacity...

Sometimes I despair of the level of discourse that goes on in our democracies. Oh, and by the way- a super-green anti-war arab intellectual? The man is just a walking cliché.

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