Let’s Not Get Triumphant Just Yet

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday January 29, 2008

In 1968, General Westmoreland announced that we could finally see “the light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam. That announcement has come to define a paradigm: the tendency of leaders, military and political, to declare victory long before a conflict has actually been resolved. An editorial in the influential international scientific journal Nature in February of 2007 was in fact entitled “Light at the End of the Tunnel.” It was part of Nature’s Climate Change special edition, and it warned that the world-wide acceptance of the reality of climate change brought with it new perils: business and political leaders were starting to announce what steps they were taking to combat the problems of global warning as if the problem were solved, when in fact the solutions offered were not nearly enough to solve the problem. 

Another way to describe the kind of mistake Westmoreland exemplified in 1968 is the word “triumphalism,” as defined by Merriam-Webster: “an attitude or feeling of victory or superiority: ... smug or boastful pride in the success or dominance of one’s nation or ideology over others.” It’s almost always used in a pejorative sense, by those who want to point out that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t as clear as some might think it is. 

Yesterday with the PR machine running at full tilt the mayor of Berkeley unveiled the first draft of his own program to combat climate change. At first glance, it seems to suffer from a bit of triumphalism. From the executive summary: 

“The climate action planning process produced a vision for addressing the threats outlined above. This plan’s purpose is to serve as a guide for setting the community on a path to achieve that vision. In 2050: 

• New and existing Berkeley buildings achieve net zero energy consumption through increased energy efficiency and a shift to renewable energy sources. 

• Public transit, walking, and biking are the primary means of transportation. 

• Personal vehicles run on alternative fuels or electricity. 

• Zero waste is sent to landfills. 

• The majority of food consumed in Berkeley is produced locally, i.e., within a few hundred miles. 

• Our community is resilient and prepared for the impacts of a changing climate. 

• The social and economic benefits of the community’s climate protection effort are shared equitably among everyone.” 

Surely this will happen—didn’t 81 percent of Berkeley residents vote for it in the last election? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Neither Mayor Bates nor I will be around to find out, but you younger folks shouldn’t bet the farm on this glowing scenario. And more to the point, as the Nature editorial and many other scientific publications are now stressing, it won’t be nearly enough, even if the whole dream comes true in Berkeley. Much more needs to be done, and on a global scale, and no amount of local action in isolation should be expected to solve it. 

A couple of controversial plans now in the news are good illustrations of what might be called the tin fiddle theory of public policy. A tin fiddle, for those unfamiliar with this grandmotherly expression, is a novel design that seems to the inventor to be a much more robust replacement for the dull old wooden kind, but sounds awful. Tin fiddles are bright ideas that just don’t pan out as expected. 

On the local level: Consider the now infamous Van Hool buses which AC Transit has been feverishly rushing to adopt. Planet readers have been reading about their manifest problems in these pages for a couple of years now. We gladly note that our colleague at the East Bay Express, the excellent reporter Robert Gammon, has joined the chorus with his two-part series (last week and this week) documenting in exhaustive detail, lots of facts and figures, everything that’s wrong with the Van Hool picture. These buses are part and parcel of AC’s highly touted but widely criticized Bus Rapid Transit scheme, a solution in search of a problem. Meanwhile, ridership continues to decline as fares increase. 

On a larger canvas, anyone who wants to understand the curious twists and turns of science policy should read Gary Taubes’ new book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. His thesis, still shocking to many: The low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, promoted by the federal government, many public health agencies and even most physicians, is scientifically baseless, and might even be responsible for the alarming increase in diabetes and obesity in the same period. How the U.S. Dietary Guidelines evolved is fascinating reading, and an object lesson about the pitfalls of public policy initiatives by well-meaning politicians. If you can’t handle several hundred densely written pages with footnotes, he had an article on the same theme in the New York Times magazine last fall, available in the library or on line. There’s also an archived webcast of an excellent lecture he gave at UC Berkeley.  

Taubes spends a good bit of time on the common public health theory that even if you know something probably doesn’t work it’s a good idea to keep on recommending it just in case it might. That’s why, he says, many doctors continued to recommend removing cholesterol from your diet even after it was clearly established that dietary cholesterol didn’t cause heart disease. They should carefully study the story about the shepherd boy who cried wolf so often that nobody came to save him when the wolf actually appeared. 

Well-intentioned but inadequate local political solutions to the very major problems of climate change pose a similar risk. And less well-intentioned “solutions” which emanate from big corporate players like BP are even worse. Biofuels, for example, seem to have a worse carbon footprint than most alternatives.  

But by all means don’t take my word for any of this. The best feature of the city’s draft plan is that it allows for a month of public comment, and Berkeley’s civic community of sharp-pencil researchers should give it a full going over in the allotted time, before March 7. Please, as you do so, copy the Planet on your analyses. We look forward to reprinting them. Full details can found at www.berkeleyclimateaction.org.