On climate, measuring the wrong damn thing and false negatives (aka “what Horatio Hornblower can tell us about the future”)

I came to the “Horatio Hornblower” books only when I was 18, sadly – too much bloody ropey Doctor Who in my youth. So it goes.

There’s one of these stories, set during the Napoleonic wars that comes to mind every-so-often. Hornblower is a midshipman and the ship he is serving on captures a bunch of cargo barges in the Atlantic. He is given charge of one. He’s worried that it was damaged during the chase and capture, so has soundings taken of the hold to see if it’s taken on any water. The soundings come up bone dry. Somethings not quite right, but he’s young and exhausted from the chase and gets some sleep. When he wakes in the morning, he realises that the barge isn’t handling well. It’s sluggish. He repeats the check – still dry. He calls the barge’s captured captain onto deck. The captain points out the cargo is rice… rice that has been soaking up all the water that’s been coming in. Thus the dry soundings. As Hornblower, horrified, realises this, the planks of the deck start buckling upwards and the ship starts bursting at the seams…

Or, as wikipedia has it

In The Cargo of Rice, aboard the Indefatigable, the newly situated Midshipman Hornblower commandeers the French ship Marie Galante, carrying a cargo of rice from New Orleans, by order of Captain Pellew after engaging it in battle. It is Hornblower’s first time in command of a ship since joining the Royal Navy. He is instructed to take the captured French ship and her crew to a British port where he is to receive his next orders. Sailing is relatively smooth for Hornblower and his four seamen, until one of the crew (Matthews) informs him that the ship is taking on water from somewhere. Hornblower recalls that the Marie Galante was struck below the hull’s waterline by a cannonball from the Indefatigable before her capture. They check for moisture but find none until it is pointed out that the dried rice will absorb all of it. They hastily attempt to patch the hole with a sail, but by then the rice has expanded so much that the ship is breaking apart. A massive attempt to jettison the rice comes too late and Hornblower commands all hands to abandon ship and Hornblower’s crew and the French prisoners are left at sea in an open boat.

Where does the climate angle come into this?

We are measuring the wrong thing. We are measuring economic “growth” via GDP even when there are other less wretched measures (Measures of Economic Welfare). And we’re not measuring the stuff that matters- atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (also, beyond carbon dioxide), ocean acidification, sea-level rise, biodiversity.

And that’s before we even start on some of the Development Index stuff…

The “we” in this is spurious, of course – it’s not like all these have been voted on in a binding referendum. It’s just the way they have become obligatory passage points on your way into the black box (to get all Actor-Network Theory on you…)

The ship? It’s coming apart at the seams…

4 thoughts on “On climate, measuring the wrong damn thing and false negatives (aka “what Horatio Hornblower can tell us about the future”)

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  1. fwiw… Here in Alberta, Canada going back to the late 90s, over the last couple or so decades there were a few cities/towns that contracted for an assessment of ‘progress’, ‘sustainability’, using an enhanced version of the Genuine Progress Indicator, which was developed under the leadership of an economist in my home city. Predictably, at least in the view of cynics/skeptics like me, political will could not be sustained to make them common practice. Given the very high rates of resource extraction in AB of oil, gas, coal in Alberta back then and with oilsands boom taking off in early 2000s, I imagine there were a lot of politicians who heard some backlash from industry, given that the GPI methods of depicting the industry impacts on AB’s environmental ‘assets’ were quite easily conveyed to and understood by ordinary citizens, i.e. the infographic charts, graphs were stark and clear. And it’ll be no surprise to anyone familiar with AB conservative+industry political dominance, that the last government produced ‘state of the environment’ reports of any substance were only produced for maybe 3 or 4 years back in the 90s, if memory serves. Federal Canadian government still produces overview reports. But not this fossil-fueled captured province.

    Alberta’s Genuine Progress Indicator EXCERPT: ‘The GDP and money-based measures of progress fail to measure those things that really matter in our lives. ‘

    EXCERPT: ‘The Alberta GPI System of Sustainable Well-being Accounts was developed by a group of economists with the Pembina Institute led by Anielski et al. (2001) to add greater value and utility to the original US GPI by developing a more comprehensive accounting tool for measuring overall economic, social, and environmental well-being. The purpose of this new GPI accounting system was to serve as a tool for governments in planning and budgeting for a resilient and sustainable economy.’

  2. FWIW… a key list in this Table 4 to see the enhanced scope of the AB version of GPI developed in the late 90s. The lead economist did some foundational work with Daly and Cobb on sustainability indicators prior to doing some assessments using GPI here in AB.

    Click to access gpi_blueprint.pdf

    EXCERPT: The Alberta GPI Blueprint
    The Pembina Institute, page 21
    Table 4: The Alberta GPI Indicators for Economic, Social -Personal and
    Environmental Well-being

    See page 28 for an example of a stark presentation of a ‘balance sheet’ approach that business and gov’t elites ought to have just loved! on AB on various indicators. But the less red-colored area on each indicator showing very poor performance on a host of environmental issues probably didn’t fit their truth of ‘AB has a sustainable economy story’, or so I would guess. excerpt: ‘A perfect GPI Sustainability Circle would
    be completely filled to the outer edges of the circle. This approach to showing visually the
    condition of all wealth or well -being in a society is a powerful tool for communicating a number of complex issues.’

    Lead author of this model here. https://anielski.com/measure-matters-well-being/
    Inside the govt of AB was where he started this work, surprisingly, during the 3rd unbroken decade of our provincial conservative govt during the 90s before it went full Republican, and was still nominally centrist, but mostly actually functioning in full neoliberal ‘reinvent government’ mode (i.e. privatize, deregulate, make govt run like a corporation, zero-based budgeting, etc etc, and thus measurement! metrics! were briefly all the rage.) https://anielski.com/measure-matters-well-being/

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