What underlies disastrous decisions?

On November 21st, I attended a talk by Dr. Robert McKleman from the University of Ottawa regarding human migration and settlement patterns in response to climate change. As Culture Kid points out below, McKleman studied Oklahomans’ adaptations to the American Dustbowl of the 1930’s. He found that migration and settlement patterns were largely dependent on one’s capital endowments. He used capital in a very broad sense, to include economic capital (money, and material capital like cars), social capital (social networks and connections) and cultural capital (ethnicity, heritage, labour characteristics). For example, McKleman found that an Oklahoman was likely to migrate to Northern California if he or she had enough money and a means of transportation, had friends or family en route to and in California, and if he or she had skills and characteristics compatible with Californian culture. McKleman concluded that future human adaptation to climate change would likewise be constrained or assisted by one’s capital endowments.
I found McKleman’s argument quite intuitive. For example, if I were to pick up and leave home I would obviously need money, a means of travel, a place to go, and cultural characteristics that would be accepted at my destination. I felt, however, that McKleman’s analysis begged an essential question concerning human (non)adaptation: why did the Oklahomans find themselves in a position where migration and settlement was their only means to survive? Why did they not adapt before crisis came? If we could determine the answers to this question then we might be able to understand our current situation regarding climate change. In all likelihood, we’re on a path that will end in the need for many people to migrate and settle elsewhere, to give up their homes and livelihoods, or risk death. Why, then, are we not able to change course now, preventing the harrowing outcome of our current actions?
Many people are currently trying to change the course we’re on. Many others, however (McKleman included), have already resigned themselves to the fact that crisis is now inevitable. Did Oklahomans, with the soil turning to desert under their feet, also recognize the consequences of their actions? And if so, why didn’t they prevent the Dust Bowl from occurring?
As Culture Kid states below, McKleman’s talk invoked strong parallels to Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Diamond also asks questions similar to mine. He proposed a framework that might prove useful in addressing these questions. In his chapter “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?”, Diamond first suggests that a society may fail to anticipate a problem (Oklahomans may have failed to anticipate that intense agriculture would deplete their soils of nutrients and water). Second, Diamond states that a society might fail to perceive a problem as it’s occurring (soil nutrients are invisible, thus early farmers would not know why their crops were failing). Third, a society might fail to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived (maybe change was not in the interest of the powerful elite). Fourth, perhaps a society has values that predispose it to disaster (Easter Islanders cutting down the last trees to build statues to the gods). Last, even after a problem is perceived and society is committed to solving it, solutions might be unsuccessful. An interesting study would be to apply this framework to the 1930’s Dustbowl disaster, in addition to more modern examples. Determining the barriers to change before one’s only options are migration or death would not only help us understand past disastrous outcomes, but help us understand our current situation.

3 Responses to “What underlies disastrous decisions?”

  1. crocus says:

    I have never read Jared Diamond’s book but the synthesis you relayed about “disastrous decisions” is essentially the story of climate change without a complete ending yet.

    “Diamond first suggests that a society may fail to anticipate a problem” – We did fail to anticipate that industrialization would increase CO2 in the atmosphere and cause global temperatures to rise.

    “Second, Diamond states that a society might fail to perceive a problem as it’s occurring” – Just as soil nutrients are invisible, so too are CO2 levels. Further, we have put the tag of “natural climatic fluctuation” on many changes that have been seen throughout the last century.

    “Third, a society might fail to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived” – Many people have argued that the changes necessary to combat climate change are more of a threat to the economy (our top priority) than an opportunity to save our future.

    “Fourth, perhaps a society has values that predispose it to disaster” – I would argue that this is true of North American society. Our values are more centred on self-gain and personal success than societal success. As long as I can make money, buy whatever I want, drive whatever car I want, and not have to make personal sacrifices I am happy. This attitude has led to many of the world’s ills and allows us to make excuses for not helping vulnerable regions adapt to potential disastrous outcomes inherent with climate change.

    “Last, even after a problem is perceived and society is committed to solving it, solutions might be unsuccessful” – Here is where the story has not been written yet and this is where hope lies. We all know of the many possibilities that need to be put into action to get us on the right track of not only adapting to current and future climatic change, but to start reversing trends. Now it is just a matter of giving it our all to make the solutions work. I hope that Jared Diamond has not written the correct ending, but only time (and a real concerted effort) will tell.

  2. Culture Kid says:

    As Jones outlines, Dr. McLeman relied heavily on Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of the different kinds of capital in order to emphasize his ideas about the success or failure of global societies. For the French sociologist, capital referred to a good – either tangible or symbolic – perceived as being rare, or worthy of seeking and attaining, around which particular social relationships are structured in an attempt to obtain it. Bourdieu outlined several different types of capital, including economic, cultural, and symbolic, though he also posited that all are based on and/or form outgrowths of economic capital.

    A further kind of capital he outlined was natural capital, though McLeman did not draw on this idea; someone at the end of the seminar asked why, and McLeman rationalized that natural capital is simply a different way of understanding economic capital, or is a means of viewing capitalism through a different lens. He essentially equated Bourdieu’s ideas of natural capital with environmental economics, and I think this is wrong; further, I think this misapplication is also one problem with makers of environmental policy. The environment cannot – or rather, in my opinion, should not – be measured in terms of market price fluctuations, but on its own terms. Indeed, parts of the environment can be exchanged for economic reward, but there is a real danger to seeing all natural capital as eventually replaceable with economic, or human capital. Stephen Harper, as evidenced most recently in Bali, does this regularly. As many ecological economists have suggested, however, economic capital must be viewed as a subset of natural capital, and not vice versa, in order for effective environmental policy to be implemented and enforced.

  3. Jones says:

    Though I generally agree with the idea that the environment should be valued in-and-of-itself, I have trouble determining a) what intrinsic value actually means, and b) what value hierarchy do we use, if not monetary, when human interests conflict with nature’s.
    a) I’ve studied a lot of environmental ethics and foundations of philosophy during my studies and not once has the concept of intrinsic value been satisfactorily developed. Most arguments pertaining to intrinsic value rest on the axiom that humans have said value, and by extension, some other members of this world probably do too. With the advent of Darwinism, many philosophers have argued that all life has intrinsic value, since we are all connected through evolution.
    To me this argument is weak, at best. The idea of value is very contentious. What is value? why do humans have intrinsic value? The answers to these questions have often been offered in religious philosophical texts.
    I think we should better examine the history, and rationale, behind a number of the ideas we tote around with us. The idea of intrinisic value may be no more than an artefact of an outdated way of thinking. Should we really invoke it to conclude that all life has value?

    b) Unavoidably, human interests will conflict with ‘nature’s’. To feed ourselves, we must kill the natural world. How do we decide what to kill? What has more intrinsic value? (I think this way of thinking is unnecessary, but if we believe that everything has intrinsic value, then we must be ready to address these issues). Again, no satisfactory argument has been proposed to answer these questions. If there are two sources of food available (say, carrots and radish) to feed the masses, and everybody loves carrots (and carrots are less expensive than radish), is it fair for those poor carrots to forfeit their interests for our interests? Of course this example is ridiculous, but it shows the difficulty of living without some sort of value hierarchy (why should the radish live while the carrots die?). In place of a monetary value hierarchy we’ll get a hierarchy created by the leading philosophers of our time. They could easily, given a set of axioms, ‘prove’ that radish have more intrinsic value than carrots, and so it is morally acceptable for the masses to eat the less intrinsically valuable of the two vegetables.
    I don’t think we should be so quick to replace a monetary valuing hierarchy with one determined by some prominent philosophers, who, with the right axioms, can ‘prove’ just about anything.