A most ingenious paradox…
The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan
I loves me a good classical reference. Let’s take King Pyrrhus of Epirus. Pyrrhus defeated the Roman armies in two great battles around 280 BC. Unfortunately, he lost most of his friends and his best generals in the process and had no way to replenish his armies. The Romans on the other hand, simply brought more legions from Rome. Pyrrus is supposed to have said something on the order of “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Good king Pyrrhus is someone to keep in mind when you look at the political policy issues surrounding most of the important problems facing us today. As congress takes up the gun control issue we are reading about Democrats who are hesitant to support universal background checks even though those checks are supported by a vast majority of the population, including members of the NRA. But these Democrats come from conservative areas of the country where such support could lose them their next election.
Let’s give these people the benefit of the doubt and suppose for the moment that they are genuinely interested in doing the best thing for the people of their districts, and as members of a representative government, the best thing for all the people of the country. Voting for background checks is obviously the thing they should be doing. And yet, if they do that, they very well may not have the opportunity to do the best thing for the people in the future. These representatives are faced with a conundrum.
They must weigh the good they can do by voting for universal background checks against the potential good they could do in the future in some other area. And they must also consider that if they chose to fight this battle and win on this limited issue, the Romans may simply replenish their ranks and win the war once they are gone. Do they choose this issue to fall on their swords?
And we can take this another step. Again, just for the sake of argument (and there can be plenty), let’s say that the entire Democratic Party genuinely wants to do the most good it can for the people of the country. Does it make sense to back a watered-down version of gun control and lose so many members that it will have diminished power to do good in the future, or would it be simply another Pyrrhic victory.
Like it or not, these are the sorts of considerations that form the reality of political life. It’s easy to say that all congress cares about is getting re-elected. It is easy and it may be true. But we might also want to consider why they want to be re-elected and ask ourselves if it is only personal gain in all cases (while freely admitting that it is in some cases).
Nowhere is this paradoxical nature of political policy making more evident than in environmental policy. Liberals are quick to point to the overwhelming scientific evidence which shows that we are rapidly depleting our natural resources, polluting our water, and warming our planet, and yet nothing is really being done about it. In fact, in many areas, progress made in the past is being reversed.
This state of affairs would seem to defy logic, but we can look at this battle from a different perspective. On the one side we have (again, just for the sake of argument) a few hundred lawmakers with the desire to “do the right thing,” and on the other we have corporate and special interest groups who have the money and the manpower to oppose change at every step of the way. They are committed to opposing that change because it threatens their very existence. Like the legions of Rome, they seem inexhaustible, and they just keep coming.
These groups gained the power they have because at one time they offered what was wanted and what was needed at that time.
We do not have an oil-based economy because everyone sat down, examined all the options, extended the benefits and consequences into the future and then made a logical and rational decision to go with coal and oil over other energy possibilities. We are an oil-based economy because when we needed energy, coal and oil were there and they fulfilled the need. And the country prospered because of it. The country prospered, the oil companies prospered, and the people who elect representatives to government prospered.
We may now see that this was a mistake, that it was short sighted, that, ultimately it may do us more harm than good, but we created that vast empire and its resources are now monumental. The environmental lobby can go into battle against it, but we must understand that many of the victories it wins are like those of King Pyrrhus. They tend to deplete the resources of the victors much faster than the resources of the losers. And they are battles, not the war itself.
Energy is certainly not the only example. During the population expansion of this country we created an agribusiness empire that dominates food production and distribution. It was created not only because it made money for those involved, but because it served a purpose. Today it can be shown that smaller, organic farming is a better alternative from the standpoint of the environment. But even a cursory look at what it would take to implement that shows that the loss to the agribusiness industry would be catastrophic. The industry, from its own perspective and perhaps that of the country as a whole, is “too big to fail,” particularly in a weak economy.
The influence which both the energy and agribusiness empires have on those governmental agencies which are supposed to be regulating them is immense. For well-meaning legislators to go to war with them in a charge of the Light Brigade fashion is to surely ride into the valley of political death.
This is not to suggest that continual pressure for change is not necessary or possible, but results will be slow to materialize. The paradox is that while we may know what to do and even how to do it, winning the first several battles may result in losing the war unless they are chosen very carefully.
To win the war, we may also need to frame our environmental problems in a different way. If we truly are committed to doing the greatest good for the greatest number, then in our globalized world we may have to abandon our parochial approach.
Until very recently China was opening new two coal plants a week in order to attempt to meet its energy demands. Those plants involved technology comparable to that in the US in the 50’s. The result is an air pollution problem that makes Beijing look like London during the industrial revolution. China currently has plans to open 363 more plants, although there is some hope that many of those will not be built. Worldwide, 1199 new coal plants are proposed. If just one quarter of these plants actually do open it would be equivalent to doubling the coal capacity of the US. Coal burning already accounts for 44% of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
While the Chinese energy situation has improved and may not require the planned number of coal plants, countries like India, where 300 million people still do not have electricity, are a more serious threat.
US companies have become involved in the Chinese coal industry, but they are being very careful to avoid allowing US technology to be discovered in the process. The profit incentive looms large and equipment is being sold in black box packaging that makes discovering the underlying technology difficult.
Again, we face a paradoxical situation. We could do more to reduce carbon emissions on a worldwide basis by giving the most advanced technology we have to those countries in most need of it than by almost all of the half-measures we can accomplish at home, but we can’t give them that technology because we have to protect our corporate profit margins.
A paradox is simply a set of statements that are assumed to be true, but when taken together lead to a conclusion that is intuitively untrue. To resolve a paradox you must examine the original statements or premises and show that at least one of them is not true. To solve a paradoxical policy problem you then have to convince others that the statement or premise is not true. This boils down to an exercise in logical thinking and education, and as I have mentioned in the past, neither of those are strong suits in this country.
There are no simple or quick solutions. While gas and electricity are cheap and everyone in this country has access to them, and while there is food on the grocery store shelves, no matter how bad for you it may be in the unseen long run, people will be content to consume and let the consequences be damned. Until alternate energy solutions are actually capable of taking over for fossil fuels, those fuels cannot be abandoned. Until small organic farms are capable of feeding the population, the agribusiness empire will reign.
But just as importantly, until all lawmakers know that they can do the right thing and have the support of their constituents afterward, progress is stymied.
As so-called “natural disasters” like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy continue to call attention in this country to the climate change problem public opinion will gradually shift. As the ocean levels rise and the Manhattan subways are always full of water, public outcry will increase. When every family in the country knows someone who has died from mercury poisoning in the water supply they will finally demand change.
Scientific reports and studies showing that genetically modified foods are dangerous in lab rats will not stir the public into action. It will take a Thalidomide type of scare to do that. Meanwhile genetically altered seed is already being used all over the world to increase food production.
This is almost certainly the defining paradox in the environmental policy problem: by the time we are convinced that we have to deal with the problem, it will be too late to solve it.
There are solutions available right now. Every one of them will result in a reduction in the standard of living for the population as a whole, and the population is not ready to consider that a solution. Not yet.
To resolve this paradox we must either shorten the time it takes to get ready to deal with the problem or we must increase our technological ability to heal a wounded planet and population once we make the decision to move forward. Guess which one of these is easiest.
Your Humble Servant,
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon