Friday, September 21, 2012

A world without Quality

@435 SecularAnimist:

I think it is arguable that empiricism - which is the heart of science - is responsible for essentially all of humanity's advancements throughout all of human history and pre-history.

This is almost a dictionary definition of scientism. Please try to imagine the emotional impact this statement has on artists. Have they contributed nothing to humanity's advancement? Are the contents of museums useless rubbish? Should we empty them out and repurpose the buildings as laboratories or factories? What is advancement? Is it inherently good, or does its goodness depend on what we're advancing towards?

I'm not being rhetorical or provocative. I'm trying to understand how we got into this mess in the first place, so I can more effectively inspire myself and others to deal with it. Robert Pirsig raised similar questions in his 1974 inquiry into values, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." He described pervasive technological ugliness, and hypothesized that its source was a split between art and science, or between what he called the "classic" and "romantic" world-views. He then attempted to save reason from its own self-devouring logic, by positing pre-intellectual awareness (which he called "Quality") as the source of both subjects and objects. In my view his solution was naive and retreated into mysticism, but regardless it apparently didn't work, because forty years later we're no closer to a resolution, and the ugliness Pirsig was describing has blossomed into the greatest threat in human history.

In a famous passage Pirsig used realism to prove the existence of his central term, "by subtracting Quality from a description of the world as we know it". His description could just as easily describe a world in which "empiricism ... is responsible for essentially all of humanity's advancements."

We have been listening to scientists, maybe not about climate change, but about nearly everything else, for hundreds of years, and the results are increasingly ghastly. Even scientists are scared. If scientists are now going to tell us that there's no hope without even more drastic technological change, they would be wise to adopt some humility, and acknowledge that mistakes were made, instead of preaching science as a glorious march to advancement.

I know it seems like I'm attacking science but it's more subtle than that. I'm an engineer. I work with scientists and use math and logic all day long, and I don't doubt for a second that science "works", in the pragmatic sense that our explanations of phenomena can improve with time and effort. What I'm questioning is the notion that science is neutral, or as Pirsig would say, Quality-free. Art isn't just "whatever you like" and there's more to life than being right.

"We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."
-Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Winning the war on the future

James Hansen is sometimes accused of overstating his case, but I find him controversial for an entirely different reason: he consistently portrays climate change as an intergenerational injustice. His argument is that climate change violates the civil rights of future generations, including the right to a livable world. To my knowledge no one else with comparable scientific reputation is making this argument so forcefully and publicly. It’s clever and plays well because 1) civil society avows egalitarianism, 2) people are justifiably proud of the significant progress that’s been made towards that goal, and 3) climate change threatens to wipe out that progress in short order (along with much else).

Unfortunately, extending civil rights to future generations isn’t new: pro-lifers have been using this gambit for decades, with considerable success. Hansen hasn’t made any public statements on abortion to my knowledge, nor does it seem likely that he would, whatever his private views are, but his otherwise laudable meme is nonetheless potentially entangled with religious oppression of women. The right of future generations to a livable world needs to be distinguished from the right of women to make their own reproductive choices. I don’t find this difficult, but I suspect many Americans will have trouble getting their heads around it. It’s a PR problem that Hansen may not have considered.

A more serious criticism of Hansen’s intergenerational justice meme is that it doesn’t go far enough. I propose a more strident alternative: war on the future. The idea is that we’ve declared war against future generations, and we’re winning. Victory means no future, for our species and countless others. This may seem absurd, but in my experience paradoxes are very useful in PR, because they expose hidden assumptions. Here the assumption is that climate change is merely an injustice to future generations, when in fact it’s an existential threat, the type of threat that wars are usually fought over. Injustice implies the possibility of compensation, but in the worst-case scenario, future generations won’t even get the opportunity to bitterly resent us, because they won’t exist. War on the future is also totally asymmetric: future generations can’t defend themselves, because they’re not here yet.

WWII and the Manhattan project are commonly used as analogies for the global effort that will be needed to mitigate climate change, and this is part of my inspiration, but “winning the war on the future” is primarily inspired by Jeremy Jackson’s work. Daniel Pauly’s shifting baselines feel mild-mannered compared to Jackson’s incendiary “How we wrecked the ocean” presentation, which he starts by telling the audience that everything he ever studied disappeared during his lifetime. Jackson very effectively communicates devastation and irrevocable loss, not only with his emotional intensity and relentless examples, but also by using vivid metaphors such as “silent ocean” and “the rise of slime.” Similarly visceral memes are desperately needed in the struggle to wake people up to the reality and consequences of climate change.

There are many versions of Jackson’s presentation, but my favorite is here: Silent Ocean – Perspectives on Ocean Science

Monday, September 3, 2012

A World Without Oil

Bruce Mau doesn't want to imagine a world without oil since it would be boring and bad for his business model, so you shouldn't try to imagine it either. Instead you should just keep saying "yes" to unlimited profits for corporations like General Electric and Coca-Cola (his customers), because that's personally thrilling (and profitable) for him. Despite overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that we either stop burning fossil fuels or stop existing, 1) we should keep on burning them anyway, because it's smart and sexy, and 2) the resulting global ecological collapse will be magically avoided by better product design. There's no shortage of self-serving collaborators, but even by postmodern standards this is a monstrously irresponsible proposal.

It wasn't enough to wreck the ocean, exterminate countless species, and plunge Earth's climate into chaos. Now we should declare total war on future generations by slurping up every last drop of oil, so that ingenious designers can fly to conferences and ride around in cool-looking cars. Obama-style grass-roots pretensions aside, this is just regurgitated technological utopianism and boosterism for limitless growth. Cornucopian fantasies are perennially popular, especially with robber barons. As our situation deteriorates, escapism is increasingly indistinguishable from schizophrenia. Humans may be an intelligent species. We'll soon see. If we're intelligent, we'll stop burning fossil fuels. If we listen to greenwash from corporate toadies and roast ourselves, bacteria will inherit Earth a little ahead of schedule is all. If you find naivete and narcissism abhorrent, you're not entirely alone. Check out Dan Miller's A REALLY Inconvenient Truth instead.