Truth Above Utility

Post-truth (def.) “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak… For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not… At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish…
Many news organizations have turned to native advertising as a source of revenue. By definition, native advertising tries  to sell or promote a product in the guise of a news story. Native advertising makes it difficult for unsuspecting readers to know if and when there is an ulterior motive behind the information they encounter…
More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story.”
Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning (pdf),
Stanford History Education Group

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked


We have an amazing capacity to play fast and loose with the truth. For some reason it is not at all difficult for us to hold passionate opinions concerning just about everything, and in the process to allow ourselves expansive editorial freedom to cut and paste facts and fictions as we see fit. It should not surprise us that a coalition of climate change deniers have taken over the reigns of government here in the US. This type of denial is often a reaction that takes hold just about the time the crisis society is denying breaks out ferociously.

The time has come in which we must think very carefully about the circumstances we find ourselves in. The confluence of industrialized civilization’s ecological blowback and political populism denying it, looks to me like nothing so much as the cognitive dissonance we all suffer writ large. Remember, cognitive dissonance arises when one part of the mind holds something to be true that another part of the mind knows is not so. Climate change science has a very, very simple message: stop producing these outrageous amounts of carbon dioxide pollution. The message is almost too simple, it’s hard to wiggle out of the obvious implications.

The most obvious implication confronts each and every one of us every time we step outside our front doors. We know what society must do, and soon, to stop the climate from becoming hell on earth: we need to stop driving. On the other hand, this is something our societies simply cannot do. Survival is linked to driving just as driving is linked to oil. Of course the problem is larger than just driving; most all our life support infrastructures need a petrochemical energy source to power them throughout their supply chains.

For an individual these two facts create some degree of cognitive pressure: I need to stop driving for the future health of the planet and I need to drive today to procure what I need to survive. It really is this simple, there is no escaping these reasonable inferences. Since both of these statements are true they create a cognitive problem. The human mind needs to provide a consistent picture of the world and a rational explanation for our behavior in it. It becomes an interesting question, both for individuals and all of us collectively, to ask how we are to deal with this simple information and still feel ok about ourselves.

Part of what psychology has learned about cognitive dissonance might apply to the type of collective mind we find in our social interactions. The theory that coined the term was first presented in 1957 by Leon Festinger in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. In that work he presented research to show how holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously is painful and how individuals react to lessen that psychological pressure.

We avoid cognitive dissonance by remaining conscious of the opposition but using it to drive action. Staying with the painful awareness of these truths provides an energy that can inspire you to work towards whatever reconciliation of them in your own lifestyle you are able to bring about. Mindful Ecology hopes to support these types of changes by showing that they are meaningful because they are based in truth. Note that while it is painful remaining aware of the issues around driving, it is not the pain of cognitive dissonance since both of these conflicting beliefs are true. It is when we seek to escape this painful situation by denying the validity of the statements themselves that we run into the more troublesome psychological difficulties associated with cognitive dissonance.

There are two other ways to lessen the pain of conscience our ecologically informed generation must sense around driving. The mind can deny that one side or the other of these truths are actually true. It is frighteningly easy for us to make something up that is more congenial to how we want to see ourselves and our place in the big scheme of things. Once we have made something like this up, we then place our faith in the delusion and simply assert either that climate change is not happening or, if it is, our driving has nothing to do with it. Now we have entered the realm of cognitive dissonance.

Here is what to watch out for. As events provide evidence that the delusional faith is in fact unreal, it is not uncommon for those holding these beliefs to double down. The more evidence proves their belief to be false, the more their blind faith in it increases. Those who point out the truth while these conditions rule are branded as heretics, blasphemers persecuting the embattled minority of true believers.

In the case of driving, ecological evidence concerning its dire consequences lead to the CAFE laws that were designed to increase engine efficiency. More efficient fuel use was thought to address both the problem of a diminishing world oil supply and the problem of overwhelming the atmosphere’s capacity to act as a pollution sink. What was the response to these laws that were meant to alter the way cars are manufactured and sold? The introduction of the SUV. The laws applied to cars and the SUV was classified as a small truck, exempt from the regulations. The public responded to the advertising message that confirmed the true believer’s delusional story. The thought train must run something along these lines, ‘I’m basically a good person and choose to drive this oversized vehicle, therefore, either climate change science is a hoax or driving does not cause it.’ The convoluted logic of magical thinking has replaced the pain filled awareness of a difficult moral issue with the fake simplicity of a fairy tale.

Please understand this is only being used as a concrete illustration. There are a thousand other reasons people chose to buy SUVs, many of them noble such as concern for the needs and safety of loved ones. Similarly, dealing with climate change is speaking only of the most well known of the frighteningly large family of ecological breakdowns heading our way. We are discussing driving as its cause because it is the most obvious confrontation with our ecological madness most of us encounter every day.

There are others, equally obvious simple steps we need to take. The steps are simple, taking them, however, under the existing set of beliefs is all but impossible. For example, engineering investigations of the capacity of renewable energy sources are unanimous in saying that society will need to use less power. We could use less power today. It would require we prioritize hospitals and schools and de-prioritize, say, the excess light displays in New York City, Las Vegas, Shanghai and Tokyo. The fact that for most people on the planet such an idea seems nihilistic defeatism (a sin against progress!) and absolutely not ever going to voluntarily happen, shows just how committed we are to our delusional beliefs.

It might be easier to believe that with the magic of a bomb vest you can live forever, than that your life will be one of struggle in a poisoned, poor and violent world. It might be easier to believe that with the magic of a renewed trade deal you can restore fossil fueled industrialized civilization to its glory days, than that our economic options are now severely limited by resource constraints. It might be easier to believe that the magic of a little solar and wind power will wash away the oil stains on our future, than that the real road forward is one of using a whole lot less energy altogether. It might be easier to believe the ecological crisis unfolding everywhere around us is really not all that bad, than that these are the days of nightmare and mourning. It might be easier, but it is not going to help.

The ecological message, that business as usual has no future, fights to be heard in our time of globalization promoted by a mass media dominated by quarterly profit driven corporate interests. The ecological message is fighting an upstream battle each and every day. This ceaseless fight can drain the energy and enthusiasm of even the most passionate lover of earth. The one thing that can sustain people who are so outnumbered, unpopular, and shunned, is their conviction that what they are saying is the truth. No one wants the dismal analysis of the industrial world’s devastating impact on the viability of the earth’s ecosystems to be right. The picture that unfolds from an acceptance of the ecological facts is one in which the human population will wither, the land remains poisoned for centuries, abandoned cities become little more than sources for recycling materials that can no longer be manufactured, and predictable climate is a thing of the past removing food security from food harvests. No one wants this. The people, like myself, who insist on talking about it are doing so because we have come to believe this is the most probable truth.

Truth is more important than utility by my way of thinking. It might be easier to get through the day believing self-driving cars and Mars terra-forming are just around the corner, but it does nothing to help stop the juggernaut that is poisoning the air, water and land on which all future life depends.

This then is our next boulder of simplicity: we need to value truth above utility.

We are better off staying with the original pain of our opposing values than letting them drive us into the blind alleys of cognitive dissonance. Only in this way can we avoid the allure of the Pied Pipers, the ones external to us and the ones we have internalized, as they pipe temptations designed to exploit our gullibility.

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