Saturday, December 12, 2015

COP21: pass the soap

COP21 was adopted today, and it's an interesting document. Each paragraph begins with an italicized verb, and they are: acknowledges, affirms, agrees, calls upon, decides, emphasizes, encourages, invites, notes, recognizes, recommends, reiterates, requests, resolves, takes note, urges, welcomes. Maybe next time we'll see beseeches, implores, and pleads.

Notably absent are the following verbs: authorizes, decrees, directs, imposes, mandates, obliges, orders, ratifies, requires, stipulates. This list is by no means exhaustive. Neither damages nor sanctions are mentioned, and the only mention of punishment is a renouncement of it, in Article 13: "The transparency framework shall ... be implemented in a facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive manner, respectful of national sovereignty, and avoid placing undue burden on Parties." This bright green(wash) bubble bath of deference applies as much to the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia as it does to Kiribati.

It does appear that James Hansen has a point: “It’s a fraud really, a fake,” [Hansen] says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Friday, November 6, 2015

Ditch the Pharaohs: Transhumanism as escapism

Iara Lee's "Synthetic Pleasures" focuses on transhumanists and their terrifying delusions and hubris. It only considers our assault on our environment from a human point of view, just as American media about the Vietnam War only considered the war's effect on Americans. Nonetheless it's full of memorable quotes, for example:

    "... the thing that sets human beings apart from other creatures is a built-in dissatisfaction. There's an itch that we have that can't be scratched. Our efforts to scratch it have created civilization, which is essentially the practice of trying to adapt the environment to us rather than adapting ourselves to the environment." -John Perry Barlow

It seems obvious that "taking the machine inside us and uniting with it" has very real costs and dangers, including the danger of isolating ourselves from the impacts of industrialism until it's too late to mitigate them: "the electricity goes off and you discover you're not living in paradise, you're living in hell." Of course most of the human population already lives in hell*, and that goes double for non-humans.

I agree with Robert Gurland that "problems of ecology, are essentially problems of transformation ... we might in the end transform the world in such a way that we won't be able to adapt to it ... that is, we literally won't be able to live in the world that we create." I just don't agree that the ethics of mass extinction are limited to its impact on humans. The view that Earth is a blank canvas, and that the nonhuman world is merely a backdrop for the human drama, is suspiciously similar to the views colonists had of the New World and its native population, and it's achieving a similar result: extermination.

Stephen Hawking proves himself as delusional as any other transhumanist, by refusing to accept that our survival depends critically on cooperation with nonhumans. Merely asserting that "our only chance of long-term survival is ... to spread out into space" like Daleks doesn't make it a viable plan, and the reflexive repetitiveness of this theme is just more evidence that transhumanism is faith-based. Like any religion, transhumanism is fundamentally escapist, requiring adherents to believe that humanity's destiny lies elsewhere--anywhere but here--when in fact "like Prometheus we are bound, chained to this rock of a brave new world." We will either cooperate and show altruism towards future humans and nonhumans, or we won't be around. Science can't decide this question because it's pure ethics.

The deeper question is, what are humanity's shared goals if any, and this is obviously connected to our perception of the meaning of life, but again science can't help us since meaning is culturally relative and highly mutable. If our goal is for a tiny percentage of the population to party like Egyptian Pharaohs while everyone else suffers horrifically until Earth is unfit for mammals, we don't need to change anything. Neoliberalism dovetails neatly with new age spirituality in the sense that they're both built on victim-blaming--whatever happens to you, it's because you deserve it--and together they constitute the perfect ideology for neo-feudal militant theocracy and ecocide along the lines of "The Handmaid's Tale."

However if our goal is to keep earth habitable for humans indefinitely, then maximizing the self-interest of a few sperm lottery winners won't work; instead we need to turn the Titanic around 180 degrees fast, and that means seizing power from the Pharaohs, drastically reducing our population (voluntarily or otherwise) and reorganizing our whole way of life around the fecundity of ecosystems. But make no mistake, either way the long-term future doesn't include us. Bacteria were here first and they will be here last. On this point at least science is abundantly clear.

The script of "Synthetic Pleasures" is here.

*"Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day." Source: Global Issues, Poverty Facts and Stats, Jan. 7, 2013.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mainstream metadelusions

Re [RealClimate comment] #69 “The poster is deluding himself”: Delusion is an important part of our evolutionary toolkit. We tell ourselves what we want to hear because doing so worked for us on the savannah. Nate Hagen (The Monkey Trap) talks about this in an interesting lecture he gives called The Converging Energy and Environmental Crises – A Pep Talk for those Paying Attention. Science helps us correct for our delusional biases, but it doesn’t make them disappear. Science also makes our delusional biases more dangerous, by empowering us to cause trouble. Pretending that we aren’t deluded (i.e. delusion about delusion) gets us into serious trouble.

But regarding the allegation that the message needs to be more mainstream, let’s explore that a bit. How about a message that everyone should keep right on doing what they’re already doing, but shop for slightly different products? That sounds pretty good right? Corporations and their shareholders will like it too. It also sounds suspiciously similar to what we've been doing all along. I live in the United States, so let’s see how that's worked out for us. Some fun facts, here in the USA:

  • Forty percent of births are unintended [actually it's 49% but hey, who's counting?].
  • Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day - that's roughly 200 billion more than needed - enough to feed 80 million people.
  • Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily.
  • The average American generates 52 tons of garbage by age 75.
  • The average individual daily consumption of water is 159 gallons, while more than half the world's population lives on 25 gallons.
  • Fifty-six percent of available farmland is used for beef production.
  • There are more shopping malls than high schools.

And so forth. Looks to me like selling the most wasteful people on Earth lots of electric cars and solar panels is unhelpful, because it sends the wrong message, which is that the affluent classes of developing countries can emulate our example, and feel good about themselves too.

It might be useful to consider how Americans fared the last (and only) time there was anything resembling top-down egalitarianism here (run-up to and aftermath of WWII). Let’s see, private automobiles weren’t manufactured, food and gasoline were rationed, women made do without nylons, etc. And of course the top marginal income tax rate was over 90%, incredible but true.

So even rapacious Americans are in fact capable of making altruistic sacrifices on a mass scale, given sufficient motivation. Which suggests that climate change possibly fails to constitute a sufficient motivation, the subject of George Marshall’s fascinating book “Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”. He quotes Daniel Kahneman (Nobel-winning author of “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow") as saying “No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living.” That goes double for the ultra-rich, and they own the fossil carbon.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Confronting growth-ism

I’m primarily focused on climate change, economic stratification, and unchecked development, and in my view these share a common cause, which I call growth-ism or growth-mania (after William R. Catton). Naomi Klein calls it extractivism, but I consider this deceptive, because it leaves unchallenged an escapist fantasy of non-extractive growth. Either humans are going to moderate their demands, and learn to live within their means, or we simply won’t be around.

99.9 percent of all the species that have ever existed are now extinct, and ultimately, (probably anaerobic) bacteria will re-inherit Earth. There was never going to be a happy ending for us as a species, any more than there is for us as individuals. We have no chance of escaping, because there’s nowhere to escape to. Humans have always faced a tough choice here, between surviving a while longer, and surviving less long. For my entire adult life the trend has been moving inexorably towards less and I see no sign of a reversal; on the contrary we’re accelerating rapidly in the wrong direction. The United Nations charter commits us to keeping Earth habitable for humans indefinitely, but like so many of our noble declarations this increasingly seems like a cruel joke.

I have less skin in the game than some of you, having long ago taken a lifetime vow of non-procreation. In the not-so-distant future (paraphrasing Nobody in “Dead Man”) this world will no longer concern me. I continue to work to try and change the world for the better in small ways, but I have no illusions about the larger trajectory. I won’t live to see the worst impacts of climate change, because they will unfold over hundreds if not thousands of years. Limiting global surface temperature increase to 2° C is a pipe dream; that train already left the station. Yes it could theoretically be achieved with sustained de-growth of 10% per annum, but that won’t happen barring collapse of civilization. Some are rooting for collapse, but I’m committed to preserving civilization for better or worse.

Albert Bartlett famously complained that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” and while I sympathize, I see that the hard problems are all ethical, not scientific. Why should people embrace disturbing truths instead of convenient fictions? Why shouldn’t the rich live soft lives and be waited on hand and foot if they can get away with it? Why shouldn’t the ruling class use force to take whatever it wants? Why should people make sacrifices for the benefit of future generations? Why should individual humans care what happens after they’re dead?

Humans could turn out to be great at science but lousy at ethics. Ultimately our problems boil down to a tragic mismatch between our original evolutionary environment and the environment we’ve created for ourselves through cultural evolution. This is no fault of our own, and while I didn’t in the past, increasingly I feel empathy for people. In our best moments we create inspiring works of exquisite beauty. But psychologically we seem poorly equipped to handle the hard truths of our existence, revealed in such vivid detail by science. I don’t blame people for magical thinking–it’s built into our hardware–but the only way forward is for us to put childish things aside, and reorganize our entire way of life around the seemingly impossible challenges of long-term survival.

Many of the attributes that made us fit on the savannah have monstrous consequences in the present. For example, we tend to focus on immediate threats to the exclusion of all else, and I’m no exception. I will continue to direct my energies towards preventing or limiting injustice in my local community, because it immediately impacts my quality of life. I will also continue to take every opportunity to shame public officials for their perversion of so many lofty stated goals, an admittedly quixotic quest.

The harsh reality is that the super-rich are invading urban cores, in a stunning reversal that few saw coming. One the few who did see it was Paul Theroux. In his obscure dystopian novel “O-Zone” (1987) he predicted that the “owners” would concentrate their power in gated citadels patrolled by militarized private police, while simultaneously abandoning vast areas and leaving the majority of the population to fend for themselves. This neo-feudal vision has already been realized in Detroit and many other places, and it emerges from a stage beyond gentrification, described by Simon Kuper as plutocratization in his seminal article “Priced Out of Paris.”

Plutocratization has already occurred in Paris and London and San Francisco and Brooklyn, it’s underway here in Boston, and the signs of it are everywhere. The model is a live-in outdoor mall, disguised to look like a vibrant, quaint community, with faux-Belle Epoch street lamps and continuous surveillance. This is where the super-rich will make their stand, at least until things get really rough and the more foresighted of them retreat to their luxury survival condos. If Thomas Piketty is even half right, the 1% of humanity who own half the world’s wealth will continue to maximize their profits until the bitter end.