Pascal Bets with the Cassandras

November 23, 1993|By ANDREW B. SCHMOOKLER

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA. — Broadway, Virgnia. -- How much threat does our industrial civilization pose to the biosphere? The science is so complex, the limits even of the experts' knowledge so great, how is an ordinary citizen to make a judgment?

I'm in no position to make an independent judgment on the scenarios of global warming or ozone depletion or resource and population imbalance. But with uncertainty inescapable, I know where I'll place my bet in the debate between repent-and-change and business-as-usual.

Consider first which side is more likely willfully to distort the science? These days we hear a growing chorus of voices that dismiss the environmentalists as purveyors of ''doom and gloom'' who have made an industry out of conjuring up threats to our future. The more they can make us worry, so this accusation goes, the more funding and visibility they'll get.

No doubt, environmentalists do have some vested interest: If there were no problem, they'd be out of a job. But the bright, educated people I know in the environmental movement could have made much more money selling their skills to richer organizations than the non-profit environmental groups from which they issue their jeremiads. How plausible is it, if money were their main motivator, that they'd have chosen the job of prophet-of-doom?

And what about the other side? While the interests vested in alarming us are small, the greatest powers of the modern world are entrenched on the side of don't worry, be happy. Literally trillions of dollars are controlled by those who profit most from allowing human activity to disregard its impact on the biosphere that surrounds us. And it is these giant industrial corporations that would have to give up the biggest subsidies from Mother Nature if we as a species were to clean up our act.

I don't know whether the growing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threaten in the next century to ruin the climate that now grows our bread, but I do know how much ''bread'' is in the pockets of those with a vested interest in our continuing to burn fossil fuels.

It is no surprise to me that there are scientists getting significant air time to deny that any scientific consensus exists on one scenario of danger or another. In our public forum, money talks. ++ How many times, over the past quarter-century, have we heard ''scientists'' funded by the tobacco industry refute the ''unproven'' claims of those who link cigarette smoking with cancer or heart disease? If there were great corporations with a vested interest in our believing the earth flat, you can bet that scientists would be found to argue that the blue ball photographed from our spaceships is but an optical illusion.

And as for ourselves, we should know in which direction we are more likely to let ourselves be fooled. We who were willing to try that ''riverboat gamble'' in 1981 of lowering tax rates supposedly to increase tax revenues (and thus quadrupled our national debt), we who have allowed our social infrastructure to crumble -- we have demonstrated no tendency to make excessive or unnecessary sacrifices for posterity.

Speaking of gambles, there's one more point. Let's say we were to judge the question of plausibility to be a toss-up, how should we call the coin: Should we risk erring on the side of excessive worry or excessive complacency?

An analogy to help us with this choice is suggested by the environmentalist David Orr. He recalls the famous wager of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal. Uncertain whether there is a God who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, Pascal decided that prudence dictated he act as if there were such a God. If he acted on that supposition but it proved false, Pascal reasoned, the cost of his error would be relatively small. But if he made the other error -- if there were such a God but he acted as if there were not -- he would pay dearly in hell through eternity.

Likewise, if those who assure us that we are doing fine are right, but we disregard their fearless counsel, our unnecessary caution will make us a bit less fabulously wealthy than we could have been. But if they prove wrong, and we have imprudently followed their reckless counsel, we will find ourselves in a hell of our own making.

Uncertainty being inescapable, we gamble whichever way we choose. And if we have to gamble, I'd rather place my bets with those who give us doom and gloom than those whose message is smile and denial.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny.''

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