Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Age of Oblivion: Another End of Decade Rant

Of course  calendars are a construct and don't mean anything, but the end of the year and, even more so, the end of the decade are useful times to take stock.

In pop culture, we have the Ecco Homo moment as a cultural foreboding - the chutzpah to insist on a fix that pretends to be completely oblivious to the destruction of former beauty. We've done that with our whole planet. But more than that is the fame it brought to the amateur restoration worker, driving up tourism dramatically. We are positioned to celebrate destruction of beauty more than creation. This could be bookended with the acknowledgment and then immediate justification of "billionaires in wine caves" having more power than the rest of the populous; that a politician will be attacked for refusing to be bribed is a sign of our times.

The New York Times got a random smattering of people to answer: What Will the World Look Like in 2030?, twelve years after we were told we have twelve years to fix everything. It's a terrifying read. I've smushed some pertinent bits together here:

"Electricity usage by data centers is enormous and expanding, threatening to top 10 percent of global electricity consumption within the next decade and to produce roughly five times the CO2 emissions of all current global air travel. . . . If more efforts aren’t directed toward converting data centers to renewable energy, and innovating ecologically-responsible, recyclable machines and batteries, then the internet, too, will become a weapon of the rich, even more than it already is — a tool used to seize and control ever more scarce natural resources. . . . By the end of the decade, ads will be the highlight of my days. . . . And nothing is better attuned to our true selves than the tracking data that trail us like ducklings. . . . Technology can improve lives. It can also take away jobs. This is in large part how we have already ended up in a world where 78 percent of people are living paycheck-to-paycheck, most new jobs are contract or gig work and recent college graduates are drowning in debt while also being underemployed. . . .  I’m excited by what could happen if we pick our heads up from our different screens and come together. . . . 
Unless central banks decide to keep borrowing rates low indefinitely, by 2030 a roughly $12 trillion corporate debt bubble will burst and break the economy as we know it. . . . The internet as we know it is largely American, but by 2030 the Chinese Communist Party will have built an entirely new internet where Beijing attempts to monopolize key supply chains, stifle free speech and hoard personal data. That’s when things could get weird. . . . If we don’t place international cooperation over national self-interest, the world will be unprepared for this population explosion, which could become a catalyst for greater global conflict with dire implications for the global economy, migrants and the environment. . . . The economy, politics and even family life will struggle to master a world of evermore intelligent systems that operate in ways we understand less and less. . . .   
The next big trend will be outright, brazen, shameless lying. . . .  If the battle for a shared, fact-based reality is not fought and won, 2030 will make the outrages and demagogy of 2019 look like a golden age of comity. . . . [But] community-oriented bookstores are thriving."
Technology, climate change, the economy, and objective truth are the big concerns, but there will be books!  Inequality wasn't mentioned, nor was war (or that the U.S. has been at war for almost two decades now), but they're just under the surface.


Phones are affecting the culture, for better and worse, but we can't ignore their effect.  I commented online on a prof getting students to ditch their phones for a week:
"The problem isn't devices in general or writing or even scrolling mindlessly, though, it's the million distractions that hit people WHILE pretending to be engaged - or the belief that it's possible to be fully engaged in conversation or life in general as they shop or have a secondary conversation online. It's the walking down the street and no longer nodding at our neighbours because of this immersion, or being in every class yet having no idea what was taught because of a profound lack of engagement. Is about the loss of listening skills."
Another online post getting some attention:

What we have more of is the illusion of the importance of trivial things, the further flattening of the landscape of interests: The moon landing is just as important as Jenga dog, and this make-up tutorial is just as important as the lesson you're trying to teach. You just don't understand us. Prioritizing is passé. Everything is at once and for forever. My old-person concern is that without distinctions made between better and worse, there can be no growth - personal growth, that is, the important kind.

Beyond the change in tastes and priorities is a furthering of individualism. There's new layer of public solitary behaviour. I've had to speak to student playing videos at full volume, without earbuds, during classes. It's never an act of malice but pure obliviousness, as if they were completely unaware that others could hear what was meant for only them. An anomaly of the class, I hoped, but then I witnessed this attitude in my own home as well. I rarely try to choose the music when my kids are around, but I put on some old songs as we took down the tree. One of my kids listened a minute and put on their own choice of music at the same time. When I questioned having two songs playing at once, they said, "I thought you were just playing your music for you." How curious is that!! It wasn't seen as competitive (like the 80s 'tune wars' we used to face on the beaches of Lake Huron with metal heads sparring against alternative rockers wrangling with classic rockers through our respective volume and bass controls), it was a both/and suggestion. We listen to music and watch shows and have conversations in tandem instead of cooperatively, so we never have to actually make a compromise. We're at the parallel play stage of development. I'm not sure this digression will be reversed, since there seems little desire for it to change. It's the new normal. We're simply not willing to settle for less than what we want to hear or see or have right this minute. In this land of plenty, why should any of us ever settle for less, ever practice restraint. But if we lose the skills of talking together, and listening carefully, and finding middle ground, then we can't work towards changing anything.

Amanda Mull, in The Atlantic, questions our ability to divide time in the face of social media:
"What the proliferation of smartphones and social media has done, though, is unmoor people from the sense of linear time that might make the past 20 years easier to chop up into distinct eras—or easier to understand at all. Political and cultural dimensions can be endlessly debated, but the information ecosystem in which they now exist is what makes the era both indivisible and fundamentally different from anything that came before it. . . . Nothing ever gets totally resolved, but there’s always a next thing to move on to."
We can't afford to be complacent with the notion that nothing gets resolved.


Climate scientist Kate Marvel writes about the real concern we should all share:
Australia during the day.
"This is the decade we knew we were right. It began with the warmest year on record; it then broke that record at least five times. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached levels unprecedented since humans were hominins. There were droughts and floods and brutal heat waves. Coral reefs turned white and gave up. Australia is in drought. The Amazon is on fire. . . . The changes now are different. We expected most of them, and they are occurring with a terrifying rapidity that is no more reassuring because it is easily understood. We have known that carbon dioxide traps heat for over a hundred years. We have known that we are changing the planet for decades now. There is no consolation in being right. . . . The decade began with lies and ended with evasions. . . . We learned nothing from the experience."

We can't authentically pretend that we don't know the problems exist anymore, but we've totally doubled down on denial: not so much denial that it's happening, but denial that we have any responsibility for it or could possibly have any effect on it. It's not my problem.

The editors at the New York Times think we just need to rouse the same spirit that put the brakes on air and water pollution a few decades back:
"The Cuyahoga River catching on fire, giant algae blooms in lakes and rivers, and widespread contamination of municipal water supplies led to the Clean Water Act of 1972. Oppressive inner-city smog — so bad you could nearly taste it — as well as mounting respiratory illnesses, and dead and dying trees, streams and lakes, helped overcome political and industry foot-dragging and created the landmark 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act and its innovative cap-and-trade system for controlling ground-level pollutants. . . . Are there reasons now to hope for serious action? Yes: a trifecta of frightening reports in the last year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the need to act before things spin out of control, on deforestation and other damaging land-use practices, on dying reefs and rising sea levels. Plus: a cascade of natural disasters, including catastrophic wildfires and hurricanes. Plus: the dramatic drop in the cost of producing carbon-free energy like wind and solar power."
But Nathaniel Rich explained why climate change doesn't quite work the same way:
"In 1985, the ozone layer was noticeably thinning. This issue had an immediacy to it that climate change lacked: "nobody was worried about CFCs because of their warming potential. They were worried about going blind. . . . Reagan proposed a reduction in CFC emissions of 95%" (103). It had a speedy solution with an international treaty already in negotiation. "Why not hitch the milk wagon to the bullet train?" (108). But, "it caused many casual observers to conflate the two crises" (110). "The ozone hole, Pomerance realized, alarmed the public because, though it was no more visible than global warming, ordinary people could be made to see it" (112). Furthermore, and maybe more importantly, a major manufacturer of CFCs, "realized that it stood to profit from the transition to replacement chemicals and began placing full-page ads in the New York Times to announce its support for a phaseout" (116). If we want to stop fossil fuel extraction in a similar fashion, we need the giants to see the profits in renewables, but those profits will never be as high. . . . Nearly every conversation that we have in 2019 about climate change was being held in 1979. . . . we could not be counted on to save ourselves. . . . So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, fret about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison" (200).

It feels like Greta Thunberg had some success in lighting a fire under the masses, but she also recognized it all had zero effect at COP25. Ever hopeful, she said (from Democracy Now):
"I’m telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it does not come from the governments or corporations. It comes from the people, the people who have been unaware but are now starting to wake up. And once we become aware, we change. People can change. People are ready for change. And that is the hope, because we have democracy. And democracy is happening all the time, not just on Election Day, but every second and every hour. It is public opinion that runs the free world. In fact, every great change throughout history has come from the people. We do not have to wait. We can start the change right now."
I'm not as hopeful about public opinion, but Professor Mark Jaccard agrees with her general sentiment, in an interview with Don Pittis:
"We already have the means to make the transition, if only we had the political will to move toward what he calls "deep decarbonization." . . . the first step of Jaccard's strategy is to put the immediate effort on two areas that mostly affect a country's domestic markets. Those two areas, energy production and transport — essentially power plants and cars and trucks — are responsible for the majority of most countries' greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, that transition will lay foundations that will make later industrial decarbonization easier. . . . the most important place for concerned citizen to invest in stopping climate change is political action. . . . Because in the long run, getting carbon out of world's atmosphere cannot be completed by a few individuals doing good, it must instead be a project of people using politics to transform regional and national rules about carbon. Jaccard says those regions and countries will then combine to put carbon tariffs on the world's free riders."

But, how do we convince our leaders to make the change when many of us are too poor to weather a sudden shift in the economy (thus diminishing our numbers and sway) and others are too rich to worry about seeing the effects (thus diminishing our impact)? The analogy I sometimes use in class is this: Imagine doing poorly in school and realizing the solution is to be forced to stay in at night to actually do your homework. Now your job is to convince your parents to ground you and take away your phone in the evenings until the end of semester. Would you do what's actually in your own best interest despite the short term pain it might cause??  Few are eager to comply.

Yuval Noah Harari suggests why CEOs might be even more willing to gamble with the future:
"They don't think they are gambling on their own personal future. Even if bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah's Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons" (p 253). 
Will we ever get the politicians to agree to raising the marginal tax rate when it directly affects their own bottom line since, clearly, the elites are all wrapped up together??  The route with the least deaths overall is for us to take immediate revolutionary action and force policy, but the route with the least disruption in my immediate surroundings is to sit quietly and wait for slow change as the pot is brought to a boil. This is still a conundrum.


The economy is built on trust in a steady future. Admitting that climate change will destroy us could cause greater havoc than the nuts and bolts of dismantling the oil industry. The economic threat is not just with the loss of jobs in the tar sands, but with the effect of the collective understanding of the very tenuous future we're facing. We're in that place of keeping calm. It's like jumping into double dutch skipping ropes. Timing is everything. We're calling on the politicians to JUST GO already, but once their feet leave the ground, there's no going back. We need leaders who can actually make that leap effectively. Or just make that leap. Something has to happen!!


According to Alex Clark, what Vonnegut's words imply is,
"fatalism, stoicism and the acceptance that no use will come of shrinking away when the worst has happened. Questioned repeatedly over the decades about whether he thought Dresden should have been bombed, Vonnegut's most significant response was that it had been bombed; the question for him was how one behaved after that."
We've let this go on for too long to fix it without destroying lives and livelihoods. The question now is how will we behave now that we're here.

I looked back to what I wrote this time ten years ago, on the cusp of this very decade. This is from an old blog, long abandoned and taken off-line. It was a call to action that I was never nervy enough to implement, as if writing about it was enough. (I wasn't nearly as long-winded.)
"December 2009: Last Days  
Do we need some kind of apocalyptic future for some reason? For centuries we've had one courtesy of the Book of Revelations. For non-believers, though, we could relax a while in the knowledge that the Bible's just a fantasy and the world's not going to end, not even in 2012. 
But now the world really is going to end according to environmentalists. Lovelock says we've got a 10% chance of surviving the next 100 years, that 90% of the population of the world will die off because of the number of entire eco-systems we're destroying. It's not as immediate or dramatic as a seven-headed creature rising from the sea to cause havoc and turmoil, but it'll be as devastating. We're frogs sitting in water that's being slowly warmed to a boil. 
The environmental apocalypse is taking over the job of the religious one. But what job is that? Why end the New Testament, the Good News, on such a sour note? It's all to keep us in line, to separate the good from the evil. But aren't we all sinners anyway? Depends who you ask.
Now there's a new good and evil: the sustainable and the greedy. But this time there isn't such a secure line from being good to being saved. The good can do all they can, but they still might get wiped out by floods, starvation, oxygen depletion, dehydration, cholera, etc. And the bad, by simple luck of the draw or the wealth and knowledge. necessary to move to the safest possible location on the globe, might survive beautifully.
We can only all survive if we're all good. I propose a Jehovah Witness strategy: the Climate Change Believers, or CCBs, need to start going door to door to convince people to change their ways and fight the power. We can follow JW strategies, because even if you slam the door, a lot of people stop and listen. 
If they insist they can't possibly live without a car because they have little kids who won't walk anywhere, remind them that their kids and grandkids will suffer horribly if we don't all stop driving to the corner for a loaf of bread and a gum ball from the machine. If we care about our kids at all, we'll find a way to live without a car.  No matter what new technologies we discover, we will all have to use less. If they insist their voice won't make a difference to their city counsellor, MPP or MP, remind them that it's all that ever has made a difference. 
We can print off information booklets called "The Watch Tree" printed on hemp paper with lots of tips on saving the environment at the individual level as well as on protesting for systemic changes. 
Because if you're like me, you know this is the last chance we have. There's no afterlife to lounge in for eternity. When this world ends, that's it for humanity. God's not going to save us; that's up to us."
And then, in the comments, we all agreed that if we could get more people to stop eating cows and pigs, we could go a long way in slowing this down. Too bad we didn't actually do this at the time, though, eh!?

Ten years previous, in 1999, I was a little bit wary of planes falling from the sky at midnight, but I didn't have a stash of food or a generator in my basement. I mainly trusted that the guardians of the land had things more or less under control. I don't have any such illusions of our masters making good choices anymore. Not even the Galapagos is safe from our foibles. It happens here and there, some excellence in leadership, but it's rare enough to be consider almost miraculous.

But consider George Monbiot on Marin:
"In Finland, on the day of our general election, Boris Johnson’s antithesis became prime minister: the 34 year old Sanna Marin is strong, humble and collaborative. Finland’s politics, emerging from its peculiar history, cannot be replicated here. But there is one crucial lesson. In 2014, the country started a programme to counter fake news, teaching people how to recognise and confront it. The result is that Finns have been ranked, in a recent study of 35 nations, as the people most resistant to post-truth politics. . . . 
But in some parts of the world, towns and cities have begun to rewild politics. Councils have catalysed mass participation, then, to the greatest extent possible, stepped back and allowed it to evolve. Classic examples include participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Decide Madrid system in Spain and the Better Reykjavik programme in Iceland. Local people have reoccupied the political space that had been captured by party machines and top-down government. They have worked out together what their communities need and how to make it happen, refusing to let politicians frame the questions or determine the answers. The results have been extraordinary: a massive re-engagement in politics, particularly among marginalised groups, and dramatic improvements in local life. Participatory politics does not require the blessing of central government, just a confident and far-sighted local authority. 
Is this a formula for a particular party to regain power? No. It’s much bigger than that. It’s a formula for taking back control, making our communities more resilient and the machinations of any government in Westminster less relevant. This radical devolution is the best defence against capture by any political force. Let’s change the nature of politics in this country. Let’s allow the fascinating, unpredictable dynamics of a functioning society to emerge. Let the wild rumpus start."

This suggests a push to affect communities. Individual action isn't enough to make it the primary focus, but some countries are too big to try to change. A community focus might be key. An article in The Tyee says it's all way easier than we think:
"Taken together, walkable cities, cycling, transit, EVs, heat pumps and Passive Homes offer an 80 to 90-per-cent energy descent without a single comfortable life being wrecked. So enough with the fear mongering."
 The article doesn't even mention the dramatic change if we just shift from beef to chicken (even more if we shift from beef to beans). It's all do-able. We just have to DO IT!

But, how do we awaken the people from their blanket of "not my responsibility." It feels like the places that need the loudest alarms are the places that have the biggest effect - like much of the U.S. But it's a struggle to get that spirit here as well as we dither about legislating straws and continue to elect a new wave of conservative leaders fighting to undo even the most incremental positive changes. We're in that nowhere place of marginal taxes rising and falling after each election, but always within the 30% range - never venturing into the 70s much less the 90s of the glory days. And we watch policies discussed and maybe take effect and then are rescinded over and over but never actually significantly address the real issues in the first place. It's the illusion of action in a game where we actually feel like we going to get a turn any minute now. It's well past time that we topple the whole table.

But our next generation, born with iPads in their cribs, seems to have less experience with cooperative play, with give and take and compromise, as previous generations - with solidarity. And the rest of us could very well be forgetting what that feels like since accepting the ideology of "me first." If we can't get on top of this, it will soon be a harsh change to learn how to make do with so much less and never again get precisely what we want. But it's so much more relaxing to check out the newest second rate features on Netflix instead of thinking about all this. Anxiety is the bad guy in our current western stories. Obliviousness is the new sheriff. Things are about to get ugly.


The Disaffected Lib said...

I've been trying to train myself not to dwell on the future, Marie. It has reached the point where such thinking can feel like drowning.

I read Don Pittis' piece with the Jaccard passages. My heart sank a bit as I pondered Jaccard's call to action. His reasoning is dangerous albeit perfectly suited to an economist. Jaccard (and Pittis) believe that climate change can be tackled as a standalone issue. It's not.

I found it inspirational when Camilo Mora, who runs the climate science lab at University of Hawaii, ignored his colleague's warnings and mustered up the courage to publish a piece warning that climate change is only one of a number of interwoven existential threats. Overpopulation and our population-driven consumption levels are two others. As Jared Diamond observes in his book, "Collapse," when confronted with multiple existential threats you either must solve them all or you'll solve none. Mora wrote that his colleagues congratulated him on "coming out" but declined to add their voices out of fear of retribution.

Our affliction isn't global warming. We could decarbonize tomorrow and we'd still be in a lethal jam. What really threatens us is our inability to perceive the real peril - our inability, nay refusal, to live in harmony with our environment, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth. When you take climate change, overpopulation and over-consumption together, the common failure becomes obvious.

Some years ago I took two online courses in global food security. That led me to explore the research of some prominent agronomists. They warned that industrial agriculture of the type needed to feed our burgeoning population was seriously degrading soil fertility. The chemicals we were using - fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides - coupled with groundwater irrigation were leaching the soil of its microbes, carbon and essential nutrients. In 2014 the UN FAO, acting on this research, warned that mankind had around 60 harvests left before we faced agricultural collapse. India, for example, went from periodic famine into a major food exporter thanks to the agricultural Green Revolution. It was great while it lasted but now some of its best farming regions are in peril. They've emptied the groundwater reserves and have so depleted the soils that twice as much fertilizer is now required to bring in a crop. Farmers, no longer able to pay the higher prices demanded for seed, agri-chems and water, are taking their own lives. Meanwhile wealthy nations such as China and countries of the Middle East are land-grabbing fertile land in the Third World, in some cases in the same places where the advanced nations have to send food aid every few years to fight famine.

Bringing humanity back into harmony with our finite environment is a mountain we're not interested in climbing. We're becoming inured to our plight. As you note, the clock is running out.

As for the rich and their lifeboat, I'm reminded of an article written by a New York-based futurist who was given a handsome fee for what he thought would be a luncheon speech for some Wall Street types. When he showed up, he had a combined audience of three - hedge fund managers. They didn't want a speech. They merely wanted to ask questions. One of their greatest worries was if an apocalypse rendered money valueless how would they protect themselves from their own security?

Owen Gray said...

I'm afraid you're right, Marie. Things are about to get ugly.

Marie Snyder said...

@Mound - It's interesting the backlash I'm seeing about overpopulation claims - as if it's mean to suggest people consider having fewer children. A few pieces have been written trying to completely debunk the reality that numbers make a difference. Reproductive freedom is something we're unwilling to part with even for our own survival. And stopping consumption is something people concretely understand as directly destructive to the economy. In times of crisis, our mandate is to SHOP. It's not the kind of thing where we can head for the hills for safety because they're burning up. I fear this roaring 20s will be a roar of fire and fighting that brings us to an unprecedented dirty 30s. I have no idea how to get people back to a simpler life of less. I think it's too many generations gone, and maybe I'm the weird one of my group because my parents were old when they had me; they managed through the depression and taught me to be wary of big business and banks. And we spent every summer in the woods. Maybe it's through great prescience or dumb luck that we're broadening euthanasia laws. Have you seen Melancholia?

BUT I think you're first line is most important. Maybe to live well right now is to live more present-minded, with shorter goals and less attention to the details that could be in our future. I wrote this in part to, hopefully, revisit in ten years time, so there is a hope implicit to the writing!

Marie Snyder said...

@Owen - yes. We've shifted from "feel the fear and do it anyway" to the mantra of self-care as self-oblivion: warm bubble baths and fun shows to watch to recuperate from our lives (targeted mainly at the privileged). Tra la la.