“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
Take a mind. Send it hour after hour of highly charged emotional content all the while making irrational claims like, “Subaru is love.” Take that exact same medium that delivers this cognitive quicksand and use it to also communicate the most important news of our time. Result? People can be forgiven for being a little bit confused about what is real and important these days and what is not.
I don’t think we can make any headway towards clear thinking without recognizing the cognitive dissonance and confusion that has been deliberately sewn inside our minds. The manipulation manifests in a number of ways, not the least of which is the general atmosphere it fosters in which anything goes: every side of every argument is given equal weight – regardless of the evidence.
Lots of people talk about the rosy high-tech future business as usual will deliver; politicians work with the corporate elite and their bankers to assure that the opinion pieces, TV and radio are full of the same monotone rhetoric. The only group who consistently refuses to join the optimist crowd, who insist on making dire predictions, are the scientists and engineers; those whom we expect to continue delivering the consumer cornucopia we have come to feel we deserve. Those who crunch the numbers and make the most careful models are of one accord – very, very worried. This should, in turn, worry us.
As a nation we sure do like our stories. Hollywood movies regularly attract masses of people as titles regularly achieve blockbuster status. Even blockbusters are not enough to satisfy our need and longing to tell one another stories. We rely on TV and radio to broadcast thousands of stories a day, non-stop. So enamored are we with the stories we tell, that as a society we lavish our highest awards of money and fame on the actors and musicians who master these arts of theatrical pretending.
So when events are cast into the context of a story that conforms well to our highly trained expectations, we are extremely susceptible to bypassing critical thought because the explanation just ‘feels right’.
For example, when an economist tells us the developing world is adopting car based lifestyles at an accelerating rate, we tend to pull out our comfortable story – progress through industrial technology – and file away the claim as further evidence that supports one of our society’s core narratives. Business news being what it is, this datum about accelerated adoption of cars was probably presented as a sign of great progress because the poor of the world are finally catching on to how to become just like us. It’s possible, though considerably less likely, that the factoid was presented in the voice of a concerned environmentalist instead. In that case we will pull out the story of progressive problem solving through grand engineering achievements, which again allows us to file away the claim as further evidence supporting one of our society’s core narratives. That pretty much covers the spectrum of acceptable mainstream interpretations of facts related to growth and overshoot.
As times become more brutal these core narratives show their dark side. This ‘progress’, as we are learning, must be pursued at all costs. We see this in the Paris Accords which are looking all the world to be lots of bark but very little bite. It offers plenty of photo ops but not much in the way of actually diminishing fossil fuel use, at least not in rates at all proportionate to the problem. Take a look (pdf) at the recently published analytic overview of the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees, the two temperature targets mentioned in the accords. It is a good example of the type of evidence based reasoning typical of the ecological science warnings that were mentioned last week. (The paper uses a number of data graphics and uses them well but notice how they lack the iconic power of the LtG image to communicate a clear summary of the ecological message.)
To be fair to all the people involved with the Paris Accords, we should be grateful their tireless work has managed to bring the conversation this far. That John Kerry’s granddaughter made an appearance at the UN signing was also very encouraging; we need reminders of what all these abstractions are really about. Still, to avoid being tragically disappointed, we should recognize that the need to conform to these core progress narratives acts as a constraint on what we can realistically expect from such efforts.
LtG is its own narrative, one not in harmony with the narrative of material progress through economic growth. Because of this it is not, today, a core narrative within our society’s business or religious communities. None the less, this fringe interpretation of events grows more useful as the evidence of a very real Eco-crisis continues to pour in. In my mind the LtG narrative is the most viable alternative to the up and coming blame game coming out of the progress narrative.
We are already seeing the beginning of that dangerous shift in the mainstream narrative about a bright shiny future. It is being replaced by its shadow: someone stole that bright shiny future from us, the one that was rightfully ours, and the one we deserve. That scapegoating keeps the sanctity of the core narrative inviolate. That is the utility of the story of evil villains among us. What other cause could there be for all our troubles, if the ideal of progress is going to be retained?
The only alternative we have for blaming someone else would seem to be blaming ourselves. We have already mentioned the strange religious inversion of our times. At some level western religious traditions have been turned into an elaborate excuse mechanism; a theology of the ‘devil made me do it’ variety. You know the routine; humans are selfish, greedy and filled with uncontrollable lust, a pile of excrement lightly covered in snow (to use an image from the Lutheran tradition) so don’t blame me for doing everything I had to in getting to the top. What do you expect from our pitiful, fallen nature? Of course the world can only end in the ultimate violence of Armageddon…
Let’s return to our example. I have mentioned before a projection I once came across that the number of cars on the road worldwide is expected to double by 2030; you think traffic is bad now… That is in about fifteen years, the slightest click of history’s clock. Indisputably transportation is one of the largest causes of the complex system of interactions we call climate change, yet business as usual is unable to envision the world of 2030 as anything other than one in which there are more cars and more highways.
Those who see no problem with the projections because these will all be self-driving electric vehicles from Google are simply ignorant of a number of facts, not the least of which is that the adoption period for new transportation technology is on the order of 20 years. Many people do not have an intuitive understanding or factual exposure to sociological and technological lag times working against us this way, but it is hardly worth arguing the point. What we want to ask such people is how do they see the world of 2050? Another doubling again of cars, highways, parking spaces, gas stations, fuel supplies, refineries and delivery infrastructures? Just how far down this road from our time into bizzaro-land, as it is revealed by exponential growth, do we need to go before we turn around and notice something quite fundamental is amiss?
This is what numeric facts can do; quickly winnow the astronomically improbable futures from the set of those most probable.
The number of cars is an example of how clearly the evidence speaks of a necessary discontinuity arriving among the many features of existing arrangements that are wholly dependent on exponential economic and material growth. The institutions and infrastructures we have built to take advantage of oil in the age of exuberance are now frozen cages, no longer serving our current needs well. They are frozen because they are stuck in narratives that do not work. Much of this precious inheritance might eventually serve a more localized lifestyle but that would mean they have become animated by a different set of values.
Last week’s post mentioned the need for meta-model analysis in which the value of multiple models is weighed against one another. As benefits a world in which it is turtles all the way down, there is a model for this too. Though the model is mathematical, what it captures is a process we immediately understand: as evidence accumulates some of our ideas about what is really going on fail, become less useful or are restrained to restricted domains, while other ideas are strengthened with an increasing explanatory power. Newtonian mechanics in an Einstein universe is the classic case of restriction, Ptolemy’s astronomy a well known case of a set of ideas that fared less well.
We like to tell stories. If this analysis is valid, the story of progress which has guided western civilization for centuries no longer offers a functionally useful interpretation of events. It can only point the finger of blame as the long descent throws sand in the gears.
LtG offers an alternative model of why what is happening is happening and, importantly, it entails an alternate conception of our role as human beings in our relationship with all that is not human. It seems such a tiny thing compared to the grand narratives of progress. It is a tiny thing if we ask ourselves how much real influence the LtG model has had in shaping our affairs. Still, the battle of models is early yet. Who knows, an epidemic outbreak of sanity just might be heading our way. Sure it will likely be after some seriously brutal missteps but in every individual mind the evidence accumulates, drop by drop. Though the stories never cease, they do change.
“What is made by the human mind, can be unmade by the human mind.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama