I'm not going to assess the policy merits of Nobel Prize-winning economist (and aspiring philosopher) Amartya Sen's piece in the New Republic, Stop Obsessing About Global Warming. Because as a lengthy and repetitious series of platitudes calling for a more “rational assessment” of the problem, it doesn’t possess any substantive merits or demerits. What interests me is how terrible this article is as an attempt by an intellectual to communicate with the general public.
If the content of the piece were to suit its breezy, click-baity title, we'd expect a global warming denialist rant by someone out past their curfew from a right-wing version of Gawker. Instead we get what is an atrociously written, repetitious, and very boring academic policy paper calling for humanity to think more deeply about how to tackle climate change. More than 4,000 words long, it is rife with passive voice and phrases like "normative framework" and "inclusive of the externalities involved." It begins with this stunningly generic sentence: "Our global environment has many problems."
This is not a matter, as some have argued recently in response to Nicholas Kristof's critique of academic jargon, of needing big words (and big, bad sentences) to convey big ideas. Professors are supposed to be able to explain complex ideas to neophytes: that it was it means to "profess." Whether they’re in front of a classroom, writing for a general audience, or writing for an academic journal, it is part of their job. And it’s very unlikely that their work is jargon-laden and poorly written out of mere profundity. More likely than not, especially in the humanities, a professor understands what they’re talking about with precisely as much clarity as they can muster when they talk about it. Very probably their jargon and obscurity is a sort of academic mating display, an attempt to puff themselves up into something more intellectually formidable than they really are. And likely they got into the habit of such displays because they are today commonly part of the bizarre courting ritual required to win academic positions. Within the confines of the university, academics can get away with such posturing, because they’ve created a pact in which they promise never to ask each other to put on any intellectual clothing. Outside of the university, there are impolite commoners who don’t know better than to point and stare.
Take this sentence: "Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge." I assume that Sen means that we don't yet know how to weigh the benefits of fighting global warming against its costs, because we haven’t fully established our criteria for such analysis. What kinds of costs? Well, the dangers of using nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, and the costs to the project of fighting poverty, which requires energy use. This turns out to be the substance of many long, jargon-laden paragraphs.
Now try to swallow down, if you can, this sentence: "Without going into the challenges of uncertainty-inclusive evaluation more fully here, I should point to the understanding that there are many different ways of speculating on usable estimates of probabilities, within intervals of values, that allow us to reason about ranges of comparative costs."
What does this mean? That there's a way to perform some sort of quantitative cost-benefit analysis here, despite the fact that uncertainty in our assumptions will lead to a certain amount of uncertainty in our conclusions? I’m not certain. But beyond the clumsiness of this sentence -- its absurd syntax -- I'm just amazed that some editor at the New Republic let phrases like "uncertain-inclusive evaluation" and "within intervals of values" go without explanation.
Ultimately, and via a series of very un-scenic detours, Sen comes out against global warming denialism, as well as the political partisanship and public apathy concerning the issue. He endorses sustainable development, and a certain kind of non-anthropocentric environmentalism in which we take into account more than the long-term costs to human beings, and do something to improve the environment rather than merely minimize our effects on it. These are fine generalizations for a brief, well-written op-ed. To get more than 4,000 words requires padding it with this sort of platitude: "The need to go beyond unidirectional thinking about the environment is extremely strong right now."
Finally, there is Sen’s attempt to add a little bit of surplus philosophical value, as if philosophy were an exotic spice to be sprinkled into his ham water soup of a policy analysis. (Usually the amateur misuse of philosophy for their academic mating displays is the province of literary theorists and sociologists, but there’s no reason economists shouldn’t give it a try as well.) That’s where phrases like “normative framework” come in, not to mention Sen’s evocation of Buddhism to suggest that our power over the lives of the animals affects our “fiduciary responsibility” toward them. Just a few more philosophy sprinkles like this, and we’ll have a very robust normative framework indeed.
In the meantime, isn’t it sad that the editors at the New Republic, instead of editing this into something readable, tried to seduce us into this La Brea Tar Pit of writing with an entirely misleading headline worthy of Buzzfeed? Next up: The 10 Most Loveable Pets of the Week (where by “pets,” we mean “alternative energy sources”).
-- Wes Alwan