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◌  Three serious things

3 March 2012

I’ve just seen three outstanding articles on serious subjects, all reasonably clear to the lay reader, and in celebration of this coincidence I now enumerate and commend them to you:

  1. The Body Counter, a profile of Patrick Ball by Tina Rosenberg. Ball is one of a few people doing real statistical analysis of mass violence. People often treat this as gross – maybe by association with the disgusting things it diagnoses, or maybe because it seems to deny suffering by quantifying it. That is magical thinking, and the ignorance it enables in turn enables a lot of harm.

    Rosenberg shows that Ball’s work, besides its humanitarian virtues, is applied epistemology. Even if you only care about about truth in a relatively abstract way, he finds interesting ways to approach it. And if you like not just truth but also the reconciliation, justice, and peace that it can bring, the story is that much more compelling. It’s like Snow’s cholera pump map.

  2. Dangerous tales, a paper by Séverine Autesserre in African Affairs. (Full text not there but easily found.) Autesserre made a big splash in Central African studies a year and a half ago with The trouble with the Congo, a book-length argument that interveners after the Second Congo War (e.g. the UN) missed many important chances by ignoring local conflicts. This paper is a slice or microcosm of that project.

    Autesserre says that outsiders of the Democratic Republic of Congo have come to think that the long-term crisis there (1) is caused by mineral exploitation, (2) has rape as its main symptom, and (3) will be solved by more central government power. Each of these suppositions is reasonable but badly incomplete, and together they tell a pat story that satisfies what should remain an active curiosity. Donors and policy-makers at a distance learn to ignore information that doesn’t fit the 1-2-3 narrative, and so with the best of intentions have taken actions that pretty clearly caused unnecessary suffering.

    Autesserre’s prose is unpleasantly French and academic, but everything else about her work is wonderful to me. This paper is (as far as I can say) a respectful and intellectually vigorous response to a particular situation. But you can also read it as a summa for a sane postmodern worldview. Like Ball, Autesserre isn’t just finding facts, she’s showing us how truth does and should operate in the world. She is looking at the problems of arbitrating village-level land disputes, yes. But she is also looking for ways to tell ourselves stories about the world that improve rather than narrow our contact with the real thing.

  3. Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity, a paper by unethical plutocrat Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira in Environmental Research Letters. What are the net consequences of shutting down a coal power plant and building a wind farm? No one knows exactly. This paper, though, presents the best estimates yet. It’s strange how any uncertainly about how bad things are, even when the error bar is entirely in the we must to act now range, seems to let people temporize. I hope this kind of analysis, which is still fuzzy in absolute terms, will help us focus a little. The conclusion is not surprising, but has more force here than ever:

    It appears that there is no quick fix; energy system transitions are intrinsically slow. […] Despite the lengthy time lags involved, delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond. […] Achieving substantial reductions in temperatures relative to the coal-based system will take the better part of a century, and will depend on rapid and massive deployment of some mix of conservation, wind, solar, and nuclear, and possibly carbon capture and storage.

  4. We knew this, but now we know it with clearer charts and better-documented methods.

These must seem a bit dark – an article on climate collapse and two on war. The point is that they give us new tools. We already know one thing about these awful subjects: with the situation that we have now, in the universe where ordinary people in the rich world don’t read about these problems and try to refine our understanding, a lot of killing and greenhousing happens. That’s our only datum so far. We should experiment with a different strategy: one where those of us who have the resources spend a bit of them on getting just as far as understanding the nature of some hard problems.