The writer/trader/professor Nicholas Taleb has been puzzling a number of commentators recently and Grid-group Cultural theory also provides a clear context for his approach: he is a Fatalist activist who is looking for a political constituency that understands Fatalism. The British Conservative Party may well not be it.
From the Cultural Theory perspective, Taleb has a position that is under-represented in politics, but one that is instantly recognisable in everyday life. The three acceptable positions on climate change are:
- Egalitarian: things are getting worse and we have to come together to solve our problems collectively (but really we need to change our values too);
- Hierarchical: it’s a risk management issue and now that we have a Minister for Climate Change things are being managed better than ever. Next highlight – a global treaty; and
- Individualist: things are getting better – that’s Progress and all ‘environmental problems’ are simply opportunities for human ingenuity to shine (and make a profit). The real problem is too many rules and too many greenies.
Taleb’s position, Cultural theory would predict, is none of the above. A Fatalist position on climate change is superficially similar to the Individualist position: ‘climates change’. But whereas Individualism interprets this as meaning: prepare to find new ways of making money, Fatalism interprets this as: prepare to duck, and keep your head down for as long as it takes. Solidarity, management and skill-derived benefit are all illusions. The only hope of advancement is through luck and risk-averse opportunism. I didn’t get this from Taleb, I got it from my reading of writers such as Mary Douglas, Christopher Hood, Marco Verweij and Michael Thompson.
A bit like the magician Derren Brown who claims to be able to predict the lottery numbers, I am writing this in advance of reading Taleb’s own clarification of his position in a recent letter to the Financial Times. Now I’ll read it and see how well my prediction went…
…Sure enough (you probably thought I might say that, didn’t you?), Taleb’s opinion on climate change sounds superficially similar to the Individualist approach, including selective appropriation of the term ‘conservative’ – but it differs from Individualism at crucial points:
First Taleb says he does not trust the very idea of expertise ‘my idea is to be insulated from expert opinions who failed us in the past.’ This is an implicit criticism of the Hierarchical model, which relies heavily on experts for the legitimation of decision-making. But it is also an implicit criticism of the Individualist claim that we know climate change either isn’t happening or isn’t a problem, and the Egalitarian claim in the opposite direction – that it is happening and is a problem. From Taleb’s perspective, epistemological scepticism is not only sensible but will ‘insulate’ us from an ever present danger: the danger of claiming to know more than we really do. When it comes to opinions on climate change, Taleb is saying: a plague on all your houses.
Second, Taleb claims ‘we do not know the consequences of our actions owing to complicated causal webs’. Can this be true? Hierarchical organisation flatly denies this. Cost benefit analysis and risk management are two popular approaches to institutionalising certainty about the consequences of our actions. But so do Individualist and Egalitarian organisation. Individualism operates on the basis of ‘who dares wins’, while Egalitarianism promotes the precautionary principle of ‘better safe than sorry’ (sorry being the default position).
Third, Taleb says ‘Portraying a staunch ecologist who said “I do not want to mess with Mother Nature” in such a way is rather misplaced.’ Reference to Mother Nature is superficially similar to the Egalitarian position, and Taleb indeed calls himself ‘super-green, not anti-green’. But we are dealing here with two very different concepts of nature. For Egalitarianism, and the conventional Greens, nature is fragile. It is not to be messed with because at any moment it might break down. For Fatalism however, nature is not fragile – it is capricious. When Taleb says ‘Mother’ Nature is not to be messed he means ‘don’t tempt fate’. This Fatalist perspective is the ‘extra’ ingredient that makes Taleb super-green rather than plain old green.
What people find controversial about Taleb, I’m hypothesising, is not the Fatalist bias his views represent which after all has a very wide following indeed. The thing that puzzles people is that he presents, quite consistently, an intellectual argument in favour of Fatalism and does so in the public arena. This is very rarely done these days, though it was for instance a dominant theme in the Middle Ages, and is hard to pigeon-hole in the familiar places:
‘I never thought that journalism would be about selective quoting instead of portrayal of an intellectual position.’ Of course, the FT selectively quoted (i.e. edited) his letter! A fuller version sent to the Guardian is to be read on Taleb’s web site.
Much more comfortable for the media is anti-intellectual Fatalist reporting, at which it excels.