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Ideological flux

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Benjamin Sibelman
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Living Worlds Productions

Ideological flux

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As a scientifically-minded person, I do my best to really pay attention on the rare occasions when I accidentally run into an article espousing a point of view dramatically different from my own.  This often results in a desire to shift my beliefs to fit with those espoused by the author, merely because he/she is a skilled writer and seems to be reasoning soundly, though not necessarily from accurate starting assumptions.

The news from major environmental groups that this December is the end of the line for our climate, the last chance to make a breakthrough on the political front, makes it that much easier to want to flee into some other view of the world in which logic does not compel me to spend every waking hour working on the problem of motivating politicians.  I still don't have the stomach to seek out more scientific arguments for why the IPCC is wrong, so the path of denial is closed to me.  But despair, along with several of its cousins, is wide open.

Take The Limits to Growth, which I previously mentioned here.  Turns out this 1972 report not only didn't make the inaccurate claims usually attributed to it, it also got a lot of things right.  If you look at the line graph at the link, and then pay more attention to the sentence "According to [Professors] Hall and Day, this forecast is 'largely accurate' to date" than the one that follows it, "We cannot know at this time how accurate future projections will prove to be," it's easy to want to crawl under a rock and wait for death.  Can you imagine living in a future where the death rate has tripled and there is only one fifth as much food per capita as today?

Alternately, you can worry about HFCs, a greenhouse gas no one has ever heard of that is "now responsible for 17 percent of man-made global warming but on track to contribute as much as carbon dioxide," according to some article in Newsweek.  If that's true, what are the odds that enough awareness can be raised to prevent HFCs from negating any success we have in cutting CO2 emissions?

One close cousin to despair is the "only one thing can save us" mantra.  For NASA climate maven James Hansen, the silver bullet is shutting down coal-fired power plants.  But that one doesn't save me from activism, nor do Glen Barry's incessant demands for "sufficient" solutions that would basically require industrial civilization to turn on a dime.

Looking to the opposite side of the political spectrum (without realizing I was doing so), I encountered Peter Huber of the conservative Manhattan Institute.  In his article "Bound to Burn," Huber starts from the possibly erroneous assumption that efficiency and renewables will not be economically viable options for the developing world anytime soon, and argues cogently that the only possible way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to sequester it in carbon sinks.  This is a "quick cheap technical fix" type of solution: just get poor people to plant more trees, or invent a technology to turn gaseous CO2 into calcium carbonate or even pull it out of the ambient air--that way coal plant operators don't have to pay the hideous costs to capture it at the source.  But while such a solution would require next to no effort from me, chances are that the difficulties for others of implementing such fixes at sufficiently enormous scale will be well-nigh insurmoutable, which leaves me back at despair.

Still, if you count out a massive shift in global consciousness, it remains all too easy to root for accelerating technological progress as if it were a racehorse running neck-and-neck with accelerating ecological collapse.  That's the cornucopian mantra: Someone will invent something that will fix it.  A new source of cheap, easily accessed, nonpolluting energy will be found, and everyone will live happily ever after.  Yeah.  Sure.

Derrick Jensen, the man opposed to hope, says he cares too much to stop fighting even though he's dead certain his mission can never succeed.  Maybe I should stop avoiding his writings like the plague and start trying to find out how he manages this.
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