Thursday, December 23, 2010

On compromise and the environment

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Compromise is a part of daily life for most of us - we compromise on where to go to get a beer with friends, we compromise on what experiments to try in the lab, we compromise on who cleans what room of the house. These are not compromises on values and ethics and approaches to life, per se, rather these are personal compromises, the effects of which really don't extend beyond a few people, are not consequential for a long period of time. On the other hand, there are compromises at the other end of the size-of-the-effect spectrum - government decisions and international relations decisions. Such compromises sometimes throw competing cultural norms and values at each other, and can lead to sanctions and war, or peace and resilience. Such decisions can lead to lasting peace, bringing to an end years of conflict, or can lead to lasting war, bringing to end years of threadbare stability. Our governments are founded around the notion of compromise and inherently affect the lives of broad swaths of people - just take a look at the health insurance debates over the last two years. We can all agree that health insurance, and health care in general, is important. But there are vastly different approaches to how people think such large problems can be or should be addressed. What is interesting about compromising is that in general, one side gets more of what they want than the other side. Say there are two competing sides, one that argues that mountaintops should not be blown up to mine coal (zero units of removal, the no side), and other side that does advocate for mountaintop removal (say, 100 units of removal, the yes side). If one were to adjudicate a debate like this looking for a compromise, they may recommend 50 units of removal, or maybe even 25 units of removal, maybe even 10. (This is the sort of adjudication that has been happening in Appalachia for many decades now...) But the true outcome of such a compromise is that the no is lost completely, and even though the yes side gets less than what it wants. The yes side still gets what it wants, and the no side gets nothing at all. (It is sort of like the riddle from La Vita e Bella, where a patron at the restaurant asks the protagonist of the movie, "If you say my name, I am no longer there. What am I?" The answer is 'silence.' As soon as anything said, no matter how softly, the silence is lost completely and totally.) Such have been compromises with the environment. As Matt has been telling me over the past few days about regulation of emissions from aviation and shipping, even though companies would prefer no compromise over regulation, any regulation sets them a non-zero limit to do exactly what they want, and the side that loses out is the one that pushes for a zero limit. Such a compromise is vastly different than a compromise on how high to set interest rates given long-term economic performance, because a compromise on the environment necessarily compromises the long-term ability of our planet to provide for our society. Compromises on mountaintop removal in Appalachia have led to significant and extremely sad environmental and cultural degradation.

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