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Cause, Effect, and Global Warming

David Cowles

Jan 4, 2024

"Every day, we set out in search of an Undiscovered Continent (e.g., India); every night, we end up on a beach in the Caribbean, sipping umbrella cocktails.”

A recent article by David Gelles in the New York Times underscores the intellectual bankruptcy of any ethical system based either on the consequences of the act or on the intentions of the actor. (Wow! That doesn’t seem to leave much, does it?)

For 50 years, scientists and politicians have been focused on the issue of air quality. Are you old enough to remember those dense clouds of smog that regularly settled over our City of Celluloid Angels (LA)? I know you’re not old enough to remember the great London Fog (1952)!     

These days are gone, hopefully forever, but they are certainly not forgotten. I’d just as soon not choke to death; how about you? The sharp reduction in air pollution over the last half century represents a great achievement, owing to a happy (did you say, “Unusual?”) convergence of science, technology, and public policy.

“But there’s a catch,” according to Gelles. “Some of the particulate matter in all that pollution was actually exerting a cooling effect on the climate by blocking solar radiation… As we clean up the air, we also seem to (be) making global warming a bit worse…

“Less pollution is a good thing. Particulate matter — stuff like soot and sulfates, much of which comes from burning fossil fuels but also from forest fires and other sources — contributes to more than 4 million early deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. 

“The tiny particles can become lodged in the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing problems in the heart and beyond. But as air pollution falls, so too does the concentration of that particulate matter that happened to be deflecting a not-inconsiderable amount of solar radiation… the reduction in particulate matter is also letting more solar radiation in, contributing to global warming.”

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So I can choose the manner of my own execution. I can roast…or I can choke to death on the ashes! What better example is there of the Law of Unintended Consequences? We have been raised to believe that ‘unintended’ means ‘unusual’. In fact, every action has unintended consequences. Most consequences are, in fact, unintended, even unnoticed. You could make the case that all consequences are unintended, in the sense that nothing ever happens exactly as planned. 

We should approach the future as Columbus approached the New World: “I know there’s something out there, but I have no idea what.” Every day, we set out in search of an Undiscovered Continent (e.g., India); every night, we end up on a beach in the Caribbean, sipping umbrella cocktails. We cannot say that the result is unrelated to the objective, but they are certainly not identical.

Did Columbus set out with the intention of committing genocide and ‘cancelling’ Native American culture? Probably not. He didn’t have to. He simply acted as the person he’d been brought up to be…and that included ugly Eurocentrism, racism, cultural chauvinism, etc. Columbus was just being Christopher, ‘the Christ bearer’.

Sidebar: Columbus and Machiavelli were contemporaries – their ends ‘justified’ their means. Postmodernists would say that Columbus was merely a ‘pass-through entity’ – like an S Corp in the US. He did not so much act as the culture and the ethos of his era acted through him.

Pity! Things didn’t have to be this way. Columbus was not unaware of divine values like Beauty, Truth, and Justice. He just misapplied them. He allowed his Renaissance ethos to hijack God’s values. He did not allow himself to see the Beauty in Native Americans’ Art, the Truth in their Cosmology, or the Justice in their socio-economic structures. He was pre-programmed to see the world the way he saw it.

Please don’t make a fetish of the aboriginal. Europeans have no monopoly on cruelty. Every civilization fails in its core mission: to know, love, and serve God  - to instantiate transcendental values in the spatiotemporal world.

Everyone in every culture feels the tug of Beauty, Truth, and Justice. Disagree? Ok, imagine a serious political party (other than the Monster Raving Loony Party) with a platform advocating Ugliness, Untruth, and Injustice. How would such goals even translate into specific policy proposals?

IRL, the ‘ugly’ would morph into a new aesthetic (Dada?), the ‘false’ would give rise to a new intellectual paradigm (Galileo?), and ‘injustice’ would be recast as revolution (Stalin?). Try as you might, you cannot turn the Satanic, however real, into an ideal. 

But everyone also feels competing tugs: self-interest, civic duty, family values, moral code, personal security, etc. These secondary tugs are powerful and, for most of us, overwhelming, but for all that, we never stop feeling the tug of the divine.    

James Joyce brilliantly captures the struggle of well-meaning actors, trying to heed that call in the midst of bigotry, provincialism, addiction, lust, etc. In the process, he tells the story of the whole ‘human race’. In fact, Ulysses telescopes the entire saga into the events of a single day (Bloomsday) in a single city (Dublin). 

So what’s left? Ethical nihilism? Not necessarily. Put your good intentions back in the drawer, throw your ‘consequential calculations’ in the wastebasket. “Tend your own garden” (Voltaire), “Do the right thing” (Spike Lee), “Just do it” (Nike). Instantiate Beauty, Truth, and Justice everywhere you can, and trust the future to take care of itself (or not – there’s nothing you can do about it anyway).

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