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Sacrifice or Sustainability?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJune 9, 2009 4:25 PM


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What happens when you cross John Nash's view of human behavior with Isaiah Berlin's concept of human freedom? You get the reason why we may never chart an environmentally sustainable course. This is the interesting argument that Kurt Cobb lays out over at The Oil Drum. His conclusion is dispiriting:

The way to win any battle for the public mind is to focus on the so-called "persuadables." These are the people who haven't really made up their minds about an issue, and they tend to be the largest segment of any population. On this count my worry grows exponentially. As Robert Rapier has explained on this site previously in a piece entitled "We Won't Stop Global Warming," most people say they want to do something about global warming. But when one places a price on actually doing something, say, raising the cost of gasoline $1 a gallon through taxes, support for action drops precipitously. People see themselves as maximizing consumers first, and citizens with duties to a greater society second.

In that essay, Rapier also notes the classic global warming conundrum:

the disconnect is that people don't see any immediate consequences, and they know that mitigation is going to cost them money. So, they figure "Let's just wait and see what happens." The average person just doesn't see this as a problem serious enough to make meaningful sacrifices over.

Cobb argues (using Nash and Berlin) that this mindset is behaviorally and culturally rooted:

Any public-spirited sacrifice--even for people who believe there is a problem--seems out of a question in societies whose entire politics and culture are dominated by the idea that personal wants are the equivalent of the public good.

This would especially seem to be the case for Americans. Recall, for example, George W. Bush's injunction immediately after 9/11--to go shopping. He was widely ridiculed for the shallowness of this gesture. But perhaps Bush knew human behavior and contemporary America's essential trait better than we give him credit for.

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