- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011


By John Charles Kunich
Parkhurst Brothers, $19.95, 416 pages

Some of the most important issues facing us are difficult for anyone to assess, even the best and brightest. John Charles Kunich, an expert in environmental law, considers when one must risk “not just your own life, but also the lives of your family, your friends, and countless millions of other people.” In these cases “We are truly betting the Earth,” whether we act or not.

Mr. Kunich focuses on two environmental issues of note: global warming and endangered species. While the topics are tailor-made for scare-mongering, Mr. Kunich does the opposite. He complains that “some of our most vital environmental issues have been handled in a manner more resembling a faith-based religious doctrinal dispute than an evidence-rooted phenomenological problem.” His objective is to encourage rational argument.

It is a daunting task. How can even intelligent laymen form an opinion on complex issues where a mistake could have catastrophic consequences for the planet?

In an engaging and conversational tone, he describes the parameters of debate for his two issues. For instance, he doesn’t try to persuade anyone that the globe is warming or cooling, but rather “that there is some credible scientific evidence on both sides of the climate change issue, and that our ability to erase any relevant question marks any time soon is itself questionable at best.”

Most of us are ill-prepared to deal with such cosmic uncertainty. So he looks back to three figures in history to help “point us forward to a way of understanding the role of incomplete and unclear information in life, and indeed in the entire universe.”

The first is Blaise Pascal, who died young (39) in the mid-17th century. A devout Catholic, Pascal, writes Mr. Kunich, “conjoined religion and mathematics in a way that would have a meaningful and lasting impact on the world.” Mr. Kunich focuses on Pascal’s Wager, which contemplates why skeptics should bet on the existence of God. Pascal wrote: “there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.”

It might not seem much to work with, but Mr. Kunich broadens the application: “Pascal teaches us that we should weigh both the size and the likelihood of each factor before we make our decision.” Such considerations obviously relate to environ- mental decision-making.

Kurt Goedel lived about three centuries later. A brilliant mathematician, Goedel developed two incompleteness theorems. Unfortunately, writes Mr. Kunich, these “do not lend themselves as readily to popular understanding as Pascal’s Wager.”

Nevertheless, principles can be applied. The first is that “inside the boundaries of a context, proof has its limitations.” More simply, not everything is provable. The second is “that the consistency of any consistent, axiomatic theory can’t be proved inside the system.” The point is not that nothing can be proved, but that there will always be some things which cannot be proved.

Physicist Werner Heisenberg completes the trio. Another 20th century figure, his most noted achievement in the field of quantum mechanics is the “uncertainty principle.” It is impossible to simultaneously know the precise position and velocity of a particle. Other scientists have found related results in their own fields.

For instance, Edward Norton Lorenz found it difficult to predict the movement of air in the atmosphere. Explains Mr. Kunich: “the startlingly counterintuitive finding was that even the tiniest, most minute variations in the initial values and conditions could result in major divergence in final output.”

Further complicating decision-making is the irrationality of many people. Mr. Kunich proposes a simple test: “Read a few blogs, op-ed pieces, or magazine articles that discuss your topic. How many logical fallacies can you find in the first five minutes?”

Mr. Kunich then applies these seemingly esoteric principles in what he calls the “World Wager” to both endangered species and climate change. Although he is sensitive to claims of potential catastrophe, he rejects a simplistic belief in “better safe than sorry.” The reason: “An irrationally risk-averse, safety-addicted mindset produces the paradoxical, and counter-intuitive, effect of making its adherents at once more vulnerable (or at least vulnerable in a different way) and less productive.”

His analysis - thorough and detailed but hard to summarize - is well worth reading. The results are non-ideological. Broadly speaking, he suggests action on species preservation and inaction on global warming.

Mr. Kunich explains: “Climate intervention would require much more than a few billion dollars annually needed to protect and maintain the relatively small territory collectively occupied by all the world’s endangered species hot spots and to make up for the lost opportunities to farm, graze, hunt, reside, or cut timber in them. Thus, when we expend massive resources and engineer fundamental reinvention of large components of human industry and society, if this turns out to have been unnecessary or ineffective, we have made a very costly mistake indeed.”

These are gambles of sorts. So too are many of our practical decisions in life, such as driving and smoking, which Mr. Kunich also analyzes.

“Betting the Earth” is an unusual book. Rather than offering certainty, the author admits to “question marks, unknowns, doubts, gaps, and uncertainties forming the raw materials of this book.” Mr. Kunich gives us principles to think more clearly and rationally. It remains our responsibility to apply them.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

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