Saturday, March 17, 2007

The status quo

Upon receiving two questions in two days about my intermittent blogging—that's more audience interest than I've ever encountered—I have decided to make my (second?) return.

A good return, of course, hinges on actually having something to say. This may prove to be my failure: while I'm swarming with ideas, they're invariably pedestrian, stupid, or plain deranged. To my delight, however, the folks at Free Exchange have swept in to provide some sweet rant material:

"ONE of the interesting questions that you rarely see debated in the course of discussion climate change is this: what is the optimal temperature for the planet? After all, maybe we'd like earth even better if it were a couple of degrees warmer; I know I could do with less winter, personally.

Almost everyone debating climate change, but particularly those in favour of fairly drastic action, is suffering from status quo bias: the tendency to privilege the current state of things, even when there's a decent amount of evidence that change might be better."

I can't imagine a more inapt example.

We're often confronted with genuinely irrational behavior, where someone will continue to pursue a strategy long after it's become pointless. Status quo bias is a common explanation: people are lazy, and they won't always see when their longstanding arrangements are no longer reasonable. After all, why still use the Electoral College? Because, dammit, we've elected presidents that way for 250 years, and we're not going to stop now.

But however annoying this tendency can be, it shouldn't be conflated with rational—and often critical—examination of transitional costs. Perhaps it would be more efficient to stuff all Duke's departments into a single skyscraper, where physicists would bump into medieval historians, and the sweet harmonies of interdisciplinary academia would fill the Durham air. Probably not. Regardless, this would be an irrational proposal, because the cost of constructing such a tower would drain the university of all its resources. Our current arrangement, where scientists and literary types are almost comically segregated, might not be optimal, but it's too expensive to change.

In the same sense, sure, maybe an average temperature a few degrees warmer could be more efficient for humankind. But nature has already made a tremendous investment in this climate, and it can't change overnight. We're looking at millenia of slow, painful ecological adjustment, as Earth's beneficent flora and fauna update themselves to suit an artificial lurch in warmth. At the end, our wheat harvest might be a little bigger—do untold years of rapid and unpredictable changes in the world around us sound like a reasonable price?

Now, to be fair, the Economist's writer doesn't advocate wholesale ignorance of the climate crisis; in fact, he closes with two reasons why the status quo is pretty damn good. First, we don't know what the optimum temperature might be, and there are no assurances that we wouldn't "overshoot" it in an attempt to fine-tune our surroundings. Second, the costs of miscalculation are awfully high. (Why aren't any plants growing? Oops --forgot to carry the two)

But I still think that his post misses the main point. Even when you have all the data (we don't), and even when you're certain you won't make a mistake (not even close), sticking with a subpar status quo often makes sense, simply because it's so expensive to change.

A more pungent example: Iraq may emerge from its bloody cataclysms a functioning democracy, but that won't immediately justify the suffering that went into the enterprise. In a rational search to improve the world, the presumptive "end" is only one consideration. First you need to get there.