Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Klaus: a green "revolt of mobs" scares me

Today, "Hospodářské noviny", a Czech counterpart of the Financial Times, published an interview with Czech president Václav Klaus.
The Associated Press, AFP, DPA, Czech radio, Czech TV news (WM in Czech), and Czech Press Agency report, too.
Could you please tell our readers who obviously haven't yet read your book why you wrote it?

Because I am very worried about some people's far-reaching attempts to reconstruct the world and revolutionize the behavior of the society. These people use some highly questionable data and hypotheses to deduce what is happening today and what will be happening in the world. And I view it as a threat for freedom. It is not a marginal topic for me. It is not just my wilful act or an attempt to penetrate into media with a novel opinion.

In your book, you distinguish between ideological environmentalists and scientific ecologists. Which people in Czechia belong to these categories?

Environmentalism is a general tendency, a conglomerate of opinions, which is why it is so difficult to identify it with one person.

If we compare it to Marxism, we see that Marx was transparent as he has summarized his ideas in his key manuscripts. A great opus by an author who would describe the theses of environmentalism at the highest level of consequentiality doesn't exist. I don't see such a readable enemy at the ideological level. Of course that I have my enemies on the media-political level. In the global context it is undoubtedly Al Gore; in the Czech context it is the Green Party that is currently represented by its chairman.

It thus seems that the "green movement" is a spontaneous direction, isn't it?

On one hand, it is spontaneous: there surely exists no grand network that would connect all these people into one Internet server. On the other hand, it is a community of people who are connected by their membership in various institutions where they communicate with each other and organize things.

What else do they have in common? Is it some world view or their interpretation of certain problems?

If they share something, it is primarily their huge ambitions and a complete lack of humbleness. It is an attitude that history keeps on bringing us under diverse flags and slogans. It is an attempt of those people to become the center of all events and to change the world according to their visions. And I fear that this issue has the capacity to mobilize larger groups of people: that's why I say that environmentalists are able to initiate a "revolt of the mobs".

This topic is likable and understandable for most people. Catastrophes are always sold well and the extrapolated catastrophicity is now even higher than it used to be in the context of Marxes. I don't think that the goal of these people is to reduce freedom deliberately. When I am going to talk to Al Gore, he will deny it. But I insist that what he proposes does suppress freedom. And it is sad he is not thinking about the consequences.

Doesn't the capacity to mobilize result from a change in the important values - namely that the protection of the environment has become more important a value than anything else?

I understand this idea but I don't think that it is a dominant issue. It is more about these people's ambition to look for any topic, any flag, or any umbrella under which they can hide. And I simply don't believe that they have an authentic interest in nature.

We were more interested in the resonance with the society. Do you think that the protection of the environment only resonates with the society because it is a likable and populistic topic?

No. The resonance in the society is obviously given by the fact that the wealth of a majority of the world has increased well above the level of subsistence. And I believe that similar problems are going to be solved spontaneously, by free acts of Man. We don't need a prophet who thinks that he sees things infinitely more luminously than the rest of us, a prophet who wants to pull the brakes.

In your book about environmentalism it is argued that the discussion about climate change is as unfair as the preparation of the new building of the national library at Letná. What do these two cases share?

They are two almost identical phenomena. Last week I was reading Quadrant, an Australian weekly that I have been following for a long time. There was an interesting essay asking whether obesity is the greatest problem of mankind. I would write an identical text as the author.

The argumentation is the same. Our goal should be to avoid taking things out of their context; to stop looking at isolated effects; we should always see its positive and negative consequences. Both discussions should follow the same model or template, both methodologically and structurally. In reality, the discussion about the national library looks very different. That's the real source of my presidential feeling that I should help to initiate serious discussions about these topics.

What are exactly the similarities between the discussions about environmentalism and about the new library?

I am not sure whether we should expand this debate too much ...

... at least one characteristic feature.

I think that the primordial motivation resulting from a lack of humility and from arrogance is something that these two topics share.

Your contributions to the climate debate are exclusively focusing on economics. You view economics as a general science about the human interactions: you even think that it is the queen of sciences...

... yes, it is a science par excellence.

You say that economics helps us to understand that the value of entities doesn't exist per se because it is always a human being who determines it. Is it also true for ecosystems and the diversity of species? Cannot diversity be a value that transcends the economical methods to evaluate things?

Biodiversity is arguably a value but, again - it is a value for a human being. Without man, it has no value. Biodiversity or the aesthetic beauty of rocks on Mars isn't a value per se. It makes no sense to say the word "value" without a man. There is no value "an sich". There's no criterion that would be independent of existing people. An eye must observe the diversity. Otherwise it makes no sense.

Economics is nothing else than a rigorous analysis of any human problem from this vantage point. In this sense, economics is the most general social science. Economists are being criticized for their effort to promote economics to an imperial science that dominates over others. But I am convinced that economics is indeed the most advanced social science as far as its methodological depth goes.

Economics studies relationships and interactions between people. Each interaction has a character of an "exchange" and in every case, "something is changed for something else". That's why economics may be applied to numerous kinds of relationships that have nothing to do with the words such as market or profit. The perspective of economics is much wider. It is a breakthrough that dramatically opens the horizons to the mankind.

At the end of the chapter "What we should do", you recommend that instead of fights against the greenhouse gases, we should be building standard economic mechanisms because the economic rationality (including thrift) also implies environmental rationality. It looks like strong coffee.

My interpretation of economic rationality is broader than a trivialized, short-term effort to maximize the profit of one firm or another. We have already talked about it a few minutes ago. I even think that there is nothing above economic rationality. It doesn't mean that this rationality can't ever be consciously abandoned. But it is clear that instrumentally speaking, it is a very useful hypothesis to grasp the world.

If I imagined for a while that I would be more friendly towards environmentalists and switched to their mode of thinking, I still can't envision how I could ever define and refine the notion of "environmental rationality". The term is vacuous as it stands. Surely it can't mean to leave nature in the same random state where it was in a random minute of its history. Could something like that be a norm, an ideal, a reference point, a benchmark to determine everything else? Nothing like that makes any sense.

Recently I walked through the Průhonice park in Prague and I enjoyed the beauty of the place. I was thinking that if someone started to demolish it, he would be ruining nature. But what kind of nature? The park didn't exist two hundred years ago. It is likely that there were even no trees over there. You see that the only good benchmark is a human perspective.

Does it mean that you understand environmental efforts at the local level?

The environmental care and thrift is something I endorse and I always will. My colleague Mr Jakl may confirm that I am upset whenever the lights in his office are on even though no one has been in the room for two hours. I have always looked at these things in this way although some pundits will surely try to caricature this attitude.

At the end of your book, you offer an example that is similar to one by your predecessor, Václav Havel, who has complained about the useless trips of butter through Europe. In Japan, you were offered the local mineral water. But in the following day during a lecture, you were given French Evian and you were thinking about the environmental expenses it required -what it takes to import Evian to Japan. Isn't it a typical example showing that the environmental and economical rationalities are incompatible?

I don't believe that it may be profittable to import Evian. It may be profittable for a very particular subject that exports water from France. But it can't be economically profittable from a broader perspective, especially from the consumer's perspective because the price of Evian exceeds the price of the Japanese mineral water.

I also scowl at Czech restaurants that immediately bring me San Pelegrino. I would always tell them No, I want Matonni, a mineral water from Carlsbad, Bohemia, because it is x-times cheaper. Someone may think that if he's caught on a photograph drinking Evian in Japan, it gives him or her a certain stature in the society.

In the 1970s, Fred Hirsch wrote a nice text about luxurious goods and economically perverse behavior. The text is actually about the "positional goods" theory - a theory about goods that give people a certain social status which makes it profittable to consume it.

I don't think that this phenomenon confirms a conflict of economic and environmental rationalities. Instead, the theory about it is a neutral description of what Mr Jakl describes as a "collision of environmentalism with a snob".

But the contemporary, very rich Western societies are indeed controlled in this "perverse way", as you say, increasingly more frequently and this behavior is becoming a norm. It is the brand that sells, not the real value and usability.

As an economist, I don't believe that the people's needs are bound from above. The needs will always be ahead of what is available. A la longue I don't have a feeling that we have already approached a "stop moment" after which people can do nothing else than silly things. The history of our civilization doesn't show anything like that.

Economists strongly controvert concepts that argue that people actually don't want the goods but they are just confused and manipulated by advertisements and marketing. Not even you are so saturated that you wouldn't know "what to do with your pinworms", as we say, that you would have to go to buy the shirt into an ever more expensive shop. I don't believe that this phenomenon occurs.

But you are right that there exists a different point P (perception) at which we start to notice things such as wasting and ecology. I am not denying that because it would be childish.

A strong theme of your book is your belief that men will always have some new ideas how a new, previously unknown or unused resource can be exploited. Aren't you afraid that this progress must inevitably end somewhere or that this creativity will be diminished e.g. by politicians?

I have two comments to say about it. First. Yes, it is a belief: it is a belief in Man. It is an optimistic belief in Man and so far we can see no ends of his ability to invent. On the contrary, people have a feeling that their abilities will keep on growing. There doesn't exist a tiniest reason to abandon this belief.

In fact, even the wisdom about the "knowledge society" - something that is otherwise completely incomprehensible to me - says the same thing, doesn't it? Environmentalists and the "knowledge society" promoters are often the very same people and they live with this gigantic contradiction.

The second comment I want to make is about the interests. People can have myopic economical or political interests as well as interests resulting from imperfections of the markets. In the short term these factors may act negatively but from the viewpoint of eternity, these effects become uninteresting.

You say that environmentalism is a new religion, a new belief. But you have just used the words "belief in Man". It also penetrates throughout your book: it is a belief in invention and technical progress whose factual support is speculative in nature. Aren't you offering just another kind of belief? Moreover, a belief in a man who has been, as a concept, killed in social sciences decades ago?

I don't view the words "belief" and "religion" to be forbidden words that can't be pronounced. I am not ashamed of these words and much like the word "market", I may often use the words in a much more general sense. I don't abominate these words.

You write that even God is no longer around and human rationality is the only thing that remains. Is your "belief in Man" a belief in human rationality, a belief in reason?

The collocations "belief in rationality" and "belief in reason" have connotations that could be misleading. I would prefer to say that my belief is a belief in the standard human behavior.

So is it a belief in "human naturalness"?

Yes, that may be better than the rationality in a certain caricaturable interpretation.

But that already looks like pure metaphysics...

Yes, it is metaphysics par excellence. All of us are metaphysicists.

Václav Klaus II and other members of Greenpeace explain the new book "Pancakish, not round planet".

Michal Růžička, Petr Fischer, Hospodářské noviny, 5/16/2007.

Additional often climate articles on this weblog

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