Eric Knight

In the opening pages of Man-Made World, Charlton sets us up for a titanic clash. He paints the scene at Copenhagen in December 2009 beautifully and writes that it exposes the central dilemma of our century: choosing between economic progress and environmental sustainability. However, as the essay continues, Charlton reveals that this is a false choice. We must find the balance between the two, he tells us. In so doing we must rely on something very powerful: technological innovation. 

In making the case for technology, Charlton is bang on the money. He deserves credit for making it so articulately. If anything, he is at times too coy about the faith we should place in innovation. Charlton sometimes gives the impression that technological innovation is mere luck. Von Humboldt’s discovery of fertiliser in the late nineteenth century was a “lucky event” and a “chance discovery.” When stockpiles were exhausted, Fritz Haber’s invention of a synthetic substitute emerged when “providence smiled.” Charlton is right to acknowledge the revolutionary nature of these technologies, but to put them down to luck alone is to confine the hope of human progress to a gamble. This is not necessarily so. Luck plays a role, but equally (if not more) important is good management. 

Luck is a popular theme in how we narrate our stories of success. We are, after all, the Lucky Country. Our mining boom is fortuitous. For technology sceptics, a technical solution to climate change is a fluke. Too rarely are we compelled by something often closer to the truth: we can make our own luck. 

When it comes to the climate, to acknowledge the importance of technology strongly influences where we focus our attention. It moves us away from condemning consumption and focuses the mind on the driver of technological innovation: the market. The market is not always well calibrated to invest in creative ideas, and we have seen distortions in recent years that have rewarded alchemy over entrepreneurship. But when we get it right, engineers and entrepreneurs – guided by the clockwork of competition and reward – can steer us towards answers we never thought were possible.

This, to be clear, is not a do-nothing approach. It is effort conscientiously directed towards a solution other than de-industrialising the world and capping consumption. The policies required to harness market forces to develop clean-energy technologies deserve detailed attention elsewhere, but the broader point – that the challenge is more than merely cutting consumption – is an important one. This conclusion will undoubtedly raise the ire of some on the left, but it must be defended on humanitarian grounds. As Charlton correctly points out, a non-technological solution stalls the aspirations of 6 billion to ascend out of poverty. We must let people be free to pursue cars and canapés if they so desire, but we must strive to make these carbon-free.

Where Charlton’s analysis begins to drift is on what it would take to build a political consensus around these ideas. His analysis of the left is deep, but his analysis of the right is thin. “The right remains immutably sceptical in the face of mounting scientific evidence,” he writes. And he returns to a familiar framing of our political choices: “Kevin Rudd … called climate change the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time,’ while the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, described the science as ‘absolute crap.’” Such a frame dooms the quest for political consensus to failure. It is like setting a multiple-choice test where none of the options offers the answer. 

Genuine political consensus on this issue will be formed only by building a meaningful bridge to the right. For that to start, the difficult issue of scepticism needs to be unwrapped. My view is that the “believer versus sceptic” choice is a false one. Too few of us have the qualifications and experience to make a reasoned judgment either way on the science. The best we can do is to choose whom to trust. This has always been a question of delegated authority rather than science. In a world where we lack the technical skills to make certain judgments, whom should we trust?

Scepticism, then, is really rooted in a question about the kind of democracy we want to live in. Are we comfortable in delegating authority to expert scientists, and, if so, what is the scope of that authority? It is one thing to delegate to scientists on matters of scientific opinion. It is quite another to take their views on the economic policies we should apply in response. The boundaries of authority around climate change have long been blurred. Is Al Gore an authority on science or politics? What about Nigel Lawson? Is James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, a scientist or a policy adviser? In 2008 he publicly offered advice to President Obama on “solving the climate and energy problems, while stimulating the economy.” The same can be asked of Bjorn Lomborg: scientist or economist? 

Acknowledging that this debate is really about authority rather than science, democracy rather than morality, is crucial. We need to refresh our thinking before we can build political consensus. The alternative – the impulse to banish any mention of scepticism from this debate – leads to absurd outcomes. In 2009 Raj Pachauri addressed an audience in Abu Dhabi on climate change. At the time Pachauri was the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There was no room for doubt on the science, he argued. Elsewhere he likened sceptics to the modern-day equivalent of the Flat Earth Society. Yet doubt is the very premise of scientific enterprise. Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it – is the motto of the Royal Society. It propelled the scientific revolution through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Science is filled with doubt, but we must learn to make judgments that favour the balance of probabilities at any particular moment in time. 

What, then, to do? In searching for a political consensus, Charlton makes one of the boldest statements in the essay. “You might think the answer is to provide people with more information, so that consensus can emerge from greater understanding. But you’d be wrong.” Charlton moves in the wrong direction here. It is true that more information per se does not solve problems. But if we are to keep faith with our democratic institutions, we must continue to disclose information freely and widely, trusting in people’s reason to find the right balance on issues. 

Our greatest challenge is not that people are irrational or ignorant. Rather, it is that they are often asked to answer the wrong questions. A community that must choose between progress and planet will be divided. It is a false choice. Likewise a political community that is told to choose between “absolute crap” and our “greatest moral challenge” will be deeply confused, even offended. 

This is not the real political choice we must make. Our politics has become used to simplifying messages in pursuit of complex reform. I think this trend pulls in the wrong direction. Instead, we must trust people with more information, not less. And we must think carefully through the question of delegated responsibility. A healthy democracy delegates some responsibilities to experts, but not too many. The art is in finding the right balance. We should trust our ability to resolve this kind of complexity and resist the temptation to manage it on behalf of others from the top down. If we fail to do this, we will lose much more than just the Great Barrier Reef. 


Eric Knight is a former Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in economic geography, who has consulted for the OECD, the UN and the World Bank. He is the author of Reframe (2012) and writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Drum, the Spectator and the Monthly


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 44, Man-Made World. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 45, Us & Them.


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