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.