Thought Protein: The Empty Calories of Smug Policies

Committed Environmentalists generally prefer as friends the people who care deeply about extinction, sustainability, and the environment, strongly over those that don't care.

If you are truly passionate, however, you must also strive to think critically and deeper than slogans and groupthink.

If thinking critically is equated to 'criticism', social popularity takes a hit.

I often hear the argument that a popular message is important to momentum, which is valuable to policy change. However, if popularity is measured with a small smug group and not broad swath of humanity, it quickly sours into useless moral licensing and posed indignation.

The worst possible outcome is a poorly tested 'cure' which has negative environmental outcomes, increases costs on others, and which dissuades a democracy from making other regulations and changes. Many voters have a justifiable resistance to entrusting Authority To The Smug.

The best case for a blog like this one is to establish successful parameters to logically test the future environmental policy makers.  I too often hear people my age promoting passionate causes based on the promise of positive outcomes.  "We protested for disinvestment on our college campuses in the 1980s, and Apartheid in South Africa ended." By inference, the elder protester is taking credit for a major social change that broke a system of authority based primarily on racism.

And the elder protester should take some credit, and should feel some moral sense of accomplishment. But the end of apartheid was also tested by years of argument, legitimate concerns about the relative effectiveness of boycotts, trade bans, and isolation of a society as opposed to integration and positive shared diplomatic approaches.

"I argued for this policy (disinvestment), and Nelson Mandela became the democratically elected black leader of a majority African nation," says the Righteous Professor. That's a true statement, absent the implied parenthetical "(as a result)". As a student of international relations at the time, we discussed the policy, employed critical thinking, and hypothesized about different potential outcomes of disinvestment.

My belief is that Nelson Mandela was a great leader, rather than a bad one, as a result of that very same type of critical thinking, listening to others positions, and his ability to risk popularity with his own group in favor of a long term outcome.

The early Democratic Primary debates were not something I wanted to watch, because you can't have a long and thoughtful debate or dialectic with a dozen people who have limited time to answer questions which (in the short frame I watched) were laden with rhetoric by the "gotcha" questioner.  The moderators were throwing up some good questions, but also some absolutely awful ones for a group that size.

Still, that is the challenge to Democracy.  As Plato noted, rhetoric often trumps logic when politicians address normal people who have only visceral reactions and not deep discussion and fact checking to go by.

My favorite people to be around, socially, often achieve more outcomes because they, or their message, is more popular.  But 20 years from now the "plastic bag ban" will have had some environmental impact, and we don't know if it will be a positive one or a negative one if the idea was never debated and measured. That's my criticism of the rash of single use plastic bans.  I did not see any analysis or sustained logic, and I was labelled an "iconoclast" when I suggested such debate and analysis.

The best available 'analysis' is usually 'lifecycle analysis', which tries to measure the entire cost of energy, extraction, spoilage, cost, scaleability, etc. of an environmental 'solution' and compare that to the status quo (which is usually easier to measure, but not entirely as easy as a null hypothesis would suggest).

The strategy of the blog is to write long stuff which only very critical thinkers will access, and to stimulate the "Nelson Mandelas" who are out their, somewhere, who will be in a position of influence, or teaching others who will influence future policy development.

We are all going to die, after all, and I believe that durable ideas add more value than popular ones.  People think their policies are statues, but ideas are either protein or empty calories, at best, and poison at worst. Labelling things as "poison" when you don't really know if they are poison will just erode public confidence in your nutritional authority.

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