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Toward a bright future for both nature and civilization

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Benjamin Sibelman
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June 29th, 2014

“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.

June 15th, 2014

Better the devil we know?

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Failure to solve the climate crisis probably means plunging civilization into a new dark age -- but humanity has survived dark ages before. According to Bill McKibben, the Holocene era of stable climate is already over -- but before the dawn of civilization, humanity lived through several drastic changes in climate. There's no reason why anyone would want to return to either of those conditions, but what if the alternative is even worse? It's very difficult to tell whether that might be the case, because the alternative is plunging deep into the unknown.

What I'm talking about here is the accelerating rate of technological progress, which gives us our only real hope of averting global climate catastrophe. The problem, as I've mentioned, is that we're trying to slow and stabilize other accelerating processes, which is such a mammoth task that it essentially requires setting up new exponential-growth curves (such as the rate of renewable-energy installation) that might well carry their own ill-considered risks. To paraphrase the NRA, “the only thing that can stop a bad exponential curve is a good exponential curve” -- but is there really any such thing?

Paul Krafel certainly believes there is. His movie The Upward Spiral is actually named for the concept of a good exponential curve, one that creates ever-growing amounts of life and possibility. But Paul's upward spirals are very distributed and grassroots, starting by sharing small local solutions with as many people as possible and hoping they will eventually add up. Apart from tree-planting movements, though, the bulk of the progress we've made toward climate solutions so far has come thanks to megacorporations like GE and Vestas, which can act much faster to deploy solutions at a global scale, and can be motivated by equally centralized policy shifts like the renewable energy production tax credit. In an era of increasing and fully justified alarm about the limited time remaining to avert a collapse, the latter approach seems likely to continue to dominate our response. (Even the accelerating trend toward solar rooftops, which challenges the business model of centralized electric utilities, is driven by the relatively few companies that actually manufacture the solar panels. If those companies hadn't succeeded (with the help of a few big government research institutes) in making photovoltaics so cheap, they would still be a tiny niche market.)

And it's not only the unknown consequences of these panicked high-speed deployments of green technology that worries me. Even on an alternate Earth where the Industrial Revolution was based on non-polluting technology from the start, we would still face another terrifying unknown: what happens when technological progress accelerates to the point where mere human brains can no longer keep up?

It used to be typical to refer to this problem as “future shock,” based on the famous book by Alvin Toffler. These days it's gotten attached to the Technological Singularity concept, and hence to the various sci-fi scenarios where superhuman AIs take over the world. But I'd like to point out that we needn't postulate the development of strong AI to make accelerating progress scary. Consider this quote from the webcomic The Spiders by Patrick Farley:

“Unfortunately the biotechnology which created this virus is only getting more user-friendly. In 10 years it'll be possible for a small community of assholes with fast modems and a shared grudge to wipe out the entire human race.

“And this won't be a problem for the next 10 years, but the next ten thousand. Grok this fact, and then we can discuss ethics, Lieutenant.”

Considering the growing power of various potentially destructive technologies, and the depths of fanatical extremism that humans are capable of, and the difficulty of policing a world of billions to ensure that world-destroying plots are never brought to fruition, you have to wonder whether it would actually be less harmful in the long run to let civilization crash.

Then again, you also have to wonder whether it’s reasonable to base present-day policy decisions on a theoretical future in which some technology that can wipe out the human race could be secretly developed and deployed by a tiny terrorist group. “Comic-book politics” is the term that comes to mind here. That’s why I ultimately decided not to classify this entry as part of my “personal psychology of despair” series. Am I anxious about the dangers of overly rapid change? Yes. Does that alone constitute a reason for despair? No. If it did, I don’t think I could get up in the morning and go to work in the software industry, which changes faster than anything in human history.

March 16th, 2014

“When I looked into my oldest boy’s little yellow eyes for the first time, I knew I had to try to give him the best life I could.”

“Then you would be willing to restart the Plan? Only by seizing equality—”

“OK, when normal people say that, they don’t mean holding the gods hostage with an unstoppable killing machine via some improbable evil scheme. They mean, like, setting up a college fund or something.”

- The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew, p. 87

As I see it, there are three general ways you can try to live a meaningful life. The first is to “think local,” finding meaning in your day-to-day interactions with friends and relations that bring more joy to their lives. But many people feel a need to contribute something meaningful to society at large, which can be achieved in two ways: individual ambition (e.g. trying to invent a new clean energy technology) or joining a collective (e.g. a large charity helping alleviate hunger in poor and drought-stricken countries).

The collectivist answer is naturally hard for most Americans to accept. From our individualist perspective, “I’m doing my tiny part in a vast organization, and therefore the organization’s accomplishments give meaning to my life” seems like a pathetic excuse for lack of ambition. But then again, believing that you personally can change the world in any meaningful way smacks of childish megalomania to most people, little different from the millions of children confidently planning to become famous basketball players or rock stars.

Why are both of these options so easy to ridicule? Partly it’s because they’re really extreme ends of a spectrum; in between lies the perfectly reasonable ambition of gaining substantial influence within the company or government agency that employs you. But partly it’s the simple fact that set against the scale of the planet or humanity as a whole, a single person is small to the point of insignificance. To quote Douglas Adams, when faced with the size of the world, “Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.” Hence the “think local” solution.

But that solution doesn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m an introvert, so it’s difficult for me to find meaning in my relationships with others; I get much more sense of meaning from abstract philosophical musings like this blog post. Another is that, like many people, I want to feel special and important.

But the biggest problem with “think local” is that I believe it’s an abdication of responsibility. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the magnitude of socioeconomic*, institutional, and infrastructural transformation required to save even vestiges of the climate stability on which civilization is based, I find it totally unreasonable for anyone who understands the problem to refrain from doing everything we can to help solve it. In other words, as my friend Lion would put it, “each of us has to take responsibility for the whole world.”

And yet here I am, continuing to spend 40 hours a week building apps with only a very indirect connection to climate solutions, and only a few hours a month actually working with the Sierra Club Coal Free PSE campaign to solve one tiny piece of the climate problem. Is this simply inertia, motivated by the lack of immediate climate impacts in the place where I live, and a lack of conviction that I have a responsibility to the world or even to my own long-term future? Or is there something else standing between my current life and the life I feel obligated to lead?

“Obligated to lead.” That phrase is a clue, since aiming for the greatest possible impact I can have inevitably means seeking leadership roles. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, partly because such ambitions are at odds with my natural modesty, but mostly because I'm afraid of taking responsibility for enabling other people's success and then letting them down. It's one thing to fail at a task assigned to me by someone else, but quite another to fail at choosing tasks to assign to others that both fit their skills and help advance some strategy for achieving a group's goals.

So there we have it: on one side is my ambition to make a difference in the world, and the sense of shame that comes from failing to contribute what I can toward “saving the world.” On the other side is inertia and a desire to avoid the challenges of changing my life, plus my modesty and fear of letting people down, and that side is currently winning.

And when I think about how many millions of other informed citizens must be blocked from taking substantive action by similar emotional barriers**, I’m struck by the sheer immensity of the gulf between what we’re actually doing to solve this vast crisis and “the best we can do” (which still might not be enough). How to close that gap, I haven’t the slightest idea.

 

* Oddly, this link is to a group with the acronym ISEC, which they share with another group I’ve worked with, most of whose members are libertarians who wholeheartedly support the dominant growth-at-all-cost economic model.

** Lion participates in a group that claims to have unique insights into how emotions work, but I’m currently avoiding them due to an emotionally traumatic experience I had at one of their meetings, which is a topic for a different post.

November 10th, 2013

Yes, believe it or not, I haven't actually forgotten about this blog or this series of posts.

In tenth grade I took a one-semester Science Fiction Literature/Composition class, from which I only remember one piece of knowledge: toward the end of a traditional fantasy quest narrative, there is always a point called the Abyss, where it appears that the villain is about to win and the hero is helpless to prevent it. This is immediately followed by some kind of unexpected reversal that allows the hero to save the day.

The standard activist narrative on the climate crisis works the same way. "Greenhouse emissions are increasing faster than ever, and we only have a few years before it will be impossible to restore the climate to a healthy state -- but if we all get together and demand drastic action from world leaders, we can still save the world!" And I've bought into this narrative for years, dismissing or forgetting about the numerous challenges to its plausibility, because the alternative was to admit that within my lifetime, civilization will almost certainly slide into a new dark age.

Paul Gilding's first thesis in The Great Disruption is that the crash is inevitable because we won't develop the will to prevent it until it's too late. But this points the way to a deeper truth: even if we had the will, we probably can't prevent the crash, no matter how hard we try. (Contrary to the title of this post, I'm not going to spend time here trying to figure out what Gilding said that forced me to acknowledge that truth.)

One of the earliest challenges to the activist narrative that I've successfully avoided thinking about was a set of three graphs in the book Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic, which was one of the readings for my Intro to Environmental Analysis class in college. In reverse order, the graphs are "The Carbon Dioxide Spike" (p. 161), "The Consumption Spike" (p. 154), and "The Extinction Spike" (p. 92). Each of these graphs shows a classic hockey-stick exponential growth curve, demonstrating clearly that these trends are accelerating beyond all hope of control. Similar graphs could be drawn for topsoil loss, falling water tables, pollution of surface water, deforestation, and ocean acidification, among others. This means that our food and water supplies can't be maintained at current levels much longer, and even the rate of global oxygen production by plants and algae is under threat.

One common reaction to all this rapid change is to say, "Look how powerful we've become! Humans can now change natural systems on a global scale! Surely we can use that power to bring those systems back to healthy norms and stabilize them there!"

But that's crazy. Imagine that half a second ago, you accidentally cut open a major vein on your arm with a knife that you made. Does the power of that knife to release massive quantities of your blood mean that, even with no real first-aid training, you'll be able to stop the bleeding and sew up the wound within the next half-second? That's how absurd it is to claim that our current technological capabilities are up to the task of saving us from the destruction we've wrought in the few decades before it overwhelms and destroys our current civilization.

If it were only greenhouse emissions that we had to worry about, we might stand a chance. Something like Gilding's "One-Degree War Plan," described in chapter 10 of The Great Disruption, might suffice to bring carbon-dioxide levels back down below 350 parts per million by century's end. And to be fair, part of that plan involves sequestering carbon in soil and biomass, which would also help rebuild topsoil and forest cover. But given the enormous complexity of Earth's systems, there's not really much chance that we could figure out how to calibrate our actions carefully enough to get close to the climate we want and then stabilize there, and there's a very high likelihood that the massive spike in construction of energy infrastructure and so-called "reversible geoengineering actions" will cause other problems to worsen even faster.

Now, I just attended my fourth Bioneers conference last weekend, and I know what the Bioneers answer would be: "Gaia has the solutions to everything. All we have to do is mimic what natural ecosystems would do to solve these problems."

But there are two fatal problems with this answer. One is that Gaia works slowly; for instance, it certainly took a whole lot more than one century for life to recover from the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs.

The other problem is that Gaia doesn't actually care about keeping the climate as stable as our current civilization needs it to be (and the same likely applies to the other factors I listed). If you look at a graph of temperature over hundreds of thousands of years, you see that the current interglacial period, the Holocene, in which temperature fluctuations stayed within a narrow range for ten thousand years, is highly unusual. The last several interglacials have been far less stable, and then of course there are the Ice Ages, which last much longer, and which Gaia has clearly done nothing to prevent. From Gaia's perspective, the "healthy norm" for climate is anything that doesn't totally freeze the oceans or turn all the land to desert.

So, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (a stark challenge to the activist narrative espoused by 350.org itself), we have a clear task ahead of us: learn to be resilient to changes in Earth's systems vastly larger than any we've seen in the history of civilization. Science and technology have produced many tools that could be useful in this regard, but to keep those tools, we'll have to start by overhauling our whole manufacturing infrastructure to cope with these massive disruptions, while doing what we can to slow down all those accelerating trends to give ourselves more time. And we'll need to store our knowledge in a durable form that even crazed combatants in some future war won't be able to destroy, so that any tools we lose can be rebuilt again later.

Eventually we might assemble a set of resilient strategies powerful enough to maintain something like our present quality of life despite the endless string of crises. Perhaps then we could think about launching a second Space Age, but that won't be possible until long after I die. Thus, for the first time in my life, I've been forced to admit that we won't even make any real progress toward the future I dream of within my lifetime, and my only consolation is that I might be able to help make that world more likely to happen in some distant future.

In short, our present moment, dark as it may seem, is not the Abyss in our quest story. It's actually more like the moment just after the introduction, when the protagonists are forced from their comfortable homes and into a long, hard journey through great perils. But in our case, the perils are real and we have no narrative structures to defend us from a tragic ending.

Good luck then, to all of us. We're going to need it.

June 12th, 2013

…in the geopolitical, economic, and climate chaos involved I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 53

Up until March 20th of this year, I hadn’t ever lost a grandparent. When I heard the news of Grandpa Mike’s death, I was in my quiet apartment a thousand miles away and in the middle of eating dinner, so the immediate emotional impact was somewhat blunted. I did fly to Los Angeles for his memorial service a few days later, but I didn’t cry, or express much emotion of any kind, until much later.

I started reading The Great Disruption on April 21st, and ran into the quote above while eating dinner that evening. It hit me like a ton of bricks, despite Gilding’s lack of supporting evidence for that specific assertion. Two nights after reading those words, while lying in bed, I cried for those billions of hypothetical deaths that haven’t happened yet. So perhaps believing in Gilding’s version of inevitable catastrophe was my way of accessing the grief for Grandpa Mike that I had been trying and failing to feel.

Something in human nature seems fascinated by the end of all things. Is it simply an extension of the smaller death each of us faces? Or perhaps a streak of egotism is involved, for out of countless human generations, it would surely mark ours as unique to be the last.

- “Whose Millennium?” by David Brin, pp. 188-189 in his collection of stories and essays called Otherness

It’s not as if my preemptive grief for a still-thriving civilization is terribly unusual. As I mentioned in my recent entry about movies, belief in impending doom seems to be part of the spirit of the times – an amplification of a perennial human tendency, triggered partly by the recent turn of the millennium, and further reinforced by the dire warnings of climate scientists and the Club of Rome. Most activists resist this tendency, of course, noting that belief in the imminent end of the world leads to a lack of concern for long-term social, economic, and environmental problems. But maybe it will turn out that my career as an activist died with my grandfather, and just hasn’t stopped twitching yet.

“If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’”

- Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin prodigy, as quoted in Mindset by Carol S. Dweck (previously quoted in this blog entry)

All else being equal, helping to save the world appears to be a rather poor fit for my innate pessimism, modesty, and the low energy that comes with my limited-exercise lifestyle. If it weren’t so important to do my part, I’d much rather focus on more entertaining pursuits, like amateur music composition or sci-fi fan art. So maybe the intersection of my existing personality mismatch, my grandfather’s death, and Gilding’s book has pushed me over the edge into assuming that I no longer have a duty to lead the stressful and unrewarding life of an activist. All I have to do, as demonstrated in my first post about Gilding’s book, is wholeheartedly embrace the first half of his thesis while flatly rejecting the second half. This seemingly self-contradictory position feels like a possible betrayal of my deeply held belief in honesty, which may account for my continuing attendance at activist meetings and events.

This line of thought is interesting because it suggests a number of countervailing actions I could take: exercising more, working on my self-confidence (which my manager at work wants me to do anyway), and looking for opportunities to apply my artistic skills and sci-fi ideas toward some activist cause, like my friend Saab does. But the most important question here is still whether I can honestly be certain enough of the inevitable doom I see as implied by Gilding’s arguments to justify what would otherwise be a nearly unforgivable dereliction of duty. So in my next entry, I’ll delve deeper into the question of just how persuasive Paul Gilding really is.

 

P.S. My first and possibly only experience with The Work That Reconnects was almost completely unhelpful. Naturally enough, if you get a bunch of people in a room to express their shared feelings of despair to each other, it tends to validate and reinforce that despair. How this is supposed to lead to a feeling of empowerment, particularly in the sense of our capacity to work on behalf of a world we believe to be inevitably doomed, is something I still don’t understand.

June 6th, 2013

I’d like to go back to my sadness at the state we are in and to the personal psychology of despair. It is very sad that we are going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem means that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. . . .

However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 113

Okay, so unsurprisingly it’s been more than two weeks since I promised to post this, and here I am posting what will probably be only the first 20-25% of what I want to say on the subject. All I can say is it turns out to be more complicated than I expected, and I’ve been doing my best to be thorough in working through my self-analysis.

The first question to tackle here is whether the premise is sound. Have I actually given in to despair? To look at my actions over the last few weeks, which include planning for and participating in a Beyond Coal rally and tabling at the Mother Earth News Fair, plus continuing to sign online petitions on various important issues, you’d assume the answer is no. But there are numerous explanations for why I would keep going despite a lack of hope. Here are a few of them:

  • Sheer inertia/habit.
  • Not wanting to break my promises to fellow activists.
  • Knowledge that if I drop my activist habits due to despair, it’s a short step to dropping my habit of going to work in the morning.
  • Knowledge that my current understanding of where the world is headed could be flawed. (As Paul Krafel says, “Don’t let your current understanding keep you from doing this work.”)
  • Love for the world (or for my own life) that forces me to keep trying even though it appears totally obvious that we will fail to prevent the coming collapse. (This is the basis for anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen’s writing and activism.)

The next question is, if I have given in to despair within the past month or two, why has it taken this long? After all, I’ve been fully aware of the terrifying global threats we face for a decade and more, and as Al Gore points out, the most common response to such an immense challenge is to “leap straight from denial to despair,” much as an unarmed man being attacked by a tiger would generally flee and hide rather than trying to fight. In other words, scale paralysis prevents most people from becoming activists in the first place. But then again, youthful idealism can overcome that roadblock quite easily – as Joss Whedon pointed out in a recent graduation speech, every college student thinks s/he can change the world.

Still, it’s been seven years since I graduated, and in that time I’ve encountered plenty of strong arguments for the assertion that the problems we face really are too big to solve, not only for political reasons but due to the biology and physics of the Earth system itself, or “geophysiology” as James Lovelock calls it. Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, believes that a hotter global climate regime that will last for millions of years is now developing, and no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to return Earth’s climate to the way it was before the industrial era. Of course Lovelock is a controversial figure, but I’ve also heard Professor David Battisti’s description of the overall climate science community’s belief in a best-case scenario that looks like a nightmare to climate activists. And even Bill McKibben, the world’s leading climate activist, agrees that at this point we’re only fighting to “stabilize the planet at its current level of disruption.” That’s not the same as hopelessness, obviously, but it certainly puts a stark upper limit on how bright my future can be.

But up until last month, I just didn’t buy into that message. When I thought about it at all, I guess my assumption was that the climate is too unpredictable, some magical carbon-capture tech might be developed, or just “where there’s life there’s hope.” In short, my continuing habit of environmental activism was enabled by denial of the full severity of the problem.

In the next installment, which I already have mostly finished, I’ll explore my first major theory about why Paul Gilding’s book was able to cut through this partial denial and flip it to a state of “zombie activism,” in which I keep on doing what I’ve been doing without any real belief that it will help anything in the long run. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow I’m participating in a workshop called “The Work That Reconnects” that’s designed specifically to help environmentalists face the depths of their despair and work through it to somehow regain their “empowerment.” However that turns out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it later in this series.

May 25th, 2013

As my friend Lion pointed out to me recently, a lot of movies these days are pushing a very bleak view of the future, essentially advising audiences to prepare for inevitable doom. My mother’s reaction to this observation is that I should avoid that kind of movie, particularly in my present state, and she may be right. But Joe McHugh argues otherwise in his presentation, “Slaying the Gorgon,” which I attended at the Seattle Bioneers satellite conference in 2009. He says that when faced with realities too terrible to face directly, we should seek to understand them using the “mirrored shield of myth” (analogous to the strategy Perseus uses to kill Medusa, hence the name of the talk). So lately I’ve been looking at movies through that lens, and what follows are the results of my recent research into the modern mythology of the apocalypse. (Note: all four reviews have spoilers.)

 

The CroodsCollapse )

 

OblivionCollapse )

 

Iron Man 3Collapse )

 

Star Trek Into DarknessCollapse )

Okay, so those last two didn't fit the theme very well, but luckily this year’s upcoming releases will provide plenty more fodder for this investigation. After Earth comes out next week, Man of Steel (which starts out with the destruction of the planet Krypton) is less than a month away, and Elysium (which is more of a dystopia, but still raises the question of how it got that way) comes out in early August. I might skip After Earth if the reviews are terrible (which seems likely given M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record), and I’m very likely to skip Pacific Rim, the invasion-of-the-giant-lizards movie that comes out in July. But that still leaves plenty of apocalyptic sci-fi madness to experience and study, even though my mom says I shouldn’t.

May 18th, 2013

Apocalyptic optimism

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Paul Gilding is an avowed optimist, and that optimism was on full display in the first piece of his that I encountered, “Victory at hand for the climate movement?” That was five weeks ago, and I liked the article enough to post it to my Facebook wall. Four weeks ago, at an Earth Day event, I was handed a flyer advertising two meetings to discuss the ideas in Gilding’s book, The Great Disruption, and I decided almost immediately to read the book and go to the meetings. I had no idea what was about to happen to my mind.

In a nutshell, the thesis of The Great Disruption is that (1) humanity will not make the drastic changes needed to save ourselves until global catastrophe forces our hand, but (2) when it does, we will still somehow have enough time, resources, and inventiveness to save the climate and transition to a truly sustainable civilization. Gilding’s case for part 1 made perfect sense to me and has had a massive impact on my thinking, despite the fact that I’ve spent the past several years involved in activism aimed explicitly at motivating an earlier course correction, on the assumption that if we wait until our hand is forced, it will be too late to stop the slide into chaos and collapse.

Part 2 of Gilding’s thesis directly contradicts that assumption, and I simply can’t believe in it. Gilding incessantly cites World War II as an example of how we can turn things around at the last minute, completely ignoring the fact that America’s miraculous mobilization took place under conditions of almost total insulation from the catastrophes engulfing Europe and eastern Asia. By contrast, killer droughts, floods, wildfires, and superstorms are already starting to wreak havoc everywhere, America included, and it is that very havoc that Gilding expects to trigger our shift in consciousness. In any case, Gilding himself points out that the time lags in Earth’s systems mean that the climate and other ecological crises will continue to worsen long after we’ve stopped doing damage and started applying effort toward solutions commensurate with the global scale of the problems. So even if we start doing what’s necessary well before we’re crippled by the unfolding cataclysm, our decades-long efforts will almost certainly be swamped by the ever-growing chaos around us, ranging from mass migrations to pandemics to large-scale wars. Plus, to turn these trends around quickly enough when they’re already into the red zone will require using geoengineering, i.e. applying massive force on a planet-wide scale with techniques that are barely understood, whose side effects could easily prove even worse than the problems they’re intended to solve.

And all this doesn’t even touch the other part of the catastrophe that Gilding sees as inevitable: the end of economic growth. As long as the current economic system is in force, it will be necessary for governments to raise massive sums in order to cope with the scale of the climate problems, but Gilding says the global economy is already running up against the wall of planetary resource limits. He sees the 2008 financial crisis as partly caused by the preceding spikes in food prices, which indicate the arrival of a phenomenon far worse than Peak Oil: the edge of our agricultural capacity being reached, due to the combination of rising demand and loss of cropland to desertification. And while we have plenty of fossil fuels left with which to power the needed transitions (including scaling up green power production to replace those fuels), we’ll need to severely curtail our use of those fuels in order to prevent civilization-destroying climate impacts, placing an artificial limit on growth to add to the natural ones. And enforcing such harsh limits on energy use, particularly in the midst of the global chaos described above, will doubtless require an authoritarian crackdown on civil liberties on an almost Stalinist scale, a possibility that Gilding points out when discussing the rise of China.

So why have I suddenly embraced this vision of certain doom, despite having worked for years with the SolSeed Movement to paint a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic vision of the future and work toward making it real? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, but those thoughts will have to wait for a future blog post. I don’t expect it to be more than a week or two away (trust me or not as you see fit), and in the interim I plan to publish a set of movie reviews that relate to Gilding’s predictions, which I’m already mostly finished writing. I also need to update my original review of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, which offers more realistic-sounding solutions to the problem of inevitable climate catastrophe.

November 11th, 2012

Islands of sanity

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At the 2010 State of the World Forum, Paul H. Ray described the state of the world as “getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  As I’ve mentioned before, the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California is mainly focused on the “better and better” aspect, showcasing projects that appear to be in the process of solving some of the world’s biggest problems.  But at the Whidbey Island Bioneers satellite conference three weeks ago, the keynote speaker, Meg Wheatley, offered a contrarian viewpoint.  She believes that activists have no real chance of making headway against the entrenched power structure whose policies are making things worse on a global scale, and that we should focus instead on building “islands of sanity” within our current local spheres of influence.

I’ll return to that argument at the end of this post, but my main goal here is to repurpose Ms. Wheatley’s phrase in order to talk about ideological “islands of sanity,” each of whose inhabitants generally believe that only their island is sane and everyone on the other islands is crazy.  Most of them would also be surprised to learn just how vast the ocean is, and how many islands exist beyond the foggy borders of the Mainstream Archipelago (reachable only by navigators with a good political compass).  Most of those radical islands, of course, are very thinly populated, and many radicals find it difficult to even imagine banding together with other nearby islands to form a significant political force.

As an activist, I meet a lot of radicals, and one rhetorical strategy that some of them use to defend their “islands” is the claim that people in the mainstream are the “real radicals.”  For example, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave what I can only refer to as a vociferously moderate speech as part of the Bioneers plenary session (live-streamed to Whidbey and other satellite locations from San Rafael).  He described the DPA as a big tent, embracing “people who love drugs and people who hate drugs,” and explained its mission to “reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition” – that is to say, both preventing severe addiction, overdoses, and the spread of disease via needle sharing, and winding down the trillion-dollar War on Drugs that puts hundreds of thousands in jail and targets minorities far more aggressively than whites.  The DPA’s website doesn’t seem to have any specific policy recommendations other than legalizing marijuana*, but still manages to make the currently accepted zero-tolerance drug policy in the U.S. look like the extreme one.

Leading climate activist Bill McKibben of 350.org is much more explicit about it.  In his Rolling Stone article and the nationwide Do the Math tour based on it, for which I attended the kickoff event in Seattle this past Wednesday, McKibben depicts oil and coal companies as a “rogue industry” whose radical agenda essentially involves wrecking the planet for profit.  By contrast, he defines 350.org’s mission, to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, as the fundamentally conservative goal of maintaining a planet somewhat resembling the one we were born on.  Climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington was in the audience at the kickoff event, and McKibben thanked him for his contributions, but in fact Dr. Battisti considers the 350 ppm goal to be hopelessly extreme.  Then again, that’s mainly due to political feasibility concerns; 350 may not be a goal we can achieve, but it’s a goal that almost anyone who believes in mainstream climate science would want.

Speaking of super-ambitious goals that sound attractive to lots of people (intended to make bigger islands and pull in more of the scattered radical population, along with some moderate progressives), one of the things I learned about at Bioneers was a four-hour Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium that I ended up attending last weekend. The new dream described in the Symposium is defined broadly as “an environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on this planet.” However, in the four-hour version at least, the contrast with the current “dream of the modern world” isn’t made very clear; for example, one animated video clip defined that dream as mindless consumerism and blind worship of futuristic technology, but the presenters and some later live-action clips endorsed technological solutions such as wind and solar power, and one clip even celebrated Walmart’s green initiatives!  Are they claiming that consumerism is still okay as long as you do it right?  And how can social justice advocates support Walmart when its business model depends on keeping workers in poverty?

Still, I can fairly easily imagine the argument for why the Mainstream Conservative and Libertarian islands, at least, are extreme compared to the Awakening the Dreamer vision: “People on those islands think that ‘sustainability’ is code for burdensome EPA regulations that should be abolished, because they assume the cost to business is greater than the impacts of pollution, species extinctions, and climate change; they think that ‘social justice’ really means taking taxpayers’ hard-earned money and handing it out to lazy poor people; and they see no contradiction in seeking ‘spiritual fulfillment’ while living a self-centered consumerist lifestyle.”  But that sentence is a caricature, drawn by someone with a deliberately underpowered radio that can just barely pick up the fuzzy transmissions of the conservative half of the archipelago from a great distance.  The closer, more moderate regions of those islands make little to no sound, while from the far side comes the endless ultra-amplified noise of the right-wing propaganda machine.  So our left-leaning observer just assumes that the latter represents all conservatives, and writes them all off as crazy, which is what s/he wanted to believe in the first place.

I’m even worse than that observer in some respects.  I almost never even listen to right-wing media directly; I only see the carefully chosen excerpts quoted in The Daily Show and in outraged emails from progressive advocacy groups.  But at least I’m not so sure of myself as to choose a single radical island and claim it’s the only one where people are sane.  Let’s add a third dimension to my metaphor: People on the ground have no self-doubt whatsoever, which is easy given that even nearby islands are hard to see through the ocean haze.  Meanwhile, people like me hover in balloons above the cloud layer, able to see many islands but unable to make out enough detail to choose between them.  In fact, we believe that uncertainty is the only rational response to the immense complexity of the world we live in, although we acknowledge that we have to at least pretend to some degree of certainty about some things in order to live at all.  A state of complete uncertainty is equivalent to suffocating in the vacuum of space.

I’ll close with a quote I used at Bioneers the day after Meg Wheatley’s keynote, along with that initial quote from Paul Ray, to explain why I don’t think we should be so sure that global problems will only get worse:

“. . . so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with.’  It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation.”

- Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

*In his Bioneers talk, Nadelmann expressed support for the marijuana legalization initiative that just passed in Washington State.  My dad, who has a law degree and works at a courthouse, is pretty sure the initiative will just result in federal drug enforcers arresting a bunch more people.  I’ll probably do a post about the election soon.

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