Institutional lemmings

I was struck by a passage in Noam Chomsky’s conversational remarks on climate change in the video clip Gareth recently posted. Commenting on the campaign waged by powerful business lobbies to convince the public that global warming is a liberal hoax, he pictures the people responsible as trapped by their functions in the institutions they work for. He put it rather starkly:

“Those same CEOs and managers who are trying to convince the public that it’s a liberal hoax know perfectly well that it’s extremely dangerous. They have the same beliefs that you and I have. They’re caught in a kind of institutional contradiction. As leaders of major corporations, they have an institutional role – that is, to maximise short-term profit. If they don’t do that they’re out and someone else is in who does do it, so institutionally speaking it’s not a choice that’s going to happen in the major institutions.


“So they may know that they’re mortgaging the future of their grandchildren and in fact maybe everything they own will be destroyed, but they’re caught in a trap of institutional structure. That’s what happens in market systems.

“The financial crisis is a small example of the same thing. You may know that what you are doing is carrying systemic risk but you can’t calculate that into your transactions or you’re not fulfilling your role and someone else replaces you…and that’s a very serious problem. It means we’re marching over the cliff and doing it for institutional reasons that are pretty hard to dismantle.”

Chomsky was speaking with a degree of informality, and I don’t want to put his statement under close scrutiny. Nor am I necessarily expressing agreement with all that he says. But I thought the general drift of his remarks had point. Something happens in the very structure of society to prevent a rational response to the threat of climate change.

I often find myself wondering what is going on in the minds of people whom one would normally expect to be respectful of major scientific endeavour but who when it comes to climate change seem to be able to relegate that respect, if not to the point of denial at least to the level of a secondary consideration, which in reality it clearly isn’t.

I’ll leave the corporate field to Chomsky and take a look at what the New Zealand government has to say about the 2050 emissions target which they propose gazetting and for which they are inviting public submissions by the end of this month. The Minister, Nick Smith, has put out a position paper in support of the target of a 50 per cent reduction from the 1990 level by 2050. The paper acknowledges and accepts the basic science and the impacts predicted by the IPCC 2007 report.  There’s no suggestion of denial. But nor is there any acknowledgement of how serious those future impacts will be for humanity. Nor any hint of the possibility that on such a question as sea level rise this century the IPCC estimate appears likely to be exceeded, perhaps considerably. The language outlining the science is flat. The paper moves to indicate that New Zealand has a unique emissions profile by comparison with other developed countries, mentioning the high level of emissions from livestock farming, the lower than normal level of CO2 emissions from electricity generation, and the significant impact of forestry planting and harvesting on our emissions level. From there the emphasis is on where we fit into the international picture, not at all on the imperative posed by climate change.  This sort of statement:

“The world is changing and other countries are recognising the reality of a carbon-constrained future. It is in New Zealand’s long-term interests to begin taking steps towards a low-carbon future.”

Emphasis is given to how it is more challenging for us than for most other developed countries to reach a given level of emissions reduction because of our unique emissions profile. Satisfaction is expressed that a 50 per cent reduction by 2050 is nevertheless in line with what most other developed countries are aiming for and the conclusion drawn that we are certainly doing our fair share.

By now the statement has left far behind any consideration of what the science demands, not only of us but of the community of nations. It has become an exercise in positioning ourselves, doing enough to satisfy our international partners but nothing that might seriously disturb the economy we are used to.

“Setting a target is a balance between achieving the reductions in greenhouse gases we want and the impact on the economy and our lifestyle. Achieving the 2050 emissions reduction target could mean higher costs for consumers and businesses as we transition to a low-carbon economy. However, a less ambitious target would undermine New Zealand’s clean, green environmental reputation. The proposed 2050 emissions reduction target balances these demands and reflects a fair contribution by New Zealand to the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Nick Smith and Tim Groser must be aware of the science and of the seriousness of the danger ahead if emissions are not far more drastically reduced than the international scenario they relate us to. No one will argue that the economy and lifestyle don’t matter. But how can they somehow ‘balance’ the need for action to reduce emissions?  This looks very like what Chomsky identifies as institutional contradiction. It’s not as gross as short-term corporate profit, or as the anti-science denial seemingly rampant in the US Republican party, but in a lesser way does it not reflect the same phenomenon? The role of the politician is restricted by the need to keep happy those vested interests resistant to changes to the economy and those citizens judged incapable of facing reality. Protecting future generations, let alone those poorer populations already being impacted by climate change, is not part of the role and is not rewarded. Chomsky acknowledges those institutional reasons are hard to dismantle, but meanwhile, as he says, we’re marching over a cliff. Reason enough for the dismantling to begin.

51 thoughts on “Institutional lemmings”

  1. The young and the unborn do not have a voice, and therefore, are unheard. Empty vessels making the most sound, are what political ears are attuned to.
    Another excellent posting Bryan. I do think Chomsky has it pretty much to rights with his analysis – particularly in the US. “Corporate-ocracy” has pretty much replaced democracy.
    I saw a list somewhere last night on my travels, of the 10 most “influential” in the denio-sphere. I wish I could link to it but cannot find it right now. Many would be those to whom Chomsky refers.
    You’re quite right about our Govt’s pathetic response and position paper – Not worth the paper it’s written on, and more trees destroyed for naught.

  2. When they say “balance”, or such like, they are saying that they no longer subscribe to our aspirations to lead us in creating the just world that we want.

    When they say balance or similar weasel words they are committing us to the alternative of a just world, which is the kind of world that ours is increasingly looking like, which is the kind of world that we just don’t want.

    If a ‘leader’ says balance, or tries to spin some other weasel line, then you know they don’t have what it takes. And if they don’t have what it takes at a time such as this it’s time to send them packing.

    Because now the balance between a just world and a suicide path is becoming increasingly fine. We need leaders that can lead us to a just world, and the rest are minions of the status quo; stalling us while committing us to our fate.

  3. There is no easy answer to this. I have friends who are religious and who believe the world was made in six days. My family in America have similar views and teach their children the same thing. For some people the whole theory is so frightening they don’t want to be exposed to it and have a blind faith that “they’ will sort it out.
    I go on about it so much my families eyes glaze over if I mention it.
    So many organisations have vested interests in business as usual that its hardly surprising that it’s a tough message.
    Peak oil was predicted for 2005 and where is that?

    1. Perhaps his clear statements are too close to the truth for many of us. I found his analysis was spot on indeed but also painful.
      In the end nothing ‘real’ on this Earth moves without money. So unless the money is getting behind action to bootstrap us into a sustainable future, nothing real will move. The best motivator for an executive is the brilliant business plan of a competitor. Showing that a move to sustainable practices is a financially sound investment would be the best way forward.

        1. I have to admit I have no idea how he does manage to confront such awfulness in such relentless detail as a life-task.

          However, he does display a sense of humour, albeit heavily ironic.

          From ‘After the Cataclysm – Postwar Indochina and Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology’ (his titles became significantly catchier in later years) –

          …President Carter, who, in the midst of a sermon on human rights, was asked by a journalist about US responsibility to the Vietnamese. We owe them no debt, the great humanitarian responded, because “the destruction was mutual,” as a tour through the bombed out ruins of San Fransisco and the Georgia countryside will reveal.

          I do, however, think that Carter was a serious man, and his post-Presidential life via the Carter Center has been far more praiseworthy and unselfish that any of the previous incumbents I can recall. It’s interesting in the light of Chomsky’s observations about institutional causes of problems that Carter has also subsequently acknowledged that Presidents do not live in a world of perfect information and expressed a wish that he had been better informed about some issues than he actually was.

          “And I have to say that I was not, you know, as thoroughly briefed about what was going on in East Timor as I should have been.”

          In the context of more-or-less admitting he actively backed the wrong side in East Timor that’s quite significant.

  4. If I have this aright NC’s corporatocracy delivers management by think small. The job, and keeping it, a real discipline upon such management.

    A desired role, however, is to instil think large (note: not necessarily at large so disharming j’accuse liberal!

    Any ideas, including NC’s contributions on how best to attain this..?

    1. Actually, Tom, Chomsky has repeatedly stated over the years that if you want to get good information about what’s actually going on in the world it’s often best to go to the business press, because they really need to know the reality of the situation in order to make strategic decisions. (Similarly, the CIA may give great analyses of national situations, and the Wikileaks cables have demonstrated that the internal dialogue of empire is often considerably at odds with – and much more frank than – the wafty nonsense that’s bruited about for public consumption.)

      Whereas many other publications are essentially fulfilling ideological functions. (Why do I immediately think of The Australian?) Though there may always be an interesting tension between ‘straight’ reporting and Editorial positions (people often point to the Higher Education supplement of The Oz) some media outlets appear to have completely crossed this line and inextricably blurred what they’d prefer to be true with what is true …

      The thing is that while certain ‘black’ industries are fighting a very noisy ideological war of self-preservation, and may even have hypnotised themselves into drinking their own kool-aid – aided and abetted by the likes of the WSJ – it’s not at all obvious that the business sector is universally stupid on this; and why on earth would they be? There’s a lot of money to be made in being in the vanguard of the renewable industrial revolution, for a start! And money potentially to be lost investing in inflexible carbon-intensive industries…

      The Economist consistently does excellent reporting on AGW. And Joe Romm just had an interesting link to this report from the Mercer financial group (‘$2 trillion under management’)

      Orwell observed that whereas a leader might be brutal, to be truly evil requires a philosophy, and Chomsky has argued that pork-barreling self-aggrandisers in politics are generally less of a threat to the public good than passionate ‘idealists’ who won’t let mere reality stand in the way of their utopian vision. That it’s essentially necessary to be pretty smart to be truly, wickedly stupid, in other words. But there’s no obligation on smart people to be stupid…

  5. Brian,

    Two claims here, one, that the rational response to climate change is for more aggressive emissions cuts than are occurring, and two, that the New Zealand government target is not rational.

    First of all, the way in which you disregard disagreement shows the arrogance you possess in this debate. There are many scientists who are genuinely sceptical of projections of temperature change due to human greenhouse gas emissions. There are also many policy makers who are sceptical that the welfare maximising response to these projections should be rapid emissions cuts. And there are people who believe that although emissions cuts are required, the current focus should be on investment in technology, followed by emissions cuts once technology has advanced. And then there are people like yourself who believe rapid emissions reductions are required right away.

    So people fall into a spectrum of opinion on this issue. By categorising everyone who disagrees with you as a ‘denialist’ who is hijacked by the “structure of society to prevent a rational response to the threat of climate change” is, ironically, denialist in the sense you are denying a real argument exists on this issue. In your eyes, these people aren’t seeing the same pieces of information as you but drawing a different conclusion, no, they are hijacked and forced to think illogically.

    Moving on to the second issue,

    Even if one believed that the only rational response to climate change is a target of 80-100% reductions by 2050 applied on a simple basis to every developed nation, Nick Smith is not the leader of the world. He can only dictate what New Zealand’s target is, not other nations. That target must be set with regard to what the rest of the world is doing – climate change is a global issue with a global response – to deny this is also denialist. What use is a 80-100% target if the rest of the world continues to emit at BAU? Would you have New Zealand commit to a more ambitious target to other wealthier nations purely because to you it is the right thing to do morally? Even thought it will not have a material impact on global temperatures?

    1. “What use is a 80-100% target if the rest of the world continues to emit at BAU”
      What use is any target – if there are no significant strategies in place to achieve it?
      You also say “climate change is a global issue with a global response” – quite right – we all here agree on this. What then is the appropriate response? No matter what the rest of the world does, if we are to act justly, then the right response is to act in such a way that we do not cause further exacerbation of AGW. That means setting sensible targets that will eliminate continued increases in CO2e emissions as soon as possible, (with appropriate strategies and implementation plans) and furthermore a reduction in the now greater than 350 ppm CO2.
      NZ was the first country to give women the vote, one of the first to introduce universal education for all, the first to introduce a sensible working week for workers (no longer the case). It is not uncommon for a small nation to lead the way in matters of moral justice. Simply because other nations drag their feet on matters of universal rights is no reason for any country to delay where it sees the right path to follow.

      1. We became a true democracy when all people gained the right to vote. We benefit from this freedom every second. And this benefit begun the second we initiated this freedom. Many nations are still not democracies – this does not limit our ability to enjoy democracy.

        Climate change is quite different. The rest of the worlds emissions limits our ability to effect change. Reducing emissions has a cost to the economy. Our target has to be in the context of common but differentiated responsibility. If the rest of the world does not reduce emissions we only receive ‘moral’ benefit from being the world leader. I am not saying this means we should not take action, however, this means that we should not take action without regard to the level of action of other nations. Any argument that the ONLY response no matter what everyone else does is immediate reductions is naive.

        1. “Climate change is quite different” No it’s not! To willing indulge in continued BAU is no different to mass murder. It is a moral issue as much as anything else.
          You employ the same arguments the anti-abolitionists used against the end of slavery. If we abolish slavery – the economic harm will be such that it will affect our ability to do right. It does not wash.

          1. I really do not know where to start. Has it occurred to you that actions to reduce emissions may also result in death? Either course of action along a spectrum of ‘business-as-usual’ to ‘sharp-reductions’ will result in costs either now or in the future (see Garnaut ‘fish diagram’). The question is not whether one is moral or not, it is which pathway along this spectrum will result in the least cost.

            As a side note I do not support slavery.

            1. I’m not surprized you don’t know where to start.
              Your statement that taking actions to reduce emissions will result in death is clearly non-demonstrable. But then if one was to take a purely utilitarian approach – the greater good for the greater number – the act of reducing CO2, and thereby averting dramatic sea level rise would surely be the most just.
              Sorry the least cost argument is frankly little more than a can of fish. Only an economist would have the temerity to think of it! You argue that a few scientists do not consider the severity of continued Climate Change to be as bad as all that. Yes there are a few – and every one has been debunked. Shown to be erroneous. Economists couldn’t even predict the sub-prime crisis when it was starring them in the face. Yes some in hindsight said they knew it would happen. But the wise men in the Palace are really just looking a pieces of dried seaweed. The know nothing and understand even less.

              I’m pleased to here that you do not support slavery even though there are now more slaves in the world than in William Wilberforce’s time. Human understanding develops over time and moves on. Many countries now do not support Capital Punishment, inhumane imprisonment, etc whereas in the not too distant past these were universally accepted practices. Today, humanity is coming to terms with the facts of AGW and the disastrous consequences of burning FF. The understanding will eventually increase to the point where it is utterly insane to dig up lignite. (If we survive that long). Govt’s will be forced to enact legislation protecting the atmosphere just as they have been required to do to protect other sectors of the environment.

            2. I wish I had your confidence in my own foresight.

              I have to laugh when I see ‘deniers’ claiming that IPCC models are this and that and that climate scientists can’t even predict the weather next week let alone in 50 years, and then I see ‘alarmists’ using exactly the same arguments to disregard the field of economics.

              Both fields deserve their place in the policy debate and both fields are aloud to make the odd mistake. But I think if you survey economists you will find most did not own investment houses 5 years ago. I certainly was getting very frustrated trying to talk my friends out of jumping on that bubble.

            3. The problem with most economic theory is that it is based on false premises – including a denial of commons, an irrational conception of “growth” and a complete lack of appreciation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
              It also surprises me that some policy advisers can pooh pooh the models of climate change – despite the fact that they describe well the climate changes of the past and recent past and have so far predicted accurately the present. Whereas the models of economics are far more wayward in their depictions of economic activity but are deferred to with reverence.

            4. Macro comment 1: Did you not realise I was saying both arguments are equally false?

              Macro comment 2: My high school economics teacher defined economics as the study of scarcity. Ie how are decisions made when resources are scarce. I still think this is a good definition. Others use more complex definitions. Why you think economics is built on a theory of constant growth somehow related to thermodynamics I don’t know.

              In my view macroeconomics can show that unlimited growth is possible. But many economists disagree with this position and are still economists. I accept their disagreement and don’t call them names.

            5. R2D2 said: “In my view macroeconomics can show that unlimited growth is possible.“.

              Now this exposes you to be in the same mental state as those twiddling with perpetual motion machines. Dream on then in your Starwars reality where the laws of physics no longer matter….

    2. R2D2

      There are not, as you claim, many qualified scientists who are genuinely sceptical of say IPCC projections of temperature change. There are a tiny few.

      The policy makers who are sceptical probably share your give-away description of rapid emission cuts as welfare-maximising. But whatever their reasons are I deny their right to expose others to serious risks, in defiance of science’s predictions.

      Those who want investment in technology first and emissions cuts later simply do not credit the seriousness of mounting emissions.

      You want me to respect what you describe as a spectrum of opinion on this issue. This issue isn’t a debating topic. It’s existential. You might as soon ask me to respect a spectrum of opinion on slavery.

      Yes, I would have New Zealand commit to a more ambitious target on moral grounds. This is a moral issue. The world needs nations who say they will act in accordance with the seriousness of the threat, not spend their time calculating how little they can contribute and get away with it.

      1. “You might as soon ask me to respect a spectrum of opinion on slavery.”

        The premise of the opening part of your piece is that the only reason a CEO can be opposed to emissions reductions is because they are caught by a conflict of interest. Yet in many nations more than 50% of people do not agree sharp reductions are necessary. Your, and Chomksy’s, view that only people who suffer a conflict from our ‘market society’ can disagree sharp immediate cuts are required is delusional. your comment here reinforces this delusion. Why can none of you admit that their is a legitimate debate here? For goodness sake, even Stern could only show reductions were welfare enhancing by taking only the most negative cost forecast for warming (see Tol) and then only the lowest imaginable discount rate (see Nordhaus). I am not saying categorically that Stern is wrong, only that you need to admit the debate is more complicated than Slavery! “This is a moral issue and I am right. And if you disagree with me you are so immoral you may as well argue for a return to slavery.” – come on! Be real.

        1. Is it welfare enhancing not to suffer famines caused by shifting rainfall or burning crops? Is it welfare enhancing not to have to pay for rebuilding cities inland? Is it welfare enhancing for tropical diseases not to spread outside the tropics?

          1. It depends on the opportunity cost of avoidance.

            Likely the welfare maximising pathway is reductions in the medium term, but I do not know. my only point above was that asking these questions does not make one immoral.

            “I am not saying categorically that Stern is wrong, only that you need to admit the debate is more complicated than Slavery!”

        2. Yes R2D2, in some nations over 50% of the people are scientifically illiterate, believe in a young Earth, deny Evolution and are generally incompetent to hold a rational view on matters of science. This state of affairs is then shamelessly exploited by the snake oil salesmen telling them that more Fossil Fuels will bring them more freedom and wealth….

    3. R2’s back! And plus ça change!

      I got as far as…

      There are many scientists who are genuinely sceptical of projections of temperature change due to human greenhouse gas emissions.

      …and called it a day. Anyone who wants to play ‘Round the Houses with R2’ is welcome to it!

      1. So you do not believe that any scientists who are sceptical are actually genuine in their scepticism? You can’t see how anyone could possibly disagree with you and be genuine? This in my mind is the problem with the debate, you do not believe their is one, so you take an extreme view and the debate becomes polarised.

        1. Good question. Genuine scepticism includes answering the tough questions. Something you have manifestly failed to do. So how about it? Answer the question about EG Beck. Your continued failure to do so demonstrates you are indeed not genuine.

          1. If I answered any questions about about Back I would be doing so from a position of ignorance. So my only answer to Beck is that I had never herd of him before you mentioned him, and have not read anything about him apart from what you have said, and have not read any of his work. Where does your obsession with Beck come from?

            1. Keep it simple then. Bob Carter believes EG Beck. Do you believe Bob Carter? What would you accept as proof that EG Beck and/or Bob Carter is wrong?

            2. Bob Carter believes that climate change is very unlikely caused by people. I do not hold this belief. But I also do not believe that this has been proven to be wrong.

              I try to take a balanced view, that:
              – I can not determine what causes climate change
              – Many scientists believe human greenhouse gases
              – Some believe it is primarily natural forces
              – Both parties are genuine in their beliefs

              We should take action to reduce emissions but this should be sensible action, cognisant of what the rest of the world is doing, and based on sound economics. If this is done well then it can be welfare enhancing even if climate change is not caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

            1. I have at best a mild interest in corresponding. Your previous conduct (see 3) suggests you have little interest in facts. Convince me otherwise.

              But (1) you first need to read other commentaries like that at RC so I’m not just rehashing well explored ideas.
     . Read it (and any of the others available) and tell me what you disagree with so I have a start point.

              But (2) I don’t do anonymous emails so you’ll need to drop that in the very first email. I won’t tell anyone else.

              But (3) I’ll need an apology for your previous conduct.
              If you can do all those then let me know.

    4. “Even if one believed that the only rational response to climate change is a target of 80-100% reductions by 2050 applied on a simple basis to every developed nation, Nick Smith is not the leader of the world…” etc. etc.

      Actually we could quite easily say something like “New Zealand today unilaterally commits to a 50% reduction by 2050, in line with existing and anticipated commitments from other developed countries. But New Zealand recognises this is not enough to stave off the serious consequences of climate change and will agree to 90% reduction if either the USA, the EU, or China will also agree to this.” (Or if they agree to stop Tar Sands, or whatever you think is the best option.)

      Would that be unreasonable? I agree with other peoples assertions that we should do the right thing morally, but for the contrarians out there who are concerned about damaging our economy when no one else will (an unproven argument), what stops us from flat out making a commitment that we will do X if someone else does Y?

      1. That sounds reasonable to me.

        “New Zealand targets a 50% reduction but will review this based on the reduction efforts and commitments of other nations. New Zealand will increase this target if it becomes clear that other nations are committed to making the reductions reported to be necessary to avoid warming above 2C from pre-industrial temperatures.”

        1. Given that 50% of NZ emissions are from agriculture, then I would say it is almost impossible to achieve a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050.

          Given that the govt admit they will not meet their 2020 targets on their own website, then I think we can safely say that the govt are talking pure BS in claiming these targets.

          1. Your quite right – the Govt is talking BS on claiming these targets. The targets are impossible at the present time – not because they are unachievable – but because there are not strategies in place to ensure that the targets are met.
            As for agriculture – it is not a god given fact that NZ MUST produce dairy, beef, and mutton, and nothing else. If we are to be a bread basket – we can produce food much more sustainably and efficiently by not concentrating solely on animal based products. I like my meat as much as any NZer, but in recent times I have come to the realization that frankly its not good for the planet. I have varied my diet accordingly and am better for it. We cannot feed the whole of humanity on a diet of beef, butter, and mutton. There isn’t enough land to start with.

        2. Problem is thats too much like the nonsense that we’re getting from the existing failed negotiation process. The first part needs to be a firm commitment, not a target, to what we’re going to do regardless of other countries. The second part needs to clearly state what actions NZ understands are really required based on the science. Every country needs to do this, then negotiations can actually have something to work towards: bringing 1 closer to 2. Otherwise we just continue giant circlejerk that has been the existing negotiation process.

      2. “,,, what stops us from flat out making a commitment that we will do X if someone else does Y?”

        And this is exactly the point where the parallel to slavery comes to mind. Britain was alone and in opposition to the rest of the world when it took on the task of stopping the slave trading ships around Africa. And came very close to bankrupting itself – all because of its moral rejection of slavery and its decision to use its maritime power to stop the trade.

        And it’s also the point where agw mitigation diverges from the slavery issue. Because there are many, many more courses of action available – so there’s no need to risk bankruptcy – just choose among the methods that maximise cost saving and profit enhancement and trade benefits.

    5. many scientists who are genuinely sceptical of projections of temperature change due to human greenhouse gas emissions

      I keep hearing that. How many are there? Who are they? Are they practising scientists? In what scientific fields? Which projections?

  6. R2D2
    With reference to one of your initial remarks:
    “the way in which you disregard disagreement shows the arrogance you possess in this debate”

    This is incorrect. Disagreement is usually disregarded because it is quite simply fatuous.

    1. So you counter my point that your disregard for disagreement is arrogant by stating that most disagreement should be disregarded as being foolish? Wow. So you agree that you can not accept disagreement as being genuine and intelligent, it looks like the low level of debate is set to continue. Great.

      1. I will accept disagreement as being genuine and intelligent when it actually is genuine and intelligent.
        If an argument is in fact foolish then it is not arrogant to say so, merely honest.

Leave a Reply