If you’re not preparing for the end of the world, don’t worry, some of your neighbors are.
And teenagers today, well, they’re all over it.
So are millions of Christians, who don’t want to be Left Behind, when armageddon comes.
Those who see eco-decay and social mayhem resulting from unchecked capitalism are similarly fatalistic:
The race of doom is now between environmental collapse and global economic collapse. Which will get us first? Or will they get us at the same time?
Have I mentioned the Mayan calendar yet?
Yes, if you look around, dystopia and doomsday have combined to become a veritable cottage industry. In my new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I survey the apocalypse contagion that new movies and books are spreading across our doomed world.
UPDATE: Of course, it makes perfect sense that “doomsday dating” sites are proliferating in those bunkers.
In an email to me, Chris asserted that this characterization “misrepresented” his book, which is called “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality.” I disagreed and suggested he leave a comment at the post, making his case. He declined.
Now that Chris’s book is available, let’s have a look and see if I got it right. To be fair to Chris, I’m going to quote extensively from his introduction, where he lays out his approach and methodology. He writes:
I want to emphasize that this argument is not a form of what is called reductionism. Complex phenomena like human political behavior always have many causes, not one. This book fully recognizes that and does not embrace a position that could fairly be called determinism. Human brains are flexible and change daily; people have choices, and those choices alter who they are. Nevertheless, there are broad tendencies in the population that really matter, and cannot be ignored.
We don’t understand everything there is to know yet about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals are different. We don’t know how all the puzzle pieces–cognitive styles, personality traits, psychological needs, moral intuitions, brain structures, and genes–fit together. This means that what I’m saying applies at the level of large groups, but may founder in the case of any particular individual.
Still, we know enough to begin pooling together all the scientific evidence. And when you do–even if you provide all the caveats, and I’ve just exhausted them–there’s a lot of consistency.
So, from this excerpt which is in his introduction, we can assume that Chris doesn’t want readers to think his argument is based on genetics, which would be as reductionistic as it gets, But at the same time, he says, neural studies are telling us something about the Republican brain.
A few pages later, Chris gets to what he believes all the social science and cognitive research suggests (my emphasis):
I’ll synthesize a body of psychological evidence suggesting conservatives may be more rigid, less flexible in their style of thinking. But I’ll also show the counterpoint–perhaps it is tougher to detect this left-right bias differential than we may think, and the cause of the present reality gap between liberals and conservatives lies elsewhere. And I’ll examine what is in some ways the most revolutionary idea at all–the increasingly powerful notion that, while the environment assuredly matters, much of the left-right difference may ultimately be influenced by genetics, and even detectable in structures in the brains.
Based on these excerpted passages, it looks to me like Chris’s brain is at war with itself. The result is that he ends up talking out of both sides of his mouth.
At Grist, there is a box with a rotating set of five images that highlights content from the site. When I went over there recently, my eye gravitated to the colorful pictures in the box, including one with this subheadline for a blog post:
Germany aims to trade nukes for a fully renewable power system. Sane countries should follow suit.
What makes this especially insane is that it comes from a person who writes frequently about climate change as the biggest threat facing humanity.
In the actual world we live in, when a country scraps nuclear power, renewables aren’t an equal substitute. The real tradeoff is higher CO2 emissions. That will remain the case for decades, while Germany’s grand experiment is underway. The Grist writer who worries deeply about climate change surely knows this. Yet he suggests that “sane countries” should follow Germany’s example.
Even Joe Romm, who is no fan of nuclear power, advises:
Given the need to keep climate forcings as low as possible, I wouldn’t shutter existing nukes until the clean energy replacements are online, and would prefer to spend big bucks to make them safer.
Anti-nuclear greens who are concerned most about global warming might want to think about something four leading UK environmentalists recently stated:
As writers and thinkers who are interested in and concerned with environmental issues, our job is to assess the technological and policy options on climate change as objectively as possible. Independently of each other, we have all reached the conclusion in recent years that the gravity of the climate crisis necessitates a re-examination of deeply-held objections still shared by many in the green movement towards nuclear power, including, until recently some of our own number.
On a related note, I’ll point out another highlighted image rotating at the Grist carousel. It’s also rather odd placement for an ad.
Like the nuclear/renewable swap, this is for people living in fantasyland.
UPDATE: Be sure to read this piece by Spencer Weart at Yale Environment 360, entitled “Shunning nuclear power will lead to a warmer world.” It went up the same day as my post.
It’s a shame that our public discussions of energy and environmental issues are so narrowly (and ideologically) framed by politicians, industry, and interest groups.
For example, to listen to Republicans, you wouldn’t know there’s an energy drilling boom underway in the U.S. This ambitious NYT piece unwinds how that boom happened, and where it is may be headed. It’s a nice overview of the implications for U.S. foreign policy and the tradeoffs of expanded oil & gas development (think environmental). As a supplement, check out Bryan Walsh’s incisive analysis of President Obama’s energy policy and the politics that shape it. Both pieces make for essential reading, helping us to understand larger (and conflicting) forces at work. They are also a useful tonic to the noisy, one dimensional energy narrative that usually plays out in the media.
This brings me to my larger point. Much of the discussion on energy is driven either by raw politics or, in green circles, peak oil and/or climate change concerns, with the environmental media largely focused on the latter. But as Jon Foley lamented several years ago:
In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?
Oilprice.com: A recent report stated that replacing all coal based power stations with renewable energy, would not affect climate change, and in fact after 100 years the only difference would be a change of 0.2 degrees Celsius. What are your views on climate change?
Tom Murphy: I see climate change as a serious threat to natural services and species survival, perhaps ultimately having a very negative impact on humanity. But resource depletion trumps climate change for me, because I think this has the potential to effect far more people on a far shorter timescale with far greater certainty. Our economic model is based on growth, setting us on a collision course with nature. When it becomes clear that growth cannot continue, the ramifications can be sudden and severe. So my focus is more on averting the chaos of economic/resource/agriculture/distribution collapse, which stands to wipe out much of what we have accomplished in the fossil fuel age. To the extent that climate change and resource limits are both served by a deliberate and aggressive transition away from fossil fuels, I see a natural alliance. Will it be enough to avert disaster (in climate or human welfare)? Who can know – but I vote that we try real hard.
On that note, it deserves mention that the 40th anniversary of the hugely influential Limits to Growth book recently passed us by, with virtually no coverage of it in the mainstream press. A symposium was held earlier this month at the Smithsonian, which “addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet.”
It would be slightly less difficult if these challenges were treated by progressive/green media types in a larger context, instead of being so narrowly framed around climate change. For instance, a consortium of journalistic outlets participates in a project called Climate Desk. This collaborative venture, which just retooled its website, defines its objective thusly:
Climate change is one of the defining stories of our time: rising sea levels, bigger storms, peak oil, colder winters and hotter summers. That begs the questions: why aren’t we talking about it more, and what the hell are we going to do about it?
Sure, climate change seems on track to be one of the defining stories of our time. But is it a bigger story than resource depletion or unsustainable development, which I would argue speak to the underlying reasons for rising greenhouse gases? If so, then it would seem that a project like Climate Desk is merely reporting on the symptoms of a larger problem. That makes me think that the “what the hell are we going to do about it” question is best served by addressing the causes of climate change, not the symptoms.
Maybe next time the Climate Desk gets revamped, it’ll get a new name that reflects the defining challenge of our time: How to chart a sustainable course for the planet without restraining economic growth.
That’s the title of my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. It’s about the pendulum swings of public opinion (in recent years), their connection to weather, and why this is problematic for journalists and climate communicators.
One of the saddest consequences of 9/11 was the wholesale manipulation of both the media and public opinion to generate support for a war of choice in Iraq.
What’s even sadder is the fact that the climate consensus adopted the same strategy wholesale.
A lively exchange then ensued, revisiting the Bush Administration’s rationale for deposing Saddam Hussein. One commenter said:
Now, I don’t think WMD’s were the best justification for the war in Iraq. I rather much prefer the idea that we were bringing democracy and freedom to a part of the world that knew it not (trite, I know, but I’m from the south). That bringing these things to the middle east would benefit us in the long term. This kind of thinking requires vision; I suppose Bush chose to sell a simpler “˜narrative’ instead.
This led me to wonder about another possible climate parallel: The use of a simpler (and similarly fear-inducing) narrative (climate doom) to make a case for action on global warming. This is, in fact, the dominant narrative favored by climate activists, but it hasn’t fared as well as the selling of the Iraq war. Some are now trying a different tack.
On that thread, I noted that climate skeptics who normally disapprove of rhetoric that made selective use of facts or pushed a simplistic story to advance a climate agenda didn’t seem all that bothered when the same tactics were used to sell the Iraq war. A few people still clung to the notion that “there is no evidence” for deception by the Bush Administration in the way it made its case for war with Iraq.
To which I replied:
Yes, I suppose cherrypicking intelligence, reliance on dubious sources (aka curveball), a certain slide presentation before the UN (which the presenter later said would be a permanent blot on his record) had nothing to do with it.
I’m kinda surprised that no climate skeptics immediately seized on an obvious parallel I was handing to them, gift-wrapped.
Instead, focus remained on Iraq and conjecture by some about why Bush went down the path he did and the relative merits of it:
However, on spinning the web of “truths” to infer a direct link between Iraq and and 9/11 to the American public”¦I think they [the Bush Administration] went way over the top, and did it because they needed more support for the effort”¦
Still, was that “good politics” or “deception”?
In response, I said:
I guess that question depends on the context. Clearly it’s not okay for climate advocates to use such a strategy. Right? But to make a case for war”¦
Meanwhile, on the same thread, one reader picked up on the assertion (made by me) that the media failed abysmally during the pre-Iraq war debate, and argued:
The media has similar failures in the US’s involvement in South America over the past 50 years. The media was late on Vietnam.
The truth is that the military, the administration, and the powers that be can never be honest about why we go to war and what interests we are protecting. If they did, they’d never generate enough support and risk undermining the effort. The goal is to develop a feasible narrative that will hold long enough to finish the job.
To which another commenter, noting the complex, incremental nature of geopolitics, responded:
The media generally doesn’t very do well with “˜slow motion’ changes.
Well, that calls for another climate parallel–this one of media coverage of climate change and the difficulty journalists have with a slow-moving phenomena.
This theme of the media’s role during emotionally charged periods in American history spurred some additional exchanges on that thread. Regarding episodes of U.S. military intervention in the last hundred years, a reader noted (my emphasis):
What stands out in each instance, but never stands the test of time, is the narrative sold by the administration (although Congress must declare war, it is the Commander in chief and the Pentagon who drive the agenda). Vietnam and our multiple manipulations of South America were part of the red-scare, Iraq was terrorist scare, etc. Not only do they find ways to entice our fears, they also find ways to gin up our feelings of comradeship and nationalism.
This got me wondering if there was another potential climate/environmental parallel: That of a green scare.
No doubt, a strong case can be made that the environmental community has been promoting a catastrophic narrative since the 1960s. Think overpopulation, species extinction, and now global warming, to cite just a few examples. The question, in my mind, is not whether the various environmental issues over the last 40 years have been legitimate concerns, but whether the projected dire outcomes attributed to them were/are based on reasoned, scientific evidence, or hyperbole and selective data.
My sense, as a long-time observer of these debates, is that the answer is a combination of both, but that science and hype have gone hand in hand. Climate change is a good example. The basic science behind it is not in question, as far as I’m concerned, but some aspects, such as climate sensitivity and feedbacks and the projected impacts, are still hotly debated. These outstanding questions don’t make climate change to be a less worrisome issue, but because it is a slow-moving event that can’t be felt at an individually discernible level, many climate activists have ratcheted up the rhetoric to make their case for action.
But climate change doesn’t strike people as an immediate existential threat, the way images of mushroom clouds do. That’s where the parallels between WMD’s and the climate debate end.
So if there is a green scare, 1) it’s lost its bite after 40 years, and 2) it doesn’t work as well with unclear threats that are distant in time.
Several weeks ago, global warming was debated on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher show. Now let’s first be clear on something: When it comes to science, Maher is a riddle of contradictions. He’s a fierce proponent of evolution (he’s been given an award named after Richard Dawkins) but he’s also a serial spouter of anti-vaccine and anti-western medicine nonsense.
In short, he makes prominent skeptics queasy.
As it turns out, Maher is not the most nimble debater on climate change. On a recent show, two of his guests included former GM chairman Bob Lutz and Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. The three of them got into it over global warming. The best thing that could be said is that it was entertaining. Watch the clip (and try not be distracted/blinded by James Carville’s polo shirt).
You might have noticed that the title at the top of the video reads “Neil deGrasse Tyson schools former GM exec Lutz on climate change.” I’d say that Tyson landed a few good one-liners (as did Maher), but as Peter Beattie convincingly argues in this essay, neither of them schooled Lutz on climate change. In fact, Beattie calls the performances of Tyson and Maher a “a prime example” of “how one should not go about defending science.”
I’m thinking many of you will agree, irrespective of your stance on climate change.
Post 9/11, the United States has yet to have a national conversation on whether its political leaders overreacted to the threat of terrorism. You would think that our involvement in two simultaneous wars that lasted longer than any other previous war in the country’s history might have prompted us to reflect on how we got into that position.
That hasn’t happened. We just…moved on. So let’s quickly review the past decade. The short version is that we got ourselves into one war that made no sense at all, and then after messing things up in that one, we woke up to another one we had been sleepwalking in. Lessons learned? Let’s gear up for some more war! Hey, third time is the charm, right? And maybe this one really will be a cakewalk!
So while I agree with David Rothkopf that it’s long past time for reflection on the U.S. military strategies that guided the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and the unrestrained budget for military defense in general–I see it as putting the cart before the horse. He writes:
We have lost more than lives in our wars in the Middle East, more than money, more than precious elements of our national reputation. We have also lost our ability to judge our actions or their consequences with a critical eye.
True, but what about the uncritical assumptions, fears and national hysteria that set the stage for those actions? What put us on that trajectory?
Yes, we know it all starts with 9/11, but what came after that? And why haven’t we reexamined this time in our history that led to the color coded alerts, the conflation of Iraq with Al Queda, the endless war footing?
That said, it’s hard to quibble with Rothkopf’s larger critique:
We need to have enough confidence in ourselves and our system to know that asking questions about why our system has not worked as we might have hoped is a sign of strength, not of weakness, of genuine patriotism, not the opposite. The scars of Vietnam have healed, but in their place we are creating, through our unwillingness to have the full and open discussion of both our strengths and our weaknesses on the battlefield, new ones.
As a country, America has made a decision over the past several decades to devote the greatest part of our discretionary budget to national defense, to outspending all the world’s major militaries added together. This should raise perhaps the biggest question of all — about our priorities. Historians will look back and conclude that we bet on raw power to maintain and extend our global leadership, consistently choosing force over investments in our people, schools, infrastructure, or research. Our military leaders and their sponsors in the defense industry have been complicit in helping us arrive at this decision, reducing our risk of foreign attack perhaps but also increasing the likelihood we succumb, as other great powers have, to a combination of overreach and fear of losing what we have gained.
These are all worthy points that hopefully will be raised one day in a meaningful national conversation. But any discussion of America’s “priorities” would seem to require an honest examination of how they became priorities in the first place.
A couple of weeks ago, Megan McArdle managed to hit the climate blogogphere jackpot with a post entitled, “Why We Should Act to Stop Global Warming–and Why We Won’t.” Her post triggered simultaneous eruptions at the polar ends of the climate landscape. I was rather jealous. It’s quite a feat when you get the Morano/Romm wings frothing at the same time.
But aside from the histrionics from the usual suspects, it was also quite an interesting piece. As it happens, I have zeroed in on only one of the particular aspects (which dovetails with the main criticism leveled by the Romm wing) of it, in a post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.
In a comment over there, McArdle has taken me to task for the inference I make. We also had a bit of a Twitter exchange over it, which ended with me eventually crying uncle (sorta) and also me making sure she knew I was a fan of her blog (which is true).
Anyway, go over there and have a read and then tell me if I’m off base or not.
Last November, somebody who is now at the center of a media storm said this:
The way our media is currently constructed, that story isn’t being told in a way that actually reaches and connects with people, and has a consequence. Most of us are very ignorant of what is going on.
Who do you think might have said this and what is that story about? Global warming? Rural poverty? The war on drugs?
It was Mike Daisey, explaining backstage in a New York theater, why he undertook to tell a story that he believes journalism wasn’t equipped to tell. That story, about his experiences investigating a factory in China that makes iphones, was adapted in January for the popular This American Life radio program. On Friday, This American Life retracted that show and ran an extraordinary segment that unravels the fabrications in Daisy’s tale, which were recently uncovered by another reporter.
As Max Fisher lays out in The Atlantic, here’s the unfortunate truth that Daisey has undermined:
When Mike Daisey lied to national radio audiences on This American Life, lied to the 888,000 people who downloaded the podcast (the most in the show’s history), and lied to who-knows-how-many theater audiences over two years of performing his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he wasn’t wrong about the Chinese labor abuses that go into making iPads and other beloved American gadgets. He wasn’t wrong that Chinese workers are often subjected to horrific conditions, wasn’t wrong that Apple’s supervision of its contractor’s factories has been problematic, and wasn’t wrong that we American consumers bear an indirect but troubling moral responsibility for these abuses.
Most importantly, Mike Daisey wasn’t wrong that it is possible for Chinese authorities and Apple to substantially improve labor conditions — without making their products any more expensive or less competitive — and that American consumers can help make this happen. But he was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does.
A second cautionary lesson involves the use of storytelling to advance a cause. In his analysis of the second This American Life episode, David Carr observes:
Mr. Daisey, to his credit, appeared on the show for an awkward and occasionally excruciating interview, but was mostly evasive, arguing that some characters and events had been invented in service of a greater narrative truth.
This is known as the means-justify-the-ends rationale.
Carr also hints at something (“I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true.”) that Jay Rosen pokes at:
Is it possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories?” Where [host] Ira Glass did not go in his Retraction but should have. http://bit.ly/y5lqZJ
You could almost say that the [This American Life] show fetishizes the “story” as object. I think Ira Glass could have dug a little deeper into why he and his team made that fatal error and broadcast the segment even though they could not fully check it with the [Chinese] translator…If they had done that, they might have begun to question whether it is possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories” and their magical effects; whether that kind of love erodes skepticism, even when you are telling yourself to be skeptical; whether Ira and his colleagues in some way wanted Daisey’s stories to be 100 percent true, whether this wish interfered with their judgment, whether there isn’t something just a little too cultish about the cult of “the story” on This American Life.
Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.