Heroes of Zero


Absolutism is stalking the land. Extreme policies are being proposed and justified as the only possible response considering the supposedly extreme nature of the circumstances they relate to. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in the pursuit of good cause is no vice. In fact, the more extreme you are, the more virtuous you seem. In that sense, the left are today the champions of uncompromising stances: 100% for 0%.

This policy absolutism, to be sure, is not the sole domain of the left. Libertarianism abounds with positions like “legalise all drugs” (though, of course, not all libertarians subscribe to all of them). Many conservatives, particularly religious ones, particularly in the United States, would like to ban all abortions, regardless of circumstances. Anarchists believe that all hierarchies are bad and need to be abolished. Communists think the same about private property, at least in theory.

But all such positions are considered extreme and enjoy limited popular support (with exception of the abortion ban in the US, though it remains a minority view). What’s truly zero about them is their chance of ever being implemented in real life, barring a zombie apocalypse.

By contrast, the left’s “zeroes” not only enjoy a significant support in the ranks, they also constitute official platforms and aspirations of major political parties.

Think “zero carbon”. Going beyond the “net zero” position, where carbon emissions are cancelled out by carbon offsets (abatements), the political and environmental left envisages a future – a not too distant one, in another two or three decades – where fossil fuels are completely eliminated, and all the electricity and fuel for transport are generated from “renewables” like solar and wind. Not to say that this might never happen, but there is simply no technology available at the moment to make it happen in a short to medium term future. Green energy might be getting more efficient – and cheaper (though not cheaper than carbon-derived energy) – but it’s intermittent (except for hydro and geothermal, which are available only in a few locations around the world and the latter is generally opposed by the greens are destructive of natural habitats) and storage options limited to still relatively primitive batteries. By all means, fund research and development, but mere aspirations and timetables are not going to magically make a fossil fuel-free advanced civilisation possible and viable. Never mind the broader questions of whether it is the most sensible and cost-effective solution to the problem of “climate change” (versus adaptation and mitigation, or a widespread use of hydro and nuclear power). At the moment, premature attempt to decarbonise are leading to higher energy prices and the economic pain, while having a negligible-to-nonexistent impact on temperatures.

Think “zero COVID”. It’s a great and noble idea – all that is required to make it happen is to abolish all travel and keep everyone under permanent house arrest. Of course, it’s ideal that people don’t get sick with and die of COVID. But under the eliminationist strategy, this becomes not just a noble objective but the only objective, to be achieved at any cost. We live in a world of scarce resources and constant trade-offs, however, which complicates any such single-minded calculus. For starters, saving lives from COVID means sacrificing other lives – for example to increased suicides, brought about by lockdowns and other measures either directly (isolation leading to depression) or indirectly (business bankruptcies, relationship breakdowns), or to death from other medical conditions, which get undiagnosed and un- or under-treated by the health system predominantly focused on COVID. Why is one category or cause of deaths better (or worse) than another? There are of course other costs of pursuing the “zero COVID” strategy in terms of public health and economic damage. Now, you might well say “it’s worth it if it saves even one life” or accuse me of being a callous granny killer who doesn’t care about human lives. But let’s say that saving every 1,000 lives from COVID comes at a cost of $10 billion to government, the economy and the society as a whole. And let us then say that spending $10 billion in other ways can save 10,000 lives otherwise lost to other causes (diseases, accidents, addiction, suicide and homicide, etc. – take your pick). This set of numbers is hypothetical but a scenario like this is not. Such choices can be tough, heartbreaking and terrible to make, but they are made routinely by the authorities by the way they set policies and spend public money. We just tend not to think of it in such stark terms.

Think “zero tolerance” to a whole range of attitudes and behaviours considered socially undesirable. This is not a defence of racism or sexism or other -isms as understood by an average reasonable person; this is pointing out that under “zero tolerance” there is no forgiveness, understanding, grace, redemption – the aim is to to cancel, de-platform, unperson and destroy individuals for even the smallest and most ridiculous infringements. Most ridiculous, because the scope of what is considered to be a social sin is being continuously expanded by the activists into the ever-new frontiers of subjectivity, not to mention intersectionality. The result is that people lose jobs, businesses and livelihoods, are hounded, vilified and subjected to campaigns of death threats, hatred, vitriol and abuse, often not only for relatively minor things they might have said or done, but also things said and done years if not decades ago, often when they were young and stupid. I remember the left’s opposition to “three strikes you’re out” sentencing laws. For the law and order types, the prospect of a mandatory long jail sentence on third conviction (instead of the usual revolving doors of the justice system) represented a powerful deterrent. For the law’s critics, mainly but not exclusively on the left, it was a blunt instrument resulting in frequent injustice, like a 20 year prison sentence for stealing a pencil. Now the “zero tolerance” approach and the cancel culture are built on the “one strike you’re out” philosophy, where you effectively receive a life sentence of ostracism and limited opportunities. There are no statutes of limitations, no appeals, no paroles; you can never “pay your debt to society”.

What all such “zeroes” have in common is that they are responses to what we are told are diabolical challenges – climate change is an existential threat to civilisation, ditto for COVID; all the -isms are “structural”. No wonder then that the recommended actions are so drastic, blatant and single-minded. The nature of the threat justifies and licences the extreme response. That’s why the threat can’t be questioned. Because if it’s just another problem we’re facing, we need to juggle it with all others, manage our limited resources wisely, and understand limitations and trade-offs. In other words, we need to live and behave rationally. But where’s the fun in that? It’s neither heroic or virtuous, and it’s certainly not transformative. In other words, very non-left.

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash