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Environment

The Bigger Picture

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSeptember 25, 2010 1:51 AM

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UPDATE:

In the comment thread, a science journalist living in Pakistan weighs in with additional perspective.

In an essential post examining some of the underlying causes of the recent horrendous floods in Pakistan, Judith Curry and Peter Webster note:

Most of the response of the climate research community to this catastrophe has focused on the attribution of the floods, i.e. whether greenhouse warming played any role in causing the floods.

As Joe Romm approvingly writes, the media picked up on the global warming angle. In other climate concerned blogs, the floods in Pakistan (along with the Russia summer heat wave) were seen as anomalous events linked to greenhouse warming. For some necessary larger context, let's go to Thomas Homer-Dixon, in a radio interview earlier this week:

Recently, in Pakistan, we've seen enormous floods, and some real questions about the viability of the state as a whole, the possibility now many people are discussing is the country disingregating into regions, and perhaps civil war, or an extremist takeover of some kind... Its interesting, that in the recent commentary on the floods, very few people have mentioned that one of the reasons the floods have been so bad is that the absorbtion capacity of the hinterland, of the forests, has been reduced substantially because there has been so much deforestation in the country, that the siltation of the waterways and reservoirs has made them much more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by higher runnoff with an extreme monsoon like this, and the siltation is the result of deforestation and bad land management, that has allowed a lot of the silt to move into those waterways. Few people have commented on just the sheer population pressures in Pakistan. This is a country that has done one of the worst jobs in family planning in the world. And the population pressure in itself, has made managing economic development, managing the land, managing the forests effectively, far more difficult. Now, population, deforestation, land management, desalinization of the agricultural land, all of these factors are part of the mix. And a mix that includes things like corruption, institutional failure, the role of the military, a political system that is completely dysfunctional. So what happens in the standard analysis that you see in newspapers is that people focus on the variables they're most comfortable with.

Those comments come near the end of the interview (which is well worth listening to) at about the 55 minute mark. Homer-Dixon has many other interesting things to say, some of which dovetails with Curry's recent post on uncertainty. In the interview, Homer-Dixon talks about climate change (it's a classic "wicked" problem), geoengineering (it might ultimately be necessary), and the need for people to better understand and learn to live

in a world replete with unknown unkowns.

For those who prefer text to audio, much of what Homer-Dixon discusses in the radio interview is contained in this talk, which is titled, "The Great Transformation: Climate Change as Cultural Change." It is well worth reading. What I find appealing about Homer-Dixon's arguments is that's he's not caught up in the politics and rhetoric of the climate change debate. He's taking the meta approach, which is on display here in that talk I just cited:

One of the deep institutional and political challenges humankind faces in coming decades is to provide for better democratic problem solving--to raise our collective intelligence, so to speak. I don't necessarily mean the formal procedural democracy that we're familiar with in western societies, but real democracy at the level of community decision making. We are not going to make genuine progress solving our largescale environmental, climate, economic, and social problems unless we can mobilize people, and coordinate their problem solvoing capacity, through new democratic processes. These new processes might apply some of the lessons learned in the open source movement that has produced Wikipedia, for instance. There are many potential obstacles to such an endeavor. Somehow, though, we need to create communities that are smarter rather than stupider that the sum of their parts. Here is something that gives me a little hope: At the very time that our species faces some of the biggest challenges it has ever faced in its history--perhaps THE biggest challenges is has ever faced--we happen to have developed a rudimentary technological infrastructure for species-wide democracy. It's the Internet. But we don't use this technology effectively. Outside of phenomena like Wikipedia, the Internet is mainly a venue for a cacophony of narcisissm. We blog at each other, bully each other, and flame away. This behavior doesn't create anything larger than the sum of our parts. This pathetic outcome isn't inevitable, but changing it is going to require some deep rethinking of what forms of political engagement we as citizens undertake in our societies.

What do you think? Is Homer-Dixon on to something here?

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