November 8th, 2009
|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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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?)
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.