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Archive for February 7th, 2019

[The beloved of God] should conduct themselves in such manner that the earth upon which they tread may never be allowed to address to them such words as these: “I am to be preferred above you. For witness, how patient I am in bearing the burden which the husbandman layeth upon me. I am the instrument that continually imparteth unto all beings the blessings with which He Who is the Source of all grace hath entrusted me. Notwithstanding the honour conferred upon me, and the unnumbered evidences of my wealth—a wealth that supplieth the needs of all creation—behold the measure of my humility, witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men…”

Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (V)

Scientific scholarship, even though it is a practice built by humans, meshes poorly with the adaptive strategies that make human civilisation possible.

Keith Kahn-Harris Denial: The Unspeakable Truth – page 96:

Blinkers

I’m not going to rehearse all the evidence in support of the idea that humanity is basically responsible for global warming. What I want to focus on is the problem of why it is not fully and widely enough recognised to trigger the required action. Nicholas Stern was very aware of this aspect of the issue and offered one possible explanation in his 2009 publication, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet (page 3):to

Climate change is a problem which arises from a buildup of greenhouse gases over time and the effects come through with long lags of several decades. If the world waits before taking the problems seriously, until Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Florida are underwater, it will be too late to back ourselves out of a huge hole. A special challenge of making policy here is that we are fast approaching a crisis which requires decision and action now, but we cannot yet directly experience the real magnitude of the dangers we are causing.

Before I plunge in, to anyone reading this who is significantly younger than I am, I feel I must begin with an apology for the probability that my generation will be bequeathing you a wrecked planet when we die. To those of a similar age who also deferred reacting in good time and to those who continue to deny the reality of our legacy, I write more in sorrow than in anger, as I try to explain our delay and/or our denial.

Invisibility

Invisibility is indeed an important factor and has been touched on from various angles by subsequent thinkers. For example, Naomi Klein does so in This Changes Everything page 168): 

[Facile dismissal] is our relationship to much that we cannot easily see and it is a big part of what makes carbon pollution such a stubborn problem: we can’t see it, so we don’t really believe it exists. Ours is a culture of disavowal…’

Invisibility to the general public can take other subtler forms.

Keith Kahn-Harris (pages 96-97 in Denial: The Unspeakable Truth) quotes Gorman & Gorman Denying to the Grave page 13: ‘We are actually afraid of complexity . .’ 

He expands on this later quoting (page 140) from another source  (E A Jane and C Fleming Modern Conspiracy: the importance of being paranoid – pages 53-54): 

We live in an age in which the vast bulk of knowledge can only be accessed in mediated forms which rely on the testimony of various specialists. Contemporary approaches to epistemology, however, remain anchored in the intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment. These demand first-hand inquiry, independent thinking, and a scepticism about information passed down by authorities and experts. As such, we may find ourselves attempting to use an epistemological schema radically unsuited to a world whose staggering material complexity involves an unprecedented degree of specialisation and knowledge mediation.

So the priority we have been taught to value as lay-thinkers, on knowing at first hand, conflicts with the highly specialist nature of the complex evidence in support of climate change. Our complex brains have helped us build a complex civilisation with complex consequences which our short term primate habits of thought can’t even get close to understanding. It’s all too opaque for us to fully understand, so we back off in our bafflement, tempted to dismiss the whole idea as a fantasy.

I accept that all those factors play a part in the all-too-prevalent climate-change scepticism that hampers our attempts to take remedial action in time.

I’d like to step back now, and check out some other more basic thinking processes that play as great a part, in my view at least.

First off, we’re wired to find it too hard to digest a problem such as climate-change. Short-term thinking, as programmed by our primate brains, prevents us easily grasping the long-term impact of our behaviour. (For more on this see link). Keith Kahn-Harris latches on to this in part of his argument about invisibility, so we are close to the same issue here at a more basic level. He states (page 49): 

The process through which the burning of a barrel of oil results in a global rise in temperatures is not directly visible. The process through which smoking leads to cancer takes place over decades and unfolds differently between individuals.

I was a smoker at one time, as was Kahn-Harris. The immediate satisfaction of the nicotine hit, in the context of no immediate adverse effects, is all the evidence our more basic brain wiring needs to have to know for sure that it’s ok to carry on smoking. The more effortful task of investigating and digesting the evidence that it will probably kill us before our time makes no sense to our primate self. This is our default position most of the time (more on that in a moment). 

My experience in the NHS, dealing with local commissioners intensely concerned with balancing the books at the end of each financial year, illustrated for me that the same principles apply in more public sectors than my old smoking habit, which it took me six attempts at least to shake off.  Arguments in favour of preventative action, whose financial savings might take years to materialise, carried far less weight, in fact no weight at all most of the time, than the imperatives of coming in under budget in a few months  time. In such contexts we behave as though we are doctors giving a man who has broken his ankle a crutch rather than mending it with a splint, because a splint would be too expensive and he can get about well enough with the crutch.

How much worse this must obviously be with something as complex as climate change. 

Our Default Mode of Thinking

Before we leave the primate-brain problem, a few words from Daniel Kahneman will illustrate how pervasive it is. His contention in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, on the basis of hard evidence and a lifetime’s exploration of the issue, is that we have two ways of thinking. The first, System One, is our default mode. It operates too glibly and too fast, as against more effortfully and more slowly, which makes the understanding of complex situations almost impossible. He writes (Kindle Reference 282): ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It (KR340) ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’ System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading. His conclusion about its limitations is (KR433): ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.’

That doesn’t bode well, but there is an alternative. 

He describes System 2 as one that (KR340) ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds (KR375) ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

He also contrasts it with the operation of System 1 and indicates how they can complement each other (KR423): ‘System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’

He concludes (KR429): ‘In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.’

Kahneman regards System 2, powerful though flawed, as the best hope of good decision-making at our disposal.

The key problem here, though, seems to lie in the clause ‘when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’ What we are seeing so far is that manmade climate change has not generated before now at least events that violate, strongly enough in enough of us, our System One models of reality. We’re therefore not prepared to invest enough effort in System Two thinking to change our position. 

Iain McGilchrist, in his searching analysis of the human mind The Master & his Emissary reaches disturbing conclusions of relevance here to the persistence of our blindly exploitative relationship with the natural world and the earth’s resources.

The conclusion he reaches, that matters most when we look at this issue, is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Personal Impact

This resistance may be changing and it is imperative that it does, as a Guardian interview with Katherine Hayhoe illustrates. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 1.5C report in October. A month later, the US federal government’s climate assessment – to which Katharine Hayhoe contributed – came out. She feels that:

These assessments are important because there is a Schrödinger’s Cat element to studying climate impacts. The act of observing affects the outcome. If people aren’t aware of what is happening, why would anyone change? Assessments like these provide us with a vision of the future if we continue on our current pathway, and by doing so they address the most widespread and dangerous myth that the largest number of us have bought into: not that the science isn’t real, but rather that climate change doesn’t matter to me personally.

Since I jumped on this bandwagon a development has come to light that illustrates the drastic effect of climate change on me personally.  A Guardian article flagged this up. It was something of a shock to a seasoned coffee drinker such as myself:

If a future of relentless fires, droughts, superstorms and rising sea levels makes you feel like you need a strong caffeinated beverage, there is some bad news: climate change is coming for the world’s coffee beans.

Greg Meenahan, the partnership director at the non-profit institute World Coffee Research, puts it this way: “Demand for coffee is expected to double by the year 2050 and, if nothing is done, more than half of the world’s suitable coffee land will be pushed into unsuitability due to climate change. Without research and development, the coffee sector will need up to 180m more bags of coffee in 2050 than we are likely to have.

I’m sure every reader will resonate sympathetically to the horror of my impending predicament. ‘What is a life without coffee worth?’ I find myself asking.

Well, a lot more than the life without any of its necessities, as promised by a future of uncontrolled global warming. Given that the evidence is building to confirm this bleak view of our future, why are we still not doing enough? 

More of that next time.

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