Belief and Identity

March 10, 2009

You don’t have to be unbearably smug to be an atheist, but it helps.

You don’t have to be a jerk to be a libertarian, but it helps.

You don’t have to be dirty and live on a commune to be an anarchist, but it helps.

You don’t have to hold semi-religious notions of purity and guilt to be an environmentalist, but it helps.


I told Thomas that I’ll probably never be an atheist, because I just don’t like atheists very much in comparison with theists. “Fitting in” doesn’t seem like a very good reason to choose your belief system, but I just finished reading A Cartoon Guide to the Environment, and got more or less the same feeling about environmentalism that I have about atheism. To the extent that being an economist is not compatible with being an environmentalist, I side with economists.

The Cartoon Guide makes it clear that you don’t have to be nuts to care about this complicated thing called the environment, since it really does support all of human life in ways that we don’t understand, and all actions have consequences we can’t predict. It really has a lot in common with my own personal position on the flaws with any technocratic view of the world; namely, that organic, bottom-up solutions are generally better than top-down control, because acquiring complete information is so difficult, even for really, really smart people.

Still, when I think of environmentalists, the mental image I get is of crazy people who want to live in trees and protest nuclear power plants because they think that the modern world is evil. Even thoughI know that my stereotype is false, I find it hard to want to associate with these people.

And so, I consider myself an economist. What do economists think about the environment? Well, like most people, they just don’t think about it very much. So I don’t think about the environment either. Not because economists are right, necessarily, but just because they are the group I prefer to identify with, and talking about the environment gets you funny looks. Some arguments which you might be inclined to accept on their raw merits you reject because they appeal to people with whom you do not like to associate.

I don’t have any deep insights on this, so I’ll pretty much stop here. I just think that to a large extent, we form our beliefs by first choosing the people we want to associate with, then adopting the beliefs of that group. It’s very chicken-and-egg and hard to prove, but I think it’s true. Thought experiment: think about some group whose world view you don’t accept, and then think about the characteristics of a typical member of that group. Is there some correspondence?


7 Responses to “Belief and Identity”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    Just saying, if I were choosing a text to represent economists to me, I would choose someone serious and universally revered or esteemed by economists, not someone who wrote a picture book.

    Read IPCC 2007: A Summary for Policymakers and get back to me on environmentalism.

    My sense is that the extent to which being an economist is not compatible with being an environmentalist is very small, and requires you to buttonhole both disciplines beyond reason.

  2. Robert, the scream you just heard was from you killing my soul.

  3. Rrrobert! Says:

    Also, you want to think about what environmentalism is. I think you’re thinking of it as a set of ideological beliefs about the way one should approach environmental issues; I think about it as a set of ideological beliefs about the way one should calculate the costs and benefits of decisions. Specifically, one ought to consider the impacts of a decision on the environment (and the subsequent impacts of the environment on the rest of humanity). The ideology (as I construct it) isn’t about values, but about process – how best to make decisions. That process ideology often steers me to a different conclusion than that of others who use a different process – as might be expected.

    Granted, this might not be the articulated values system of all environmentalists – but then again, you can’t really pretend environmentalism is a monolithic thing.

  4. Rrrobert! Says:

    Okay maybe the line about reading IPCC was not helpful in reducing the perceived smugness of the environmental community.

    Just saying, there’s a constant temptation to judge movements by their fringes, which is stupid as shit. It applies as well to judging republicans by Rush Limbaugh as environmentalists by a cartoon.

  5. Rrrobert! Says:

    Also yeah I know that wasn’t what this post was about, but you can tie it in – I think you’re right that who we hang out with has a big influence on what we believe – but if you’re choosing a monolithic set of friends with the same set of beliefs, what you end up with is a freaky subculture with crappy ideas; then no one wants to hang out with you, and your ideas persist only in a marginalized way. If you choose a reasonably diverse set of friends, you get much more reasonable beliefs that are considerably less monolithic.

  6. Okay I added a lot to this post, which I don’t like to do (Orwell and whatnot) but I obviously wasn’t making my point very clearly.

    Also for the record, the Cartoon Guides are all very good.

  7. Oh, and you should be encouraging people to read the Cartoon Guide to the Environment, by Larry Gonick. It was written in 1995, so some of the facts are a bit outdated, but it’s still a very good book at its core. It’s highly readable and informative, and generally makes a strong case for at least caring more about the environment than we currently do.

    If you associate cartoons with immature people and juvenile ideas, then you will be more resistant to their arguments, even if you would otherwise accept them on their merits. That reminds me of something I wrote earlier today…

    Sure, the 2007 IPCC report is probably more rigorous and up-to-date, but honestly, who’s going to read it? That matters as well. I think you’ll have better success with the Cartoon Guide.

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