What if things really are that bad? The case for over-reacting
Sometimes, there really is a wolf.
Well, that doesn’t look good: the last half century of climate change. Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.
In the mid 17th century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal made an argument for Christian faith based on rationality. If it turns out God exists, then belief could save your agnostic soul. Brilliant! If it turns out God doesn’t exist then, well, hard luck, it’s a cold universe, but your belief probably hasn’t cost you very much. If the choice on offer pitches an infinite possible gain against a finite possible loss, then the rational choice is to believe.
I’ve never quite bought into Pascal’s Wager, as this argument is known. It assumes faith is a matter of choice. It ignores the fact there isn’t just one god on offer, but a whole panoply of them: what if you pick the wrong one and that makes things worse? Then there’s what one might term the “Yossarian’s Girlfriend Problem”, the question of whether a truly perfect and loving deity would be so emotionally fragile as to feel compelled to punish people merely for not believing in them in the first place.
But I do think this is a useful structure for thinking about some of the messes we’ve got our planet into as of 2021. What if things really are that bad?
Pascal’s Wager as what is apparently called a “decision matrix”. Image: Wikipedia.
It’s been very fashionable among a certain type of broadly centrist commentator over the last few years to tell anyone loudly panicking about unprecedented crisis to calm down, in roughly the same tone that Michael Winner spoke to women in that ad for car insurance. Okay, that argument runs, we face problems: democracy is under strain, the planet is warming, and so on. But, they go on to add, we’ve always had problems – you try to find a period without them! The boomer cohort grew up under the shadow of nuclear annihilation! (The Doomsday Clock, which reflects how near civilisation is to a possible catastrophe, is the closest it’s ever been to midnight, by the way, but we’ll let that slide.) Nonetheless, humanity is richer and healthier than it’s ever been, and the next generation are likely to be richer and healthier still. Surely the real risk here is that of alienating people who might support more moderate climate solutions or social democratic reforms, by repeatedly crying wolf?
The American writer Matt Yglesias recently took a break from his demanding schedule of trolling Europeans about Mexican food or iced water to write one such piece. “The Case Against Crisis-Mongering” is a bit more nuanced that you’re going to get from my summary, but it does include these two statements:
“I think that the United States is not under siege from a neo-fascist movement personified by Donald Trump.”
“While climate change is bad, we are to a large extent looking at a negative side effect of basically good trends.”
And... maybe he’s right. Maybe what looked a lot like a far-right attempt to overthrow the result of a democratic election and prevent Joe Biden from being confirmed as president was not some horrifying glimpse of American fascism, a boil on the US body politic that’s still not been properly lanced. Maybe the economic growth that’’s producing the climate crisis also contains within it the ability to address the climate crisis, and the real problem is mass indifference. Maybe things are all going to be okay.
But here’s my question – what if he’s wrong? What if the Capitol riot wasn’t a one-off, but a glimpse of a hard-right movement that’s still out there, intent on overthrowing US democracy through sheer physical force? One of the two US parties of government seems increasingly able to convince itself that elections it loses are illegitimate, and is happy to demote those among its leaders who think otherwise: isn’t that kind of a worry?
And what if the more hysterical warnings from the likes of Extinction Rebellion are right? What if all the economic benefits that industrial civilisation has provided are going to be rendered irrelevant because the climate will go into meltdown, resulting in sea level rises, climate refugees and a collapsing food supply? Pulling Bangladeshis out of poverty is brilliant: it may nonetheless be of limited confort should we get to the point that there’s no longer actually a Bangladesh.
It strikes me that we face a similar choice to the one Pascal put before his theoretical agnostic. If we address these problems, and it turns out the more hysterical commentators were wrong, then all we’ve done is focused our efforts on clamping down on far-right extremists and creating a greener, cleaner world. I’m not really seeing the downside. But if we don’t address these problems, and the more hysterical commentators were right, we’re all going to end up living in Mad Max. And however unlikely that kind of complete collapse really is, why on earth would we take that risk?
Both the need to appeal to the median voter and the managerial tone of much of the last few decades of politics has led a certain type of thinker to assume that moderation is the same as rationality. And just as some groups reward shouty hysteria with clicks and retweets, there are others who’ll do the same for pollyannaish calls for calm.
But sometimes, things really are that bad. Those who spent the early 1910s hysterically warning of the risk of an unprecedented European War, or the mid 2000s panicking about the dangers of excessive leverage and junk assets, turned out to be right. Those wiser heads who issued sensible reminders that there had been no serious war in Western Europe for three generations, or that the bankers could be trusted to know better than their critics, turned out to be wrong. How can we be confident we’re not living in one of those times? And even if we’re not, surely it’s better to risk over-reacting than under-reacting?1
We don’t laugh at people for taking out insurance, no matter how unlikely it is that their house will actually burn down. If there is even a small chance of an outcome that’s catastrophic enough – the end of democracy; complete ecological collapse – then the rational thing to do is surely to treat them as threats to our very existence, not to sit on the sidelines, feeling smug that other people are a lot more worried than you are.
Hysteria may sometimes be ugly. It’s also sometimes rational, too. Sometimes, there really is a wolf.
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2. My book, The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, is officially out Thursday, which for some reason I don’t quite understand means it’s effectively out now. I’ve already spotted it in the “new non-fiction” section of more than one book shop – huzzah – and have so far resisted the urge to attach a fake “Waterstones recommends” card to it or similar. I hope you’ll consider buying a copy, if only so I never get to that stage.
3. Meanwhile, the podcast for the accompanying Podcast of (Not Quite) Everything is out now. (“This is very ASMR,” said my friend Rachael, which I’ve decided to take as a compliment.) In each episode, I’ll be interviewing someone vastly cleverer than me about their own specialist subject. My guests are:
Helen Zaltzman on power and language;
James Vincent on the history of measurement;
Alex Von Tunzelman on the statue wars and imperialism;
Heino Falcke on how he photographed a black hole;
Caroline Criado-Perez on the gender data gap; and
Ahir Shah on plagues, wars and other horrible things.
You can sign up wherever you get your podcasts.
A different example, which I’ve stuck down here as a bonus for the hardcore, if only for reasons of brevity. One of the things I’ve been researching recently for a book due out next year (it’s on conspiracy theories, it’s co-written with Tom Phillips, available from all good yada yada) is why we are, as a species, prone to paranoia. Turns out, there’s an evolutionary reason for it.
Imagine two small monkey-like creatures trying to make a living somewhere in prehistoric East Africa. One has a genetic predisposition that makes her really good at seeing faces in the bushes; the other does not.
Our second small monkey-like creature probably spends a lot of time laughing at his friend for doing a runner, every time a pattern of shadows starts to look a bit like a tiger. But it’s the one that looks silly that’s most likely to survive to pass on her genes. Over-reacting is a good survival strategy; under-reacting is not.