Saturday, October 7, 2023

Destigmatizing Distinction

It’s long overdue to seriously address the decline of nearly everything, excepting processor power and societal incoherence. Near the core of the issue is postmodernism, a huge subject to be sure. Though undeniably fashionable, obscurantism and flippancy play into the hands of the postmodern worldview, and to some extent I’ve been guilty of them myself, though I’m trying to atone.

Beyond the pompousness and deliberate obfuscation of ideas and methods, and despite all its Marxist posturing, the postmodern worldview is fundamentally antisocial, because it engenders solipsism and fragmentation rather than coherence and solidarity. To claim the end of truth is deeply antisocial because it forecloses the possibility of rational responses to climate change and other pressing catastrophes. I accuse postmodernists of playing directly into the hands of neoliberal capitalists. The reflexive individualism and relentless disruption are right out of Baudrillard.

But perhaps it’s worse than that. The early postmodernists may arguably have been idealists—though even then I question their motives—but postmodernism has become a crass race to the bottom, much like the object of its critique. The goal has become to show how little sense and effort you can make and still be taken seriously. The less sense you make, and the less work you do, the more laudable you are. But this is not only a recipe for ghastly, superficial and pointless art, it’s also the ideal condition for further incoherence and dehumanization.

The essential lie of postmodernism is that nothing is truer or more relevant than anything else; that all views are fundamentally and radically equal, except for the view that everything is equal, which is implicitly elevated to religious dogma. In its most extreme formulation, the dogma of postmodern equality reduces all hierarchies to slavery, so that claiming or citing authority brands you as a colonialist, regardless of the merits of your argument. The indispensable condiment of postmodern discourse is blur, because the mash-up of unsupported and contradictory assertions can only be made remotely plausible by encrypting its content.

The way out of the postmodern quagmire is by resorting to meaningful, evidence-based distinctions. Such distinctions will inevitably be accused of bias, inequality, inequity, and many related ills, but this is part of the lie that needs challenging. Above all it’s the notion that "everything is everything"—a willfully ill-informed misapplication of quantum theory—that needs refutation. “Everything is mostly nothing” would more accurately describe the quantum scale, but it’s still a fatally misleading and nihilistic view of the human predicament. For anti-postmodern rebels, I propose a more constructive slogan: “Reality is real enough to kill us all.”

Sunday, September 25, 2022


People often ask me what pronouns I prefer. When I first started crossdressing in public in 1991, passing could be a matter of life and death, and gender-appropriate pronouns were essential for safety reasons alone. Today there’s somewhat more tolerance for gender diversity, at least in relatively cosmopolitan places, so I frame the issue differently.

I don’t always present as female, but if I am presenting as female, it’s polite to use female pronouns, even if safety isn’t an issue. Think of it this way: Subcultures normally have codes of conduct. Suppose you visited a motorcycle club and opined loudly that riding motorcycles is stupid. At best you would not make friends. Similarly, addressing a visibly transgendered person with inappropriate pronouns constitutes refusal to abide by a code of conduct, and it will rightly be perceived as rudeness. It’s not a felony, it’s just boorish. Doing it once by accident is forgivable. Doing it persistently or intentionally is no better than addressing people with slurs.

If I’m presenting as male and someone addresses me with female pronouns I take it as a compliment. I’ve crossdressed for much of my life, long before it was fashionable or even remotely acceptable. I made sacrifices, faced rejection and hatred, and narrowly escaped many dangerous predicaments. I crossdress primarily because I like the way it makes me feel, but it has a revolutionary element. I joined the larger societal struggle against strict gender roles. It took guts, and still does. Calling me “she” even if I happen to be unshaven or wearing pants is a gesture of respect and solidarity, and I appreciate it.

I have never claimed to be biologically female, and never would, because I consider it disrespectful to women, given the hideous discrimination and violence they’ve suffered and continue to suffer due to their lack of a Y chromosome. I have a lot of sympathy for women who feel threatened by men. I’ve been threatened by men, and it’s scary as hell. To be fair, I’ve been threatened by women too, but rarely, and I’ve only faced the threat of sexual violence from men. I can easily understand why some women might not feel comfortable allowing men in their space, even if they make an effort to blend in.

Which brings us to bathrooms. On more than one occasion I have literally had my life saved by the ability to use a women’s bathroom. Transgendered people are targets of male violence with nauseating frequency. The reality of being transgendered is that using the wrong bathroom isn’t just humiliating, it’s potentially suicidal. So cut transgendered people some slack on this point. But it’s a two-way street. If you’re a transgendered person in the other gender’s bathroom, think of yourself as a temporary ambassador for all transgendered people. We’re counting on you to make a favorable impression, so be on your best behavior. Keep to yourself, do your business and then leave. That’s part of our code of conduct too.

No doubt we have way more serious problems to worry about than pronouns, but little things matter and sometimes add up. Significant victories over racism, sexism and homophobia have occurred during my lifetime. I’m honored to have lived through that progress, and language changes are part of the deal. For what it’s worth, my friends call me Chrissy.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

He who talks loud, saying nothing

I got about a third of the way through “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” before I had to abort. It reminded me of all the reasons why I’ve always found Žižek’s spiel maddening. It’s just too cute, cryptic, and postmodern. According to Wikipedia, “British political philosopher John Gray attacked Žižek for his celebrations of violence, his failure to ground his theories in historical facts, and his 'formless radicalism' which, according to Gray, professes to be communist yet lacks the conviction that communism could ever be successfully realized.” What he said!

I do love “They Live” though, and I totally get why Žižek remains popular. He has moments of brilliance and can be hilariously funny. He’s underrated as a comedian. Perhaps this could have been an alternative career path for him. I guess there wasn’t a lot of demand for comedians in ex-Yugoslavia. But I don’t take him seriously as a thinker, he’s too incoherent for that.

Žižek isn’t a scientist in any meaningful sense, so he doesn’t have scientific peers. He’s a philosopher, and a fan of Derrida which tells us a lot. He’s an offshoot of that gnomic movement that considers incomprehensibility to be proof of authority. But in scientific endeavors it’s the opposite: the goal is to communicate as clearly as possible, avoid superlatives, and back up claims with evidence. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence" (Hitchens) and “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Sagan).

What Žižek does have is Marxist / Post-Structuralist peers, and they’re very snarky and competitive. They’re constantly obliged to prove that they’re not selling out, which is quite a challenge in a capitalist economy, hence their focus on provocation.

Metadelusion is fundamentally an attempt to dispel confusion over what science is, and isn’t. The original antagonist of Metadelusion was also a fan of post-structuralism, and it showed in her refusal to admit the realness of reality that scientific pragmatism takes as axiomatic. Žižek is no expert on reality, despite his references to quantum physics (the last refuge of scoundrels).

Philosophy can be cryptic, and in some of its schools, encryption is apparently a design goal. But philosophy isn’t science, because unlike philosophers, scientists are obliged to make testable predictions about phenomena. Though there is a philosophy of science, which often confuses people.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Stairway to Nothing

Humanity is severely afflicted by delusion. We yearn to be princes and princesses, riding glittery ponies in a fairy tale, unique and immortal and magically exempt from all rules and authority, but in reality we’re hairless apes clinging to a planet that will soon be made uninhabitable by our stubborn refusal to face facts. There will be no happy ending for any of us as individuals. We will age, weaken, succumb to illness, and certainly die. The tales of power that were sold to us by charlatans like Carlos Castaneda were only useful fictions. Even the fragmentary record of MK-Ultra shows that the popularization of recreational drug use was deliberate social engineering, intended to pacify and neutralize us. The consciousness revolution’s mystical fatalism transformed us into alienated and disempowered consumers, easily disembodied and reduced to fleeting avatars that pose no threat to global capital. Psychedelic culture is predatory by design, a soothing distraction sustained by our wish to escape from the omnipotence of markets and corporations. There are no witches or sorcerers, only deluded people on a stairway to nothing. Retreating into fantasies of individual glory only strengthens the grip of our sociopathic masters. Hell was always here, in the present, made manifest by cruelty and indifference. The path that leads to our survival is collective, and we will walk it soberly, squinting in the harsh glare of evidence, or not at all.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Stopping Power

Interviewed by The Guardian, Bulgarian performance artist Marina Abramovic quoted Ayn Rand, saying “The question is not who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.” The quote is pure sociopathy, revealing deviant selfishness and utter contempt for the common good. Increasingly the ultra-wealthy are kings. They do whatever they like because no one can stop them. If they want to give away their money, they do so, and we praise them as though they were the paragon of virtue. If they prefer to build bases on Mars, we act as though that were a laudable goal. It’s not due to lese majeste laws; no one goes to prison for criticizing billionaires. It’s that the structure of our society rewards antisocial behavior. Neoliberal capitalism extols the mythical heroism of the risk-taking entrepreneur. The neoliberal narrative empowers rugged individualists, and in this sense Ayn Rand already won. We've already got the society she evangelized, dominated by self-obsessed megalomaniacs slugging it out to win the influence wars, while the rest of us—the little people—cower in the shit, aping them. Capitalism is perfectly designed to overinflate the egos of our new monarchs. Its ultimate values—the prizes to be won—are fame and luxury. Browsing through Architectural Digest makes the goal obvious. The dream is to be famous just for being rich and be rich just for being famous. Superficiality is the order of the day. The word ‘fashion’ implies conformity to arbitrary, ever-changing norms, so last year‘s thing simply won’t do. Fashion is the epitome of capitalism, because we must keep making more and more things and throwing them away to remain fashionable. But what has real value? What has real value is truth. Truth is not fashionable. Our explanations of phenomena may change, but not because we tire of them; they change because we’re confronted by new evidence. Our accumulated wisdom is valuable because it endures and isn’t arbitrary. Like fashion, capitalism is myopically fixated on individual glory in the fickle present. Unable to visualize collective success, we stagger blindly into a future that doesn’t need us.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Physicists predict 'irreversible collapse'

I have lived my entire adult life in the looming shadow of ecological and societal collapse. By the age of thirteen I already clearly visualized the primary drivers of collapse, overpopulation and over-consumption. I began writing and speaking about the danger of collapse in 1992, when this was still considered an extremely far-fetched hypothesis. Three decades later, collapse is now discussed openly in the mainstream media. I’m not motivated by schadenfreude and take no pleasure in being right.

It’s possible that I’ll be taken more seriously now, but this is cold comfort since collapse is by now almost certainly unavoidable, as two physicists recently demonstrated in an excruciating peer-reviewed paper for Nature, the gist of which was summarized for the lay person in the Vice article “Theoretical Physicists Say 90% Chance of Societal Collapse Within Several Decades.”

The first half of the paper is tough sledding for non-mathematicians, but the second half is math-free and relatively comprehensible. The section titled “Fermi’s paradox” confirms what I’ve been saying for years: that the reason we appear to be alone in the cosmos is because intelligence tends to snuff itself out, after an all-too-brief burst of irrational exuberance. As the paper puts it, “only civilizations capable of … [switching] from an economical society to a sort of ‘cultural’ society in a timely manner, may survive.” In other words, the only civilizations that make it through the bottleneck are those rare ones that prioritize collective long-term survival over individual short-term profit. Or as my video “Overshoot” puts it more succinctly, “intelligent life is a cruel joke.”

Thursday, June 25, 2020

On Consent

When Mahatma Gandhi was asked “What do you think of Western civilization?” he supposedly replied “I think it would be a good idea.” It’s a great line, but it misses a crucial point about civilization. Civilization is not primarily an ethical achievement, though in practice our ethics have improved remarkably, even just since the 18th century, when the breaking wheel was still a common method of execution and slavery was still a routine fact of life. But any ethical progress we've made is a side-effect of our technical progress, not the other way around. Ethical rules are useless without the power to apply them, and that power comes from technical progress.

It all boils down to consent. Can sex with an animal be acceptable if it causes the animal no suffering? Many vegans would say no, because the animal can't give consent. The deeper problem is that consent doesn't actually exist for animals; it's a legal conception that you need an education to appreciate. On the other hand if you say yes, now you're on a slippery slope. What about raping someone who is completely anesthetized so that they don't even realize it happened? Obviously most people wouldn’t accept this, and here the issue is clearly consent.

This is relevant because in order to succeed, civilization has to do many things without obtaining or even considering consent. For example, you didn't consent to be made literate. If author William Golding ("Lord of the Flies") was even half right, you would have preferred to be a savage, and would have remained one if civilization hadn't intervened. Civilization obliges people to do “unnatural” things, in fact that’s its mission in a nutshell. Freud explored this fundamental tension in his classic “Civilization and Its Discontents.”

Science starts from the premise that our senses are unreliable, which they in fact are. As recently as the 16th century, it was still reasonable to believe that the sun orbits the earth, because that’s how it appeared to the naked eye. The heliocentric model ultimately prevailed because technical progress (in the design and manufacture of lenses) made it impossible to deny that it was a better explanation of observed phenomena. This leads to the essential point, which is that science has necessarily co-evolved with technology. You simply can't have one without the other.

Of course this spoils the utopian daydream that science can somehow exist without power plants and copper mines and chemical refineries and microchip factories. Nope! We need all that stuff to do science, and science of course made all that stuff possible. So it's a vicious circle, a positive feedback, and that co-evolution is what brought us social progress. Monarchy gradually replaced aristocracy because monarchy was less hostile to progress. But eventually monarchy also became a limiting factor. The notion that all individuals have inalienable rights only dates back to the American and French revolutions. These revolutions (or something like them) were inevitable, because the resulting ethical and legal advances were prerequisites for further progress.

Social progress is both a result of, and a necessary condition for civilization, and also co-evolved with science and technology. The institution of slavery ultimately failed not only because it was unethical but also because it was too inefficient to be compatible with progress. Soviet communism failed for similar reasons. To function properly, technological society requires well-educated and reasonably independent citizens capable of assimilating information, thinking critically, and disseminating new information in response. That's why you were taught to read and do arithmetic even if you hated it, and why this absence of consent isn’t considered a crime. On the contrary, inhibiting a child’s education is illegal in civilized countries.

Similarly, you’re not asked to consent to laws against drunk driving, because society’s desire to prevent you from murdering random strangers on the highway outweighs your personal desire to drive drunk. The more antisocial a behavior is, the less likely that consent will apply to it. In an ideal world, consent would always be required, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and never will. Progress is nothing if not pragmatic.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Thin Layer of Oily Rock

It's easy to see that we've made a mess of earth, but harder to grasp that being apex predators this is primarily a problem for US, and particularly for our fascinating but exceedingly fragile technological civilization. Sure human extinction would suck for species that depend on us, e.g cows, dogs, cats, corn, pigeons, roaches, etc. but for most species it would be a HUGE WIN. Within a few thousand years (an eye-blink on the geologic time scale) earth would be replenished with new lifeforms. If it's anything like the Permian-Triassic extinction, initially earth would be populated by slime, bacteria, dinoflagellates, etc. but in the long term, giant apex predators would almost certainly reappear. They might evolve back into humans, but they might not too, and either way it wouldn't be our concern.

ALL life changes its environment, it's only a question of degree. At the time when plants evolved the dominant lifeforms were anaerobic bacteria, to which oxygen is deadly poison. Plants nearly exterminated the dominant lifeforms by drastically changing earth's atmosphere, in what could be considered the greatest crime of earth's entire history. Anaerobes didn't go totally extinct, they hung on deep in earth's crust, in your gut and gums, etc. but still it was a disaster from their point of view. Yet without this epic interspecies violence animals wouldn't be here, including us.

The history of life is chaotic and full of errors that turn out to have monumental consequences. In fact error is the very essence of the system, the engine of evolutionary adaptation. This is what Richard Dawkins means by his catchy phrase "the blind watchmaker": there's no designer, no top or bottom, no good or bad organisms. There's just stuff trying to survive, by mutating in an environment of differential survival. It's a horrible blind force from our human perspective, but it's how we got here; it's our creation story whether we like it or not. Cancer is just another family of successful patterns of GTCA code. It's bad news for us, but from the perspective of evolutionary success, cancer persists and therefore has as much right to be here as we do.

God, the Buddha, etc. are fairy tales. You might as well worry about the Easter bunny. The universe is vast, mostly empty and hostile to life, and totally indifferent to our fate. People will either stop behaving like children and start planning rationally for long-term survival, or the future won't include us.

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.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Geoengineering is the ultimate business as usual

You may have read Naomi Klein’s recent Salon interview in which she posits that "Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers", and Joe Romm’s noticeably shrill response on ClimateProgress. In my view Romm was honor-bound to give the critique he gave. The one thing he can’t allow Klein or anyone else to say is that the fix is in, i.e. that fossil fuel corporations have captured government, because that would make his chirpy "better living through green technology" spiel irrelevant, if not duplicitous. Yet the latest IEA numbers clearly show that the global plan is to extract and burn more fossil fuel, not less, while simultaneously testing and deploying a mixed bag of geoengineering methods ("all of the above"). Research into both CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal) and SRM (Solar Radiation Management) is already well underway in many countries, thanks to major funding from the usual suspects.

The remaining fossil fuels and their corresponding infrastructure are the most valuable assets ever to exist in human history, by far, but they’re also the largest sunk costs ever to exist. In economic theory, sunk costs aren’t supposed to influence decisions, but observed behavior is frequently less than ideal. To suppose that fossil fuel corporations and their equivalent state actors would willingly abandon such monumental investments, by writing them off as stranded assets, is naive. On the contrary, their business model assumes that the remaining fossil fuels will not only be sold, but sold at ever-increasing prices, i.e. their plan is to profit from scarcity. Geoengineering is seen as just another cost of doing business, its risks quantifiable and subject to standard depreciation.

Between now and 2040, humanity will emit another teraton of CO2, because the alternative is collapse of the ultimate scam, AKA the global economy, which operates by looting posterity. China is already the world’s largest consumer of automobiles, and is busily constructing an interstate highway system three times the size of America’s. We’re reduced to helping them: the Alberta tar sands are destined for them, not us. This is not only because the fossil fuel dynasties seek to preserve their advantages, but more deeply because geoengineering epitomizes humanity’s exceptionalist narrative, which claims that our success flows directly from our specialness, heroism, and ingenuity. The possibility that our success was merely a predictable consequence of the fossil fuel windfall, and therefore temporary and doomed from the start, is as unthinkable as comparing humanity to yeast in a bottle (cf. William R. Catton and many others).

Klein might argue that a sufficiently militant and widespread popular revolution could delay or even prevent this grim development, but I wouldn’t count on it. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a religious person, but if I were, I would pray that geoengineering works.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The go-go years: wallowing in solvents

Boston is encircled by a ring road called Route 128, along which you can occasionally see signs that say "America's Technology Highway." The road earned its title during the rapid development of the post-WWII boom, which particularly affected the emerging electronics industry. Old-timers nostalgically refer to this period as the "go-go years" because everything seemed possible. Job-creators rolled off brand-new exit ramps into towns like Burlington, Massachusetts, carrying briefcases full of money, and town officials cut red tape and issued permits without asking too many questions.

Northwest Park is a woodsy office park in the town of Burlington, perched on a hill near the highway, and packed with low concrete buildings. During the go-go years, most of the tenants were fabricating semiconductors, and in the process routinely using highly toxic solvents. Thousands of barrels of spent solvents--frequently contaminated with other hazardous materials--were casually emptied into unlined gravel pits near the buildings, or in one case literally poured into a hole in the floor. The solvents gradually flowed downhill, under a nearby road and into the town's well field. When the storm sewers along Middlesex Turnpike failed, a Public Works employee was sent down a manhole to take a look, and reported back that the sewer pipes were gone, dissolved away. That's how Burlington officials learned--years too late--that they had a problem.

Thousands of monitoring wells were drilled to map the solvent plumes and track their inexorable spread. Some of the drinking water wells had to be permanently retired, and a huge industrial facility was built next to the well field, designed to pump groundwater up, through filters, and back into the ground. Smaller filtration stations were installed in the office park, carefully concealed in rustic wooden sheds. After the filters failed to achieve the desired result, vast quantities of potassium permanganate were injected into the ground, in an attempt to neutralize the solvents, which tend to pool beneath rocks. Arsenic and PCB were also found in some locations, and new surprises turn up regularly. It's not unusual to see contractors pressure-washing rocks, or trucking away a whole hillside, at state expense of course. There are hundreds of documents on Northwest Park in the state environmental department's database, spanning forty years, and totaling tens of thousands of pages.

And that's just one office park in one small suburb of Boston. And that's a success story, in the sense that some of the perpetrators ("responsible parties" in the jargon) could be identified, were still in business, and were eventually forced via interminable litigation to cough up some money. But such happy endings are rare. Many Massachusetts sites were so severely contaminated that remediation would bankrupt the state, and since in most of those cases the responsible parties are unknown or long defunct, the federal government ends up holding the bag. Those cases are Superfund sites, and they also form a ring around Boston, roughly following America's Technology Highway.

Multiply Boston's example times hundreds of other American cities--some facing much worse contamination--and you can begin to reckon the true costs of the go-go years, not just in terms of monumental waste of public funds, but in terms of illness, deformity, and untimely death. It would have been far cheaper to avoid dumping hazardous waste in the first place. Nonetheless job-creators consistently chose to maximize short-term profits, gambling that future costs would be borne by faceless others. Economists call such costs externalities, and steeply discount them. Externalities are for victims.

Northwest Park hazardous waste - Google Maps

Superfund sites in Middlesex County, Massachusetts - Google Maps

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Time to wake up indeed

To the Honorable Michael Capuano:

Dear Sir,

The Honorable Sheldon Whitehouse's "Time to Wake Up" speech exemplifies the bold leadership that must prevail to give future generations a fighting chance of survival. He showed tremendous courage today, and your constituents expect nothing less from you. Why haven't you used your time on the floor to denounce the GOP's sociopathic climate science denial, as he claims to have done thirty-three times? His speech should have been front-page news, and still could be with support from his fellow Democrats. The world's richest and most powerful people have declared war on the future, and they're winning. Will you be remembered for standing by helplessly while we surrendered to our most pathologically self-destructive impulses? Or will you be remembered for rising to the occasion, and fighting to the bitter end, not merely for our biological survival, but for a humane, civilized future worthy of our extraordinary accomplishments and potential?

Sincerely yours,

Chris Korda

PS I enclose a link to the speech for your convenience:
Time to Wake Up: GOP Opposition to Climate Science

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Heroic drinking

Oregon man spends $27,000 on a single bottle of Scotch

I find it fascinating that criticism of selfishness is consistently interpreted as envy. Why should we envy selfishness? It's nothing to be proud of. If anything it's proof of social failure. A society that values accumulation of wealth above all else isn't a society at all, it's a corporation.

Inequality of wealth hasn't been this extreme in the United States since before the Gilded Age (the "Robber Baron" period gives the best fit) and yet everyone's busy defending it. It's as though CNN's forums were populated entirely by the 1%, but of course that's impossible: the 1% are busy quaffing their overpriced liquor.

Are we supposed to worship the most conspicuous consumers, as if selfishness was heroic? Is that what civilization has been reduced to? I would expect to hear this type of rhetoric at a John Birch society meeting circa 1950. That I'm hearing it in the 21st century, on the forum of one the world's most powerful corporations, as climate change barrels down on us all like a geological-scale freight train, does not bode well for the longevity of homo sapiens.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Civilization is fragile

The neurotic obsession with weapons is an expression of selfishness, and reflects a splintered, delusional society teetering on the brink of collapse, increasingly unable to provide even the most basic precondition of civilized life: freedom from maiming and murder. Without this elementary right, it's impossible to secure others, such as civil rights, collective bargaining, or a hospitable climate for future generations. Civilization is fragile, and depends critically on cooperation, altruism, and goodwill. Without them, civilization evaporates rapidly, leaving behind only mob rule and banditry, as history has repeatedly shown. The forty-six percent of Americans who believe "that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" (Gallup) are largely the same Americans who prepare for armed conflict with their own government, and childishly fantasize that they could survive its demise. The triumph of the irrational is rooted in a tragic failure of education.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Climate Change Stress Disorder

I wasn't kidding about Climate Change Stress Disorder. Climate change is ruining my life. Just look at my reading list from the last couple of years. Add to that the parade of climate science papers, government reports, and blogs, and it's a wonder I get out of bed in the morning. Every day, I try to engage everyone I meet about climate change. Here's what I tell them, if I get the chance:

Climate change is going to be much worse, much sooner than they think. Believe it or not, there's going to be serious psychological and physical impact on them personally, and especially on their children. My short list of topics includes:

Climate migration: The forecast calls for latitudes close to the equator to become increasingly uninhabitable. People are already pouring out of North Africa and Mexico, testing the limits of rich northern countries. Fortifying borders may buy a little time, but it doesn't solve internal migration. Fast-growing desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas won't be sustainable in the long run. Try telling that to the people who live there.

Coastal property values: It's some of the most valuable real estate, but its future value is zero. Families with vacation homes in Florida love to hear this. Try explaining to people that it was a mistake to rebuild New Orleans. North Carolina's new law that eliminates climate science from real estate assessment is classic avoidance behavior. And then there's Peter Ward's point: we don't have to worry about escaping to exoplanets, because we'll be busy moving our airports.

Suburban life: Instead of developing mass transit, America decided to build a suburban society organized around cars and highways. I work in the suburbs, and the people I meet there drive everywhere, often in SUVs and trucks. For fun they drive to the mall. For vacations they take a plane somewhere. Try explaining to them that the party's over. They don't want to hear it. That's why Obama doesn't talk about it.

China, India and other non-OECD countries plan to increase (NOT decrease) their fossil fuel consumption in order to achieve an OECD standard of living (see previous post), and we're in no position to dissuade them. We are not going to embargo or invade China to enforce carbon rules, and persuasion isn't likely to work either, particularly since 1) a significant portion of their emissions actually belong to us, 2) we owe them vast sums of money, and 3) it's hard to preach austerity convincingly while we're dying of diseases of affluence.

Even climate scientists are frightened and increasingly they're saying so publicly. If they're upset why shouldn't I be? Why isn't it okay to be upset and frightened? It should be obvious to anyone who keeps up with even a modest percentage of climate science that civilization is about to suffer a major setback, far more serious than WWII. States are going to fail, and not only in Africa. I'm traumatized, just by knowing this, and I don't even have children. I was born in Manhattan, and my whole life has revolved around the soft intellectualism of First World civilization, in all of its imperial glory. Mama didn't raise me to be an agriculturalist, or for Mad Max or the zombie apocalypse or whatever is coming. I apologize if my prose lacks the scholarly tone of cautious understatement, but I'm upset from trying to digest vast quantities of terrifying and rapidly changing information.

The future looks impossible

Regarding the alleged majority of voters who care about climate change: even if that's so and Obama is reelected, judging by Obama's performance so far it seems wildly unrealistic to expect him to do a fossil fuel about-face any time soon. But more importantly, I submit that the elusive presidential climate policy is mere distraction, because America is already a sideshow. To wit:

"China's economic growth is projected to continue and to drive increasing energy consumption for several decades (Figure 1). By 2035, China is likely to see a large increase in demand for primary energy, perhaps up by nearly 70% from the present levels (IEA, 2011a). This demand is likely to be met by increasing use of fossil fuels along with other sources, such as nuclear and renewable." [my emphasis]

IEA 2012 - Facing China's Coal Future: Prospects and Challenges for Carbon Capture and Storage, p. 7 PDF here

See also Figure 1 from the same page.

"The IEO2011 Reference case projects about 1 trillion metric tons of additional cumulative energy-related carbon dioxide emissions between 2009 and 2035 ... In the period from 2021 to 2035, cumulative emissions are 22 percent higher than those in the period from 2006 to 2020 ... Non-OECD Asia is the dominant source of cumulative emissions growth in the 30 years preceding 2035." [my emphasis]

US EIA International Energy Outlook 2011, p. 143 PDF here

See also Figures 115 & 116 from the same page.

There's further corroboration in UNEP's GEO5, and in BP's June 2012 "Statistical Review of World Energy".

Hence my claim to the relevance of Peter Calthorpe's Weapons of Mass Urban Destruction article (@68 & 71). Did anyone read it? His main source seems to be the 2009 McKinsey report "Preparing for China's urban billion" but I can supply plenty more. "China's urban population is projected to grow by 350 million people by 2020, effectively adding today's entire U.S. population to its cities in less than a decade ... the country's vehicle fleet could grow from more than 200 million today to as many as 600 million by 2030."

Since Americans own the largest share of historical emissions, we're in no position to tell the Chinese what to do, as they keep pointedly reminding us. I agree with Prof. Kevin Anderson (Tyndall Climate Center): the future looks impossible. We haven't even finished melting the Arctic and I'm already suffering from CCSD (Climate Change Stress Disorder). Help!

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. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bull in the china shop

“The very idea that human beings, who are demonstrably unable to control our own most destructive behaviors, are going to be “stewards of the ecology”, or “manage ecosystems”, is absurd. It’s proposing that the bull should become the “steward” of the china shop.”

Believe it or not I'm actually sympathetic to your views, and shared them 100% until fairly recently. You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist whose work has criticized humanity more stridently than mine, but my views are evolving.

We're at a juncture in human history when more than ever before, it actually matters what people think. This wasn't nearly as true in centuries or even decades past, because information traveled much more slowly and was less crucial to people's daily lives. Today decisions frequently have global ramifications, and the discussions that influence them are increasingly volatile and public. Some of those discussions may be occurring right here, and not all of them are purely scientific or technical. Ideas spread like wildfire at the moment, whether they're constructive or not.

Mitigating climate change means rapidly transforming the entire physical basis of our existence: energy infrastructure, agriculture, transportation, architecture, urban planning, population size and distribution, and on and on, like a kind of green Manhattan project. In order for people to actually get up every morning and deal with the enormous amount of work involved, they need to be inspired.

E.O.Wilson tries hard to inspire people by comparing them to ants, with the best of intentions, but it won't work. Reminding people that they're insignificant on a cosmic scale won't work either: they already feel helpless. One idea that possibly could inspire people quickly enough is betterment of the human condition, via active participation in civil society. This implies a widespread invigoration of existing civil traditions and values, including literacy, tolerance, egalitarianism, association, and cooperation. There's already momentum in this direction, in the Occupy movement and elsewhere, building on the civil rights and anti-war struggles.

The problems civilization faces won't be solved by flash mobs alone, any more than by the invisible hand of the market. Only governments have the power to effect change at the needed scale and pace, and governments are comprised of people, all the way up to the top; people who like the rest of us need to be convinced of the urgency and scale of the problems, persuaded that solutions exist, and inspired to fight for a livable future.

People need to believe that what they're doing can and will make a difference, no matter how uncertain things seem. They also need education, and health care, and countless other things, but above all they need hope. The problem with antihumanism, whether scientific or artistic, is that it deprives people of hope, at exactly the moment when they most need it.


SA @307:

Of course the cessation of human activities, such as the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, that would accompany the disappearance of all that human biomass would be a boon to the biosphere.

It's like you're trying to impress everyone with your indifference to humanity, as though cultural insensitivity is somehow a corollary of scientific knowledge. The whole point of us becoming more enlightened (in both the sciences AND the humanities) over the last four centuries was to make us MORE sensitive to human culture, and more willing to make sacrifices for, and exhibit altruism towards people who aren't immediate family members, aren't from our 'tribe', or aren't even born yet. Eventually that altruism may even extend to the biosphere and your beloved algae. Obviously it's a work in progress and we're facing severe difficulties at the moment, but I don't see how it helps anyone to say that we should just buzz off and leave Earth to the ants, nor do I believe that's E.O.Wilson's view; on the contrary he expresses great fondness for humanity in his latest novel "Anthill," and apparently believes our achievements are worth fighting for.

It would be one thing if we were having this discussion on an Earth First blog, but I'm amazed to see stuff like this on RC. Your audience includes highly educated people who have devoted their lives to complex intellectual, linguistic, and symbolic activities that are beyond the capacity of most humans, never mind ants. On RC in particular people are clearly focused on the struggle to save civilization--science included--to whatever extent that's still possible. I sincerely doubt they enjoy hearing that humanity is useless rubbish and that the sooner we disappear the better. I know I sure don't.

Human specialness

SecularAnimist @303 said:

And social animals, including chimpanzees and wolves, clearly do have rights within the context of their social groups. ... do some reading in cognitive ethology. Yes, human beings are "special" — and so are all other species.

A mere 150 years ago, we fought a bitter and protracted war in the United States in large part over the question of whether our society should continue to permit human beings to be treated as, or worse than animals. The Union victory was an essential step forward but was by no means a final resolution of the question, which has continued to plague us, through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, well into the present era.

In Europe an even more catastrophic war was fought against an ideology that proclaimed certain groups of people to be subhuman and therefore without rights. Unlike the Civil War, this is recent history, within the living memory of my parents. There have been plenty more examples since then, including the breakup of Yugoslavia, though thankfully none at similarly global scale (yet).

Despite literally centuries of impassioned debate and conflict, humanity is still struggling to implement the most elementary ethical concepts such as equality, liberty, decency and fairness for human beings (that's you!) Many are aware that the rights of non-humans can and ultimately must be defended just as vigorously, however this is a long-term project, and we aren't likely to make much headway while simultaneously claiming that humans are equivalent to dinosaurs, wolves, algae, etc. We can grant wolves rights, and already have to some extent, but the reverse is simply not true: wolves can't grant us rights, any more than they can study cognitive ethology. This should be obvious but apparently it isn't.

Before we worry about the rights of algae, we'd better get the rights of future generations sorted out, otherwise the algae is going to have the planet all to itself.

PS: I happen to be reading David Orr's "Down to the Wire," and he has much to say on the subject of intergenerational ethics, and the need for honest and inspiring leadership during what he calls the Long Emergency. For example:

We are now engaged in a global conversation about the issues of human longevity on Earth, but no national leader has yet done what Lincoln did for slavery and placed the issue of sustainability in its larger moral context." -p. 88


Edward Greisch @ 296 said:

Science is not "fundamentally progressive"

Progressivism refers not only to the corresponding period of American history, but also to the notion that given sufficient time and effort, people can and should make incremental progress towards shared goals, scientific or otherwise. In science this view is associated with scientific realism, scientific pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, and especially John Dewey, who held "that inquiry, whether scientific, technical, sociological, philosophical or cultural, is self-corrective over time if openly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed truths." (WP, Pragmatic theory of truth)

You should be grateful that science is progressive, because otherwise you would be busy rediscovering the foundations of mathematics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, etc. all by your lonesome self. In fact this was very much the situation at the start of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, if science weren't progressive, we wouldn't be struggling to mitigate climate change right now, because the industrial revolution wouldn't have happened.

The point of the non-existent dinosaur cultural artifacts was to illustrate that it's absurdly and dangerously reductive to simply equate humans with dinosaurs or any other species. If humans weren't special, why would they need names? Why would they need rights? In fact most of them didn't have rights until very recently, and it's been a major source of conflict. Wars have been fought over the idea that people (especially people we don't like) can be treated as things.

Monday, August 13, 2012


SecularAnimist @183 said:

The pathologically anthropocentric view that the world consists of (1) human beings and (2) “resources” for human consumption is really the root of all of our “environmental” problems (and indeed the very word “environment” embodies that view). I don’t think that “solutions” based on that view can solve the problems created by that view.

To be accused of anthropocentrism on a science blog is unexpected and almost comical. Nonetheless the charge is a serious one, and demands a response. The implication is that humanity should be less concerned with its own welfare, and should make sacrifices for the long-term health of the biosphere. This position is not without justification, but also faces several criticisms.

1) Any sacrifices we make for the biosphere will ultimately be futile, because it isn't savable in the long term, due to astronomical factors entirely beyond our control. The biosphere is also totally indifferent to our fate, and would recover with astonishing rapidity were we to exit, voluntarily or otherwise. This scenario has been analyzed in detail, for example by Alan Weisman in "The World Without Us."

2) If humanity was primarily devoted to the welfare of non-humans, we would long since have abandoned sedentary agriculture, civilization and industrialization, and returned to our tribal hunter-gatherer roots. Our treatment of non-humans thus far is instructive: the lucky ones have been domesticated, marginalized, genetically modified, imprisoned and enslaved, while less fortunate species have been starved or hunted to extinction, or willfully exterminated, in some cases for no rational reason. Many subgroups of humanity have received similar treatment, and the trend is uncertain at best. Most ethical problems weren't seriously addressed or even identified until very recently, and we're currently struggling to define and consistently implement universal rights and values for humans, never mind for non-humans or the biosphere.

3) Humanity's anthropocentrism can only be meaningfully debated within the context of our civilization, which is unmistakably anthropocentric in origin. Without civilization there would be no science blogs, and no science to discuss. Science coevolved with civil society, through many stages, including antiquity, scholasticism, and the Enlightenment. The humanistic traditions of rational inquiry, reasoned debate, literacy and democracy are often taken for granted, but without them there's little worth saving. Science not only requires explanations to be testable, but also expects them to improve over time. Science is thus fundamentally progressive, and inextricably bound to the progressivism of civil society.

If people can be persuaded to make sacrifices at all, it will be because they correctly perceive that the welfare of their own descendents--not to mention civilization--depends on such sacrifices. Even this is apparently a long shot, particularly in the United States, where the current leadership seems determined to maximize irrationality, and inflict privation and despair on all but the wealthiest. If civilization survives its present challenges, it may in the distant future attempt to extend civil rights to include the entire biosphere, but in the meantime we should concentrate on more urgent problems, of which there's obviously no shortage.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saving the biosphere

Responding to SecularAnimist @183 on RealClimate Unforced Variations:

"I am most concerned about 'saving' the Earth’s biosphere from utter destruction."
Saving the biosphere is a laudable goal, but the question stands: what are we saving the biosphere for?

The biosphere is ephemeral. Bacteria will ultimately inherit Earth, and witness its destruction. This is arguably just, since bacteria are the most adaptable, the most abundant and have been here the longest. Even within your body, bacteria grossly outnumber your cells. To say that we exist in symbiosis with bacteria is a charitable interpretation. It's more accurate to say that we exist at the behest of tiny but exceedingly powerful and numerous organisms which are completely indifferent to our fate.

If we're saving the biosphere for bacteria, we needn't bother, because they don't need our help. It's we who need help, along with our fellow apex predators. There's an ethical argument that other organisms enjoy existence as much as we do, and therefore have intrinsic value and an inalienable right to exist. This closely relates to arguments previously advanced for universalism and civil rights. In the 20th century many nations became sufficiently enlightened to extend intrinsic value to all human beings, regardless of their race, color or creed, at least in theory. In the 21st century we're in the process of adding sexual orientation to the list, and non-humans could well be next.

Most civilized people support animal rights to some extent, but few would accept that plants also have rights, let alone bacteria. Obviously humans relate to mammals most easily, because we're biologically so similar to them. People can easily tell that their cat or dog is asleep, bored, or in pain, but they're less likely to identify with the internal states of non-mammals. Are we saving Earth for mammals then? E.O.Wilson would surely object, "What about ants?"

If we're saving the biosphere for its intrinsic value, then we have to face not only its impermanence, but also its incompatibility with many aspects of human society. Should we all become vegans? Many think so. Are we willing to abandon our machines, shrink our population, and worship nature as our aboriginal ancestors did? Or embrace Jainism and avoid harming even insects? Very few would go this far, but people are increasingly aware that we can't continue to have everything our way, that urgent choices need to be made.

For better or worse, humans run the show at the moment. The blade of natural selection that normally trims away failure is temporarily blunted. We routinely nourish organisms that would otherwise fail, and exterminate organisms that would otherwise succeed. In other words, we play god, by deciding what lives and what dies. Playing god is the essence of being human, and we'll keep doing it until we tire of it, or wreck things badly enough to be forcibly demoted. We need to be honest, and admit that we're primarily saving Earth for ourselves, so that the cultural odyssey in which we've invested so much time and energy can continue.

Saving culture is not merely a technical problem. It's not just our ingenuity, but our honor and integrity that are being tested, our willingness to make sacrifices for progress towards shared goals. Our aim is more than survival: it's to survive with dignity, while upholding our commitments to hard-won truths and principles. If we're saving Earth at all, we're saving it for future generations, so that they can fulfill our ambitions, by building a wiser and more enlightened society.

Sociobiology and eugenics

Responding to Edward Greisch @197 on RealClimate Unforced Variations:

"Sociobiology has nothing whatsoever to do with eugenics."

A bold statement, but if true, how do you explain this curious photograph?

There's also the inconvenient Eugenics Manifesto of 1939, signed [1] by more than a few founders and champions of what later became sociobiology. The manifesto interestingly lists "fellow-feeling" (in short supply at the time) as an objective of "conscious selection", for example:

... conscious selection requires, in addition, an agreed direction or directions for selection to take, and these directions cannot be social ones, that is, for the good of mankind at large, unless social motives predominate in society. This in turn implies its socialized organization. The most important genetic objectives, from a social point of view, are the improvement of those genetic characteristics which make (a) for health, (b) for the complex called intelligence, and (c) for those temperamental qualities which favour fellow-feeling and social behaviour rather than those (to-day most esteemed by many) which make for personal 'success', as success is usually understood at present. [2]
There were some post-war defections among the signatories, most notably Theodosius Dobzhansky who later said:

Even if the direction of evolution were demonstrated to be "good", man is likely to prefer to be free rather than to be reasonable. [3]

Culture is not inherited through genes; it is acquired by learning from other human beings.... In a sense human genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new non-biological or superorganic agent, culture. [4]

[1] Eugenics manifesto, list of signatories
[2] Social Biology and Population Improvement, full text of eugenics manifesto, with original title, as published in Nature, Sep. 16, 1939
[3] Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biological Basis of Human Freedom, 1956, as referenced in Evolutionary ethics
[4] Against "Sociobiology", NYT Review of Books, Nov. 13, 1975

Friday, August 10, 2012

What's at stake

In a discussion of climate change and its potential solutions, it's important to consider what we're saving, and what we're saving it for. If the goal were only biological survival in the narrowest sense, the problem of climate change would be greatly simplified. For example, imagine a group of geneticists willing and able to reengineer humans so that they no longer posed any threat to each other or their environment. I'm not advocating this, nor is it even my idea: It's the central premise of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "Oryx and Crake." The geneticists' motto could easily be something like "Preservation of [our] species has to be the primary value."

Most people would (or should) be horrified by the world "Oryx and Crake" and its sequel describe. The books indirectly draw attention to the fact that climate change threatens much more than mere biological survival. What's at stake is the survival of human values. Increasingly those values are no longer tribal or national but global, at least in theory. Science has flourished in the age of reason, but that age was a long time coming, and its persistence is by no means assured, even in the short term. Science is inextricably entwined with civilization and democracy, and all the rights and responsibilities they entail. The ethical assertions of equality and universality at the core of the American and French revolutions sustain science just as much as the humanities. Science sinks or swims with civil society. In Margaret Atwood's nightmare, science is doomed.

By mitigating climate change, we're trying to save not merely people's DNA, but their culture, which paradoxically is also the source of climate change. We're trying to save not just literacy, tolerance, and reasoned debate, but also art, music, and all the less obvious cultural artifacts that make life worth living. This is what makes the problem of climate change so intractable. It's not enough to just reduce CO2. The challenge is to reduce CO2 humanely, preserving not only the oceans and forests but also the fragile traditions of increasing civil rights and intellectual freedom within which science and so much else have evolved. We're more likely to succeed if we're clear about the goal.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


In response to Edward Greisch @ 147, commenting on previous Hubble post on [list of sociobiology texts omitted]:

"Science will solve ethics. But we don’t have ethical equations yet."

Somehow I don't find this reassuring.

"Preservation of your own species has to be the primary value."

Substitute race for species and this statement sets off deadly alarms. You may not like the transposition, but people have made it in the past and will continue to do so. In every case I'm aware of when the value of human existence has been defined in biological terms, the results have been spectacularly awful.

Forcible sterilization was official policy in the United States well into the 1960s. Margaret Sanger is famous as the founder of Planned Parenthood, but she was also a committed eugenicist, and her ideas were considered normal at the time. Nazi war criminals claimed with some justification that their racial purification laws were inspired by American eugenics. The Wikipedia article on sociobiology includes a delightful photo demonstrating the resurrection of Eugenics Quarterly as Social Biology in 1969.

What makes humans special is that we aren't limited only to biologically determined values. For better or worse people have developed cultures, and eventually civilizations, which completely redefine our relationship to each other and to non-humans. Civilized people are not motivated primarily by a desire to ensure the dominance of their genetic traits. This was as true of the ancient Romans as it is of us. Most of what modern humans do is useless or visibly counterproductive from a strictly biological point of view. Climate change is an apt example: it's simply an unintended consequence of our feverish cultural activity. All around the Mediterranean, entire forests were cut down to make ships, floors, furniture, lutes, picture frames and countless other biologically indifferent but culturally essential artifacts. Much of the area became permanently arid as a result, but this was the price we paid for the Renaissance and subsequent steps toward the global civilization on which our current discussion depends.

For humans, value has to be culturally defined or we become apes. When human beings are reduced to animals or considered only in terms of their biological attributes, rather than viewed as individuals with intrinsic rights, the way is cleared to fascism, as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School rightly insisted after WWII. If the choice is between humans surviving by sacrificing their humanity, and humans not surviving at all, there's no choice: it can only be the latter, because people won't tolerate the former for long.


According to Gallup, "Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Apparently the respondents didn't study much paleontology.

Many people seem to be unwilling to face the consequences of Stephen Jay Gould's work. Evolution doesn't converge on us, or anything else. There's no top or bottom, no good or bad, just a seemingly endless parade of organisms more or less fit for ever-changing conditions. If we make earth an unsuitable environment for ourselves, we and many other organisms will suffer more, and go extinct sooner than we otherwise might have, but slime will inherit earth regardless. This is just one of the many disturbing truths science reveals to humanity. I'm capable of facing it, so others must be capable of facing it too. Facing the pointlessness of existence squarely should be taken as a sign of mental health. What psychological distress I do experience is mostly due to being surrounded by deluded people who believe they're going to heaven. I wish they would hurry up and leave.

The pictures from the Hubble telescope are clear enough. There's no meaning to be found out there. Meaning can only be constructed socially, and this implies cooperation. People could conceivably construct a meaning for themselves that allowed them to coexist in a reasonably steady state over a long period of geologic time. But is there any reason to believe this is likely? What precedents do we have? Ants normally exhibit extraordinary cooperation and altruism, but they also periodically fight wars of extermination, even against colonies of their own species. Aboriginal societies were sometimes stable compared to modern civilization, but only at vastly lower population densities.

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?

These and similar questions were seriously considered in the wake of WWII. There was some consensus in the West that people needed to be pacified and weaned away from nationalism. At the time, socializing people to embrace individualism and consumerism seemed a logical alternative to repeating WWII with hydrogen weapons. Very few were concerned about the consequences of further industrialization. Pollution wasn't seriously addressed for decades. Climate change was almost totally unanticipated. In the 1950s if you'd told Americans that they shouldn't build suburbs because automobiles would accelerate climate change, they would have given you a lobotomy.

We're caught in a cascade of side effects, and increasingly our reality is spinning out of control. Older people wish for a reversal, back to the relatively pristine conditions they enjoyed in their youth, but this is pure fantasy. Even if we stopped producing CO2 today, the warming and sea level rise already in the pipeline are enough to ensure drastic physical and social changes. On our current course we're facing chaos and disruption on the scale of WWII or worse, something most people alive today can scarcely imagine.

Genetics sheds much light on cancer, but it doesn't seem to cure people of believing that the only possible solution to their problems is unlimited growth. I wish more people would watch Albert Bartlett's famous lecture, "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
-Albert Bartlett


When I said that the hard problems are ethical, I didn't mean to belittle the difficulties faced by scientists. What I meant is that ethical problems aren't necessarily solvable in the scientific sense of the word. Ethical assertions are social constructions and don't have to be rooted in objective reality at all. For example the U.S. Supreme Court can assert that corporations should have the same rights as people, and there's no easy way to refute it, because it's just a reflection of our society's current power structure. Imagine how different it would be if the same court asserted that ten is a prime number, or that the moon is made of cheese. Many ethical assertions are similarly absurd, but since they're normalized by the culture in which they occur, the absurdities are hard to see except in retrospect. White man's burden may be transparently offensive now, but it was a respected ethical position throughout the nineteenth century.

Humans could turn out to be great at science but lousy at ethics. This would partly explain why we aren't reacting to climate change quickly enough. Dan Miller's "A Really Inconvenient Truth" makes this same point in an amusing way: 

"Imagine that you read in the newspaper tomorrow... that all the excess CO2 in the world is being released by al-Qaeda. Think about that. Would we react? Of course we would. We would spend any amount of money ... to fight that. We would spend a trillion dollars, which we just did."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hi Chris,
Happy birthday!
Sorry not to hold up my end.
But I did look at a whole bunch of Hubble images when I was in Vermont three weeks ago.  Sorry about not posting, after the intense engagement I felt overwhelmed by all the ideas.

Here's my reaction:
I was thinking, "What is it I'm supposed to be getting out of this?  Why is it supposed to changed my sense of things?" They are spectacular shots of nature, exotic images.  Some of them look as if they could be things seen under a microscope -- I have no sense of the scale when I look at them.  They are images I realized that I can't see with my naked eye.  They didn't have any apparent emotional or philosophical impact on me.

Can you explain to me to me what Hubble and Hubble images signifies to you and or it has such an impact on you?  I don't get it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Science background reading

I did some background reading on science before my previous post. It seems both our positions fit reasonably well into known categories. My position is closest to scientific pragmatism. Yours appears to be closest to epistemological anarchism. I enclose my reading list below.

Overview of science:

Types of science:

Boundaries of science:

Pragmatism and scientific realism:

Less pragmatic but related:



Epistemological anarchism: