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.


  1. We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats' feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    This is the way the world ends
    not with a bang but a whimper

  2. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on that sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Dylan Thomas

  3. Just too irresistible. Taking this quote entirely out of context. Sophocles' ''Philoctetes'':

    I believe what I'm trying to push at is how to bring knowledge to a critical mass for action:

    Athena speaks. Dearest of the gods to me.
    I don't know where you are, can't see you,
    but I hear your voice, it lifts my heart--
    no war cry, no trumpet, ever sounds so clear.
    You're onto me. I am sniffing round for Ajax,
    Mister Fancy Shield. No friend of mine.
    I'm on his trail; what other suspect is there?
    Last night, he did something, if he did it,
    that no one on earth would choose to see.
    No one else could explain it; it fell to me,
    as usual, to volunteer, to find out what happened.

  4. I think you should consider that "the sheer weight and inertia of the human systems and structures we have created" means increased rather than decreased vulnerability. Take away a key resource and it's Syria redux. Indeed, I'm more and more persuaded that stress on crops due to increasing drought and heat waves is the overwhelming big threat. For a while a triage of abandonment will be practiced, but push will come to shove when China ceases to be able to feed its population.

    1. Hi Steve, nice to have you round - have a cup of tea. :D
      IMO the inertia has both positive and negative sides in respect to the stability of global civilization as a whole. I tend towards the view that increasing pressures, such as you refer to in China, will inevitably lead to increasing divergence between have and have power and don't have either - which leads to the same conclusion as yours, the triage of abandonment.
      I have asked this question before of people, but how comfortable are we really about accepting a share of the responsibility for the future likely death of 150 million in return for our present creature comforts.
      In conclusion, there probably is a 'societal doomsday' tipping point, but on a global scale, I think it more likely that, over sufficient time (100 years?) the world will devolve into enclaves of urban vs wilderness...