Ehrlich and the ur-IPCC

As I pointed out in the first part of this essay, http://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/origins-of-environmentalism-1/

Ark II by Pirages and Ehrlich is a political tract, concerned with outlining the kind of political system which, according to the authors, must replace the current capitalist system, if mankind is to survive the coming (or rather, come and gone, since this was written in 1976, and the world was not expected to survive until the 21st century) Apocalypse.

There’s plenty of perfectly sensible criticism in this book which could be accepted by Americans of both left and right: of big corporations, which are far from practicing the kind of competition envisaged by Adam Smith; of big government, which is far from incarnating the democratic ideals of the founding fathers; and of course of the Vietnam war, the power of the military industrial complex, and the corruption revealed by Watergate. But, having made a number of incisive criticisms of contemporary America which could be accepted by a wide range of political opinions, Pirages and Ehrlich rather give the game away in their discussion of violent revolution (which they’re against) when they say:

“… the efforts of such revolutionaries have been misguided. Not only can the United States not afford the costs of a bloody revolution; such an effort could easily lead to suicide for what remains of the “movement.” [...]  the number of people dedicated to violent revolution is far short of a critical mass and now seems to be declining. At present, any threat to the established order would be snuffed out with Prussian efficiency by the police, fully supported by the silent majority. There are other reasons that a full-scale, violent revolution would do nothing to advance the cause of environmental sanity and societal survival. Revolutions exhaust material resources as well as human ones [...]   History shows that all such major revolutions have been extremely costly and wasteful. Another American Revolution would undoubtedly set new records for destructiveness and would occur at precisely the period in history when it is imperative to conserve natural, intellectual, and moral resources for the turbulent decades ahead”.

I can think of lots of reasons for not attempting the violent overthrow of the state, but the argument that it would waste precious resources must surely be the weirdest. They’re not very optimistic about evolutionary change, either, due to the pesky tendency of voters in a democracy to disagree with what you’re proposing:

“The young, the hopeful, and perhaps the naive, find comfort in slogans and in a fervent belief that the old society is transforming itself. “Power to the people” is one of the slogans that have dominated radical politics over the last decade. The common assumption has been that “the people” can be liberated and will transform society once they get the message. Maybe so, but to date the message has not been getting through. America certainly is not rapidly “greening,” and some critics suggest that it is “bluing” instead, as the sons and daughters of blue-collar families take on the attitudes and consumption patterns that have recently been denounced by some children of the wealthy”.

Isn’t it frustrating? Just when the children of the rich start renouncing the crass materialism of their parents, the poor start wanting more of it! It’s enough to make you lose your faith in democracy.

Not that Pirages and Ehrlich seem to have had much faith in democracy in the first place. Having criticised modern western democracy (quite reasonably) as being more akin to an oligarchy, they repeat Plato’s criticisms of letting the poor and ignorant have a say in government . Their solution to  oligarchy is not more democracy, but a bigger oligarchy, widened to include more people who share their views:

“Radicals who genuinely desire to ensure “power for the people” in the long run should consider what the immediate effects of suddenly involving millions of “silent majority” voters directly in the political process would be. It is certain that policies designed to achieve social justice and ecological stability would require considerable economic redistribution and some form of social dislocation. There is little indication that the majority of Americans would support these new policies. 

Whether a well-informed majority could be developed and whether it could govern a large nation effectively remain matters for conjecture. Presently, even though the United States possesses one of the world’s largest educational establishments, politically sophisticated citizens remain in the minority. The people now rule only in a very indirect way, something for which those interested in rapid social change should be thankful. But because the number of activists in favor of any cause is small, minor changes can be initiated by a dedicated cadre of a few thousand people. If as many as ten million persons should become dedicated to transforming society, the job might be done”.

Pirages and Ehrlich’s Big Idea, to overcome the twin problems of the failure of the silent majority to espouse their ideas and the messy wastefulness of violent revolution, is – wait for it – Central Planning, complete with Five- Ten- and Fifty- Year Plans.

There’s no discussion of the many attempts at running a planned economy in other democracies, and very little about the drawbacks encountered in the Soviet Union. But then there’s nothing Marxist about their thinking. It resembles rather the kind of obsessive control freakery which Marx criticised in early Utopian socialism.

What follows is a large chunk of their proposal. The description of the five sections of the Planning Branch of government is reproduced in full. The bold is mine. See if you can guess what I’m getting at.

[...]  The Planning Branch would be charged with several closely related tasks. One such task would be the formulation and regular revision of five-, ten-, and fifty-year plans for America’s future. These plans would provide the basis for a continuing policy dialogue about short-, middle-, and long-term political, environmental, economic, and social goals. The five-year plan would, of course, be the most detailed and specific [...] The fifty-year plan would [...] be considerably more speculative [...] The full report would be rather lengthy [...] Short summary versions of the plans might also be made available to all citizens in an attractive and readable format, perhaps published in the press or in paperback book form. Such summaries could provide an impetus for a dialogue about goals and directions among citizens as well as policy makers and could be made required reading in the schools. [...] 

Initially, the Planning Branch might be composed of five different sections: 

1. The Office of Environmental Protection would be charged with evaluating environmental impact studies, making its own long-term projections, and outlining legislation to deal with environmental problems. It would be staffed by well-trained environmentalists and would draw heavily on environmental action groups for supplementary staffing and reports

2. The Office of Natural Resources would be in charge of evaluating resource reserves, as well as future resource needs, and developing coherent resource-utilization plans. It would also recommend yearly resource depletion quotas. This section would be staffed by geologists, energy experts, economists, and specialists in international trade and resource planning. 

3. The Office of Social Ecology would be charged with monitoring changing social conditions and overseeing the social aspects of the transition to a steady-state economy. It would suggest needed social legislation, especially for ameliorating the effects of increasing scarcity on the poor. It would also be particularly concerned with developing the educational programs that will be essential for moving toward a people-oriented rather than a profit-oriented society. This office would also deal with demographic matters and would recommend population policies. It would be staffed largely with social scientists

4. The Office of Economic Priorities would perform many of the services that the President’s Council of Economic Advisers should be performing now. It would propose legislation to move the economy in new directions. It would also concern itself with the allocation of capital and with restructuring the economic system of incentives and rewards. The staff would be composed of environmentalists, economists, and other social scientists. 

5. The Office of Technology Assessment would critically evaluate all major new technologies, outline research and development priorities, and investigate the potential social, economic, and environmental impact of new discoveries. Emphasis would be placed on developing new methods of meeting the energy and resource crisis and providing incentives for the adoption of the best of these. The staff within this branch would be heterogeneous but would consist mainly of competent scientists and engineers. 

The headquarters of the Planning Branch should not be in the nation’s capital but in some relatively pleasant location that would induce talented young people to choose careers in public service. Because the need for complete, up-to-date information would be crucial, the Planning Branch offices should have ready access to major universities as well as to good libraries and computer services. [...]  Personnel within the Planning Branch should spend much of their time listening to people [...] The Planning Branch should be able to establish a record of accuracy in predicting shortages, dislocations, and so forth, and consequently public confidence in its activities would grow. [...]

The most important problem would be to keep the Planning Branch insulated from the politics in other branches of government. This could be done through adequate permanent funding, long-term appointments, and the hiring of competent specialists and generalists rather than political favorites. In the end, of course, the purpose of the Planning Branch could be thwarted if educated citizens failed to recognize the critical need for its independence and its functions. 

Summaries [...]  for [...]  policymakersrather gives it away, doesn’t it? Here you have the IPCC plan, before CO2-induced global warming had even been invented. (Remember, Pirages and Ehrlich are afraid of the climate because a) the “human volcano effect” is going to bring us global cooling and b) the urban heat island effect is going to raise temperatures 7°C, according to John Holdren).

Pirages and Ehrlich were too modest in projecting a national 50-year plan. What we have is an international multi-century plan, endorsed by every scientific institution in every country on the planet, prepared by just the people they were thinking of (well-trained environmentalists, geologists, energy experts, economists and other social scientists, competent scientists and engineers). And there’s no need for “permanent funding” andlong-term appointments” because they do it for free. And it’s installed in a relatively pleasant location (Switzerland, though meetings may be anywhere from Rio to Bali).

As you would expect with any forty year-old prediction, there are some inaccuracies. The IPCC can’t be said to have  established “a record of accuracy in predicting shortages, dislocations, and so forth” causing  “public confidence in its activities to grow”. Nor can they be said to  “spend much of their time listening to people”.

Possibly the most confused (but most enlightening) perceptions of Pirages and Ehrlich are in  the final sentence quoted above: “..the Planning Branch could be thwarted if educated citizens failed to recognize the critical need for its independence and its functions”.

Well, the great majority of educated citizens have (so far) not only recognised, but bowed down before the IPCC, its functions and its critical need, as before the Golden Calf. Pirages and Ehrlich are surely right in saying that only our failure to recognise this critical need can thwart them.

Thwart on, I say.

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9 Responses to Ehrlich and the ur-IPCC

  1. omnologos says:

    Have Pirages and Ehrlich managed to steer a generation away from violent revolution?

    This ArkII thing makes them almost look like plants working for the same forces they claimed to be against.

  2. catweazle666 says:

    If it ever gets very far off the ground, it will all come unglued for the same reason the USSR did.

    They don’t believe in human nature.

  3. Omnologos
    I have the immense advantage over most of my readers in interpreting this stuff in that I was around at the time.
    I’d never heard of Ark II, though I read the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” when it came out in 1972. I have no idea whether the Pirages and Ehrlich book had any effect, since Google researches only turn up what sources choose to put on-line. I wouldn’t think that a mere book could have any effect at all in our society (though a video game or a fumetto might – I’m thinking of tonight’s news from Kiev, where some of the demonstrators were clearly from the extreme right, while others were wearing the “V” Guy Fawkes mask)
    It was around that time in the seventies that I helped an anarchist acquaintance place a bomb in a worthy cause – something I’m not now proud of, partly because I now suspect that the whole thing was a put up job by the British secret services designed to prevent the British far left from following the route of Germany and Italy.
    Ideas circulate and have an effect. Those who want to deny this simple fact (because they espouse some stupid mechanistic world view of the far left, or because they simply don’t like the idea of people reflecting on the way society works) like to describe this as a conspiracy theory. I have a feeling (and it’s no more than that) that the ideas of Pirages and Ehrlich which I quote in the article are at the origin of much of the environmental ideology which underpins the politics of th left in Europe at the moment. But there’s so much more research to be done.

  4. catweazle666
    It took a long time for the USSR to come unglued, and the people suffered immensely in the meantime.
    It’s possible that our society will continue to be able to support the costs of the global warming nonsense – or not.
    There’s a lot of micro-analysis going on, of whether this or that scientific paper stands up, or whether this of that warmist politician is for the chop. But even if the science was rubbished tomorrow, how long would it take for the politicians to realise? How many years of economic development would we lose while China and the third world advanced, unburdened by our absurd ideology?

  5. potentilla says:

    I like the idea of a World Office of Natural Resources. Erlich promoted the idea of future resource scarcity and the Office of Natural Resources would have been able to manage diminishing world resources by “depletion quotas”. In line with your delightful comparison of Ark II to the IPCC, the recommendations from that august body are finding their way into academic management of fossil fuel resources. However there is a problem with the burgeoning worldwide fossil fuel reserves, particularly the increase in natural gas reserves. Fortunately the alarmists have found a way around that by denoting them “stranded assets” thus creating resource scarcity at a stroke.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/01/gore-warns-carbon-bubble

    There is a remarkable disconnect between those who are advocating the idea of stranded assets (even at the WEF in Davos recently) and the activities of industry, governments and investors in developing fossil fuel reserves. To strand those assets would take a massive worldwide coordinated legislative effort or developing new cost-effective energy sources, particularly for transportation. Does anyone, apart from the environmentalists and their hangers on, really see that happening in the near future?

  6. Brad Keyes says:

    Geoff,

    thanks for your indefensibly kind words the other day concerning my various blogospheric exertions. I’m not sure I’ll be numbered among Heaven’s bouncers… but if you don’t see me there, it’s because I’m having more fun as a handyman down below, greasing and whetting the instruments of penitence in full view of their horrified fodder. Saddam, Pol Pot and the Michael Mann of college football, Jerry Sandusky, may tonguelessly spit out bloody, belated excuses but I’ll just turn up the volume on my Apple earbuds. Or I might be changing the sheets in that soundproof honeymoon suite where they send corrupt scientists, putting mints under the fresh, vomitus-free pillows. (You know, that unspeakable chamber wherein the only other item of furniture is Michael Mann.) Fun times. Anyhow I’m just writing to beg you to consider switching to a WordPress template which does NOT italicise blockquotes. Italics are not readable, and were never designed to be readable. They’re legible enough, but not readable, which means they don’t work as block text. I won’t bore you with the citations, but this is science speaking. And as I really would like to read the tantalising excerpts you quote in your article above, it’s frustrating ;-D

    Thanks again for—you know what. Bye

  7. I found one glowing review of Ark II, by Steven L Del Sesto, probably paywalled. There’s no criticism, just re-iteration of the message. Here are some excerpts:

    Nothing less than a total redesigning of the economic, political, and social institutions of society will solve the problems, now reaching crisis proportions. Even if immediate action is taken, industrial societies, and particularly American society, must endure substantially new and unfamiliar environ- mental and thus social problems of which the energy shortage is merely a minor example. Proper action, taken now, might begin to remedy the situation by about the year 2000. Continued abuse, on the other hand, could possibly mean the destruction of man and society by that time.

    While total metamorphosis of industrial society is no small task, the authors maintain that it is not an insurmountable one. First on the list of priorities is a total value transformation in which the ideas of growth, progress, and materialism will have to be reevaluated and changed.

    Without sorely needed changes, it will be only a matter of time until the industrial epoch will be a mere dot in the history of the planet Earth. If one is not already convinced of this, I think the convincing case made in Pirage’s and Ehrlich’s Ark 11 will awaken even the most incredulous to the critical problems that industrial societies now face.

  8. johanna says:

    Looney tunes.

    I love the bit about managing the increasing scarcity which will inevitably affect the poor, with re-education thrown in for good measure.

    These people have the self-awareness, historical perspective and humanitarianism of a nematode with special needs.

  9. Lewis Deane says:

    I’ve been away for awhile, Geoff, but I wasn’t absent, just thinking (and ill!) Thinking anon.

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