I’m always interested when the global warming controversy gets linked with the smoking controversy. Here’s someone who’s comparing both of them with the abolition of slavery.
Addressing climate change requires a shift in cultural attitudes about greenhouse gas emissions on a scale similar to the rise of abolitionism in the 19th century, according to a new study.
The conversation over climate disruption, in other words, must morph from a collection of scientific or moral facts to a set of established social facts, said University of Michigan researcher Andy Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the Ross School of Business.
Hoffman’s analysis, published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, compares current cultural norms on climate science to historical societal views on smoking and slavery.
“At core, this is a cultural question,” Hoffman said via Skype from Oxford University, where he is on sabbatical. The change in attitudes about smoking in the 20th century is similar. “The issue was not just whether cigarettes cause cancer. It was whether people believed it. The second process is wholly different from the first.”
For years, Hoffman noted, researchers raised the alarm over data linking smoking to lung cancer, only to see the public ignore it. Gradually awareness shifted, and now the public widely accepts the fact that smoking and second-hand smoke causes cancer, with bans on public smoking increasing and smoking rates and deaths on decline.
“They have become ‘social facts,’ and with that shift, action becomes possible,” he said.
Abolition offers an even more telling example of the difficulties associated with changing deeply set economic structures.
In the 1700s slavery was a primary source of energy and wealth worldwide, especially for the British Empire. Abolitionism challenged that way of life and threatened to trigger economic collapse. It took more than 100 years, several uprisings and a civil war to change cultural norms and abolish slavery.
Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, Hoffman said, few in the 21st century see a moral problem with burning fossil fuels.
The shift in value requires a new cultural perspective, he added.
Is that all it’s about: changing cultural attitudes?
As I see it, the global warming controversy is primarily a matter of science, not cultural values. Either carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing catastrophuc global warming, or it isn’t. If it is, we’ll have to do something about it. If it isn’t, we don’t. I don’t see where cultural attitudes come into it. Or rather, cultural attitudes would seem to be lagging indicators rather than leading indicators. If catastrophic global warming is real, we will change our attitudes and outlook as we change our ways.
The same is true of smoking. Either smoking causes lung cancer, or it doesn’t. And either passive smoking causes a smaller amount of lung cancer, or it doesn’t. It’s a question for science to answer. Cultural attitudes don’t come into it. Or, cultural values will slowly shift in response to the established science.
Unfortunately, in both cases, we no longer have anything that can be called an impartial and objective science. Tobacco research is entirely dominated by antismoking zealots, and their ‘scientific studies’ reflect their antismoking prejudices. And climate science is more or less entirely dominated by environmentalist zealots who use the science to further their particular ideology. In both areas, ideology drives science, rather than the other way round. Neither science can’t be trusted as being objective..
Part of the problem with the global warming debate is the strong suspicion that cause and effect may have been swapped. For the while the global warming alarmists say that it is the rise in carbon dioxide levels which causes global warming, the climate sceptics point out that historical records from ice cores suggest that it’s the other way round, and global warming causes an increase in carbon dioxide levels, as the warming oceans outgas dissolved CO2.
The same substitution of cause for effect may even be true in the smoking controversy. It may be that, far from smoking causing lung cancer, smoking actually acts to prevent lung cancer (as Sir Ronald Fisher argued using the data from the 1950 London Hospitals study, and which a variety of subsequent researchers have also suggested).
And is the abolition of slavery comparable to either of these? The way it’s talked about and written about, you’d think that slavery was abolished because a lot of kind-hearted people suddenly recognised, as nobody before them in the entirety of human history, that the institution of slavery was a social evil. There was, in short, a shift in values or cultural values, and then a change in behaviour.
But I suspect that it wasn’t like that at all. The abolition of slavery coincided with the appearance of large numbers of steam and water power machines. The machines were the new iron slaves, that were increasingly replacing the old human slaves in performing hard labour, because it was economically more efficient to do so. The shift in moral values, by which slavery became abhorrent, was simply economic virtue dressing itself in the clothes of moral virtue. As steam engines and railways began marching across Britain, it no longer made economic sense to employ labourers to perform most heavy work, and what was economic sense rapidly became moral sense as well.
Much the same would appear to have been true in the USA on the eve of the American Civil War. It was the North which had become newly industrialised, while the South remained a traditional agricultural society. In the North, slavery had become economically unnecessary, and had therefore come to be seen as a social evil. In the South, slavery remained economically necessary, and was therefore seen as morally blameless.
In fact, the really great emancipation which took place at the same time was the emancipation of horses and oxen, which were animal slaves, from the task of drawing ploughs and carts and carriages. Yet nobody claims that this happened because of a change in moral outlook towards animals that preceded their emancipation. Instead our modern, sentimental, touchy-feely, environmentalist attitude towards animals is one that has only become possible now that we no longer need animals to do the ‘donkey work’, and can see them as fluffy pets to be looked after. So we now have an Animal Liberation Front which has arrived 100 years after animals were liberated from slavery.
Cause and effect have been exchanged. It’s not that moral change spearheaded economic change, but that economic change permitted and encouraged a concomitant moral change: our contemporary smug and braying righteous can only be righteous because they can afford to be.
And it follows that, should our righteous environmentalists ever succeed in returning us to a pre-industrial era, reversing the economic developments of the past few centuries, the almost certain result would be the re-appearance of both human and animal slavery, followed rapidly by a parallel shift in social values to make slavery morally and socially acceptable once again. Which is probably not quite what they had in mind.
Underlying Hoffman’s idea of society is the mistaken belief that change happens when enough people want it to happen, and that it only took enough people to want to abolish slavery for it to be abolished. Thinking of this sort leads naturally to attempts at social engineering in order to change attitudes and norms. For it is believed that if people can just be ‘re-educated’, in schools and through mass media propaganda campaigns, real social change will follow. But if people’s beliefs and outlooks simply mirror the reality in which they find themselves, such re-education is bound to fail, because it will provide people with a set of values and expectations which is not in accord with that reality.
Looking at all these possible examples of cause being swapped with effect, I wonder whether it may be that all our modern political disputes, whether about smoking or AGW or slavery or anything else, are all too often more debates about the logic of cause and effect than anything else.
For example, was it the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s that caused the contraceptive pill to come into widespread use? Or was it the contraceptive pill that caused the sexual permissiveness, as sex ceased to be fraught with the danger of unwanted pregnancy? Did changing morality drive changes in social reality, or did changing social reality drive changes in morality?