Recent environmental news got me thinking about French religious philosophy — particularly, Blaise Pascal, who once posited the idea that has now become known as “Pascal’s Wager.” You could also call it the “What is there to lose?” theory on religious belief. Basically, he said that believing in God really isn’t painful and is only the least bit uncomfortable, especially when you compare it to the misery of burning in Hell for eternity. So believing in God was a “best bet” scenario for Pascal, even though there was no way to know whether Heaven existed or not.
After hearing some recent arguments from anti-environmentalists, I couldn’t help but think about Pascal’s Wager and how it relates to climate change. I’m not the first to try applying Pascal’s Wager to non-religious questions and I am no philosopher, but bear with me here. “Why not?” isn’t exactly the best reason to save the planet, but if that’s what it takes to get certain people on board, I’m game to try it.
The only problem with the attempt, however, is that there are some holes in Pascal’s theory. Many have pointed out one particular flaw in Pascal’s Wager. How do you know which is the “one, true God?” What if you spend your life worshiping the wrong one, and the “real” God sends you to Hell anyway?
In terms of rescuing our imperiled environment, choosing the right solution to climate change could be like choosing the “right” God. What if we place the wrong bet?
Earlier this week, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on the costs of climate change. In her opening statements, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) raised the specter of solutions creating catastrophes. She went as far to suggest that action against global warming might cause a new ice age, though she offered scant scientific evidence.
“History has quite a different perspective on this,” she said. “Global warming scares only exacerbate social issues.”
For the timid, however, there are environmental solutions that are indubitably positive.
Any asthmatic will tell you breathing improves in fresher air. The Clean Air Act was not lawmakers’ caprice.
Anyone (besides perhaps a cost-cutting French restaurateur) will admit that a frog with more than four legs is creepily unnatural. The Clean Water Act was not a Congressional whim.
Looking at new, innovative solutions to environmental problems can be simpler than dissecting religion. Nature, unlike God, is knowable to a greater extent. We can conduct studies and look at how a small-scale change affects the planet to see the greater effects of environmentalism. The only problem is that we need an administration that will act appropriately after examining such studies. Or an administration that will read the studies, period.
This week, The New York Times reported that the Bush Administration purposefully ignored an e-mail from the Environmental Protection Agency urging action. A study they’d completed indicated that greenhouse gases should be covered as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Instead of taking action, the administration told the EPA it wouldn’t listen to the present recommendations and to produce a report that was more to the administration’s liking. The report is due out sometime this week or next.
Unfortunately, Pascal did not cover the “La, la, la. I’m not listening,” wager.
A report compiled by CNA Corporation, a non-profit research group, on behalf of the U.S. military was released this week. It showed that climate change is a very serious threat to national security. Given their professed interest in national security, one would think this alone would spur the Bush Administration to action.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When the Bush Administration is pushing for free trade and lifting moratoriums on offshore oil drilling, you’d think they wouldn’t stand in the way of free enterprise, especially when it comes to energy production. Not so.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has said that an extensive study of the impacts of solar energy farms is needed. Environmentalists and solar farmers tend to agree. But the agency is halting new permits until the survey is complete. That could mean solar entrepreneurs selling off their waiting land in rapidly growing Western states to developers in the interim.
But just because the Bush Administration is willing to gamble the high stakes end of the environmental bargain doesn’t mean the rest of us want to do so.
The subcommittee’s first witness at the costs of climate change hearing mentioned above was British economist Lord Nicholas Stern. One of the most interesting parts of Stern’s testimony was the attempt he made to quantify the largely unknowable costs of global climate change and its various solutions.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) voiced frustration about the debate in general. While he disagreed with Stern’s findings, he thanked him for putting the discussion into real numbers:
“At least you have put it in a substantive format, which there can be a debate on.”
Along these lines, I’ve never heard an atheist refuse to debate the existence of God. It’s nice to see conservatives and anti-environmentalists at least willing to talk about global climate change. It’s just too bad they’re not in the White House.
However, there is another, scarier criticism of Pascal’s Wager aside form the “one, true solution” argument. Pascal assumes God rewards belief. What if we’ve hit the tipping point, and there’s nothing else we can do to save our sorry, wasteful hides? Maybe we should go down in a hedonistic glory, each one of us dancing a devilish jig around our own flaming oil pump?
Maybe. But I’m still willing to gamble on the hopes that the planet will be willing to forgive.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS