Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some crises are more equal than others

Food for thought from The Australia Institute:

Have you ever wondered why, more than 15 years after the world’s leaders gathered in Rio and agreed to tackle climate change urgently, there always seems to be some other ‘crisis’ that is more pressing?

In recent weeks, we have watched the spectacle of the US Congress drafting a $700 billion bail-out package in a matter of days. When the bill was defeated in its original form it spread consternation from Wall Street to the Australian Parliament. Didn’t the Congress understand this was a crisis? Didn’t they understand this was a time for action rather than perfection?

The most interesting thing about the worldwide approach to bailing out the financial system is how pragmatic policy-makers have been. No one, from the US Treasury Secretary to Kevin Rudd, will put their hand on their heart and say they understand the full nature and extent of the problem.

Nor will they look the voters in the eye and declare that, after spending trillions of dollars to bail out banks, they are certain that the problem will be solved. On the contrary—when it comes to the world of finance, we all have to accept just how complex the systems are. We can’t really expect certainty, and we can’t really guarantee success. Rather, we all just have to comfort ourselves with the thought that it would be irresponsible to sit back and do nothing. It is, it seems, self-evident that we shou ld at least try.

But not, apparently, when it comes to climate change. Even though most of our bankers can’t explain the risks associated with the derivatives they have purchased over the years, our climate scientists are expected to be able to predict the weather to a high degree of accuracy in 70 years’ time.

Even though economists can’t predict the rate of GDP growth, inflation or the exchange rate next month, those determined to do nothing about climate change demand certainty about what the price of emissions permits will be in 20 years’ time.

The current financial crisis was unforseen by the major governments of the world. The cost of the bailouts combined with the flow-on economic effects are likely to dwarf the estimated costs of tackling climate change, yet there is little talk of abolishing private banking because of its potential to cause harm to the economy.

In the last month, trillions of dollars have been found. New regulations have been introduced. And countries have all committed to work collectively in the pursuit of a common goal. Unfortunately, none of this effort has been aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions; it has been aimed at something far more important—sustaining the banking system as we know it.
How are our perceptions of crises shaped? What factors make one more worthy of "emergency action" than another? Obviously, some of these factors include quite rational considerations such as the extent and likelihood of the threat and the projected cost of averting it, but what about irrational factors?

For all the damage they are both already doing, it is more accurate to consider both climate change and the credit crunch as potential rather than actual crises, since in both cases, there is far worse threatened as a result of inaction (though exactly what that "far worse" would be in the case of the credit crisis has yet to become widely publicised; instead, in most discussions of the issue the threat is kept fairly general).

Perhaps we can add other threats to this list: a nuclear terrorist attack (or simply a nuclear war); peak oil; a global pandemic; and so on. There are, at all times, a wide variety of potential threats to civilisation as we know it, though they differ considerably in scope, likelihood, cause and cost of possible solutions. Yet how are we to face the presence of such threats? I am not asking "how do you cope personally?", but how do we live together with them hanging over our heads? What effect do these threats over tomorrow have on our ability to pursue the common good today?
If you hadn't guessed, this post and the previous one are further attempts to try to articulate some of the questions I am interested in for my research. From these, I need to narrow down a more specific one.


Megan said...

I was speaking to someone about the economic crisis - a Christian who had lost money - and they were speaking about having faith in God and trying not to feel anxious about this loss. I then said I thought a person of faith would do more than just try not to feel anxious. That faith in God in these circumstances might be shown by giving more or leaving secure jobs behind in answer to God's call and so on. I guess I am saying that one reaction by the church in a crisis is to go into bunker mentality, but I do not think this is a position of faith.

Megan said...

I should add that this person wasn't in any need from the loss of money...

Annette said...

Isn't it the government's job to respond to threats to the common good? (just been speed-reading "Ways of Judgment", cf. p57) Are you asking how we can support govt.s in this job or about how we can keep going in the public activity of pursuing the common good even when our attempts are obstructed or under attack (perhaps even when govt. is failing to defend against these threats)? Btw, what he says about the economy there is eerily prophetic! pp.63-6)

byron smith said...

Megan - absolutely. To 'fear not' is not simply to avoid anxiety, it is to continue to act in faith.

Annette - yes, this is indeed the government's responsibility (perhaps its primary one), though it is not only the government who can act in this way. I think that it is possible for extra-governmental actions to take the common good as their goal. In any case, when I ask "what are 'we' to do?", you are right to point out that there are two frames of reference for the question: (a) What am I and the groups I am a part of (esp the local church) to do? and (b) what is our government to do? The latter deliberation, although not my decision to make, is nonetheless worth pondering (as O'D points out in Common Objects of Love) as part of our collective exploration of identity (as well as helping to inform the more personal and smaller scale level I mentioned above).

Not that was particularly clear, though it is late and I won't have another go at it just now.

Annette said...

yeah, i was just curious about the seeming distinction OD made between the task of positively pursuing CG (which members & groups of society certainly do) & negative task of defending it against threats/crises (which is goverment's job). Your question about how church responds in crises then seems to jump over this distinction. But maybe not since what the church does in crises/threats to CG doesn't come under heading of "defense" after all but something else (maybe? what is it then??). But the point from 'COOL' would also allow church to think about how govt. should "defend" against threats/crises, even though the "defending" as such is not its task. so what is its task in such crises/threats to CG? (i guess maybe to keep on pursuing the CG even when the conditions for doing so start to break down (i.e. when govt. is struggling to defend against the threat and it is starting to really threaten, hence ppl are starting to drop pusuit of CG down on the priority list?) To work out HOW we do that (live together and keep on pursuing CG with this or that threat hanging over our heads) is your question right? (or have i mixed up some things??)

byron smith said...

Yes (or at least, I think so. I keep changing my mind. Yesterday I started thinking about whether switching questions to "what kind of obligations do we have to future generations?" might be a fun thing to do).

Thanks for reminding me of that basic distinction (between govt defending and church/others pursuing the CG), which I had rattling around somewhere in my head, but hadn't quite put my finger on. I need to re-read WoJ (I started re-reading O'D's stuff before I came here and when I first arrived, but only got through some of it before other things pushed it down the list).

Reflecting further on your comment, I guess one of the things I'm interested in is how the church 'defends' the possibility of there being a common good, that is, defends the intelligibility and attractiveness of the idea of the good as being able to be shared. I guess the kind of crisis I'm interested in (and maybe it is only a theoretical one) is not simply a crisis in society, but a crisis of society, of sociality, in which belief in the possibility of a common good breaks down and people start thinking that it's everyone for him/herself.

Annette said...

got it, sounds good.

(obligations to future generations?? well, well, that sounds like a thesis on responsibility! lol - on this question of future-oriented ethics tho you might want to have a look at Hans Jonas, though i haven't read it so that's not an endorsement but he gets referenced a lot in this area re. environment, technology, future etc.:,M1

byron smith said...

Ah yes, everything is about responsibiity, isn't it? (I take it that's a good sign. When a project is going well, it ought to become a little universal in relevance)