Climate change’s OJ Simpson moment

Bill McKibben has just written an excellent article: Climate Change’s OJ Simpson Moment | Mother Jones. Although one can read it as yet another argument pro or con on climate change, it’s even more a sophisticated analysis of how the discourse has developed over the last 20 years, in the process giving a surprisingly sympathetic account of climate change deniers.

He starts by discussing the positive reaction to his first book, The End of Nature, which was one of the first books for a general audience on climate change:

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data…Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the US, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet.

But McKibben doesn’t just rail agains the deniers of global warming, or pull out reams of reports, data, and arguments. Instead, he  talks about how we all respond to disturbing news and to mountains of evidence we don’t have the capacity to sort through. I felt as if he were speaking to all of us across a wide range of complex topics in the modern era–health, economics, education.

He goes on then to show how evidence alone is not the issue; in fact, its effect can be contrary to what you might think at first:

the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all.

The “OJ Simpson moment” relates to the problem that the defense faced in the OJ Simpson murder trial, in which “it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning.” How could they cast doubt, when there appeared to be no remotely reasonable doubt? McKibben shows how, ironically, one resource they had was the immense body of evidence against their client.

He also shows how ordinary language is shaped and changed. One reason the deniers of global warming are winning the debate is that they’re able to connect with our fear of change, of having to do something. As McKibben says:

The great irony is that the climate skeptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster.

New FEMA flood maps are full of errors

In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began a $200 million/year flood map project using mapping technology (GIS/GPS) to identify areas susceptible to flooding. The goal was to mitigate future catastrophes like the flood in Iowa, which caused $10 billion of damage.

But critics, including civic leaders, developers and home owners in several states, have complained that the new maps are riddled with inaccuracies, seem arbitrarily drawn, and will stifle growth and hurt property values…Doug Boyer, whose home would be in the flood plain for the first time if FEMA’s Oakville map gains final approval, said it’s inexplicable why FEMA extended the flood plain border to the center of Main Street in the relatively flat town. “The east side is in the flood plain and the west side is fine — it’s odd that the water will stop at Main Street.” FEMA flood maps are full of errors, cities say

Property owners naturally have a vested interest in what the new maps say. Nevertheless, it’s easy to sympathize with Boyers wonderment at why the water would stop at Main Street. This seems like a good argument for the incorporation of user-generated content in the production of maps, or what’s called Volunteered Geographic Information, as in a forthcoming issue of Geomatica.

Who’s responsible for the fragility of Haiti?

In What You’re Not Hearing about Haiti (But Should Be) at CommonDreams.orgCarl Lindskoog presents an excellent account of why the disaster in Haiti is neither entirely a natural one nor the fault of the Haitian people and government:

[January 14, 2010] In the hours following Haiti’s devastating earthquake, CNN, the New York Times and other major news sources adopted a common interpretation for the severe destruction: the 7.0 earthquake was so devastating because it struck an urban area that was extremely over-populated and extremely poor.  Houses “built on top of each other” and constructed by the poor people themselves made for a fragile city.  And the country’s many years of underdevelopment and political turmoil made the Haitian government ill-prepared to respond to such a disaster…

It may startle news-hungry Americans to learn that these conditions the American media correctly attributes to magnifying the impact of this tremendous disaster were largely the product of American policies and an American-led development model.

Lindskoog shows how USAID policies led to structural changes in the countryside, which predictably forced Haitian peasants who could no longer survive to migrate to the cities, especially Port-au-Prince. Promised manufacturing jobs failed to materialize.  Port-au-Prince became overpopulated and slum areas expanded.  Poorly constructed housing followed and the eventual abandonment of the US-led development model. Haitians, with virtually no financial resources were left to address the problems they had not created.

Devastation in Haiti

Last April I wrote, Friends don’t let friends suffer: The US must step up for Haiti, about the responsibility of everyone, but especially those in the US, to do more for Haiti. The argument for doing so is compelling on many grounds. It calls for a long-term commitment to rebuilding the Haitian economy and to changing the relationship between Haiti and its wealthy neighbors.

Now, the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on Wednesday, with aftershocks continuing, needs immediate attention. In addition to making our government do more, we can work through NGO’s (see How to Help at NPR). Beyond that, Haitians should be immediately granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The Department of Homeland Security review and revise US policy towards Haiti.

If anything good can come from this disaster, it might be that we begin to act in a more humane and responsible way toward one of our closest neighbors. Beyond immediate needs there must be concerted action to address the underlying economic and political catastrophe that afflicted Haiti even before the earthquake.

In that earlier post, I listed six specific actions that the US and international agencies could do now.

Overconsumption is the problem, not population

When we watch farmlands or forests being paved over for new housing, or see images of starving children, it’s hard not to think that there may be just too many people, that we have “exponential” population growth. This leads soon to the idea that we need to “do something” about population.

That view has a long history, including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Thomas Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. There may well be negative effects and ultimate limits, but most of the blame assigned to population today would be better assigned to overconsumption.

How we understand the causes of present problems such as climate change, depletion of natural resources, hunger, and war is important, because different causes call for different remedies. An article by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, via Population: Overconsumption is the real problem – opinion – 27 September 2009, summarizes well the major issues here.

The population “bomb” is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did – mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more “doing something” about global population might achieve.

Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean. There are holdouts in a few Muslim countries – but not Iran, where fertility is 1.7 – and many parts of Africa

Thus, even if we have too many people, the rate of growth is decreasing, and all the indicators point to further reductions accompanying development. So, if the problem is not exponential population growth, what is it? Pearce goes on to point out that

the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.

Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.

Pearce talks mostly about climate change, but his argument holds for other aspects of environmental stress, including the basic issue of hunger. Overconsumption in the rich countries occurs through waste, a diet heavily based on meat, and simply too much eating. A study directed by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, indicates that up to fifty per cent of all food ready for harvest in the US never gets eaten. That amount alone is enough to address worldwide hunger needs.

There’s no doubt that we’d do better to balance our population with the available resources, but before we criticize the mote in the eye of starving villagers in Africa, we might well consider the beam in our own.


The land of forms

form_1040_us_individual_income_tax_return_form_imageFar across the sea, there’s a certain land in which curious practices began to emerge some time ago. These practices began with the idea of documenting the work people were doing. Someone had the brilliant idea to ask each person to fill out a form to show how much they had done at such and such a time. It was never clear that the information so collected had any bearing on the work or the people involved, but the form was beautiful and quickly evolved from a few simple questions into a formidable document.

Soon, it was decided that forms would be useful in health care, asking all kinds of questions about the body, regardless of whether that information would be used. There were then forms for voting, for taxes, for getting a job, for running a business, for schools, for shopping, for clubs, for religion, for travel, for sports, for software, indeed for every aspect of the people’s lives. In the early stage, the typical form would fit on a sheet of paper. But that stage was short-lived. The forms began to grow, soon needing special, long sheets of paper, or multiple sheets. Then, online forms appeared, with checkboxes, open fields, Previous and Next buttons and all sorts of other helpful features.

prc-health-form-eAn especially useful feature was “Are you absolutely sure that the information you have entered is accurate and complete? Severe penalties for non-compliance will ensue.” This one was good because the forms were inevitably obscure and self-contradictory, making it a challenge to know what one had just filled out, much less whether it was accurate and complete.

A major advance in the practice of forms was to create forms to determine whether you were filling out other forms properly. Ethics compliance forms were established to check that other activities, inevitably themselves involving forms, were properly conducted. As with the other uses of forms, the genesis was quite understandable. For example, people had been incorrectly filling out forms to issue driving licenses, thus endangering the public. A new form arose to ensure more ethical behavior. The fact that ethical abuses escalated following the introduction of the new ethical form led to a now-familiar phenomenon: The form was expanded. Again, the link between ends and means was tenuous at best.

An especially interesting aspect of the forms culture was that some forms could not be completed without first doing another form. Completing the second form would lead to the production of a control number to be entered on the first, assuming of course that it, the second one, could be properly completed, submitted, and reviewed. This practice reached its zenith with the realization that form number two could itself require the completion of another form, and so on.

In this way, the forms began to come alive, each connected to the others though a complex, essentially unknowable rhizomatic network. Forms naturally spawned other forms in an ever-growing ecology of forms in multiple

As the forms ecology grew, some people began to raise questions about whether it was possible to complete a form if doing so entailed completing other forms in an endless succession. Fortunately, there were philosophers and mathematicians to weigh on on this question. One school of thought, the Infinitists, began to argue that the chains of forms were infinite, meaning that some forms were uncompleteable, a seeming tragedy in the forms world. Others claimed that the total number of forms had to be finite, but that there were circular chains such that a form could be completed only by being already completed.

This latter view is reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s demand on the reader in his The World as Will and Idea. Schopenhauer says that his book has but one idea. That idea is an organic whole that cannot be expressed by a book with “a first and a last line.” His compromise solution to this conundrum is to ask the reader to read the book twice or not at all. The Circularists,  as those who believed in the circular chains of forms came to be called, adopted a similar view: They argued that although the circular topology prevented the form from ever being completed, repeated revisitings could lead to a kind of oneness with the form akin to groking Schopenhauer’s one organic idea.

Pragmatists, of the Peircean variety were quick to see the ever-increasing complexity of the forms ecology, with its convoluted topologies and possible lack of finitude. But they emphasized an additional wrinkle that had passed by even some of the great connoisseuers of forms. The forms were not static; they could change in small and large ways at a moment’s notice. This meant, among other things, that having completed a form on one day was no assurance that one would not be required to complete it again the next.

autofill_formThere was also a curious aspect of the storage of forms data. I’ve remarked on the separation of the forms from the dally life and purposes they purported to address. But beyond that, they spoke to themselves in what some deemed to be a fractured dialect. Forms completed at a doctor’s office could not communicate with the apparently similar form at the physical therapy facility whose purpose was to implement the doctor’s prescription. And neither of those forms could speak to the pharmacy forms or those of the medical supply.  This occurred even when the facilities were all part of the same organization.

On the other hand, even though the forms were disconnected from daily life and each other, they had a remarkable ability to retain and communicate data in a dysfunctional fashion. For example, no matter how grudgingly and circumspectly people had revealed details of their lives or how many assurances had been made, these details were regularly transmitted throughout the land. The word for “privacy” disappeared from the language, as it no longer had a use.

Despite the massive accumulation and dissemination of data engendered by the forms, people seemed to know less and less about one another or the concrete problems they faced in their lives. The reason was clear: Police spent time on forms, not on preventing crime; health providers likewise became adept at forms, but not at ensuring health; teachers knew every line and checkbox, but had little time for details such as students.

Over time, the people learned that nothing was real in their lives unless it could fit on a form–their wealth, their citizenship, their job, their spouse, and so on. What could not be form-alized did not exist. The forms became the reality they originally sought only to document. They infiltrated every aspect of the people’s lives and slithered with ease across natural and political boundaries. While the forms ecology had a beginning in specific times and places, it warmed the hearts of forms afficianados to know that there was no way to stop their spread.

I welcome comments on this little story. There’s a form below for your convenience.

Apples and apples

IMG_8487There’s more than corn and beans in the farmland here. Last Sunday, we visited an apple farm/orchard in Monticello, Illinois, which had 17 varieties.

Appropriately (for Monticello), one was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, Spitzenberg. We got a little carried away and bought five half-pecks for $20.

IMG_8489Fortunately, one is a long-keeper, Buff, which is supposed to last until late winter if it stays cold.

IMG_8485If we don’t eat them all, we can feed them to our deer. See this backyard scene, where we played boule at the potluck in honor of John Dewey’s 150th birthday on Tuesday.