Do You Care?

The ability to be smart, even very smart, is no guarantee that you won’t sometimes be stupid — even very stupid.


Case in point: in an article in Newsweek, George Will echos the sentiment of Nobel-prizewinner Robert Laughlin, that “The Earth Doesn’t Care if You Drive a Hybrid.” The essay inside is titled “What the Earth Knows,” which is this: What humans do to earth doesn’t matter in the long run, and the long run is what matters to the earth.

This is one of the most destructive, immoral, and yes, stupid arguments ever — not just about global warming, but about any topic anywhere any time. Congratulations to Robert Laughlin for proving beyond doubt that Nobel prize winners are still capable of staggering, mind-boggling stupidity.

It’s true that the earth doesn’t care what we do to it. It’s also true that the earth doesn’t care if you torture, rape, and murder children. Or set up death camps to carry out genocide. Or turn an entire race of human beings into slaves. Truly, the earth doesn’t care if we all die, painfully, miserably — or if George Will and his cronies get filthy rich by selling the health and well-being of the next generation for a hundred dollars a barrel. Let the children die — just don’t take away George Will’s SUV.

Earth doesn’t care if we, or our children, suffer. Apparently, neither does George Will. Or Robert Laughlin.

I care.

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62 responses to “Do You Care?

  1. Whenever I point out that someone’s opinion is based on the idea that humans will always be around , they are shocked.

    We are so socialised to believe in our own dominance that the possibility human extiction is beyond the comprehention of most.

    The question is how to make people aware of the fragility of human persistance.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I hear this argument quite often from sceptics and I find it so extremely silly. Actually, there are probably some “warmists” (for lack of a better word) who appear to be interested in the fate of the earth (instead of the people who live on it) , but I know very few. If you ask them, they most often use quotes as “it is bad for the earth” figuratively.

  3. Well put.

    Frankly I don’t think George Will cares what comes out of his mouth anymore. And if you watch This Week, he always looks shocked(!), shocked I tell you when Arianna or Paul K. disagree with him on national TV and correct the postulations he just pulled out of his butt.

  4. Who cares about geological timescales? We’re people and we’ve done best in a neatly suitable timeframe of 10000 years or so. We’ve got agriculture and we’ve let our population get a bit out of control. We can pull back on that, all we have to do is educate the women and girls of the world and it’s done in a few decades.

    But we should do absolutely everything we possibly can to maintain the air, water, ice combination we have, to keep it going as long as possible. Who knows? One thing we ought to leave following generations is a sufficient stock of fossil fuel to burn to give themselves time to ameliorate the onset of an ice age. I’m not at all concerned (in much the same way as Laughlin is not concerned) that eventually many millions of years from now it is guaranteed that this planet will not be able to support any mammals, let alone us.

    But that’s then and this is now. I’m not willing to sit back and allow things to deteriorate so that people I can just about see in my mind – my unborn grandchildren’s grandchildren – will have to live with limited food and even more limited options about good things in life.

  5. It’s the argument of last resort, scraping the barrel of avoidance. If someone backs you into a moral corner and you have to accpet your actions have implications just say nothing matters. Dishonest nihilism.

    • Herclitus,
      Spot on.
      Their (psuedo-)scientific arguments get dumber as the evidence mounts against them. Likewise with their rhetorical/sophistical arguments. They’re totally bankrupt.

  6. We need to rub George Will’s nose in his own crap. Everyone, please write a letter to NewsWeek pointing out how immoral is George Will’s stance. Bombard them with the truth, and embarrass the hell out of that ass.

  7. It got a reaction from a number of climate scientists which Revkin has published:

    Scientists React to a Nobelist’s Climate Thoughts

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/17/scientists-react-to-a-nobelists-climate-thoughts/

  8. I had the same reaction when I read this article. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid. Of course the Earth doesn’t care. The Earth isn’t a sentient being, it’s a rock flying through space which will continue flying through space with or without humans residing on it.

    Thanks Newsweek for lowering the IQ of everyone reading your magazine.

    • If you want to see how far IQ has been lowered, just read some of the reader comments that follow his “essay” online at Newsweek. They make Watts’ crowd look intelligent.

  9. I don’t know anything about Laughlin, but in his (potential) defense, I’d point out that the story by Will contains very few full sentence quotes. There’s a lot of paraphrasing and lots of partial quotes – a few words here, a few words there – linked by paraphrasing.

    That makes me just a bit suspicious. If the meaning Laughlin intended was right in line with the obvious thrust of the story then Will would have been able to – keen to, in fact – use a lot of full sentence quotes.

    It’s easy to assume Laughlin isn’t a morally vacant bonehead but maybe he’s had his words bent into a shape he hadn’t intended.

  10. Tamino, your link appears to be busted–going to a “subscribe” page, not the article in question.

  11. On second thoughts, I’ve just read his piece in The American Scholar.

    What a lot of ill-informed drivel.

    I should have known.

    He thinks Golden Retrievers are one metre tall. And he won the Nobel for physics?

  12. Isn’t this the old naturalistic fallacy exposed by David Hume:
    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

    If Laughlin states an IS, he has no logical connection to change to OUGHT or OUGHT NOT.

  13. Is Laughlin trying to overthrow Kary Mullis as the Nobel winner to say the stupidest things? Mullis at least has a history of LSD use to blame. What’s Laughlin’s excuse?

  14. I think Robert Laughlin’s essay reads like an AGW denial piece, with an expanded (the- earth-is-older-than-10000-years) geological time section.

    Its confusion probably comes from inadequate transition pieces, in its adaptation from a book-in-progress. I can’t find the link that explains how the ‘potential’ ‘several degrees centigarade’ increase becomes unimportant on geological time scales.

  15. The Earth does not care if one thinks “about the earth’s past in terms of geologic time” scale, modern time scale, or on a whim.

  16. So sad to see what Newsweek has become. Thirty years ago it had an uncanny ability to pick what was about to become an issue, to read Newsweek was to be ahead of the curve. Now; do they even know the earth is round?

  17. What is more bizarre is the total faith that deniers have that, whatever we do to the planet, we will be alright.

    Most credible people recognise that there are uncertainties in climate science. Why do deniers obviously strongly believe that the uncertainties of outcome will be in our favour? In any risk analysis of the future, it seems obvious to me that I have to consider the consequences of the top end of the predicted range of outcomes of climate disruption before I can proportionately assess the relative cost and benefits of action or inaction. I also have to consider that there may be “unknown unknowns” (which were obviously not incorporated in the models and their predictions) which could severely bite us – the recent discoveries about plummeting plankton levels may be one of these.

    Deniers are just convinced that we will get away with anything we do, as if we had some divine right or something…

  18. IMO, a lot of what passes for “argument” is rooted in not really caring, but openly saying so would be met with such public derision that it’s masked with various red herring arguments. It’s always much easier not to have to care about consequences of actions, and our age seems to have perfected this. Knowledge, critical though it is, takes a back seat to caring.

  19. You could slam a planetesimal the size of Venus into the Earth and completely sterilize it and boil all the oceans, and the Earth would not care.

  20. John Saint-Smith

    I think we have a lot of posters here who have confused the literal with the metaphorical. Laughlin appears to me to be saying, not that the earth doesn’t care, as you and I might care, but that it will not be perturbed, in a geological sense.
    Before you get your blow torches out, may I add that this qualification does nothing to change the quality of scientific reasoning in the Nobel laureate’s ponderous pontification – it is rabid nonsense, none the less.

  21. Nick Palmer
    “Deniers are just convinced that we will get away with anything we do, as if we had some divine right or something…”

    Manifest Destiny is still part of the American conservative mind set, IMO.
    There’s always more where that came from, and the chosen people were given this continent by God. Also, settlers on the frontier didn’t like gubmnt back east telling them what they could or couldn’t do.

  22. Gavin's Pussycat

    Sometimes I wonder if I should care — or more precisely, if I should allow my concern to affect my state of mind, as obviously nobody is paying attention. I mean, survival isn’t a human right. It has to be earned. Perhaps this rock, and all the other species on it, will be better off without us, if that be our choice.

  23. From the original essay, ” It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn.”

    It seems to me Laughlin’s pointing out the actual reality and not what you’d like to believe. Humans are going to burn precisely as much carbon as it takes to improve and implement our technologies firstly to the point where there is sufficient energy available from alternate sources and secondly when it is more economical to not burn carbon anymore because the non-carbon choice is truely cheaper. Current indications would have that firmly towards the “all of it” rather than quickly reducing amounts.

    When I read the essay, I cant see that he’s advocating “not caring” as you guys want him to be saying, rather he’s painting it like it is.

    Oh and a golden retriever sitting up might be about a meter tall. You just see what you want to see with these essays which says as much about your frustration and anger as it does about your comprehension. Consider this, he clearly IS a clever man. Do you now feel less inclined to believe in acting against AGW for reading his essay?

    [Response: His essay REEKS of "it doesn't matter what we do so let's not bother" and is an obvious attempt to legitimize inaction. You are the one who needs to take the blinders off, stop being an apologist for a clever man who produced an idiotic essay.]

  24. Michael Tobis has covered Will and Laughlin in a reaction to an article by Revkin

    http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2010/09/revkin-on-laughlin.html

    The full article by Laughlin is here

    http://www.theamericanscholar.org/what-the-earth-knows/

    In the parts pertaining to mankind is likening our influence on the ecosystem to the previous five mass extinction events. I read him as finding that CO2 from fossil fuels (he assumes humanity will burn it all, no matter what) to only be a comparably small and transient problem in comparison.

  25. Do you now feel less inclined to believe in acting against AGW for reading his essay?

    No. Regardless of what he says, even if his premise is correct, it does matter if we put all the carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere over the next several decades, over the next several centuries, or over the next several millenia.

    Claiming otherwise, as he does, qualifies as a bone-headed mistake, not cleverness.

  26. To quote George Carlin, “The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked.”

    Unlike Carlin, who felt that narrow minded self-interest on the part of environmentalists invalidated their arguments, I’m perfectly fine with self-interest (or rather humanity-interest) being a driving force behind environmentalism, the quest for clean energy, etc. I like homo sapiens, after all, and I’d really like it if we survived as a species.

  27. Am I the only one who thinks that using “the time of Moses” as an historical measure is a bit suspicious? Maybe this is the difference between writing for a UK and US audience.

  28. Am I the only one who thinks that using “the time of Moses” as an historical measure is a bit suspicious?

    When coupled with strange comments about “continental drift” and our inability to explain past climates, as well as similar comments regarding orbital changes, it makes one wonder, doesn’t it?

  29. > Moses
    I wondered about that (and the Genesis flood) over at MT’s thread:

    http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2010/09/revkin-on-laughlin.html

  30. There are some interesting responses in the Revkins NY Timest article regarding Laughlins essay. Here is one from a professor at Harvard that confronts Lauglins premise with some sharp points:

    Daniel Schrag, Harvard:
    “Yes, there can be natural climate changes over thousands or millions of years that are large compared to what we are experiencing now. But in fact, our actions have risen well above the level of any natural variations because of their pace. Without our use of fossil fuels, we should be descending into another glacial maximum – albeit slowly, over tens of thousands of years (the pace of natural global climate change in the Pleistocene). And instead our actions have interfered with this natural cycle and we are in the process of completely deglaciating the planet.

    Indeed, if one takes David Archer’s calculations seriously (and we should), roughly 20 percent of the CO2 that comes from burning fossil fuel will be there tens of thousands of years from now, and so if we end up well above 400 parts per million for tens of thousands of years, there is much less doubt that Greenland will melt in its entirety and that Antarctica may well deglaciate as well. The idea that the climate system is so powerful that it is beyond human influence is simply incorrect….”

    Ya gotta love this one from Professor Karl Wunch of MIT:
    “………..I’m reminded of the old joke about the man falling off the Empire State Building who as he passes the 30th floor says “so far so good.” Civilization arose and thrives in a rather narrow climate range. And the earth never before had 6+billion people. I wonder if Laughlin has views about proliferation of nuclear weapons? After all, the amount of energy releasable is a tiny fraction of what we get from the sun — so why worry? “

  31. After all, the debate is about whether or not we do in fact burn all the fossil fuel we possibly could. I don’t think it’s a given that we will–we didn’t burn every tree, nor kill every whale for whale oil that we possibly could. If we use our (often double-edged) cleverness correctly, we don’t have to burn all the fossil reserves, either.

    So I reject the attempt to make “we’ll burn it all” into a self-fulfilling prophecy via the meme of “inevitability.”

  32. David B. Benson

    Luaghlin is obviously barrowly educated. Where and for what did he deserve a Nobel Prize in Physics?

    • If I may attempt a summary of something that is quite over my head — and someone please correct me if you can do better, he received the Nobel for a theory describing the behavior of excitations in the superfluids (e.g., liquid helium at near absolute zero) in terms of wave functions and a vaiational approach that explains the existence of fractional charges — similar to an explanation used in an adiabatic thought experiment for integral quantum hall effect.

      Please see:

      Nobel Prize Autobiography: Robert B. Laughlin

      http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1998/laughlin-autobio.html

      In his defense I must say that his views regarding the inevitability of our use of all fossil fuel may very well make a great deal of sense — under the assumption that humanity is similar to a near absolute zero superfluid.

  33. adelady,
    you gravely underestimate how important human population is and will be…

    • Jacob, for population issues, the increases we’re facing are the result of previous increases. I’m absolutely serious when I say that educating women and girls is the answer. Always and everywhere around the world, when you educate the girls the birthrate plummets. More importantly, when you educate girls you not only decrease the numbers of children born you increase the age at first birth.
      If you do yourself a little chart and look at the effect on a total population of increasing age at first birth by 5 or 10 years (even if you leave the number of births the same) there is a serious effect on population. In countries that need this education the most, a 10 year delay in first birth coupled with a reduction of just one or two in average family size has a huge cumulative effect. Much like the huge cumulative effect of continuing as we are.

  34. There is so much natural gas reserves that we will all be dead before it even appears to get real low…

  35. Anne van der Bom

    Your house doesn’t care if I burn it down

  36. Oh and Kevin I appreciate your thoughtful and accurate posts here and over at RC as well.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jacob. I’m flattered. (Though I’m aware of a few occasions when the accuracy slipped a little!–but that’s part of the learning process, I suppose.)

  37. This cartoon fits the occasion, I think…
    [IMG]http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20100922.gif[/IMG][/URL]

  38. No one is alsway 100% accurate or knowledgeable Kevin and hopefully we are learning everyday.

  39. I wonder if anyone has asked Robert Laughlin why he ever struggled to unravel the mysteries of the behavior of excitations in superfluids. What is the point of all that research and labor and time if no one can appreciate or make use of it? If civilization collapses, it will effectively render moot everything he has accomplished.

  40. Besides George Will, let’s not forget the quarter or so of the U.S. population that thinks it’s ALL about humanity, and changing our behavior is unimportant because Jesus with return within their lifetimes and yank them out of their SUVs to heaven, leaving the Earth to be destroyed anyway.

  41. • Statistical methods for meteorology and climate change, 12-14 January 2011, CRM, Montreal. Workshop organized by Jean-François Angers, Anne-Catherine Favre, Reinhard Furrer, Philippe Naveau, Doug Nychka, Luc Perreault, Richard L. Smith, Claudia Tebaldi, Han von Storch and Francis Zwiers.

    Hat tip to: http://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/math-and-the-environment-in-montreal/

  42. My teenager says the following when the issue of global warming comes up:

    1. the climate has always changed
    2. humans can live in extreme environments, hot and cold. We live in Africa and the Arctic.
    3. animals and plants adapted in the past and will adapt now to new conditions
    4. even if they don’t adapt, plants and animals have gone extinct before
    5. the earth will still be here no matter how hot it gets

    Of course, everything above is technically correct.

    Yes, the climate has changed in the past, but this time, we are doing it and doing it fast.

    Yes, humans live in extreme environments, but the richness of our current civilization came about during a period of relative climate stability when we could develop culture and technology and population that would not be possible under harsher climactic conditions.

    Yes, animals and plants have adapted to climate change in the past, but this change is very fast and the prospects are that many species will not be able to adapt and will go extinct.

    Yes, plants and animals have gone extinct before, but in the past those extinctions were due to non-human forces. When the extinction is because of us, our actions, we are responsible. We are moral animals and thus we have to come to terms with the consequences of our actions on our own kind and other species.

    Finally, yes, the earth will still be here even if we were to get as hot as mercury but there will be no life on it and that would be a tragedy.

    There is so much more to it than just these simple statements. Only an under-developed frontal cortex — or a person in denial — would produce the above arguments, failing utterly to see the larger implications of a climate shift of more than 2-3C.

    The problem is that, at base, she fears the prospects of global warming. It feels too big to her and so she is trying to find ways to assuage that fear by denying its reality. Those who downplay the seriousness of global warming using such arguments are in denial.

    • David B. Benson

      Yup.

      More immediately, agriculture becomes considerably more difficult and impossible in places where it was previously possible.

      Whatcha gonna eat?

      • Yes, some plants and some animals do adapt to changes, the troubles begin when they don’t do it on the same pace. I mean, CO2 is the staple food of plants (well they need a whole bunch of other things too), they’re reliant on it. Many animals however can eat a whole bunch of different things as their staple food, this means there’s an imbalance in the opportunities between plants and animals, which may lead to eradication of nutritious animal food. The overshoot sets in, and after it the ecosystem is changed, if the area has become physically too different from the starting situation (maybe due erosion or whatelse).

      • When I was an undergrad at Ohio State I roomed one year with a guy who came from a long-time agricultural family. He said he once had a discussion with someone who said; “We don’t really need farmers–we could always get by eating canned food if we had to”.
        !!!

  43. David B. Benson

    jyyh | September 27, 2010 at 3:56 am | — Think kudzu.

  44. David B. Benson – I’m not personally acquainted, but it sounds it is quite a vine. It’s Himalayan Balsam here in the north.

  45. Philippe Chantreau

    Susann, take your teenage daughter up on her arguments. Send her to the Arctic to live with the locals for 2 weeks, then have her do the same thing in some remote location in Mauritania. I know it may not be financially realistic, but it would certainly be an eye opening experience. Once she’s done, have her read Ruddiman and Jared Diamond.
    Teenagers…

  46. David B. Benson – Finland… :-)

  47. Marion Delgado

    The part of the Earth that’s the species we’re destroying is irreversibly impacted, and that’s a lot of non-human biomass. Either don’t personify the Earth, or admit it does care about this stuff. The first yahoo I heard make this claim was Ted Nugent.

  48. Ted Nugent. . . a New-Age sensitive guy–not.