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Posts For: February 6, 2007

The Global-Warming “Consensus”

I thought that Max Boot’s analogy between the conventional wisdom on climate change and the pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s WMD’s was an apt one. But I’m not sure why he concluded from this that conservatives should abandon their skepticism about efforts to “fight” climate change by curtailing CO2 emissions. It seems to me that one should logically draw the opposite conclusion—namely, that we ought to be wary of the “consensus” of “experts” on matters where the uncertainty is large, the stakes are high, and political pressures are at work.

In this respect, the latest IPCC Summary for Policymakers doesn’t really do much to change the picture. (These summaries have tended to offer a rather skewed representation of the actual reports they purport to summarize, as the Wall Street Journal reminds us.) The latest summary hardly even qualifies as news: it merely reiterates the “consensus” that human activity has contributed to an increase in the atmospheric levels of various greenhouse gases, and that such increases are correlated with climate change. Whereas previous IPCC reports told us that a causal relationship was simply likely, now we are told that it is almost certain. The question is, precisely what kind of causation is almost certain?

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I thought that Max Boot’s analogy between the conventional wisdom on climate change and the pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s WMD’s was an apt one. But I’m not sure why he concluded from this that conservatives should abandon their skepticism about efforts to “fight” climate change by curtailing CO2 emissions. It seems to me that one should logically draw the opposite conclusion—namely, that we ought to be wary of the “consensus” of “experts” on matters where the uncertainty is large, the stakes are high, and political pressures are at work.

In this respect, the latest IPCC Summary for Policymakers doesn’t really do much to change the picture. (These summaries have tended to offer a rather skewed representation of the actual reports they purport to summarize, as the Wall Street Journal reminds us.) The latest summary hardly even qualifies as news: it merely reiterates the “consensus” that human activity has contributed to an increase in the atmospheric levels of various greenhouse gases, and that such increases are correlated with climate change. Whereas previous IPCC reports told us that a causal relationship was simply likely, now we are told that it is almost certain. The question is, precisely what kind of causation is almost certain?

Some facts are not in serious dispute: the earth has certainly warmed over the past 120 years, by somewhat less than one degree Centigrade; atmospheric levels of CO2 have increased from about 270 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in pre-industrial times to about 385 ppmv today; and all else being equal, increased CO2 should contribute to warming. But it is warming’s potential corollaries, such as droughts, rising sea levels, and increased storm activity, that worry people—and which are far less certain to occur than simple warming, as the IPCC Summary acknowledges.

Trying to estimate the human contribution to these various trends merely compounds the unknowns. But let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that everything that Al Gore has said about climate change, its anthropogenic origins, and our need to respond immediately to it is true. Does it follow from this assumption that the best solution is to impose Kyoto-style caps on industrial emissions, or some sort of carbon tax? Not so fast. There’s another question we should be asking first: where’s the CO2 coming from?

Much of it does come from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and industry, as we all know by now. But up to a third of the CO2 added to the atmosphere by human beings comes from the combustion of biomass in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Burning biomass isn’t exactly a clean process—it directly releases various pollutants, including aerosols (which contribute to climate change in ways that are still unclear), nitrogen oxides (major contributors to smog), and methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2).

I haven’t done the math, but it seems pretty obvious that trying to end biomass burning—for example, by boosting aid to Africa—would be a much more effective first step in combating climate change than the Kyoto Protocol, which, as even its backers acknowledge, will accomplish more or less nothing. It would probably be much cheaper, too. So why don’t we hear more about the biomass burning problem?

My hunch is that it’s for the same reason we don’t hear climate watchdogs aggressively promoting low-carbon energy sources like nuclear power: they are less interested in the problem than in solutions that involve more government, less industry, and a redistribution of wealth. If this is true, conservatives are right to remain highly skeptical. One doesn’t have to be scientifically literate to recognize the political attractiveness of the climate-change issue to the Al Gores of the world.

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Green Judaism

I’ve just read an enthusiastic article in the Forward on the subject of “eco-Judaism,” a small but growing movement within American Judaism that seeks to emphasize the connection between environmentalism and Judaism, and to recast environmentally-friendly acts, such as driving a gas-efficient car or using fluorescent rather than ordinary light bulbs, as mitzvot, Jewish ritual commandments.

Why do I find this concept so silly?

It’s certainly not because I doubt the importance of environmental values if this planet is to remain livable. And it’s certainly not because I think that Judaism, a religion in which I grew up and am reasonably well-versed (even if I don’t observe it very much today), shouldn’t try to make itself relevant to contemporary problems.

But there’s a big difference between trying to make Judaism relevant to contemporary problems, and trying to turn it into a reflection of contemporary attitudes. And it’s the latter of these two activities that “eco-Judaism” is engaged in. As such, it’s really—like many other kinds of modern Judaism before it, starting with the Reform movement in 19th-century Germany—more of an “echo-Judaism.”

I’d like to propose a simple test to determine if “eco-Judaism” is a natural outgrowth of Jewish theology and thought. Suppose you’re not already an environmentalist. Would a knowledge of rabbinic Jewish texts and traditions turn you into one?

The answer, of course, is no. The fact is that rabbinic Judaism, traditionally, has had very little to say about environmental problems, for the simple reason that Jews have lived for the better part of their history in the Diaspora—and the Diaspora was never considered by them to be their true environment. The rabbis thought about many things, but the environment, in the sense in which the word is now used, was never one of them.

Judaism has much to teach the world and much to learn from it. When it comes to environmentalism, its place is on the learning end. There’s no such thing as “eco-Judaism.” There are Jews who care—as we all should—about the physical health of the planet we live on. But for that, you don’t have to be Jewish.

I’ve just read an enthusiastic article in the Forward on the subject of “eco-Judaism,” a small but growing movement within American Judaism that seeks to emphasize the connection between environmentalism and Judaism, and to recast environmentally-friendly acts, such as driving a gas-efficient car or using fluorescent rather than ordinary light bulbs, as mitzvot, Jewish ritual commandments.

Why do I find this concept so silly?

It’s certainly not because I doubt the importance of environmental values if this planet is to remain livable. And it’s certainly not because I think that Judaism, a religion in which I grew up and am reasonably well-versed (even if I don’t observe it very much today), shouldn’t try to make itself relevant to contemporary problems.

But there’s a big difference between trying to make Judaism relevant to contemporary problems, and trying to turn it into a reflection of contemporary attitudes. And it’s the latter of these two activities that “eco-Judaism” is engaged in. As such, it’s really—like many other kinds of modern Judaism before it, starting with the Reform movement in 19th-century Germany—more of an “echo-Judaism.”

I’d like to propose a simple test to determine if “eco-Judaism” is a natural outgrowth of Jewish theology and thought. Suppose you’re not already an environmentalist. Would a knowledge of rabbinic Jewish texts and traditions turn you into one?

The answer, of course, is no. The fact is that rabbinic Judaism, traditionally, has had very little to say about environmental problems, for the simple reason that Jews have lived for the better part of their history in the Diaspora—and the Diaspora was never considered by them to be their true environment. The rabbis thought about many things, but the environment, in the sense in which the word is now used, was never one of them.

Judaism has much to teach the world and much to learn from it. When it comes to environmentalism, its place is on the learning end. There’s no such thing as “eco-Judaism.” There are Jews who care—as we all should—about the physical health of the planet we live on. But for that, you don’t have to be Jewish.

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Bookshelf

• Brian Friel, who is widely and rightly thought to be the greatest living English-language playwright, has had two good Broadway seasons in a row. Last season’s brilliant revival of Faith Healer was followed a couple of weeks ago by a similarly impressive production of Translations. (If you haven’t seen it, do so as soon as possible.) Alas, fewer than a half-dozen of Friel’s two dozen-odd plays are staged with any frequency in this country, and the main purpose of The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (Cambridge University Press, 177 pp., $29.99 paper), edited by Anthony Roche, is to introduce non-Irish readers to a wider range of his work than they are likely to have encountered on their own. Most of the essays are good, a few superlatively so, and I unhesitatingly recommend Patrick Burke’s “Friel and Performance History” and Richard Allen Cave’s “Friel’s Dramaturgy: The Visual Dimension” to anyone even slightly interested in the author of Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing at Lughnasa.

Warning: Cambridge Companions usually contain a couple of ultra-academic duds, and this one is no exception. I read “Performativity, Unruly Bodies, and Gender in Brian Friel’s Drama” and “Brian Friel as Postcolonial Playwright” so you wouldn’t have to. Forewarned is forearmed!

• Barbara M. Fisher, professor emerita of English at the City University of New York, is the author of Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous and Noble Numbers, Subtle Words: The Art of Mathematics in the Science of Storytelling. She is also an alumna of New York City Ballet, for which she danced between 1947 and 1958, back in the days when she was known as Barbara Milberg. She splits the difference and bills herself as Barbara Milberg Fisher on the dust jacket of In Balanchine’s Company: A Dancer’s Memoir (Wesleyan University Press, 211 pp., $24.95), a splendid little memoir of her professional association with the greatest choreographer of the 20th century.

Surprisingly few dancers who worked with George Balanchine have left behind book-length memoirs, and Fisher is the first one to write in any detail about the late 1940’s and 50’s, during which she danced in the premieres of such major Balanchine ballets as Agon, Divertimento No. 15, Firebird, Ivesiana, The Nutcracker, Orpheus, and Western Symphony. Her recollections are exact, vivid, well written, and illustrated by a fine selection of photos. I very much wish they had been available when I wrote All in the Dances, my own brief life of Balanchine.

In addition to providing an indispensable account of Balanchine at work, Fisher tells a wonderful story about his politics. Having grown up in a hard-Left New York family, she made the mistake of wearing a Henry Wallace campaign button to a New York City Ballet rehearsal in the fall of 1948. Balanchine, having fled the Soviet Union a quarter-century earlier, took one look at her and exploded: “Barbara, take off bahton, please! Don’t wear that. You don’t understand. Communist country is lousy place! Can’t say what you want. People spy, talk behind back. Friend disappear. Nobody free. Everybody hungry, all the time hungry. Here is good. Best place. Do what you want. Say what you like, vote how you like. Wonderful country, not like Communist.” I couldn’t have put it better.

Incidentally, Fisher didn’t take off her Wallace “bahton”—and Balanchine didn’t fire her.

• Brian Friel, who is widely and rightly thought to be the greatest living English-language playwright, has had two good Broadway seasons in a row. Last season’s brilliant revival of Faith Healer was followed a couple of weeks ago by a similarly impressive production of Translations. (If you haven’t seen it, do so as soon as possible.) Alas, fewer than a half-dozen of Friel’s two dozen-odd plays are staged with any frequency in this country, and the main purpose of The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (Cambridge University Press, 177 pp., $29.99 paper), edited by Anthony Roche, is to introduce non-Irish readers to a wider range of his work than they are likely to have encountered on their own. Most of the essays are good, a few superlatively so, and I unhesitatingly recommend Patrick Burke’s “Friel and Performance History” and Richard Allen Cave’s “Friel’s Dramaturgy: The Visual Dimension” to anyone even slightly interested in the author of Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing at Lughnasa.

Warning: Cambridge Companions usually contain a couple of ultra-academic duds, and this one is no exception. I read “Performativity, Unruly Bodies, and Gender in Brian Friel’s Drama” and “Brian Friel as Postcolonial Playwright” so you wouldn’t have to. Forewarned is forearmed!

• Barbara M. Fisher, professor emerita of English at the City University of New York, is the author of Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous and Noble Numbers, Subtle Words: The Art of Mathematics in the Science of Storytelling. She is also an alumna of New York City Ballet, for which she danced between 1947 and 1958, back in the days when she was known as Barbara Milberg. She splits the difference and bills herself as Barbara Milberg Fisher on the dust jacket of In Balanchine’s Company: A Dancer’s Memoir (Wesleyan University Press, 211 pp., $24.95), a splendid little memoir of her professional association with the greatest choreographer of the 20th century.

Surprisingly few dancers who worked with George Balanchine have left behind book-length memoirs, and Fisher is the first one to write in any detail about the late 1940’s and 50’s, during which she danced in the premieres of such major Balanchine ballets as Agon, Divertimento No. 15, Firebird, Ivesiana, The Nutcracker, Orpheus, and Western Symphony. Her recollections are exact, vivid, well written, and illustrated by a fine selection of photos. I very much wish they had been available when I wrote All in the Dances, my own brief life of Balanchine.

In addition to providing an indispensable account of Balanchine at work, Fisher tells a wonderful story about his politics. Having grown up in a hard-Left New York family, she made the mistake of wearing a Henry Wallace campaign button to a New York City Ballet rehearsal in the fall of 1948. Balanchine, having fled the Soviet Union a quarter-century earlier, took one look at her and exploded: “Barbara, take off bahton, please! Don’t wear that. You don’t understand. Communist country is lousy place! Can’t say what you want. People spy, talk behind back. Friend disappear. Nobody free. Everybody hungry, all the time hungry. Here is good. Best place. Do what you want. Say what you like, vote how you like. Wonderful country, not like Communist.” I couldn’t have put it better.

Incidentally, Fisher didn’t take off her Wallace “bahton”—and Balanchine didn’t fire her.

Read Less




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