The Mirage of Simplicity

The Only Kind of Green HummerI’ve never been a big fan of biofuels. Some may call me crazy, but I strongly believe there is something inherently perverse about turning crops into vehicle fuel when starvation is still rife in some parts of the world. Perhaps this issue’s apotheosis occurred during an episode of “60 Minutes” which aired last December. It featured Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was bragging that he had converted his Hummer to run on biofuels. He also put forward his belief that we could continue to have the life we lead now, so long as we make eco-friendly changes in the types of energy we use, and make conservation a greater priority.

However, it was recently reported in the Economist that biofuels are having an unforeseen impact: their production is putting more nitrous oxide into the air. While everyone has been focused on carbon output, this gas is even more lethal in terms of climate change, and worse, it is more difficult to disperse. According to the scientists quoted in the article, the nitrogen cycle, which is part of the functioning of plant life on earth, is changing, and not necessarily in ways that are beneficial. So: even if we do limit our carbon emissions, it appears that the task is not yet done; we will still need to profoundly change our lives. The idea that we can simply change to biofuel powered cars and stick a wind turbine in the back yard or solar cells on the roof and this will save the earth is a mirage.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this: our actions in response to the changing environment highlights a character flaw in the human race. We reach towards the simplest solution, even if a more thorough examination of that solution shows that it is insufficient. Indeed, we continue to grasp at these mirages in spite of simplicity’s terrible track record.

Hard times make this flaw worse. In Britain, the British National Party appears to be gaining support despite, or perhaps because of, their long advocacy of anti-Semitic and racist policies. They recently elected a member of the London Assembly; additionally, they presently hold 56 seats in local government. They have cleverly repackaged their uncivilised and brutal creed by swiping a misstatement made by the Prime Minister; he once stated that his priority was “British jobs for British workers”. The BNP took this quote and plastered it on their website. Unemployment is growing as the recession takes its toll; in this context, a slogan as simple as this sounds good. Racism also sounds like a simple solution: if the Asians are removed from society, the argument goes, there is less competition for jobs and public services. Of course, the BNP is a party by and for the intellectually challenged: they never want to answer the questions which pertain to treating one neighbours with common decency and without prejudice. Furthermore, they also fail to come up with an answer for the likely international retaliation that would ensue due to following their policies; they also cannot answer questions regarding who would fill the labour gap the departure of minorities would leave behind. Complexity would obscure the message; it might even make some people question it. Therefore it is hidden beneath a mountain of childish, petty rhetoric which appears to be endemic among the European far-right.

But it’s not just the political extremes, nor individual peons like Schwarzenegger who have succumbed to the narcotic of simplicity. Most democratic politicians cling to it like a toddler clings to a favourite stuffed animal. As was stated by the writers of the programme, “Yes, Minister”, most elected officials adhere to what is referred to as “The Politician’s Syllogism”:

We must do something
This is something
Therefore we must do this

This has led to a plague of rash decisions, ranging from the toppling of the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950’s (which is the basis of Iran’s mistrust of the West to this day) to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the dash for biofuels now. Blood has been spilled, lives have been ruined, billions have been spent chasing the mirage of a simple solution. Perhaps this an evolutionary hurdle that the human race cannot fully climb over: we still have not learned to face up to rather than shrink away from the complexities of the world. Indeed, past history suggests that when things become too painful or complex, that is the precise moment that human beings are most ready to surrender liberty.

I’ve been spending much of today watching “The World at War”; admittedly, I am one of those people who cannot bear silence as a form of background noise. What is striking about the portions which focus on the German home front prior to and during the war, is how readily nonsense was believed: the hysterical anti-Jewish, anti-British, and anti-anyone propaganda that Herr Goebbels put forward should have been worthy solely of laughter. Even prior to the Nazi takeover, the Jews were a tiny minority within Germany, and their influence on society was neither malevolent nor disproportionate: any “occupation” by Jews of “portable” trades such as finance and medicine was partially due to previous persecutions. Anyone with eyes to see would have been able to discern this.

Similarly, the idea that the Russians were any less human than anyone else is just as laughable; but again, it was believed, and used to justify tactics which rank alongside the Christian knights’ barbarism during the Crusades. But to blame one race or another for one’s problems was simple; it was easier to do this than to discuss issues like hyperinflation, the over extension of global finance, the domination of the German economy by firms like I.G. Farben. Far simpler to let someone else to do the thinking than to face up to these issues; but in abdicating from this responsibility, the Germans made themselves into both slaves and a menace.

By refusing to face up to the complexities which plague us now, we too are slaves, albeit a different kind. We have become servants to fads and fashions: if we assemble an “Earthship”, for example, or buy a Toyota Prius, we feel able to pat ourselves on the back for our virtue. There, we can say, problem solved. We don’t want ourselves to be troubled by the environmental costs of putting a Prius together (i.e., the toxic chemicals required in making the batteries), nor deal with the fact that Earthships are only viable in certain places with an adequate supply of land and sunlight.

We are also a menace too, but again, a different kind. As the example of biofuels shows, we often trade one problem for another, more intractable one; the environment, as per usual, ends up paying the price.

Lest I be unduly harsh on the human race, it is important to note that the phenomena I’ve just described does indicate that we are improving in some ways. At least outside the environs that vote for the likes of the British National Party, there is a healthy scepticism about totalitarian and racist solutions. Furthermore we have better information than ever before, thanks in part to the internet: with this knowledge, we are able to disperse mirages much more quickly than in the past. While evolution may not be happening fast enough, at least this is an indication that it is possibly moving in the right direction. If the eventual result is free individuals who acknowledge their role in the world, and their responsibility to posterity, even if that means living far less luxuriously than we do now, then perhaps all our present tribulations will have been worth it.

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