Friday, February 1, 2013

Cause and effect

I just sat through a passionate talk about the state of our planet in the grip of human-caused global warming and mass extinction. I heard all about how WE have created these problems by OUR actions. Excess CO2 in the atmosphere is a direct result of OUR industrial activities. Species are vanishing because of OUR dams and OUR highways and OUR fracking and OUR forest harvesting and OUR manufacturing and OUR dumping of toxins. 

Cause and effect

And, of course, since WE have created the problems, WE are the ones who need to do something about them by changing OUR behavior.

Right. Cause and effect.

But wait a minute here. I haven’t dammed any rivers or built any highways or harvested any forests or manufactured any toxic chemicals. And I strongly suspect that YOU haven’t either. When dealing with cause and effect it is vital that you identify the actual causes. Yes I own a car that was manufactured with the aid of dams and toxic chemicals, a car that releases CO2 into the atmosphere every time I drive it on the highways that my tax dollars have paid for.  

But my behavior was not the cause of these things. The dam wasn’t built so that I could own the car I drive. I have to drive a car because I have to commute, and I have to commute because I am forced into a lifestyle that demands it, and the lifestyle I am forced to engage was created in part by the presence of dams. My tax dollars build highways just like they build drone aircraft and the bombs they drop on unsuspecting children. But I assure you that I don’t give these dollars freely.

Because WE (you and I) have no choice in the matter—WE have several trivial options, but in the end WE are not free to do other than WE do—it makes no sense at all to say that WE are even a proximal cause.  WE (you and I) are forced to occupy part of a causal chain that is smothering the biosphere. But OUR behavior is effect. To think otherwise is delusional. The slave cannot take credit for the existence of the plantation or take the blame for the damage the cane fields do to the local ecosystem.

Setting fire to the master’s house, however, is a different matter entirely...

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