Why 'The Conventional Wisdom' on Carbon No Longer Applies

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith would have something to say right now.

John Kenneth Galbraith, 1960
John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined "The Conventional Wisdom.".

Bettman Archives/ Getty Images

The phrase "the conventional wisdom" was first used by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1958 book "The Affluent Society." He wrote 40 years later in the introduction to a new edition:

"Nothing gives me more pleasure than the chapter on the concept of the conventional wisdom. That phrase has now passed into the language; I encounter it daily, used by individuals, some disapproving of my general stance on economics and politics, who have no thought as to its source. Perhaps I should have taken out a patent."

As the impact of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report"Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis" sinks in, it's appropriate to look at what Galbraith meant when he wrote about the conventional wisdom. He was talking about economic change, but every word he wrote could apply to climate change, its acceptance, and the willingness of people and governments to adapt.

"Numerous factors contribute to the acceptability of ideas. To a very large extent, of course, we associate truth with convenience—with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life."

Nobody likes change, and there are vested interests in avoiding or preventing change.

"Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding. This is a prime manifestation of vested interest. For a vested interest in understanding is more preciously guarded than any other treasure. It is why men react, not infrequently with something akin to religious passion, to the defense of what they have so laboriously learned."

So since we have within living memory, driven cars, eaten steaks, boarded planes for vacations, poured concrete, that is what we will continue to do—that which is convenient, familiar, and acceptable. As Galbraith notes:

"Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behavior, but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability. Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable. It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the Conventional Wisdom."

That's why the premier of Alberta, sitting on the world's third-largest pool of fossil fuels, says, "It is a utopian notion that we can suddenly end the use of hydrocarbon-based energy." It's why British conservative politicians about prime minister Boris Johnson's green policies, telling The Times: “It’s a hard sell asking people to make sacrifices when the rest of the world, China/Russia etc, are carrying on as usual."

Nobody wants to be inconvenienced or suffer any unwelcome dislocation. Take Johnson's proposals to ban sales of gas-powered cars after 2030: "All the builders, mechanics, petrol-heads across the country will be rolling their eyes at this ‘idealism’."

And of course, we know what the industry response is going to be. But Galbraith continues, describing how the conventional wisdom eventually changes.

"The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events. As I have noted, the conventional wisdom accommodates itself not to the world that it is meant to interpret, but to the audience’s view of the world. Since the latter remains with the comfortable and the familiar, while the world moves on, the conventional wisdom is always in danger of obsolescence. This is not immediately fatal. The fatal blow to the conventional wisdom comes when the conventional ideas fail signally to deal with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them palpably inapplicable."

The IPCC report challenges the conventional wisdom

Human influence on climate


This is one of those times when conventional wisdom has failed. A British politician complains in The Times: “Why is this report the one that we should take notice of? They’ve been telling us the end is nigh for decades.” The difference with this report came out at a time when anyone, just about anywhere on the planet, can look around and see climate change happening in real time.

This report says we did it. "Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heat waves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since [2014 report] AR5."

This report says we have to fix it. "Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades."

This report says it's going to get a lot worse if we don't. "Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost."

The conventional wisdom has failed

conventional wisdom

Lloyd Alter

We have referred to "The Conventional Wisdom" before on Treehugger, trying to make the case that after 50 years of worrying about energy efficiency, we had to pivot to reducing upfront carbon emissions or embodied carbon right now. In the light of the recent IPCC report, we really have to question The Conventional Wisdom about everything that adds greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And we can't wait for 2050, we have to do it now if we are going to have a hope of staying below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius).

The Affluent Society
The Affluent Society 1958 Edition.

Lloyd Alter

I read my parents' old copy of Galbraith as research while writing "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle." I wanted to understand consumption, and why "we are committed by obsolescent thought to a tense and humorless pursuit of goods and to a fantastic and dangerous effort to manufacture wants as rapidly as we make goods. We invest too much in things and not enough in people. We threaten the stability of our society by producing too much of some things and not enough of others. We are less happy than we might be and we jeopardize our safety."

Other than the temperature, it appears that not much has changed since 1958, including the need to challenge the conventional wisdom.