New wells of violence

When I was young I studied at Bristol University, and stayed there for a year afterwards.   I still have friends and relatives living there, and visit regularly.  It is the first city I came to know and love as a place.  I still love it, with its famous and dramatic gorge, its stone-faced houses, its hills, its green spaces, the way that any street corner can open up a whole new vista.

But the things that made the city what it is are not so beautiful: Bristol grew rich on the slave trade, the tobacco industry and, more recently, the arms trade.  And of course, as in any city, there is a dark side hidden away out of sight of the parks and the gorge and the gaily painted terraces winding up and down the hills.  Behind all this, as in any British city, are pockets of grimness and deprivation (something I tried to portray in my novel Marcher) which few people ever see if they don’t have occasion to see them out.   So, like Ursula le Guin’s fictional Omelas, Bristol’s charm and beauty stands on a base of hidden suffering.

Climate wars coverThe same could be said of much that we value in the developed world.   We all know of course that what counts as an average sort of life-style in our part of the planet – car and house ownership, TV, computers, smart phones, annual foreign holidays, meat every day, an office job, a hot shower every morning – is in fact, in global terms, exceptionally wealthy and privileged.  Most of us are probably also aware that part of the reason for our ability to access so much in the way of consumer goods, is that the producers of the raw materials, and very likely the producers of the goods themselves, are paid much much less than we are.   We may also be dimly aware – Harald Welzer makes this point rather well in his interesting book ‘Climate Wars’ – that our way of life is also underpinned by more or less constant violence and warfare.  Long chains of responsibility can make this less obvious – the violence typically takes place far away from us, and is rationalised in various ways – but it takes constant and large-scale application of brute force to secure our access to the resources required to maintain our lifestyle and to secure our frontiers so that not too many people come and share our bounty with us.

There are several strategies for dealing with the potential for discomfort arising from these facts.  One is simply to shrug them off, ask ‘Who ever said the world was fair?’, and indicate our intention to defend what we own and have worked for.  Another is to place responsibility for poverty on the poor: ‘It’s up to them to sort it out.  No one ever helped us.’  Another is to absolve ourselves by pointing to some abstraction – ‘It’s capitalism!’ is a common one, as if capitalism had some sort of autonomous existence, and was not simply a name for a nexus in which most of us are complicit – or to people even wealthier than we are: ‘SUV owners’, for instance, are great targets for ordinary car owners to point to.

Another again is to argue that, wealthy as we are by global standards, we are somehow helping to bring the rest of the world up to our level (there are various versions of this last one, including a capitalist narrative of world development, socialist narratives about building a new world order, and more personal narratives built around activity such as charitable work).

What is clear though is that the whole world never can come up to our level.  There is a finite and, in many cases, steadily diminishing supply of resources: agricultural land, water, copper, zinc, coltan, oil, phospates  There is a steadily increasing number of people.   Meat every day for everyone, for instance, may require more agricultural land than actually exists (because growing crops to feed cattle is a much less efficient use of land than growing crops for human consumption), even before one factors in the future lack of availability of phosphates for fertilizers.

So the comforting idea that, wealthy and privileged as we are, we are helping others to one day reach our level, is false, because we are rich not only in purely relative terms (that is: rich by comparison with the world average), but rich in absolute terms.  We are already using more of the world’s resources than could ever be available to the entire population of the planet.

No wonder all that violence is necessary!

Pressure on resources will become more acute as increased population, and increased competition from emerging economies, and as climate change (itself a side product of our consumption of resources) increasingly provides an additional stressor: large areas of the world may soon no longer be able to support the population that they once did.  In this context, violent conflict over resources and borders will proliferate – Welzer proposes that the Darfur conflict in Sudan is an early instance of a climate war: two ethnic groups, who were once able to coexist, have there been brought into conflict by a water shortage which means they both need access to the same land – and wealthier parts of the world will have increasingly to deploy force to protect their privileged position.

It is difficult to visualise a political way out of this.  Human reason, human political structures seem so weak when compared to the magnitude of the changes that are required.  There are even moments when I think what is really needed is something more akin to a prophet, a Moses, a Mohammed, a Joseph Smith, a Mary Baker Eddy, who will come down from a mountain with a new set of commandments: Thou shalt not have more than two kids, Thou shalt not eat meat more than once a week, Thou shalt not throw anything away that can be used again…

The Burning Question, by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

The-Burning-Question-book-coverIf you are looking for an introductory book on the climate crisis, this is as good as any I’ve read.  It sets out the issues in a clear and focussed way, and tours the science, politics, psychology and economics of the subject, as well as providing an overview of the options for the future.

Several things stand out for me after reading this book.   One is that doing something about climate change isn’t just a question of developing alternatives to fossil fuels.  Our appetite for energy is such that we are quite capable of developing renewables and still consuming more fossil fuels than ever.

So we don’t just need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we need to set a limit to the total amount of fossil fuels we use.  This means leaving a lot of the world’s known reserves of coal and oil permanently in the ground.  No wonder the people that own them are unhappy!

Another thing that stood out (and this of course is linked to my previous point) is the dishonesty and virulence of the multi-million-dollar climate change denial industry.   ‘They call it pollution.  We call it life,’ said one US TV ad, as if anyone had called carbon dioxide ‘pollution’, or denied its importance to life.  Another billboard campaign by the Heartland Institute

showed mug-shots of serial killers alongside the words: ‘I still believe in global warming.  Do You?’  Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, said on the accompanying press release, ‘The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists.  They are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynksi, the Unabomber.  Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden, and James L. Lee.’

The savagery and cynicism of this, not to mention its utter weirdness, is fairly scary (see also Tom Burke’s piece on this here), but perhaps there’s some hope to be found in its sheer desperation?  It suggests (doesn’t it?) that the deniers are pretty worried, don’t really believe they have a real argument, and don’t necessarily think they’re going to win.

Which of course they won’t.  Because ultimately we’ll either do something about the problem, or find out the hard way just how wrong they were.

I recommend this book.

Hell on a handcart (2)

This is one of more bizzarre examples I’ve come across of hostility towards doing anything about climate change.  Here, in the Times, Tim Montgomerie doesn’t deny that climate change is a fact, he just thinks we can’t afford to do anything about it.

Roughly speaking, his argument seems to be that, yes, the ship is sinking, but we can’t afford to use power on pumping it out, or it’ll slow down the engine.

Why doesn’t he work out the costs of not doing anything?

Going to hell on a handcart

I was pretty staggered to learn that our use of coal in the UK is now actually on the increase.

Given everything we know about global warming, its causes and its consequences for our own children and grandchildren, this is a bit like discovering that, while supposedly fighting a war on terrorism, we were actually busy funding Al-Qaeda.

All those movies where the hero saves the world from an existential threat, and then a real threat comes, and we just shrug and sleepwalk towards it!

Contemptible Boris

I try to avoid liking or disliking people simply on the basis of their politics.  I think it’s important to recognise that honest and decent people may hold views and understandings about society that are radically from our own.  And for this reason, and I suppose because of his obvious personal charm, I was rather slower than many people to come to a negative judgement about Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.  But this article, which he wrote in the Telegraph back in January, has been preying on my mind ever since I came across it a couple of months ago, and it has finally ended any last vestige of respect I still had for him.

In this piece, adopting his carefully honed, faux-humble ‘what do I know?’ persona, he casts doubt on the idea of global warming.  (Not, of course that he for a moment wishes to ‘dispute the wisdom or good intentions of the vast majority of scientists’, oh dear no!  He no more wishes to do that than Mark Anthony wished to dispute that Caesar was an honourable Roman).  He offers as evidence for his doubts his own observation that winters have been pretty cold lately (ignoring record-breaking average temperatures across the globe). He makes the fatuous comment that it is the sun that warms the earth, not the atmosphere (which is obviously the case, but the same sun feels pretty different, doesn’t it, when you’re inside a greenhouse than it does when you stand outside in the shade of a tree?), and he suggests that ‘we human beings have become so blind with conceit and self-love that we genuinely believe that the fate of the planet is in our hands’.

But it isn’t conceit and self-love that tells us that carbon dioxide levels are rising.  Nor is it conceit or self-love that tells us that carbon dioxide has the greenhouse effect of trapping heat.   On the contrary this information only exists because some people have had the humility not to assume that they know things when in fact they don’t.  It exists because some people have taken the trouble to actually study and measure things and figure out how they fit together, and it comes from years of meticulous, tedious, painstaking work, like extracting gas from tiny bubbles in the Antarctic ice.

None of this touches Johnson.  Here is a man whose own conceit and self-love is so great that he feels able to take the platform available to him as one of the best-known politicians in the UK, and use it, not to communicate the facts about a real global threat (which wouldn’t be hard to do: he’s a bright man and he surely has people who can look things up for him), but to blur, muddy and confuse them.

To obtain so much power and then to exercise so little leadership!

I don’t mean to be a bore, but…

Anyone looking through this blog would see that there are a lot of items about climate change.   I’ve become very interested  in this topic, and I’m going to write a novel about it (Slaymaker), which should come out in 2015.

What fascinates me in particular is the psychology of it.  Have you noticed that, even if you have taken on board that this is a real threat, it’s extremely difficult to hold that fact in your mind?   Or that to mention it too often feels like bad manners?  ‘I’m sorry to trouble you,’ I feel like saying even as I write this, ‘I don’t mean to be a bore, but would you mind if I mentioned just once again that we’re plunging headlong towards a precipice?’

Somehow a whole battery of psychological defences come into play (the very defences, perhaps, that allow us to distance ourselves from the fact of our mortality) and these defences cause us to constantly sideline climate change as if it just were a detail, or some sort of minor irritant, rather than an existential threat to our civilization.  On Monday, for instance, on the Today Programme on Radio 4, there was a discussion about the unprecendently weird weather in the UK in 2012 (not just in the UK either but in many other places including Australia) and the fact that we should expect this to continue.  Later in the same programme there was an interview with Conservative MP Tim Yeo about nuclear power, shale gas and energy policy in general: yet no connection at all was made between the two items, and climate change wasn’t even mentioned as a factor to consider when weighing up the options.

On Wednesday, there was an item about biofuels on the same programme, in which an eminent scientist (Sir David King), questioned whether they really helped reduce carbon emissions, even though they could be used to meet our commitment to produce energy from renewable sources.  John Hayes, the Energy Minister, told him that his concerns were ‘bourgeois’ and that he himself was a practical man whose main concern was to ‘keep the lights on’.   The clear implication was that being concerned about climate change was a bit wet and middle class, and while he was prepared to toss a few sops towards the climate lobby, he wouldn’t offer more than that.

Well, of course many interest groups can be tamed with the judicious use of symbolic placation.  But the physical world isn’t a lobby or an interest group, and it has no interest in symbolic gestures.   We either do something about climate change or we don’t.  It’s all the same to nature either way.  The trouble is that it won’t be all the same to us.

Fermi’s paradox solved?

The galaxy is vast, the number of planets enormous, so how come we never hear from any alien life forms?

Professor Galacticus proposes the following explanation:

There is a lot of life in the galaxy, and he surmises that all of it will be carbon-based and all of it originate in water.   As a result, in every planet in which life takes root, deposits of carbon and hydrocarbons will build up over millions of years as organisms die, form sediments, and are subjected to various geological forces.

In a relatively small proportion of living planets, Galacticus suggests, the process of biological evolution will have resulted in symbol- and tool-using intelligence.   This in turn brings into being a newer and much faster secondary evolutionary process, corresponding, roughly speaking, to what we call culture.

At a certain level of development, culture stumbles upon the vast reserves of chemical energy that built up millions of years before it came into being.  By exploiting these reserves, culture is able to massively accelerate its own evolution – Galacticus speaks of ‘putting on seven-league boots’ – because the enormous increase in the productivity of each individual allows large numbers of individual to cease to be involved in meeting the basic physical needs of the species and thereby become available for other work.

In such a context, highly complex activities such as space travel become possible: activities which require individuals to devote themselves to doing things with no immediate practical benefit at all.  And when cultures embark on the project of space travel, they naturally begin to contemplate the possibility that other cultures, on other planets, are doing likewise, and begin to develop means of searching for, and communicating with, those putative others.

However all this occurs in a very narrow window for, unknown at first to the individuals who make up these cultures, they have set in train a force that will destroy them.  This force is not nuclear weapons, as some have surmised it might be, nor poisonous pollution, but something seemingly entirely innocuous: a very common substance, and one that is not merely non-toxic but actually essential to life. Carbon dioxide.

By the time the danger becomes evident, cultures are already so massively committed to fossil fuels that change is difficult.  It is not technically impossible – the explosive development of technological knowledge which the ‘seven-league boots’ have made possible means that a switch to some combination of alternative energy sources is entirely feasible in purely engineering terms – but it is psychologically and sociologically very difficult indeed.  Almost every one of the intelligent life forms in the galaxy has gone well past the point of no-return – or will do so – before they have fully taken on board the nature of the threat.

And then the physical world takes over, positive feedback loops of various kinds kick in, and, very rapidly, the culture, what is left of it, is reduced to a precarious existence in which the very idea of attempting to communicate with aliens, just for the sheer fun of it, is simply laughable.

‘Hence,’ says Professor Galacticus, ‘the silence from the sky.’

*  *  *

‘You may think,’ he adds, ‘that I am making far too many assumptions about the psychology and sociology of unknown life forms, but I don’t think I am.  You see, their basic psychological equipment is always going to be the product of a biological evolutionary process.   We know how creative such a process is, and we know the diversity it has achieved, but it has one deep limitation.  It is reactive rather than teleological.   It is not aimed at anything, but is simply based on the accumulation of a kind of trial and error knowledge, and this makes it very weak at dealing with an unpredented threat.

‘I would, however, be very pleased to be proved wrong.’

What runaway truck, you liberal pinko?

This article describes a huge, concerted hundred-million dollar effort by wealthy American conservatives to discredit the evidence that climate change results from human activity. 

But why?  Doesn’t being conservative mean wanting to keep things the way they are?  And wouldn’t it logically follow that conservatives would want to protect their country, its cities, its farmlands, its way of life, from the depradations of hurricanes, floods, droughts and worldwide turmoil?   Self-interest might seem to explain it, but I don’t think it really does.

Revealingly, the picture at the beginning of the article shows an American conservative holding up a sign: ‘I don’t believe the liberal media.’

That’s it really, isn’t it?  There’s been a category error, and this has come to be seen as a partisan political issue, when it is really a straightforward threat from the material world.

It’s as if a driverless truck was hurtling down a hill towards the town square, and someone shouted out a warning to a bunch of people who were standing there talking.  But no one agreed with his political views so they all thought it best to ignore him.

‘Don’t come whining to us about runaway trucks, you liberal pinko!’

Saliency or efficacy

By way of footnote to previous post.  Thought this post about the impact of images on the way we think about climate change was interesting.  It connects well with some thoughts I’ve had about the difficulty of writing fiction about climate change.  Images of the effects of climate change get the message over about the threat (saliency), but make people feel fatalistic.  Images of attempts to mitigate climate change make people feel something can be done about it (efficacy), but don’t get over the seriousness of the threat.   Tricky!

Giant wind turbine at Nigg Yard by John Wright