"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is This So Difficult?

I liked RustNeverSleeps' comment on this image, which he found on yet another interesting climate blog, Signs from Earth.

Quoth Rust:

"Why is this so bloody hard to comprehend?"


Lou Grinzo said...

Lou's First Law of Everything: A sufficiently large economic incentive beats a royal flush.

Hank Roberts said...

"Biologically rational decisions may not be politically possible once investment has occurred."

Science v315, 5 Jan. 2007, at 45

Adam said...

"Al Gore's new movie:
An Inconvenient Truth II: What the F*** Is Wrong With You People?"
-Bill Maher

amoeba said...

There are none so blind as those that will not see!

Steve Easterbrook said...

Upton Sinclair:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

Dol said...

The choice of the colour red for positive temperature anomalies is alarmist.

Anonymous said...

"You can only lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drrr...um, wait a minute...what happened to the water?"

Steve L said...

The only way to fail to understand is with the help of dishonesty -- either attributed to others ("the 70's is a cherry pick, as there was a global cooling scare then") or exercised by one's self ("it's all cycles, wine in England") or both ("I don't care what the glaciers say, those thermometer readings are rigged").

Hank Roberts said...

Or this:

Anonymous said...

My contribution isn't as pithy as those above. But since I'd been mulling on the McKibben video and the comments by WC and others to the effect of "Because you are trying to tell people things they don't want to hear"...

That's pretty fundamental to the problem. It's not just some mysterious "merchants of doubt" coordinating a denial campaign. The fact is, they're working in very, very fertile ground. No one really "wants" to believe this.

Clive Hamilton sums this up well in his book Requiem for a Species, or this 8-page paper: "Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and Stresses of a Four Degree World":

He suggests three broad strategies people adopt:

i. Denial Strategies
ii. Maladaptive coping strategies.
iii. Adaptive coping strategies.

"In short, denial strategies suppress both facts and emotions; maladaptive coping strategies admit some of the facts and allow some of the emotions, both often in distorted form; and adaptive coping strategies accept the facts and allow the emotions to be felt, thus promoting more positive behaviours.

"all of these “coping strategies” are designed to defend against or manage the unpleasant emotions associated with “waking up” to the dangers of a warming globe...

"Adaptive coping strategies are akin to later phases of mourning and involve acceptance of, rather than resistance to, some of the pain and distress that follows recognition of the facts of climate science and their meaning...

"These unpleasant emotions arise in part because the threat of warming may also destabilise an individual’s identity or sense of self — threatening one’s life plans, reminding one of the fact of eventual death, challenging the morality of ecologically destructive or apathetic behaviours, or subverting one’s internalised expectations of the future..."

This is a big part of the problem. If part of the “package” in terms of grasping the grim reality of the situation is a period of (relatively solitary) grief and despair, a lot of people will - consciously or not - seek to avoid it.

Arthur Smith highlighted something Alex Steffen said that was more specific but along those lines:

"Many, I believe, are secretly terrified of what they'd see if they looked ahead. The people most deeply traumatized of all in our society may be the older men who've devoted their entire lives, in grinding hard work and out of love for the people around them, to building companies and communities and systems they thought represented a pinnacle of human endeavor and free enterprise, but which instead -- they would now find, if they could bring themselves to admit the possibility -- have become components of what is quite possibly the most destructive way of life ever made by human beings. To have done right and well your whole life and yet find yourself ethically indicted in the end, to have your accomplishments turn to ash, to arrive late expecting security and respect, and find neither: I don't think those of us who are younger can fully understand what a soul-wrenching experience that must be..."

Cognitive dissonance. Whatever. It actually is "bloody hard to comprehend".

Solutions? I don't know what it is going to be short of the oft-repeated "climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor". But I am pretty certain it will be something along the lines of Gladwell's "tipping points".

How do we accelerate achieving the necessary critical mass of "innovators/early adopters"?

Bonus: Hit the "character limit" for comments! So I am off the hook for providing the solution...

Anonymous said...

Excellent Rust. I think a good topic for study would be 1) where is the line 2) for what demographic fits what coping strategy 3) what the communication resources usefulness are [and after estimating answers], 4) define a probable strategy. This likely means giving up on an enormous amount of people, and, also realizing that the media may not be salvageable, so it may lead to depressing conclusions. I was attempting to figure some of this out in CaS thread last week that fizzled out quickly.

Steve Bloom said...

gryposaurus, isn't it funny how little interest Kloor has in the really important questions?

Michael Tobis said...

Steve, *ahem*, please keep the flames down to a low flicker, thanks.

We have worse enemies than Keith.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't blame Keith for that fizzled thread, I don't think he really understood my point and I'm probably more responsible for that, as I was exploring the idea indirectly. I think the environmental media (Kloor, Revkin) is salvageable, but I don't think the audience is there and most of those readers already have their minds made up (as Keith pointed out there). What's probably not useful is the media we need the most, which is the mainstream. The argument never really got where it should have, even when the reports were more frequent. The metaphorical "middle" has always been centered around the "reasonable" view, or "its an academic matter for the future" as to what will happen. It never made it to stories about what risks we are taking if so and so happens or who is responsible to change it or why the risks are incredible stupid and dangerous. Being reasonable became the word used for the wait-and-see crowd instead of the a more descriptive word, like Pollyanna, or something like that.

Michael Tobis said...

Indeed, we never made a very good case about how the "future" eventually becomes the "present". One might have considered that the intellegent reader would have understood this, though.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, rustneversleeps. My compliments to you.

My view is that before that Pearl Harbour occurs, the focus has to move from AGW to all global problems on one side (resource wars, top soil erosion, financial bubbles, diabetes epidemic, ocean acidification, etc), and explain that there is a root cause for all these problems: the concept that infinite economic growth is desirable and possible.

Now of course, behind this root cause there is this whole collective psychological and spiritual stuff, but if you take that path you will lose practically everyone and become very vulnerable to the divide&conquer tactics of the powers that be. It has to be simple.

So instead focus on the instrument, this concept of infinite growth that has shaped our economies, cultures and societies as a whole for many brainwashed generations, and that it's an illusion that defies natural laws and the limits that they set in finite systems.

I think this in theory should make sense to most people. People see and feel that there are limits between the horizon and them, approaching fast.

To cap it all off there is the positive message that by ditching this concept of infinite growth and replacing it with something more in line with biophysical reality, things have a chance - however slim - of progressing towards a society that is more sustainable, healthy and just.

I could speculate about solutions and they are very interesting (have to watch that 'character limit'), but the main thing to realize is that no solution to any symptom will work as long as that economic concept of infinite growth hasn't been replaced by something along the lines of steady state economics.

I know I'm being overly simplistic, but we need something simple, right?

Michael Tobis said...

Helps that it's true.

Adam said...

We have worse enemies than Keith.

I wonder.

Anthony Watt is obvious; Keith Kloor is insidious.

Anonymous said...

Helps that it's true.

Do you think it's a viable strategy?

Steve Bloom said...

Just for the record, I agree that we have worse enemies, and that Kloor isn't one, although he is very much not a friend.

I actually didn't look at the thread gryposaurus mentioned to see what the neglected issue was, but was referring to the at least three occasions on which Keith has asked (words to the effect) "Just what is the nature of the institutional resistance to dealing with the problem?" and then promptly abandoned the question.

Also, he seems to have decided that what he learned about climate some years back when he was an Audubon magazine editor is all he'll ever need to know. The more recent elucidation of the bad news just doesn't seem to sink in with him.

That wasn't too flamey, I hope.

crf said...

The United States and China look fairly white.

So I say, not difficult.

Michael Tobis said...

Neven, I think that you are onto something. Not that going against economists will be easy.

Anonymous said...

Neven, I think that you are onto something.

Thanks, Michael. I've prepared a guest blog that I hope will be put on-line soon. After that I'll know where I stand when all the flaws and difficulties are pointed out to me. I feel stupid writing about it, but it doesn't feel stupid, if you know what I mean.

It's so obvious to me that it has to be wrong.

Not that going against economists will be easy.

It certainly won't. Maybe we should use Richard Tol as a guinea pig first. ;-)

Hank Roberts said...

Donella Meadows is exceptionally clear on how often we do exactly the wrong thing, and why individual self-interest is so destructive (one reason her work infuriates the 'ibertarians so)






"Make feedback policies for feedback systems.

President Jimmy Carter had an unusual ability to think in feedback terms and to make feedback policies. Unfortunately he had a hard time explaining them to a press and public that didn't understand feedback.

He suggested, at a time when oil imports were soaring, that there be a tax on gasoline proportional to the fraction of US oil consumption that had to be imported. If imports continued to rise the tax would rise, until it suppressed demand and brought forth substitutes and reduced imports. If imports fell to zero, the tax would fall to zero.

The tax never got passed."

Steve Bloom said...

Rockstrom et al.'s work necessarily implies some sort of steady state solution.

Neven, this should be of interest.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, Hank! I had never heard of Donella Meadows before. What I've read so far looks very interesting.

Michael Tobis said...

Neven, she was first author of the Club of Rome report "The Limits to Growth".


This is arguably the founding document of earth system science.

Mal Adapted said...

I was, and still am, a big fan of The Limits to Growth and its sequels, but it's worth quoting that wikipedia article:

"Many prominent economists, scientists and political figures criticised the Limits to Growth. They attacked the methodology, the computer, the conclusions, the rhetoric and the people behind the project. The book’s authors found themselves on the defensive."

Sound familiar?

With all due respect to Neven, why does he think people who won't give up fossil fuels would be any more willing to give up the dream of infinite growth?

amoeba said...

What's the problem with exponential growth on a finite planet?


Dol said...

A few other steady state economy resources to chew over -


This output from a conference I went to in the summer:


Not steady-state, but relevant to actually getting there: I've just started listening to (Economics Nobel-prize winning) Elinor Ostrom, who was one of many great-looking speakers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre recently:


I think it's worth noting the symbolic importance of that Nobel: Ostrom's work is a radical break with the Hayekian past, where the message has been "you must not meddle!" Cf. this clip from Network -


Ostrom very matter-of-factly shows how, for common-pool resources at least, that's clearly nonsense, and there are as many options between total public ownership and privatisation as there are places. (Most economists, of course, prefer 'determinate' solutions that provide them with one, single answer...)

Dol said...

Apols for multiple posting - on the Limits to Growth, a very interesting history of 'how the limits to growth was demonised' from the Oil Drum a while back:


Look out for the terms 'ecoscam', 'quote out of context'... some of it's pretty familiar.

Anonymous said...

Mal Adapted:

"With all due respect to Neven, why does he think people who won't give up fossil fuels would be any more willing to give up the dream of infinite growth?"

Indeed. Haven't we heard enough about how Wealth Creation Is Not A Zero-Sum Game™ and that if we believe in the Magic Capitalist Pixie Dust™ then it'll bring about an Endless Cornucopia Of Wonderful Stuff™?

(Of course, that's right before they attack workers' rights, workers' pay cheques, and taxes, because somehow these attacks necessary to achieve 'wealth creation'. 'Not a zero-sum game' my ass. At some level, they know that someone has to make sacrifices to sustain the current situation, even if they keep mouthing the magic words 'not zero-sum, not zero-sum'.)

-- frank

Anonymous said...

Steve, thanks for that link. I actually had mail contact with Eben Fodor last year to ask him something about solar food dryers. I'm very much looking forward to this movie Hooked on Growth. I've donated about $50, so it better be good!

Dan Olner, those are very useful links. I cannot encourage people enough to have a look at the website of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). I have been reading about many things in the past few years, but I truly believe these guys are holding the key to meaningful solutions.

With all due respect to Neven, why does he think people who won't give up fossil fuels would be any more willing to give up the dream of infinite growth?

Mal Adapted, that's a good question. I'm not sure anything will work really. But stressing the consequences and illusory nature of an economic concept of infinite growth is going to the heart of the matter. The consequences of the overuse of fossil fuels are varied, but this overuse itself is a symptom of the economic concept of infinite growth. In fact, most, if not all global problems can be traced to it.

One of the problems of getting people to notice this, I believe, is that all the symptoms are masking the cause. AGW for instance garners enormous amounts of attention, and everybody is focussing on solutions. But AGW is not a root cause, it's a symptom.

And so the big problem that is causing and exacerbating all the other problems remains invisible. You can't even people say that people choose to believe in it, because for most people it is a law of life. How many people notice gravity or the fact that they are breathing? In fact our whole western culture has been (mis)shapen by this need for the economy to grow forever.

Keith Kloor keeps asking what tactic AGW proponents are going to employ now, because everything they have done so far has failed or even backfired. Well, I'd say it would be best to go all out and instead of just stressing one particular global problem, stress all of them and then show how they are tied to the root cause: the economic concept of infinite growth.

And then show a way forward: the steady state economy and its benefits.

Hank Roberts said...

Anyone else who hasn't read Donella Meadows -- do.


She wrote:

"... there it was, the message emerging from every computer model we made. Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity–our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.

I will summarize the most general 'systems wisdom' I have absorbed from modeling complex systems and from hanging out with modelers. ....

"14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

Examples of bad human behavior are held up, magnified by the media, affirmed by the culture, as typical. Just what you would expect. After all, we’re only human. The far more numerous examples of human goodness are barely noticed. They are Not News. They are exceptions. Must have been a saint. Can’t expect everyone to behave like that.

And so expectations are lowered. The gap between desired behavior and actual behavior narrows. Fewer actions are taken to affirm and instill ideals. The public discourse is full of cynicism. Public leaders are visibly, unrepentantly, amoral or immoral and are not held to account. Idealism is ridiculed. Statements of moral belief are suspect. It is much easier to talk about hate in public than to talk about love.

We know what to do about eroding goals. Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. And keep standards absolute...."