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Posts Tagged ‘Keith Kahn-Harris’

Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the interrelationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever . . .

Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá page 157. 

[In the novel, Mary Treat, a 19th Century naturalist and Darwinist, tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants]

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’ 

(Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver – page 83):

Denialism

At the end of the last post we left this question hanging in there air: why are we still not doing enough?

To go some way towards answering that, we need to factor in the force that Keith Kahn-Harris points towards in his book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth (page 15 – my emphasis): ‘[The] desire, for something not to be true, is the driver of denialism.’

Both Naomi Klein (page 168) and Kahn-Harris (page 17) agree this involves both ‘knowing and not knowing.’ This makes it at some level motivated, not simply the result of primitive wiring or lazy default modes. Keith Kahn-Harris (page 25) pins it down as follows: ‘denialism can usually be traced back to a kind of founding trauma, a shocking explosion of knowledge that directly threatens something fundamental to oneself or to a group of which one is a part,’ and later adds (page 73: ‘Humans still do the same short-sighted things [as the Easter Islanders did]: they just can’t avoid the burden of knowledge of the consequences.’

I can’t resist sharing his quotation (page 72) from Jared Diamond’s classic book on the extinction of civilisations, Collapse (page 114):

I have often asked myself, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!”? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palm trees somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?  

In a similar way, Jeremy Rifkin brings the Roman Empire into the frame in his The Empathic Civilisation (pages 249-50):

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Cognitive Dissonance

How plain has this pikestaff got to be before we take action?

This is where some psychobabble has to creep in. I think we’re dealing with our old enemy, dissonance reduction, here. We’ve met that already on this blog in terms of the slave trade and colonisation. John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, by degrading the status of both populations to the somehow subhuman. 

Keith Kahn-Harris states (page 80: ‘As ecological destruction became unspeakable, global warming denialism emerged.’ A conscious recognition that we were destroying the planet would require us to revise our prevailing exploitative model of so-called civilisation and take action, or else label ourselves as revolting vandals on a global scale. Reducing this cognitive dissonance makes the temptation to deny the reality of manmade climate change irresistible, especially in the minds of those profiting most from the destruction who, incidentally, wield the most power in our society. 

There are vested and powerful interests capable of both insidiously manipulating our perspective and abusing power to block the implementation of effective remedies. Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything (page 151) describes the situation in America but it clearly applies more widely, though in slightly different ways in different places: 

All these attempts to fix glaring and fundamental flaws in the system have failed because large corporations wield far too much political power – a power exerted through corporate campaign contributions, many of them secret; through almost unfettered access to regulators via their lobbyists; through the notorious revolving door between business and government…’

She later explains (page 178): ‘Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a roadmap for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.’

Too many of us have bought into this materialist myth, making it easy for those who benefit most from untrammelled growth to carry on unhindered.

Doughnut Economics (For Source of Image see link)

Signs of Hope?

There are signs that younger economists are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75): 

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Another book, The Econocracy, speaking on behalf of young economists, seeks to redress the balance by dethroning the neo-liberal orthodoxy and democratising it (page 5): 

We are also trying to democratise economics because we believe that at its core economics should be a public discussion about how we organise society. There is an important role for experts here, but this role is as a humble advisor not a detached authority figure.

It will obviously be some time yet before such proposals have a major impact on how our society approaches these issues. 

In the meantime, things don’t look good.

Most of the attempts in the recent past to mobilise resistance to global-warming have been seriously flawed, as Klein explains (page 212-13):  

In addition to not doing much to actually lower emissions, these various approaches also served to reinforce the very ‘extrinsic’ values that we now know are greatest psychological barriers to climate action – from the worship of wealth and fame for their own sakes to the idea that change is something that is handed down from above by our betters, rather than something we demand for ourselves… Because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued… Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?

How far from a tipping point?

Jeremy Rikin introduces evidence to illustrate his thesis that we are close to self-destruction (The Empathic Civilisation – page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

We are establishing ever wider links with others (page 26) ‘yet the early light of global empathic consciousness is dimmed by the growing recognition it may come too late to address the spectre of climate change and the possible extinction of the human species.’

He then spells out what that means (ibid):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

There is obviously a major problem here. 

The window of opportunity to turn things round is now very narrow and the deadline very tight, but the blockages to progress are massive and are likely to take more time than we have got to remove them. 

Katherine Hayhoe points to one key issue:

We haven’t yet reached the tipping point to motivate sufficient action. But there has been a change. Ten years ago, few people felt personally affected by climate change. It seemed very distant. Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognising it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them. 

While she sees some hope of progress she’s not optimistic that it will be enough:

I’d put my money on a gradual bend away from a higher scenario, which is where we are now, until accumulating and worsening climate disasters eventually lead to a collective “oh shit!” moment, when people finally realise climate impacts do pose a far greater threat than the solutions. At that point, I would hope the world would suddenly ramp up its carbon reduction to the scale of a Manhattan Project or a moon race and we would finally be able to make serious progress. The multitrillion-dollar question is simply when that tipping point in opinion will come, and whether it will be too late for civilisation as we know it. 

Even so, recent comparisons with how we tackled the hole in the ozone layer highlight the scale of the problem:

The reality is that environmental action was easier then because the world had more ecological breathing room, capitalism was less dominant and the corporate push-back – and control over politics – was weaker. The ozone layer was a relatively simple fix compared with the climate, which is the biggest, most complex, multidimensional challenge humanity has ever faced. It is one thing confronting a handful of chemical firms, quite another to take on the world’s fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers, cement-makers and agribusiness conglomerates, representing hundreds of millions of jobs, trillions of dollars and 200-odd years of industrial development.

So what exactly can and should we do right now?

More of that next time.

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[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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