Sunday, November 27, 2011

the plot thickens

The Durban Climate Conference (COP-17) kicks off Monday.  Two weeks ago, the Working Groups on Physical Science and on Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability gathered at the 34th session of the IPCC in Kampala.  Last week, they released a joint statement.

Key findings about the near future are 1. there will be more extreme weather; 2. heavy rains will likely increase in many places; 3. storms will likely grow stronger; 4. droughts will intensify (medium confidence); 5. coastal high water levels will very likely get higher; 6.  avalanches, mudslides, mountain floods will become common (high confidence).

Facts at present are 1. climate-related economic loss has increased; 2. climate-related economic loss is worst in rich countries; 3. climate-related fatalities are worst in poor countries. In sum, "interactions among climate change mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk management may have a major influence on resilient and sustainable pathways."

On the eve of Durban word got out, embarrassing, really, that the big economies already decided that dealing with climate change costs too much, so they won't do anything about it.  Yes, it costs more to deal with it later, but that's OK, that's economic rationality.  Adam Smith tells us that children should pay for the sins of their fathers, and if they can't, screw them.  We have engineering tools for the sustainable switchover at our disposal (wind, solar, nuclear, high speed rail, subways, bicycles, carbon scrubbers, smart houses, walkable cities, and so on), but making use of these tools is not as profitable as sticking to the status quo.  (Enlightening is NYT's hand-wringing take on bullet trains in California.)  This dissing of Durban made UNEP exec Achim Steiner mad.  And so he talked back:
Those countries that are currently talking about deferring an agreement [to come into force] in 2020 are essentially saying we are taking you from high risk to very high risk in terms of the effects of global warming.  This is a choice -- a political choice.  Our role, working with the scientific community, is to bring to the attention of the global public that this is the risk that policymakers and governments will expose us to.
In this way the plot thickens.  Things speed up and affairs simplify.  The acceleration is due to reality denial by power elites.  Collective conduct has become unsustainable, and unsustainability has consequences that sharpen the more we deny this.  The simplification is due to a thickening of connections that, not that long ago, would have looked like leftist paranoia.  The funny thing is that it does not matter anymore whether we read the plot as 'science versus disenlightenment,' 'nature versus capitalism,' 'climate versus corporation,' or 'people versus oligarchs'--these are all equally legitimate ways of decoding the fundamental tension.

The American Disenlightenment is in full push-back mode against values and facts.  Sustainability?  Forget about it.  Climate change?  Not in my world.   Economic justice?  Over my dead body.  Bill Scher wrote on Alternet,
What am I thankful for this year?  I am thankful the conservative movement has stopped trying to pretend to be something that they are not.  Instead of masquerading as 'compassionate conservatives' who want 'clear skies,' 'personal retirement accounts,' 'protect Medicare' and 'tax relief' for all, today's conservative lust lays it on the table: Tax the poor.  Deregulate the rich.  Drill Baby Drill.  Filibuster the jobs bills.  And to hell with Social Security and Medicare.
The push-back is the Corporate Thing To Do.  Twenty years ago a wave of democracy swept the globe.  Today a wave of corporate power tries to sweep away democracy everywhere we look--whether that's Durban, Tahiri Square, Zuccotti Park, or UC Davis.  Strange things thus happen.  Banks (!) decide the fate of nations, in Greece and elsewhere.  Corporations (!) decide what is law and what is to be done, in Tallahassee and elsewhere.  The day of the oligarchy dawns.  There are so many ways to illustrate this, that it gets actually boring to blog about, but heck, here we go: e.g. how five toxic energy companies control US politics (Massey, Koch, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron); how it isn't about the 'one percent,' but rather about the 0.1 percent.  Capitalism punks governments to act against their societies.  The pattern is local and global.  On the national level, science-averse Republicans have once again blocked the establishment of a National Climate Service.   

And that's where we are now.  Scientific information, people power, and environmental interests all head to one pole.  Economic rationality, corporate might, conservative politicians gravitate to another pole.  The polarization is stark: disenlightenment is the ideology of predatory capitalism.  Corporate power replaces democratic governance with oligarchic profiteering.  And scientific consensus is unanimous: we fight corporate disenlightenment; we embrace the paradigm shift; we embark on civil evolution.

For if we don't, we'll have only sixty-one months left.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

stage three

The new climate events summary is probably the most massive update ever at blisterdata.  Striking about the climate- and environmental data stream over the past month is the rising tide of items on civil evolution versus disenlightenment.  There has never been so much attention to the cultural dimension of the biospherical transition as in this autumn.

The transformation has now unfolded along three stages.  The first is a coalescing consensus on the groundswell of news so dire that they threaten longterm survival.  Recent book titles, such as Lester Brown's World on the Edge--How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (2011), speak for themselves.  As do the annual topics of volumes in the State of the World Report series by the Worldwatch Institute:  Into a Warming World 2009, Transforming Cultures 2010, and Innovations to Nourish the Planet 2011, the last of which puts a happy face on trends that are frankly expressed inside the covers, such as "Africa's soil fertility crisis and the coming famine" (S. 59).  We know we are in trouble.  That's stage one.

Stage two is the failure of political leaders to deal with this knowledge.  The Democrats do not dare to build policy around climate change since this would cost corporate donations.  The Republicans are in flat-out denial lockdown mode; to them the scientific findings do not even exist.  (It is ironic that conservatives, who pride themselves on manly John-Wayne-virtues, turn out to be too effete to stomach the facts.)  It is similar with other topics that deserve to be capitalized: Peak Oil, Mass Transit, Sustainability, Renewable Energy, and the great taboo Population Growth Control.  Facts on the ground overwhelm the political system's management capacities. 

Stage three begins once again with a coalescing consensus, only this time about the very failure of leadership, an executive, ethical, and cognitive failure tied to sellout to the highest bidder.  This failure also reflects a generation gap: the old are the grasshopper generation that eats everything up; the young are left with empty wallets, must think creatively, and will be the solutions generation.  The unfairness of it all galvanizes discontent.  Now the Occupy movement has gone mainstream and is being endorsed by philosophers (Habermas, Zizek), nobel laureates (Stiglitz, Krugman) and green sages (Suzuki, Sachs) worldwide.  Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs put it best, I think: it is the beginning of a new progressive movement, and what we are witnessing is historic. 

Sixty-one months left.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

american disenlightenment

I first came across the term "American Disenlightenment" in a work by the intellectual Kevin Phillips.  Phillips is a critic of the zeitgeist; his writings mark him as a bit of a visionary, for he has a tendency of being always a little ahead of the curve.  His excellent Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (London: Penguin) appeared in 2008, just when the Great Downturn happened.  Evidently he had been working on this project when stocks were still rising and the bubble was still in the making.  The term "American Disenlightenment" is from an earlier work; American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006).   Phillips dedicates it "to the millions of Republicans, present and lapsed, who have opposed the Bush dynasty and the disenlightenment in the 2000 and 2004 elections."

Disenlightenment?  Disenlightenment?  I remember how startled I was when stumbling over this when opening the book four years ago.  Before I turned to Philosophy of Climate, my academic bread-and-butter had been the Enlightenment, the Aufklärung and Kant.  After earning tenure I studied the Eastern variant of the Enlightenment (Erleuchtung in German), and researched the Leibniz-Wolffian links from East to West, from Erleuchtung to Aufklärung, or how the Jesuit reception of Chinese wisdom triggered the Age of Reason in Germany.  I thought I had been familiar with the topic, but suddenly there was this new term: not Enlightenment, but Dis-Enlightenment, and in America no less -- even though the United States had been a creation of the Enlightenment.  This was curious.

So what, actually, is Disenlightenment?  Phillips approaches the question by a characterization of decline.  Four social traits are linked with empires in decline: Angst, or a spreading sense of anxiety; bible-thumping or increased religious fervor; anti-rationalism or skepticism; and lastly the expectation of demise.  Add to this three political and economic traits: military overreach, a people in debt, and systemic corruption.

Disenlightenment, as the profile of a zeitgeist, involves features such as structural stagnation or regression; an embrace of supernatural absolutes and a devaluing of the human community; narcissist individualism (the consumerist ego) or contempt for public spaces; distrust of reason (which expresses itself philosophically in analytic and postmodern variants of skepticism), and lastly a sense that reality is opaque (absurd, terrifying, puzzling).  Generally, disenlightenment boils down to a disconnect from reality, science, and humanity.

In 2008 the Philosophy Department organized a workshop-conference on "Science in Society".  I was asked to join in and thought that, well, the most intriguing society, to me, is the American one, being at the anthropological limit and all, and the most impressive science, to me, is climatology, involving the largest research collaboration in history, and disclosing, for the first time ever, the probability-cones of our collective future.  So what about climate science in American society?  Given the denial, the doubt, and the dismissal, here is the perfect example.  U.S. climate denial--what better illustration can there be for the reality of American Disenlightenment?

At the time my presentation elicited confusion and annoyance, especially among my more scholarly colleagues.  The sense was that this topic is a bit nuts.  And perhaps it was.  But strange, from a research perspective, is to see the rise of this subject-matter from curious beginnings to a straightforward field of study.  After witnessing the general cultural unraveling, the liberal apathy, and the rise of ideological extremism, there is no doubt anymore that the American Disenlightenment has arrived.  I couldn't give the same kind of conference lecture now that I gave then because with climate denial at an all time peak domestically while the whole world is moving in a postcarbon direction, the topic has become almost trivial.  There is soon little for philosophers left to study; the topic will become the work of sociology, anthropology, and history.

Sixty-one months left.