Haeckel and the Development of Nations

To the extent that the name of Ernst Haeckel is familiar to most readers at all, he’s known for the most famous of his bons mots: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. The development of the individual repeats the development of the species. It’s not really true, of course. When growing in the womb human beings don’t really pass through all the stages of evolution from multicelled organism to fish to amphibian to reptile and so on. It’s really a lot more complicated (and interesting) than that. It does fall trippingly off the tongue and sound clever though, doesn’t it?

The first piece of federal legislation ostensibly intended to reduce carbon production in the United States is now making its way through the Congress. I’m not as sanguine about it as Thomas Friedman:

Rejecting this bill would have been read in the world as America voting against the reality and urgency of climate change and would have undermined clean energy initiatives everywhere.

More important, my gut tells me that if the U.S. government puts a price on carbon, even a weak one, it will usher in a new mind-set among consumers, investors, farmers, innovators and entrepreneurs that in time will make a big difference — much like the first warnings that cigarettes could cause cancer. The morning after that warning no one ever looked at smoking the same again.

Ditto if this bill passes. Henceforth, every investment decision made in America — about how homes are built, products manufactured or electricity generated — will look for the least-cost low-carbon option. And weaving carbon emissions into every business decision will drive innovation and deployment of clean technologies to a whole new level and make energy efficiency much more affordable. That ain’t beanbag.

My concern is that, rather than institutionalizing “least-cost low-carbon” options, the law will serve to institutionalize even further the role of political pull in the success of businesses and spawn a million fraudulent schemes for carbon reduction far, far away, beyond the reach of verification. That will do nothing for climate change, manmade or otherwise, but it will be an enormous drag on other innovation in the economy.

The awful truth is that no measure that we take here will have any effect whatever unless China and India follow suit. China already spews more carbon into the air than we do, its present rate of increase exceeds anything we can be expected to offset in reductions, and that would be true even if we produced no carbon emissions at all here.

But whenever you bring out this point somebody is bound to restate Haeckel’s dictum to cover economic development: the economic development of each nation must mimic the patterns followed by developed nations of today and, consequently, it would be unfair to ask China, for example, to reduce its carbon emissions. The Chinese make this argument themselves.

You’d think that so egregiously phony an argument wouldn’t require refutation but apparently it does. Let’s take the argument to its logical (if that’s the right word for it) conclusion. If China must be allowed to follow the same paths as Britain, the United States, France, and Germany did at this stage of their economic development, shouldn’t the use of cell phones, the Internet, modern pharmaceuticals, and macadam for their roads be denied them? After all, none of the developed nations had the use of any of those things when they were at the stage that China is now.

But that’s not what proponents of the argument mean. They really mean that it’s fair for China to pick and choose the technologies that suit them, selecting those they like and eschewing those they find inconvenient, like non-polluting approaches to energy production or transportation and that’s patently absurd.

We are apparently embarked on the path that Europe has followed, following what I believe to be the illusory path of bureaucratic management as a means of reducing carbon emissions. While we do so we’d be making an enormous error if we didn’t encourage the Chinese and Indians to do the same, recalling that if they don’t all of our efforts at mitigating the effects of the carbon we’ve produced will be in vain.

Don’t make the error of thinking the Chinese can be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. They can’t. But they can be incentivized to do what we’d like them to and even single-celled organisms respond to incentives and we’d be fools not to try.

12 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    The whole carbon-reduction scheme is immensely frustrating. The assumption is that the solution to carbon must be reduction of carbon, no matter the cost – an assumption that never really gets questioned. No one can even say how much carbon-reduction worldwide would make a difference and what that would cost. In the end, it might be cheaper and better to simply deal with whatever effects climate change might bring.

  • Brett Link

    The Chinese make this argument themselves.

    That always struck me as a stupid argument on the part of the Chinese, since our ancestors didn’t know that pollution and coal-burning was having an effect on the environment, whereas the Chinese do know and are continuing it anyways.

  • Drew Link

    Sing along: “….a-a-a-alll my lovin’s in vain…” I happen to prefer the Stones cover……but I digress.

    “The awful truth is that no measure that we take here will have any effect whatever unless China and India follow suit.”

    I don’t know that it’s awful……but that is truth if I’ve ever read it. And of course China and India will not. Not in our lifetimes, at least. I happen to think that man made global warming is the biggest hoax that has gained significant traction in my lifetime. And I say that with all due regard to the “coming ice caused by industrialization” arguments made by “climate experts” just a couple decades ago (snicker). Please, “climate experts,” pick one or the other. (snicker)

    I better be right, or we’ve got a real problem, because I can flat damned guarantee that we will have more CO2 tomorrow than today, and more two days from now, and more…….

    Setting the science of solar activity vs CO2 emissions aside for a second. No one will get my attention that the earth is doomed by man made global warming until I see the lefty political and scientific communities screaming absolute bloody murder for a Manhattan Project-like push for nuclear energy, the only possible solution to material CO2 emission reduction.

    Until that signal canary keels over in its cage, and as long as Smart cars, wind power and US economic self immolation continue to be the advocated solutions, I’ll know this is a political movement, not a scientific one.

    Separately, Alex Knapp noted the ocean acidification issue recently. On that I am much (much!) less well read, and cannot comment. However, if serious, he should be praying for warming. For just like a soda can gone warm, less CO2 shall be dissolved in warm oceans. Let the fizz out, baby.

  • Drew Link

    “coming ice age” that is.

  • Brett Link

    I happen to think that man made global warming is the biggest hoax that has gained significant traction in my lifetime.

    Tell me, do you dismiss the idiotic “Truther” arguments that 9/11 was staged? Because that’s more plausible than Global Warming being a gigantic hoax. At least in the former’s case you have a unified actor, whereas in the latter you are somehow claiming that thousands of scientists, many of whom do not share the same funding and/or authorities, and who are actually competing for funding for their own theories and research, are somehow working together to field a massive conspiracy.

    And I say that with all due regard to the “coming ice caused by industrialization” arguments made by “climate experts” just a couple decades ago (snicker)

    Can you name one climate expert that actually said that seriously? As some actual climate scientists have pointed out, the stance in the scientific community in that point was basically “we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate” (that’s from an actual 1975 NAS Report, by the way).

    What happened basically was that Newsweek and some other magazines got on this point, and started telling stories about it without any actual type of solid scientific background. I take it I don’t need to add that Newsweek is not a scientific magazine and/or journal.

    I’ll know this is a political movement, not a scientific one.

    I’m curious as to whether you judge the scientific accuracy of everything else in life along this rather foolish standard. Do you doubt gravity, for example, because a large number of democrats opposed funding for a number of new planes over the past few decades?

  • Drew, it’s “All My Love’s In Vain” not `all my lovin’. The title is ‘Love In Vain’, with the original by Robert Johnson.

    There…I’ve gotten my one nitpick of the day out of the way!

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