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November 8th, 2009


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11:33 am - Flaying the outfield
A year or so ago I read Collapse by Jared Diamond. In that book he compares examples of sustainable and unsustainable societies. An example of an unsustainable society is the Viking settlement in Greenland. A key term in that book is 'mining'. He calls it mining if a culture is just stripping out an unreplenished resource. For instance the Vikings stripped the peat from southern Greenland, much faster than it could be replaced (they called it 'flaying the outfield'). Then it was all gone and they died.

The first section of the book is about modern Montana. I found it a bit less interesting than the rest so I skimmed it. However I remember him saying that capitalism has been in Montana much less time (about a quarter of the time) that the Vikings were in Greenland. And we consider Greenland a failed experiment. That comes to mind a lot when we read these National Geographic articles and see the pictures of the prairies being abandoned again.

This is the place where assumptions about the land proved to be wrong. The homesteaders believed rain followed the plough. In the grasslands of western Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, they learned better. And so for almost a century we’ve watched stranded towns and houses fall one by one like autumn leaves in the chill of October.

What is so tragic is that this land only fell to the plough because of the systematic destruction of the existing ecology. Millions of buffalo were left to rot. At the end of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, this is the most traumatic page in a book of misery and devastation. The prairie wolves gorge on the corpses and then starve to death. I'm wondering if the world is our outfield, and we are flaying it. Genocide slavery and destruction brought capitalism to the land, and I don't think we can hold onto it.

Though sometimes I think this is just me. I have heard it said 'as people grow old they project their own physical decline onto their culture'. And so I think perhaps it is my own mortality I sense approaching me. In this article George Monbiot says the opposite, that older people such as Clive James reject the truth about climate change, because it reminds them of their own mortality. I feel the opposite.

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Comments:


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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 11:58 am (UTC)
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, that older people such as Clive James reject the truth about climate change

I think older people are much more sceptical. We can remember back in the 70s being assured that we were all doomed because of the "population bomb" and that the cataclysm would happen well before the end of the 20th century. I've certainly become more sceptical with each passing year. I think it's healthy. It's one of the few advantages of growing older.
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From:communicator
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)
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This is true. As a parent I have lived through many different childcare theories, each one presented as supplanting all that was said before, until six months later it's all 'Whoops, we were wrong before, but this new theory is definitely correct. Definitely.'
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:11 pm (UTC)
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Exactly. And when a subject is as heavily politicised as climate change, my scepticism increases by leaps and bounds.

And unfortunately scientists as a breed are no more trustworthy than anyone else, in a society in which lying is now more or less taken for granted as standard operating procedure in most areas of life. Especially politics, and climate change is a political issue. Everything is spin.
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From:communicator
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC)
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However, the issue of flaying the outfield is not one that I can be sceptical about. Global warming might, just possibly, be an area where mainstream science is wrong. I don't think so, but it's logically possible.

It is not logically possible that our current way of life is sustainable. The amount of oil on the planet is finite. Our current model uses it up. There's no wiggle room..
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:28 pm (UTC)
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What worries me is that scientists seem to be expressing themelves in very unscientific ways on this subject. Many of them are talking as if it's possible to be certain beyond any doubt that what is happening is caused by human agency rather than being a natural event, and many of them are displaying a disturbingly religious zeal about the whole subject. They sound like fire-and-brimstone preachers promising us hellfire for our sins. And there's no doubt that climate change came along at a very convenient time for the environmental movement (the most significant new religious movement to emerge in the last century), a time when their older scare stories were no longer convincing and they desperately needed a new crisis. And behold, a new crisis appeared.

What also worries me is the feeling I get that there are so many people who desperately want climate change to be real and to be all our fault. It satisfies a deep-seated longing for both guilt and self-righteousness.

It's also disturbing that belief or non-belief on this issue appears to split so neatly along political lines, with belief being more or less universal on the left and non-belief being the norm on the right.

Edited at 2009-11-08 12:32 pm (UTC)
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From:communicator
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:36 pm (UTC)
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It seems to me that the class and interest group with more power wants us to believe there is no climate change. So it's more likely they are deceiving us than the other way round.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:November 8th, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
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What worries me is that scientists seem to be expressing themelves in very unscientific ways on this subject.

Scientists spend a lot of time expressing themselves in scientific ways on this subject: in conferences, in workshops, in thousands of peer-reviewed papers. Evidently the only time you notice scientists is on those occasions when they express themselves in "unscientific" ways. That says something about you, and something about the nature of effective mass communication in modern society, but it says fuck all about the nature of the scientific evidence for climate change.

If you want to see a robust scientific account of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts all its reports online here. The best place to start is the most recent report, the AR4 Synthesis Report. Are there any bits of it you disagree with?
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
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Are there any bits of it you disagree with?

I have no opinion on it. I'm not a climatologist, so I have absolutely no way of judging the scientific evidence. As I said earlier what intrigues me is to the extent to which most people who, like me, are not professional climatologists are basing their belief or non-belief mostly on ideological considerations. That's a fascinating development - scientific issues being decided on moral grounds. Science for most people is now a matter of political ideology.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:November 8th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC)
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Well, it's Pascal's Wager, isn't it? Except it makes more sense to me than Pascal's Wager, because that seems to depend on hoodwinking the putative deity. If you're a sceptic, it's safer to avoid risking the human-friendly environment until it's conclusively proved there's no risk.

(I don't say "risking the planet", because that's doomed in the long run by forces outside our control, and until then it can continue orbiting and probably hosting new life-forms, like highly evolved cockroaches. And I don't reject the possibility that global warming is a natural long-term process; but, given that it doesn't suit humans, why risk speeding it up?)
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 11:22 pm (UTC)
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Well, it's Pascal's Wager, isn't it?

But if we make the wrong choice we risk wasting trillions of dollars that could have been better spent.
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From:watervole
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
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Look at it this way - climate change scientists are going against popular opinion (nobody wants them to be right, apart possibly from a few people selling wind farms - and even those are outnumbered by people who don't want wind farms near their homes)

Big oil is spending a fortune to convince people climate change isn't happening, and even then there's a massive consensus from scientists all over the world that it is happening.

The scientists have nothing to gain - they'd get paid more by the oil companies if they tried to prove it wasn't happening.

When charities like 'Save the children' speak out, then I listen. From today's Guardian:

"The world's poorest communities can't afford to wait. The cost of any delay to a climate deal will be counted in children's lives. We estimate that 250,000 children could be killed by climate change next year," said Benedict Dempsey, Save the Children's humanitarian policy officer.
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:38 pm (UTC)
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When charities like 'Save the children' speak out, then I listen.

I'm not sure exactly what qualifies them as experts on scientific truth? That's another worrying element in the debate - the number of people with no specialised knowledge of this field whatsoever (and in many cases no actual knowledge of science at all) who are nonetheless absolutely certain they know where the truth lies. That kind of religious certainty always scares me (and I'd like to emphasise that both sides seem equally guilty in this regard).
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From:watervole
Date:November 8th, 2009 12:51 pm (UTC)
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I don't qualify them as experts, I qualify them as people with no axe to grind and thus people who will evaluate the data and listen very carefully and if necessary pay qualified people to find out where the truth lies.

If they're going to spend money fighting climate change rather than buying food, then I'm convinced they have done the necessary research to see which will save the lives of more kids.

The anti-nuclear lobby is also a telling one. People who have been fighting nuclear power all their lives are now changing camp. They still dislike nuclear power, but many now accept that the lower CO2 emissions make nuclear better than coal and oil.
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
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I qualify them as people with no axe to grind

I'm not entirely convinced about that.

The anti-nuclear lobby is also a telling one.

I'm very much in favour of nuclear power, but I always was in favour of it. But the fact that a particular group now believes in nuclear power doesn't logically prove that climate change is real. It just proves that the people who believe in climate change believe in it very passionately. But people have often believed passionately in things that turned out to be quite wrong. Many people believed passionately in Marxism. Many people today believe passionately in Scientology, or UFO cults, or creationism.

I have no opinion on climate change myself. I don't have the scientific knowledge to make a scientific judgment. I'm an agnostic. But it's the psychological and political aspects to the debate that interest me. It's the fact that it's become for many people a moral rather than a scientific debate. It seems to me that people choose to believe or not believe based on whether that belief is consistent with their political and moral beliefs.
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From:watervole
Date:November 8th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
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For myself, it is both scientific and a moral issue.

A quarter of a decade ago, I did a degree in environmental science, back in the days when no one was sure if climate change was happening at all. Back then, we looked at drought issues in one small area of Africa and tried to figure if it was a long term climate shift or just a local variation. We never did reach a firm conclusion as students.

Since then, I've kept loosely in touch with the field and become more and more concerned as I've seen the data slowly come in. Now, we have far more data from Africa and all around the world.

Frankly, what we know now scares the shit out of me. But, I have a dilemma. I also have a partial degree in psychology (more recently with the Open University) - and that scares me even more.

People have a natural tendency to split into groups. You can make the initial split on almost any basis, from eye colour to religion to views on taxation. Thereafter, the groups tend to be self-reinforcing and new issues will tend to be polarised.

You're quite right when you say that many people's climate beliefs are based on their existing political/moral beliefs.

The conundrum is that many people thus judge climate change issues on the basis of what their friends/political party believe. This is a big problem when they don't have the knowledge to evaluate the science themselves. (The science part isn't actually that difficult, if you have science A-levels - but it takes a lot of time to look at the detail and most people don't have that kind of free time.)

Thus, the difficult part is that when a climate scientist (speaking with complete honesty) says "We're screwed if we don't cut CO2 emissions drastically by 2020", people evaluate what s/he is saying in light of their political beliefs and some say "Of course" and some say "Bullshit" and if the scientist shouts louder and says "Look, guys, 250,000 kids will die next year because of climate change!" then (because we're very British and hate fanatics of any kind), we shut him out and go away to tackle a problem that is on a scale we can deal with.

I think it may be psychologists that will save the planet.


(BTW, why would you see Save the Children and Oxfam as an axe to grind on the climate front?)
[User Picture]
From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
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Thus, the difficult part is that when a climate scientist (speaking with complete honesty)

The problem I have here is that if you're a climate scientist you may well have based your entire professional career on a belief in climate change. If you were to cease believing, you would be faced with the prospect of having to accept that your whole professional career had been wasted, and you'd also be faced with having to look for a new job. If climate change isn't true, then we really don't need so many professional climatologists.

why would you see Save the Children and Oxfam as an axe to grind on the climate front?

I would have imagined that they probably subscribe to particular political beliefs. I don't know anything about them, so maybe I'm wrong, maybe they're all enthusiastic Tories!
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From:watervole
Date:November 16th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
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I'm not a professional climatologist. I make no portion of my income from climate science.

I have no professional career in this area to lose.

I merely have the education and interest to learn what is happening.

What I have to lose is a habitable world for my grandchildren.
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From:dfordoom
Date:November 17th, 2009 01:39 am (UTC)
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I'm sure we're all keen to have a habitable world, but there are many problems that need to be dealt with. We can't afford to throw away zillions of dollars on climate change unless we're sure it really is caused by human agency rather than just being a normal temporary fluctuation. That money could solve other more pressing problems. We can't afford to act on emotions, to go on an OMG We're All Doomed panic. If we did that every time the environmentalists came up with a scare campaign we'd never get around to tackling any other problems. It concerns me that the Left has become so obsessed with climate change that other priorities are being ignored. It also concerns me that the whole Green thing has become a big money-spinner, a huge marketing exercise. So I remain deeply sceptical!
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From:watervole
Date:November 17th, 2009 07:57 am (UTC)
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We can't afford to throw away zillions of dollars on climate change unless we're sure it really is caused by human agency rather than just being a normal temporary fluctuation

We ARE sure. Temporary fluctuations are caused by things like sunspot cycles, wobbles in the Earth's rotation and fluctuations in the jet stream. Each of those has been factored in (it always amazes me that people can believe that anyone who knows anything about climate science would forget them). What is left after all that is accounted for is a large ongoing increase in temperature, which correlates closely to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This isn't surprising as CO2 in the atmosphere was already known to trap heat.

IF you want one with really easy science, look up ocean acidification - as far as I'm aware, even the climate change deniers don't argue with that one. CO2 dissolves in water to make carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is damaging to reefs (which dissolve easily) and marine life. The oceans are getting more acidic - not at a level that will hurt you if you go swimming, but at a level that will threaten world fish stocks.

You keep saying we shouldn't act on emotions, but you're totally unwilling to go and check the data for yourself. Surely, you're acting on emotion yourself?
[User Picture]
From:watervole
Date:November 17th, 2009 08:55 am (UTC)
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I think what's puzzling me most is what you think my motive is.

I'm someone who has done the science (starting back when climate change was not established as a fact, so I've seen the gradual development and the slow accumulation of facts.) (and it's interesting to realise just how much of the data comes from archaeology, historians, marine scientists, Arctic explorers, oceanographers, astronomers, and other specialities, not just physicists, biologists and chemists)

I don't make money in any way from talking about climate change - when I graduated, I went to work in telecomms and then became a housewife when the kids came along, doing an occasional bit of editing and math tuition along the way.

I'm pretty much in the centre politically (I've never voted Labour).

If all people talking about climate change are doing it because they're strong left-wing or making money out of it, then, falling into neither camp, what is my motive for lying to you?

As I've studied environmental science, I clearly can't be backing the climate change lobby because I'm just going along with the herd - therefore, I must have a motive for lying to you.
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From:executrix
Date:November 8th, 2009 02:37 pm (UTC)
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watervole said: People who have been fighting nuclear power all their lives are now changing camp. They still dislike nuclear power, but many now accept that the lower CO2 emissions make nuclear better than coal and oil.

I think they're making a BIG mistake--if you put people who oughtn't to be allowed to manage a whelkstall in charge of something that, by poor management or intent, easily turns into an atomic bomb, then I don't want to be around when Wackiness Ensues.
[User Picture]
From:dfordoom
Date:November 8th, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)
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Look at it this way - climate change scientists are going against popular opinion

I wonder if most people are really influenced by public opinion in general? Or whether they're more influenced by the prevailing public opinion within their own peer group? If you're on the political left then the overwhelming public opinion within your peer group will be in favour of believing in climate change. If you're on the political right then public opinion within your peer group will be equally strong against believing. Being on the political left myself I've certainly encountered hostility for not accepting climate change as being equivalent to Revealed Truth!

And I suspect that these days people are less exposed to ideas coming from outside their own political camp. Partly thanks to the internet and cable TV news it's now possible to get all of one's news from sources that one agrees with ideologically. In Australia if you're on the right you can get all of your news with a massive right-wing bias from Fox News, and if you're on the left you can get all your news with an equally overwhelming left-wing bias from the ABC (our equivalent of the BBC). If you're a Christian you can get your news from the Christian cable TV station. You can join online groups where you can be assured that anyone who dissents will be hounded out. So political ideology has become more strongly reinforcing than ever before.

It's now frighteningly easy to avoid political opinions that conflict with one's own.
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From:executrix
Date:November 8th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
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dfordoom said: We can remember back in the 70s being assured that we were all doomed because of the "population bomb" and that the cataclysm would happen well before the end of the 20th century

But it *is* true that there are billions of hungry people, that periodic famines continue to occur, and that in addition to ecological damage caused by desperately poor people trying to survive, there is the potential for a great deal more ecological damage as no-longer-desperately-poor people wish to live someplace that isn't a hut and to have cars and consumer goods. In the 1970s, we didn't worry much about clean water, but that is likely to become an ecological battleground.

It's a lot easier to rat poison down the well than to get it out again!--and it's not really grounds for optimism to say it was "only" a pound of poison.

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