Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Morrow Project, chapter one

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Santayana.

Which is my introduction to this morning's subject, the History of the Apocalypse. Hopefully, you can see the marker for what it is; the early parts of the Morrow project are to map out the context in which we consider the idea of impending doom, vis a vis Catastrophic Climate Change. Once we can make sense of why we might have an inclination towards apparent nihilism, it then becomes possible to place present-day concerns over the impacts of a changing climate into a space from where we can puzzle out an attitude, or approach to the future.

If you go to see (or just read the rubbish about) Russell Crowe and Noah, you're following a popular and enduring trend in human society to consider the possibility of the End of Days. It sits very deeply in the Western cultural consciousness. It is, of course, a theme in parts of the Bible and, through the thousand year social/intellectual dominance of this particular religion, informs our development consciousness as individuals, whether we are aware of it or not.

But it is also there embedded in the Viking/Nordic consciousness, as Ragnarok, in Millenialist cults from the tenth, fourteenth, eighteenth centuries, on into the modern era. From the early Twentieth century, influenced no doubt by the horrors of the global conflicts into which we were plunged, and by the Cold War and Post-Existentialist modern, it reaches us first through late-period sects (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses), through Science Fiction, in examples too numerous to mention, and in contemporary Fantasy fiction. The End of Days is a sufficiently common and enduring theme to be able to confidently claim that it exists within our cultural identity, and thus within our individuality, like a toothache.

And our attitude towards this apparent apocalypse is interesting, for it is a qualified doom, not an unequivocal one. In most versions, since neo-Platonic times, possibly since Aquinas, we, the recipients of the wisdom of the Revelation, are excluded from the ranks of the doomed - we are the chosen, the few, the blessed. In personal imaginings of the catastrophic realignment of human existence on Earth, the question of whether I will be one of the few does not arise, it is taken as a given. We are the witness to the new, the post-apocalyptic World. This is, of course, counter-rational, since by definition, if 90% or so of the World's population is to die, the odds against a personal survival is quite small..

There's probably also a link to one of the fundamental premises of Christianity (and, implicitly, in some versions of Buddhism), that the reward for suffering in the present is a better, purer 'life' in the future. The power of this particular promise is obvious - your life may be crap now, but there is always hope. But in the adult awareness of our individual inefficability, a deus ex machina, an mighty outside force, is required to bring about the transformation, at least on a timescale that signifies within the self-aware mortal frame of normal human life.

Neither is such irrational hope confined to religion - it persists in a huge proportion of the Advertising, Marketing, consumption and social human activities that constitute a significant proportion of our daily input, wherein it addresses and promises to answer our everyday existential anxieties about power, control, desire, significance, and solve these if only we buy this, bet that, own this, use that...

In a similar way, the idea of a Global Catastrophe allows us to hope, in the abstract, that the problems and worries which beset us as individuals and as a society entire, a species, on this planet, our home, are capable of a solution. This is a dramatic and exclusive solution, but we are, ipso facto, the survivors, the new wave, the pioneers of the better tomorrow... and so we come to welcome what is in rational terms an appalling holocaust.

So, we seem to exist in Developed Society as entities for whom the tendency to worry and wonder about our collective future is a mirror for our anxieties about our survival and flourishing as individuals. In this, we follow another familiar neo-Platonic meme, the doctrine of Microcosm-macrocosm (As above, so below).

Here is a suggestion, then. When we speculate about tomorrow in terms of the imminent collapse of civilization, or a sudden transition to a Brave New World, what we are doing is transferring our uncomfortable awareness of our own mortality and our wish to signify onto the larger scale. This form of abstraction allows us to separate out our terror of death from our dream of persistence, and exist in a form of hopefulness, or optimism, in which we can beat death itself. Our imagining of the Apocalypse is an imagining of our immortality.

Next time: Chapter two; Is the world coming to an end?

Be loved.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Don’t stop (thinking about tomorrow)

The outlook for the future of humanity is not great at the moment. In the several years since I started taking a serious interest in this, including extensive academic research, substantial reading and study and direct engagement in online debate and discussion, not much has improved.

We have been strongly conscious of our collective ability to shape, transform, and in particular, damage our world and our societies, for at least fifty years. For much of this time, the focus of academic attention has been on Environmental ‘issues’ and the relationship between human exploitation of resources and ecosystems’ capacity to absorb this. More recently, the focus has shifted to the questions which arise from recent observations of the global warming of the planet’s ‘system’.

Today, more than has been apparent before, we live in a time when people who think about the bigger issues and problems of society are aware that our Human world is at least partially dysfunctional. Though it is hard to place a number on this outside the realms of serious statistical (quantitative) research, and though observation bias is no doubt in play, since I tend to socialise with people who share my world-view, or at least my concerns, my best guess is that a substantial minority of Northern Europeans, and a slightly smaller but still significant minority of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Africans, Asians and Southern/Eastern Europeans, are both aware of at least some of the issues facing our species and others, and also concerned about them with respect to the future.

For some time I have been working to map out a vision of how the near future of Humanity might progress and so, given that there may be some interest, intend to present some of my guesses, along with the reasoning behind them, here over the next few posts. For my own reasons, I have named this the ‘Morrow Project’. It would be more than helpful, in this case, were some readers to offer contributions, in particular where they think my reasoning has gone astray, or where they are not clear about my meanings, so come on, folks, say your bit…

Coming up next on the blog, then, the Morrow Project, Episode 1…

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Visions and Nightmares

Over on P3, where the worthy Michael Tobis does his stuff, a lively discussion has been going on over who deserves a prize for bad science of the year. One of the candidates is a concerned ecologist by the name of McPherson, who apparently has a big social media following. I'd not heard of him, TBH. The other is the familiar Lomborg, about whom I do know, and have opinions. (h/t to MT for the link..)

What interests me is not, though, who will walk away with the dubious honour, but the complete dichotomy of future vision which these two represent. Lomborg sees a world which needs to keep committing capital to solve real and present problems, whilst largely letting tomorrow do its own thing (and is therefore marked down by many as being short-sighted, since he champions the cause of climate action inertia). McP, it appears, sees 'the end of the world as we know it', imminent and real, and has transformed his own life accordingly.

I have wavered over the past thirty years in my own imagining of the future, and have consistently struggled to create, in my mind at least, a realistic scenario for the rest of my life and beyond, of how 'the World' will unfold. It seems like a big project, but as we have understood for a while, thanks to numerous strands of human endeavour and research, a lot of the bits which make up our world are connected in sometimes surprising ways. And my wayward mind persists in chewing away at it.

One of the struggles has always been to uncover the truth about the state of the World as it is (in science terms, establish the initial conditions), to understand the forces which shape the direction of our short-term (5-10 years) future, and to distinguish between the good and bad in other people's imaginings. Hence the original interest in climate change and climate science, and the engagement in recent years, because I personally believe it is important. Hence the general support for science, truth and reason as key tools to establish something resembling 'the real world'.

Once upon a time, I would probably have thrown my cap in the ring with the McPherson's of the world, seeing all that is bad and all that is going bad lead to an inevitable and imminent decline in our global society and welfare. I can't say I've ever subscribed to the other view, that things will continue to steadily improve for us all, and we'll sort out such problems as climate as we go along. Partially this is because I lack faith in the security of the institutions on which our current 'civilization' depends, and partially because I used to be one of those who hankered after a simpler, quasi-medieval, idealised life more in harmony with natural forces and less dependent on human ones.

These days, I am more inclined towards the view that 'civilization' is unlikely to break down in one great, catastrophic meltdown, at least not in the next ten years. I don't rule out the possibility entirely, but am more aware of the sheer weight and inertia of the human systems and structures we have created, and their tendency to avoid this kind of event. On the other hand, my taste for a life less determined by these forces has not diminished, it's just that the reasons for choosing to live in a 'post-civilized' mode of being have changed some.

I'm with Tobis on feeling that extreme views founded on bad science are to be discouraged, and to some extent, I agree with him that too much 'Doom' can lead to nihilistic or fatalistic responses, which in turn produce another kind of inertia about our future and the path we all seem to be headed down, whether we like it or not. 

On the other hand, I find ostrich-behaviour particularly distasteful and unrealistic. The Titanic was not, after all, unsinkeable. People who use bad science to justify a shuttered and unrealistic world-view, such as many climate-deniers (more likely, they use anti-science, which is arguably worse), are at least equally and, to my taste, more culpable in encouraging us to imagine that we either should not, or cannot, do anything to change the direction the world is going in.

What is my vision of the future? Well, the detail will have to wait a while, it's still being compiled - but in general, I think we are moving towards an increasingly divided world, and increasingly unjust and unbalanced world, an world increasingly changed by the long-term shift in climate and climate patterns, a world divided between the urban and the rural, a world where some people who have the means and the choice will steadily opt out of the 'global-corporate' world-vision and move closer to more localised, self-sufficient and self-dependent, 'small' social groups, whilst others choose the uber-urban, hyper-modern life that would seem to be a natural development from our existing large city lives.

The Dispossessed will remain the Dispossessed, and gods damn us all for that. 

I don't have any input into who MT will give his 'award' to, though I'm inclined to generally try to support even misguided environmentalists in favour of misguided economists. But I do want to end on a cautionary note. Remember the Terminator - the future is not yet written. We MUST continue to believe that we have the means and the desire to change the direction of our future for the better; this is, whether in the personal or the collective, the basis for having a meaningful life. And without doubt, the future is better served by seeking for truth, reason and understanding.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

It's gone! Out of the park... Tamino hits a bases-loaded world series winner...

Sometimes, someone just hits the nail on the head. At which point, adding anything is just gilding the lily. Tamino has absolutely nailed one this time, and you should consider this mandatory reading for the week. It just made me feel like shouting 'Boston wins the World Series!' out loud. Hiatus my ass.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

If it's Tuesday, this must be...

It's been raining quite a lot recently in the UK:

So, since it's the weekend, and at the weekend we come out and play, here is:

The wonderfully tacky video was filmed at Southsea beach, where I lived between 2002-2012. Southsea is part of the City of Portsmouth, one of the UK's main Naval Bases, home of Nelson's HMS Victory and, as seen on the video, a Castle, from which Henry VIII watched his flagship, the Mary Rose, sink with all hands nearly 500 years ago.

A few years ago, business took me to the office of the city's Head of Planning. On his wall was a very large map, showing expected sea level changes up to 2080. Something between 1/3 and 1/2 of the city was marked in blue. That's a city with existing flood defences and a major strategic military base, and a population of around 200,000. I had a lot more sympathy for the man and the job he had to do after the meeting than I had before.

Someone tell me honestly you don't think we need to take action on our changing climate.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

It's a new day, it's a new dawn...

We need a new Discourse of the future.

Now that it seems abundantly clear that Environmental Change connects to Climate Change links to Social Change relates to Political Change, let's get into the habit of seeing these as all one larger entity - a Meta-change - needed for the transformation of the whole package of how we collectively interact with each other and our home, in order to move towards a brighter future and avoid the impending catastrophe.

This is not an attempt at simplification, nor a call to reduce the many issues down to one 'big idea'. Rather, see it as a recognition that all these, and other issues for the future, such as greater security, greater liberty, greater justice; these are interconnected so much that to engage in changing one also has implications in all the other 'spheres'.

In other words, they are causally linked.

This Meta-change then is the re-directing of the Juggernaut of progress away from its current course (apparently) towards destruction/damnation, towards one which is, if not free of problems, at the least more promising, for our environment and ecology, for our societies, for the Global Climate, for the security and stability of our parts.

In all honesty, all the 'negative waves' are starting to get to me. After a while, true or not, 'We're all doomed' is a miserable mantra to measure our lives against. We need something new, more optimistic, more hopeful, more positive (well, I'm speaking for both of us here...).

I'd also argue that we need something for folks to hold on to, to aspire to, rather than something which speaks of fear, loss and despair. What might this look like? Well for certain the whole discourse of climate change will need an overhaul.

I'm drawn to an analogy of the early settlers in the USA, and the myth of the pioneer. These people, whilst clearly lacking in the liberties and opportunities they aspired to in Old Europe, apparently arrived in the New World with a collective attitude which was largely positive. They wanted to create a better place, closer to Heaven. They wanted to relate to the mystical in ways which were, at the time, often non-conformist. They wanted the freedom to own their own piece of land and work it. To this end, in the nineteenth century, the European New World Diaspora spread out westward, towards a 'promised land'.

Now, the Pilgrim Fathers (sic) and their contemporaries could have seen things differently; the prospect of leaving the familiar and known behind, setting out across vast distances in the face of hostile Nature, with the prospect of as-yet unknown dangers and difficulties, with disparate groups of broadly like-minded but determinedly individualistic communities, no certainty of the simplest of securities such as food, no knowledge of the New World as it already existed; this could have left them feeling that maybe the uncertain rewards didn't justify the more or less certain risks. But they persisted.

Likewise, the pioneer trails which drove west from the early colonies were occupied by people for whom there were plenty of obstacles to be overcome, in return for uncertain promises. This did not stop them, if they even thought about it at all.

Where's the analogy? Let us imagine that the Present - our World as we live in it now - is the Colony/Society with which we are familiar. The Future is the horizon and beyond. We have some differences; our level of comfort is greater, our inertia, the fear of losing what we already hold, is probably greater now than it was then. But on the other hand, the uncertainties of our current state, drawn forward in time, are more real and dangerous.

We have the opportunity to roam along a trail towards a better future. We have the chance to set out in hope and try to make something new and better. So, I say, the time is coming to ditch the discourse of despair and replace it with the language of hope, of aspiration, of pioneering. Like Star Trek.

Hopefully, more on this later...

Friday, 10 January 2014

Whether the weather, whatever...

So it's back to a familiar pattern - the weather hits the news, and discussions arise about climate change, impacts, causes (blame), and so forth. In a sense this is good, because it brings climate to front and centre in the public consciousness, but I have a concern about it. I think it is leading us down a tricky path.

It's no surprise that weather extremes are used as tools to advocate for action on climate, since the impacts are immediately visible and present to the consciousness of the public in a way that no amount of good science or statistics can ever emulate. It's the time when people just 'get it' more readily. It's evidence by ostensive definition; 'Look!'.

The problems I have with this: first, the obvious one, that it perpetuates the language of 'cause' or 'blame'; the notion that any given weather extreme is caused by a changing climate, or evidence of a changing climate. No. It might be evidence of what happens when the weather systems of a globe or region don't do what they normally do. It might be cited as an example of what sort of damage and suffering might be expected if weather patterns change in particular places. But it is not the reason why scientists, working with long-term statistical averages, are worried about the direction we are going in. It's also, arguably, not a good precedent for future events.

The desire to get the message across, that changing climate has significant impacts which are likely to hurt us, is of course important. But a changing climate and the long-term consequences of this are much more than the sum of a series of damaging extremes in local or regional weather. So I feel that to work this particular meme, this message, is potentially dangerous. In our eagerness to get folks to pay attention, we might be skewing the real importance of what is happening to the planet and our role in this.

It will be interesting to see how the WG3 section of the AR5 copes with this apparent contradiction - that the urgency of action is demonstrable through known, visible impacts, but that the reason for concerted international effort goes beyond these impacts. Consistently, scientists have been at pains to point out that the likely consequence of AGW of more than 2 degrees is 'dangerous'; 'Dangerous Climate Changes'. 

But the dangers are not just about what happens to weather patterns in line with what we already know and can see, or measure. More worrying is the danger arising from our ignorance or uncertainty - in other words, runaway feedbacks, system-wide effects (what price a permanently accelerated jetstream, or a shutdown of the THC/AMOC?), and simply unknown effects which are only hinted at now, but would, if they happened, have really frightening consequences. I'm thinking here, for example, of what happens if, as a result of pollution and drought, insecticide and shifting wind patterns, we lose 95% of the Global honey bee population?

In simplest terms, the dangers we should be worrying about are those about which we are uncertain, but which have a logical relation to what has already been observed. To steal a phrase from a well-known Nobel scientist, what should draw our more serious attention is that the impacts of increasing atmospheric CO2, increasing deforestation, increasing black soot deposition and increasing abuse of natural ecosystems, will probably be more than we currently imagine, and different. 

Though I am reluctant to push this to the absolute extreme, the argument here is that, if the sum of the impacts of our present stewardship regime (bad joke) of the Earth are 'more and different' to what can happen within current parameters, then we really are setting ourselves up for a Global (social) transformation a couple of step-changes beyond what is currently being considered in 'mitigation and adaptation' scenarios. And we aren't in a position to anticipate these. Yet.

Which takes me at last back to my gripe. Focussing on weather extremes is short-term. Focussing on economic damage is short-term. Focussing on the evidence before our eyes is too narrow a view. If climate change is about anything, it's about the bigger picture. If sustainability is about anything, it's about the bigger picture. The value of a wood is greater than the sum of the value of each tree; the importance of finding a way to reduce our impact on our planet lies not in saving trees, or woods, it  lies in avoiding the awakening of the Kraken, of arousing Godzilla, of unleashing the rough monster that slouches towards Bethlehem to be born; it really is about keeping nightmares in the realm of the unreal.