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“When I looked into my oldest boy’s little yellow eyes for the first time, I knew I had to try to give him the best life I could.”

“Then you would be willing to restart the Plan? Only by seizing equality—”

“OK, when normal people say that, they don’t mean holding the gods hostage with an unstoppable killing machine via some improbable evil scheme. They mean, like, setting up a college fund or something.”

- The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew, p. 87

As I see it, there are three general ways you can try to live a meaningful life. The first is to “think local,” finding meaning in your day-to-day interactions with friends and relations that bring more joy to their lives. But many people feel a need to contribute something meaningful to society at large, which can be achieved in two ways: individual ambition (e.g. trying to invent a new clean energy technology) or joining a collective (e.g. a large charity helping alleviate hunger in poor and drought-stricken countries).

The collectivist answer is naturally hard for most Americans to accept. From our individualist perspective, “I’m doing my tiny part in a vast organization, and therefore the organization’s accomplishments give meaning to my life” seems like a pathetic excuse for lack of ambition. But then again, believing that you personally can change the world in any meaningful way smacks of childish megalomania to most people, little different from the millions of children confidently planning to become famous basketball players or rock stars.

Why are both of these options so easy to ridicule? Partly it’s because they’re really extreme ends of a spectrum; in between lies the perfectly reasonable ambition of gaining substantial influence within the company or government agency that employs you. But partly it’s the simple fact that set against the scale of the planet or humanity as a whole, a single person is small to the point of insignificance. To quote Douglas Adams, when faced with the size of the world, “Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.” Hence the “think local” solution.

But that solution doesn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m an introvert, so it’s difficult for me to find meaning in my relationships with others; I get much more sense of meaning from abstract philosophical musings like this blog post. Another is that, like many people, I want to feel special and important.

But the biggest problem with “think local” is that I believe it’s an abdication of responsibility. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the magnitude of socioeconomic*, institutional, and infrastructural transformation required to save even vestiges of the climate stability on which civilization is based, I find it totally unreasonable for anyone who understands the problem to refrain from doing everything we can to help solve it. In other words, as my friend Lion would put it, “each of us has to take responsibility for the whole world.”

And yet here I am, continuing to spend 40 hours a week building apps with only a very indirect connection to climate solutions, and only a few hours a month actually working with the Sierra Club Coal Free PSE campaign to solve one tiny piece of the climate problem. Is this simply inertia, motivated by the lack of immediate climate impacts in the place where I live, and a lack of conviction that I have a responsibility to the world or even to my own long-term future? Or is there something else standing between my current life and the life I feel obligated to lead?

“Obligated to lead.” That phrase is a clue, since aiming for the greatest possible impact I can have inevitably means seeking leadership roles. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, partly because such ambitions are at odds with my natural modesty, but mostly because I'm afraid of taking responsibility for enabling other people's success and then letting them down. It's one thing to fail at a task assigned to me by someone else, but quite another to fail at choosing tasks to assign to others that both fit their skills and help advance some strategy for achieving a group's goals.

So there we have it: on one side is my ambition to make a difference in the world, and the sense of shame that comes from failing to contribute what I can toward “saving the world.” On the other side is inertia and a desire to avoid the challenges of changing my life, plus my modesty and fear of letting people down, and that side is currently winning.

And when I think about how many millions of other informed citizens must be blocked from taking substantive action by similar emotional barriers**, I’m struck by the sheer immensity of the gulf between what we’re actually doing to solve this vast crisis and “the best we can do” (which still might not be enough). How to close that gap, I haven’t the slightest idea.

 

* Oddly, this link is to a group with the acronym ISEC, which they share with another group I’ve worked with, most of whose members are libertarians who wholeheartedly support the dominant growth-at-all-cost economic model.

** Lion participates in a group that claims to have unique insights into how emotions work, but I’m currently avoiding them due to an emotionally traumatic experience I had at one of their meetings, which is a topic for a different post.

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…in the geopolitical, economic, and climate chaos involved I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 53

Up until March 20th of this year, I hadn’t ever lost a grandparent. When I heard the news of Grandpa Mike’s death, I was in my quiet apartment a thousand miles away and in the middle of eating dinner, so the immediate emotional impact was somewhat blunted. I did fly to Los Angeles for his memorial service a few days later, but I didn’t cry, or express much emotion of any kind, until much later.

I started reading The Great Disruption on April 21st, and ran into the quote above while eating dinner that evening. It hit me like a ton of bricks, despite Gilding’s lack of supporting evidence for that specific assertion. Two nights after reading those words, while lying in bed, I cried for those billions of hypothetical deaths that haven’t happened yet. So perhaps believing in Gilding’s version of inevitable catastrophe was my way of accessing the grief for Grandpa Mike that I had been trying and failing to feel.

Something in human nature seems fascinated by the end of all things. Is it simply an extension of the smaller death each of us faces? Or perhaps a streak of egotism is involved, for out of countless human generations, it would surely mark ours as unique to be the last.

- “Whose Millennium?” by David Brin, pp. 188-189 in his collection of stories and essays called Otherness

It’s not as if my preemptive grief for a still-thriving civilization is terribly unusual. As I mentioned in my recent entry about movies, belief in impending doom seems to be part of the spirit of the times – an amplification of a perennial human tendency, triggered partly by the recent turn of the millennium, and further reinforced by the dire warnings of climate scientists and the Club of Rome. Most activists resist this tendency, of course, noting that belief in the imminent end of the world leads to a lack of concern for long-term social, economic, and environmental problems. But maybe it will turn out that my career as an activist died with my grandfather, and just hasn’t stopped twitching yet.

“If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’”

- Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin prodigy, as quoted in Mindset by Carol S. Dweck (previously quoted in this blog entry)

All else being equal, helping to save the world appears to be a rather poor fit for my innate pessimism, modesty, and the low energy that comes with my limited-exercise lifestyle. If it weren’t so important to do my part, I’d much rather focus on more entertaining pursuits, like amateur music composition or sci-fi fan art. So maybe the intersection of my existing personality mismatch, my grandfather’s death, and Gilding’s book has pushed me over the edge into assuming that I no longer have a duty to lead the stressful and unrewarding life of an activist. All I have to do, as demonstrated in my first post about Gilding’s book, is wholeheartedly embrace the first half of his thesis while flatly rejecting the second half. This seemingly self-contradictory position feels like a possible betrayal of my deeply held belief in honesty, which may account for my continuing attendance at activist meetings and events.

This line of thought is interesting because it suggests a number of countervailing actions I could take: exercising more, working on my self-confidence (which my manager at work wants me to do anyway), and looking for opportunities to apply my artistic skills and sci-fi ideas toward some activist cause, like my friend Saab does. But the most important question here is still whether I can honestly be certain enough of the inevitable doom I see as implied by Gilding’s arguments to justify what would otherwise be a nearly unforgivable dereliction of duty. So in my next entry, I’ll delve deeper into the question of just how persuasive Paul Gilding really is.

 

P.S. My first and possibly only experience with The Work That Reconnects was almost completely unhelpful. Naturally enough, if you get a bunch of people in a room to express their shared feelings of despair to each other, it tends to validate and reinforce that despair. How this is supposed to lead to a feeling of empowerment, particularly in the sense of our capacity to work on behalf of a world we believe to be inevitably doomed, is something I still don’t understand.

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I’d like to go back to my sadness at the state we are in and to the personal psychology of despair. It is very sad that we are going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem means that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. . . .

However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 113

Okay, so unsurprisingly it’s been more than two weeks since I promised to post this, and here I am posting what will probably be only the first 20-25% of what I want to say on the subject. All I can say is it turns out to be more complicated than I expected, and I’ve been doing my best to be thorough in working through my self-analysis.

The first question to tackle here is whether the premise is sound. Have I actually given in to despair? To look at my actions over the last few weeks, which include planning for and participating in a Beyond Coal rally and tabling at the Mother Earth News Fair, plus continuing to sign online petitions on various important issues, you’d assume the answer is no. But there are numerous explanations for why I would keep going despite a lack of hope. Here are a few of them:

  • Sheer inertia/habit.
  • Not wanting to break my promises to fellow activists.
  • Knowledge that if I drop my activist habits due to despair, it’s a short step to dropping my habit of going to work in the morning.
  • Knowledge that my current understanding of where the world is headed could be flawed. (As Paul Krafel says, “Don’t let your current understanding keep you from doing this work.”)
  • Love for the world (or for my own life) that forces me to keep trying even though it appears totally obvious that we will fail to prevent the coming collapse. (This is the basis for anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen’s writing and activism.)

The next question is, if I have given in to despair within the past month or two, why has it taken this long? After all, I’ve been fully aware of the terrifying global threats we face for a decade and more, and as Al Gore points out, the most common response to such an immense challenge is to “leap straight from denial to despair,” much as an unarmed man being attacked by a tiger would generally flee and hide rather than trying to fight. In other words, scale paralysis prevents most people from becoming activists in the first place. But then again, youthful idealism can overcome that roadblock quite easily – as Joss Whedon pointed out in a recent graduation speech, every college student thinks s/he can change the world.

Still, it’s been seven years since I graduated, and in that time I’ve encountered plenty of strong arguments for the assertion that the problems we face really are too big to solve, not only for political reasons but due to the biology and physics of the Earth system itself, or “geophysiology” as James Lovelock calls it. Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, believes that a hotter global climate regime that will last for millions of years is now developing, and no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to return Earth’s climate to the way it was before the industrial era. Of course Lovelock is a controversial figure, but I’ve also heard Professor David Battisti’s description of the overall climate science community’s belief in a best-case scenario that looks like a nightmare to climate activists. And even Bill McKibben, the world’s leading climate activist, agrees that at this point we’re only fighting to “stabilize the planet at its current level of disruption.” That’s not the same as hopelessness, obviously, but it certainly puts a stark upper limit on how bright my future can be.

But up until last month, I just didn’t buy into that message. When I thought about it at all, I guess my assumption was that the climate is too unpredictable, some magical carbon-capture tech might be developed, or just “where there’s life there’s hope.” In short, my continuing habit of environmental activism was enabled by denial of the full severity of the problem.

In the next installment, which I already have mostly finished, I’ll explore my first major theory about why Paul Gilding’s book was able to cut through this partial denial and flip it to a state of “zombie activism,” in which I keep on doing what I’ve been doing without any real belief that it will help anything in the long run. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow I’m participating in a workshop called “The Work That Reconnects” that’s designed specifically to help environmentalists face the depths of their despair and work through it to somehow regain their “empowerment.” However that turns out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it later in this series.

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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"Take me where I am supposed to be,
To comprehend the things that I can't see."
- Melissa Etheridge, "I Need To Wake Up"

Bad poetry )

I was moved to write a really bad imitation of Martin Niemöller's famous poetic statement by an image I encountered less than two hours ago, and wish I could have photographed: a small child peering out the window of the laundry room in my building, looking at the fire truck whose ladder was extended to the roof, while his parent/guardian, totally unconcerned, worked on transferring some clothes to the dryer.  The firemen (and one firewoman) hadn't forced them or anyone else to evacuate, apparently, because they were pretty sure that the building wasn't really on fire.  There was no smoke visible from outside, and all the smoke detectors were found to be untriggered, meaning the cause of the alarm wasn't even a typical stovetop flare-up, just some fault in the alarm system.  But I talked to the guy operating the ladder, noting that some people had been wandering back into the building for awhile, and he basically said they should have been stopped because "pretty sure" simply isn't good enough.

The lesson here is that even climate skeptics should acknowlege that they might be wrong, and it might be a good idea to do something about that just in case.  But on the other hand, it's all too understandable that we're reluctant to take action when we can't see that any given possibly-climate-related disaster affects us in any significant way.
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"I want you to assemble teams of engineers and Marines and have them board each of those ships.  We're gonna take everything we need . . ."

-Admiral Helena Cain of the Colonial Fleet, on encountering a fleet of civilian spaceships fleeing from the Twelve Colonies shortly after their destruction by the Cylons, in Battlestar Galactica: Razor

 
In the harsh universe of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television show, maintaining humanity's few remaining military vessels could be worth almost any cost.  Without them, there would be nothing to stop the Cylons from completing the destruction of humanity.  Does this horrible scenario tell us anything about the real militaries of Earth?

Here's my theory.  In Freud's basic model of the mind, there are three stacked elements: the id, repressed seat of animal desires and instincts (the survival instinct, of course, being the most important); the ego, center of rational thought, holding the id in check most of the time; and the superego, the overlay of internalized pressure to live up to society's expectations for moral behavior.  But war turns this structure on its head.  In a military society, the soldier's ego is put in service of a sort of collective id: an entity that will do anything to protect itself and get the resources it needs to survive.  The superego, at least as ordinarily constituted in polite society, must be repressed, because it would never stand for the brutal actions deemed necessary to meet the needs of this "super-id."

For instance, modern industrialized nations, if considered as organisms, appear to be obligate petrovores--needing to consume fossil fuels in order to survive as politiconomic entities.  This appearance grows increasingly deceptive as new means of powering our industrial base and transporting people and goods become more scalable and competitive--but for the past century and a half, oil and coal have been the lifeblood of our civilization.  So if you believe that a) they must remain so for decades to come, and b) the war in Iraq was the only way to ensure the maintenance of our massive annual oil consumption, then that war becomes explicable as a form of self-preservation--one that has nothing to do with the specter of nuclear terrorism or global jihad, and everything to do with a nightmare vision of the nation's roads, its metaphorical blood vessels, permanently empty and still.
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Reading [livejournal.com profile] bdunbar's livejournal hasn't been easy lately, because while an opposing view is always useful for refining one's own beliefs, political opposition tends to make me unreasonably angry and defensive.  I'm not alone in this; I once read an article about a psychological study that found that challenging someone's political beliefs causes an emotional reaction very similar to religious fervor.  We're compelled to defend our ideology with zeal and anger, and to do our best not to really listen to our opponents lest their ideas sow any doubt in our minds.  This article, linked from this post, is particularly worrisome to me in that sense because it's written by a convert (there's no zealot like one), and that famous Churchill quote has always made me nervous: "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains."

So here's me being defensive, and since there's no defense like a good offense:

Conservatism, far from being the only position for people with brains, is the easy way out of having to think about disturbing realities.  Conservatives get to believe that:
  • It's generally okay to be selfish, because Adam Smith said so.

  • For rich and middle-class conservatives: My life is basically okay, so everything must be fine. No need to worry about the state of the world.

  • If anything is wrong, I can just point in the general direction of Washington, D.C. and say "that darn government never does anything right," because:

    • I don't like paying taxes or having to detour around road work.

    • Most days I'm not the victim of a crime or stuck in a burning building, just irritated by noisy police and fire-truck sirens in the distance.

    • My water, sewer, gas, electric, phone, cable, and internet bills come from companies, not the government that built the pipes and wires.

  • Poor people are often scary and always remind me that not everything is fine, so it's okay to ignore and disparage them, assuming that it's always their own fault that their poor (or at best that my donations to my church are enough to deal with the problem).

  • For conservatives with no military connections: I don't have to experience the horrors of war directly, so it's okay to ignore any such concerns and assume that the military is doing the right thing by "staying the course" in Iraq.
Now for the more directly defensive part: Mr. Mamet is correct to observe that the most vocal liberals spend too much time complaining about how everything is going wrong, because that's not actually what liberalism is about. We don't believe everything is wrong, merely that everything can be improved:


Image source

And our government, being theoretically beholden to the people's needs, is far more obviously improvable than the corporations, who are principally beholden to small groups of major shareholders. So liberals agree that the government as it exists now is corrupt, often incompetent, and sometimes downright evil. But we believe in its potential to be improved, and to act as the engine of progress--because it has been that engine throughout American history. Government abolished slavery and created laws that (imperfectly) draw us closer to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. Government actions essentially created the agrarian, industrial, and service-based incarnations of the middle class, and we look to it now to push the transition to a technology- and green-collar-based incarnation for the twenty-first century. Government made initial investments in scientific and medical advancements, government has kept the citizenry (imperfectly) educated so we can contribute to progress--I could go on.

But of course all this thinking about how we need to change and improve things is hard to do. Maybe only people under 30 have the energy for it, and then they convert to conservatism later in life out of sheer exhaustion.
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The following is a summary from Don't Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff's influential guide to framing the political debate, explaining how it has worked for conservatives and could work for liberals in the future.
  • Liberals are fundamentally about helping people who need help, and building communities where everyone helps each other to be successful.


  • Conservatives are about teaching your kids the values and discipline which will (supposedly) allow them to become self-reliant and never need anyone's help.


  • Both liberals and conservatives believe the government should act to maintain freedom, promote prosperity, and protect the people, though of course they differ on exactly what that should mean.
Conservatives would counter the liberal worldview by saying that it's almost always wrong to help people. If they didn't ask for help, you're imposing yourself on them, and if they did ask, they're probably just too lazy to help themselves and need to learn some discipline. In the rare case when someone can't help him/herself, he/she needs to pay back whoever helped him/her at a later date, thus providing a self-interest motivation for the helper.

Liberals would counter the conservative worldview by saying that everyone needs help sometimes, and it's quite possible to help someone without having him/her become dependent on that help. Also, a society based on an "everyone for him/herself" philosophy is not really a society at all (as Margaret Thatcher once observed), and is fundamentally weaker than one whose members are invested in the society through a sense of community, and act to maintain that community.

But Lakoff says we shouldn't try to counter each other's worldviews, or frames, since each one is present in everyone's mind to some degree. Every time we argue against the language the other side uses to activate their frame, we are activating it too. Instead, we find language that focuses on our frame and asserts its value.

For example (still a paraphrase): "Taxes are our investment in the future of America. Our parents' and grandparents' investments built the infrastructure our society depends on--our highways, communications systems, the Internet*--as well as the educational and scientific establishment that keeps us moving forward. We, who benefit from these investments, must invest in our future, and that of our children and grandchlidren. Rich American business leaders who build huge corporate empires based on the infrastructure and institutions built by our tax dollars, and then move their wealth to offshore tax havens, are traitors, pure and simple."

And: "The New Apollo Project, a proposed major government investment in alternative energy, isn't just a program to fight global warming. It will help protect America by gradually eliminating our dependence on unstable foreign supplies of oil, the money for which often contributes to terrorism. It will help people prosper by providing a vast number of new jobs. It will protect everyone's health, as well as wilderness and natural diversity, by reducing air and water pollution. It even helps other countries who are given access to this technology, because they too will be able to stop buying oil and make their own energy instead."

It's a good book. If you want to know how to help effectively promote the progressive agenda instead of just trading blows with Republicans on their home turf, read it.


* Which grew out of ARPANET, a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and still runs on the government-built-and-maintained phone and cable networks.
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The above quote is from some seemingly-stupid advertisement I saw in a magazine. It seems to imply that we should demolish the last wildernesses to make way for food production operations, and may in fact imply just that. But I can use the same quote to mean something quite different.

Consider: overpopulation is one of the root causes of environmental problems. There's little doubt that if the human population were, say, one billion instead of six, we would be consuming fewer resources per unit time and taking up less space, and consequently causing fewer species extinctions, less global warming, etc. So what I propose is to kill two birds with one stone (actual killing of birds not included), by diverting the human reproductive drive and channeling it into a drive to help other species succeed, thus indirectly ensuring that our species will also survive.

And I would argue that farmers have been doing this for millennia already. (One interesting corollary: perhaps we like eating farm animals not only because hunting used to be an important part of our survival strategy, but also because it's easier to care for a farm animal as if it were your child than to do the same for a field of plants.) We just need to expand the scope of these transferred feelings of protectiveness and nurturing to include the creatures living in the wild lands and waters around the farms. To begin with, this would lead farmers to consider more carefully the consequences of expanding their farms at the expense of wild areas, and would hopefully result in more eco-friendly techniques such as growing multiple crops in the same field, integration of farms and forests, etc.

Eventually we could perhaps learn enough about the psychology of this phenomenon (assuming it actually exists, of course) to expand it to the wider population. There are many solutions to environmental problems, and a major problem with implementing most of them is that people simply don't care enough. Threatening them with future crises if they fail to act is all well and good, but we need a carrot as well as a stick (actual beating people with sticks not included, we hope). We want to reproduce because our genes say it will help our bloodline and our species to survive, but today what we really need to do to ensure survival is quite different. Let's find a way to get people to realize that.
openspace4life: (Default)
It's pretty well accepted that on average, men are better at spatial or "left-brain" skills and women are better at verbal or "right-brain" skills. What would human history have been like if this were reversed?

Would women have been the hunters and leaders, men the gatherers and childrearers? If so, would the matriarchy be any more peaceful than the patriarchy has been? On the one hand, women would still be the childbearers and would care for infants, so they might be more inclined to avoid violence than male leaders are. On the other hand, more limited verbal skills and a history of hunting may hinder nonviolent conflict resolution irrespective of gender.

And what would all this mean for the environment? Would we call it "Father Earth" instead of "Mother Earth?" The Ancient Egyptians actually had a male earth god, but what if more cultures had been like them? It would be nicer to posit that the childbearing role would still lead to the "Mother Earth" association, linking nature to the gender in power and perhaps making environmentalism a constant throughout history. But all that is wishful thinking.

On the other hand, given that sexual roles would remain the same, patriarchy might still become prevalent, though in a form that might be more amenable to environmentalism. If the gatherers rather than the hunters were in charge, the concept of a battle between humanity and nature would be less likely to shape the policies of those leaders.
openspace4life: (Default)
"Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'I have a dream speech' is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an 'I have a nightmare' speech instead.

"In the absence of a bold vision and a reconsideration of the problem, environmental leaders are effectively giving the 'I have a nightmare' speech, not just in our press interviews but also in the way that we make our proposals. The world's most effective leaders are not issue-identified but rather vision and value-identified. These leaders distinguish themselves by inspiring hope against fear, love against injustice, and power against powerlessness."

- Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordha, "The Death of Environmentalism"

Shellenberger and Nordha recommend as an initial step toward a solution the organization they helped found, The Apollo Alliance. Rather than focusing categorically on environmental dangers, it lays out a positive plan that happens to combat global warming as well as offering clear economic and social benefits.
openspace4life: (Default)
The way I deal with my health is like the environmental crisis in miniature. Two examples:

My mother tells me I don't use enough toothpaste, but despite occasional toothaches, I tend to assume that the fact that I'm using toothpaste at all makes it very unlikely that I'll get a cavity. Similarly, half-measures aimed at protecting the environment are often assumed to be good enough simply because the government or corporation implementing them doesn't feel like doing any more.

I know I should get more exercise, but I put it off, telling myself that I don't have the time, or that biking to Harvey Mudd and back twice a week (at most a seven-minute trip each way) is enough, or that I'll take a fun PE class every other semester and that will be good enough even though it only meets once or twice a week. In other words, I'm trying to claim that what I want to do anyway is good enough. In this respect, I'm like a gung-ho free-marketeer who claims energy- and resource-efficient measures are becoming more profitable, meaning that corporations will want to do the right thing, and that therefore no regulation is needed.

Another aspect of the exercise problem: in an ad for Utne magazine, I saw a description of an article that claims exercise won't make you live longer. I haven't even read the article itself, but it nevertheless serves as an attractive excuse for not trying out the exercise machines at the gym. This is like government officials and oil-company executives putting their trust in a single study showing that human impact on the climate is negligible (despite a global consensus of climate scientists that the opposite is the case), because if they admitted that pollution posed a serious threat, they would have to try entirely new ways of doing things.

If it's that difficult for me to change my own behavior, imagine how much harder it is for society as a whole to overcome the same problems, even when everyone knows the problems are there.
openspace4life: (Default)
"Man is the driving force behind what could well prove to be the last and greatest mass extinction, as species are lost at a several hundred times the 'natural' background extinction rate.

Nonetheless, we can be reasonably certain that we will survive, even if we drive the majority of all other species out of existence. And if the study of mass extinctions has taught us anything it is that life will always continue and, in time, even flourish."

-www.bbc.co.uk/education/darwin/exfiles/biotom.htm

I don't think we should be so sure that humanity will make it--at any rate, if we do survive, I have to believe there will at least be some kind of disaster that wipes out a fair number of us. If that makes me sound like I relish the idea, I assure you I don't--but if no such disaster is necessarily ahead on our present course, it's going to be a whole lot harder convincing people that biosphere collapse is something to be avoided at all costs.

(originally posted February 8, 2004)

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