Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Are we, well.., decadant?

           Speaking as a Canadian and a North American, it is probably safe to say that we are not immune to the political and racial fanaticism that are emerging as disquieting symptoms of social decadence in Europe. Witness the recent debate in Québec over banning the wearing of "ostentatious religious symbols" by employees of public institutions: hospitals, government offices, schools, day cares..

left-wing-populism-in-quebec  (internal blog link)

             Ultimately, one can begin to pose questions about the long term viability of democracy in radically inegalitarian, capitalist / corporatist economies. Already, one begins to see the beginings of this questioning among political scientists:

link - democracy bankrupt?

             One of the things that strikes one as a "sign of the times": the nastiness of political debate. Why such nastiness in supposedly affluent societies where everyone (supposedly) has enough to eat? This may have a rational explanation: empty barrels make the most noise. When political parties have nothing to offer, they go on the attack. This is a way of hiding their intellectual vacuousness and moral bankruptcy: their sole reason for existing is to prop up a dying Old Regime as long as possible. This is the core set of values of reactionary politics, very visible in North America today. Just think of election time "attack" or "negative" ads. Our political leaders, with few exceptions, cannot be positive exactly because they have no proposals, no program founded in a critical analysis of reality. One gets the impression that our democratic institutions are exhausted.

link: noam-chomsky,10-strategies-of-manipulation

              Everywhere a "devil may care" attitude flourishes. Witness the antics recently of Toronto's high living, crack smoking, "man of the people" mayor Rob Ford.

link: character assassination as politics

               Everything which is "virile" - mean spirited, vicious, violent - is lauded. Cynicism is the norm, especially among the young. Many are convinced that all politicians are crooks, something which the Charboneau Commission hearings into corruption in the construction industry in Québec tend to confirm. 

 internal blog links:





                These are dangerous times. It is at such times that the disempowered and the disenfranchised finally opt out of the System and begin searching for Messiahs to save them. This has had terrible consequences in the 20th century. One need only think of the great dictators that century produced: Hitler, Stalin, Mao.. 

                Fascism caught the Left like a bolt out of the blue. Not only had they not predicted it's emergence in the first decades of the twentieth century but they did not really understand it. It is only with the 20 / 20 vision of retrospection, fifty years after its birth, could the Left say that it had some sort of an intellectual handle on fascism. And what we do know is not very encouraging..

                One definition of fascism: the control or seizure of the State by the corporate elite. That sounds like North America today. One need only compare, for example, the Harper government's environmental policies and the desires of the petrochemical industry to see much overlap there is. Harper's environmental policy could have been written in the Oil Patch (cynics say it was). Young people understand things like this viscerally and its corrupting influence both on them and on the political process itself.

                One of the strategies worked out by the fascists early on (program of the Italian fascist party, circa 1920), was what one can call "contemporary populism". Fascism / populism aims to bypass the logical, critical thinking circuits of the brain and tap directly into the reptilian brain.

              Dimetrodon: an early synapsid reptile (Permian era - 275 million years ago)
            Mammals are modern or surviving synapsids. Dimetrodon slumbers in the                    core of our mammalian brains..

           Since reptiles were the earliest terrestrial vertebrates from which the rest evolved, their brains are involved in computing the basic stuff: sex, aggression and flight, the stuff you need to survive but not much more. The rawest, most powerful emotional, instinctive stuff. This is what the fascists aim to tap into. Their males want our women: a traditional motivational ploy of the racist. They want to take over the world. They want to destroy our values and our way of life. Everything is simple, black and white - as befits a small, early model vertebrate brain.

             But the reptile slumbers in all of us (till awakened). The fascist wants to tweak Dimetrodon's tail, stomp on it. They want to connect the raw emotions stimulated and liberated to cues: racial, religious, gender-orientation or political epithets. The goal is to get a knee jerk - unthinking "conditioned" - reflex when the cues are presented. Thus, critical rational thinking - emerging in higher (non-reptilian) brain centers - is bypassed by raw, survival oriented emotion. This was all well spelled out in the first Fascist Party program (circa 1920, Rome). Contemporary North American reactionaries have refined the procedures (many are from advertising firms and corporate funded Right wing think tanks including university profs). More sophistication in programming and delivery but the basic principles are the same. In the third link from the top, Toronto's high-flyin' populist mayor smears - by insinuation - an adversarial journalist with the hate label, "pedophile". The connection is obvious: threat to children (our children!) has been linked to this man, his name and, of course, his future opinions expressed in his columns.

             The reassertion of populism, reactionary politics and even neo-nazi movements is a worrying sign, if the history of the 20th century is any judge...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Is art still possible?

Fascinating reflections on the role of the artist or writer in the contemporary "civlisational crisis" (Edgar Morin, La Méthode).


RE: "tension" (frustration, anger..) felt by the artist:

"Many, many of us hold that tension. At times it bursts, hard days, those. But if we can hold it balanced well enough to articulate, some stunning creative expression emerges. And since mere news stories, research and reports, international conferences, and even the actual experience of profound change seems not enough to break the spell of the economic culture, art that does that - art and poetry, images and metaphors, that cause the "breaks" - may be among our most essential tools in the toolkit of trying to save our basic humanity within the whole that is being torn asunder by those still under the power of the spell."

Art as a survival tool.. Think about that a bit, artists.. It's true, of course. Technology won't save us because technology is, at root, "only" tools. Like computers, technology can only output garbage if you insist on programming it with garbage (false values, idiotic goals). GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out - as the computer programers say.. Will God save us? Judging from what I read in the Old Testament, probably not. God does not seem to tolerate fools for long. That seems to be what the prophets were saying (often, anyway) The Space Brothers? I really, really don't think so. When I place myself in their shoes, I think it would be wiser to see if we are capable of managing SciTech. In other words, wait to see if we are stupid or crazy enough to destroy ourselves. If we survive THEN they will contact us (?)

If one defines religion as the dialogue of wo/man with the universe (or God/dess), then art as defined in this article may be seen as a spiritual or religious activity, mooring us or situating us in the Cosmos. Latin: religio - obligation, bond, reverence; religare - to bind fast, to moor (a boat).

"Art and writing have within them a mission to clear the fog, to offer a clear view, through the kinds of images and metaphors and stories that cut through the deceptions of the culture and blow the thick clouds away. We may not like what we see, but it may be good to remember that we will not only see what we most fear - that awful need to change everything - not only what is grim and hopeless, but also the sunrise, the stars in the night sky, the horizons, the beauty, the magnificence of this Creation - along with the path that could heal even the worst of the wounds we have inflicted.

The whole of the planet and all of humanity are in a time of transition. The evidence is everywhere and it is clear. An epoch is ending, no matter how desperately we cling to it. The extremes of weather these recent years ought to wake us to something. Let's not be afraid to say what that is."


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy

The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 2007, 181 pages).

A dangerous book? Green and fascist: are ecology and democracy incompatible?
Contains index, footnotes, exceedingly well documented. Part of the Praeger Politics and the Environment series.

The authors are environmentalists, academics, authors, physician, scientist, lawyer, philosopher - definitely not people to dismiss - which renders the book the more dangerous, being signed by such (apparently) credible witnesses. They are committed environmentalists with quite a few notches on their guns. The book begins with the unoffensive dedication:

"This book is dedicated to all who work for a truly equitable and environmentally sustainable world"
The authors then procede to a devastating analysis of "liberalism", democracy and "liberal democracy" showing how they have aided and abetted enivronmental crises: climate change, habitat destruction, etc. Their analysis is cogent and deserves reading and reflection upon. Unfortunately, the authors then procede into a minefield of semantic errors and draw some really dangerous conclusions from their faulted logic:

1- They conflate "liberalism" with "economic liberalism", ignoring the antinomian, paradoxical nature of the latter: unfettered freedom to accumulate leads necessarily to inequality of power / opportunity thus negating the liberal ideology used to justify economic liberalism.

Liberalism: attitude, philosophy, or movement that has as its basic concern the development of personal freedom and social progress.


2- Critique of Democracy. Representative democracy leads to "temporal myopia". Politicians pander to the electorate's basest drives in order to win the next election. In effect, society ends up incapable of thinking or seeing more than four years ahead. Politicians also must pander to corporate power both for campaign contributions and to provide jobs to buy votes. These critiques are, alas, all too true but do they necessarily apply, to such an extreme degree, to decentralized, community based, participatory forms of democracy? The authors make the mistake of painting all forms of "democracy" with the same brush when, in fact, there may be vital differences which need to be explored and exploited for socity's benefit.

3- The authors employ a facile, "common sense", Darwinism-based argument to justify authoritarian, top-down social regulation: authoritarianism is genetically programmed. This is virtually undeniable: man is, after all, a terrestrial vertebrate (mammal) and, at the most primitive level of social behavior should - obviously! - function like other mammals, dduuhhh.. See, for example, Stanley Milgram's pioneering research on "authoritarian compliance":
The authors then go on, from this sociobiological truism to argue, counter-factually, that democracy can't work and that some form of " idealistic authoritarianism" is needed to save the world from greed and plunder

The big "elephant in the room" that these authors ignore is that man is also, almost certainly, "genetically programmed" for face-to-face, participatory, "tribal village democracy". Stop to think about it for a second: why, exactly, did the human capacity for speech arise? Other higher primates don't have this highly evolved, "genetically programmed" capacity for communication through speech. Not the gorilla, nor the chimpanze, nor even the ourang-outang (though they come closest to us in this ability). Speech communication synergistically co-evolved with face-to-face, participatory, "tribal village democracy", the oldest, primordial form of human governance. That is to say, our ancestors were "naturally selected" to speak - and speak well - because group solidarity and group co-ordination, which possess "survival value", are facilitated by the capacity to communicate effectively vocally.

4- The authors blame liberals for the crimes of the neocons (who intensely hate liberals!). Thus the politics of fear of the Bush Administration as well as the abolition of human rights at Guantanamo Bay are laid squarely at the doorstep of "liberalism, liberals, democracy and liberal democracy". This is painting with a broad brush indeed! (The authors' penchant to conflate all these terms together, wily-nily, is itself a warning that a stretch of faulty logic is ahead. It is reminiscent of the Right's tendancy to conflate "liberals", "socialists", "secularists", "humanists", "secular humanists", "atheists", "communists", etc
What I find disturbing about this book is not so much its content or its argument - who among us has not proven wrong-headed on occasion? - but the fact that it is published by Praeger in their Politics and the Environment series: the book is intended to be a serious intellectual contribution to a serious social issue. I can't really blame Praegar though: if this is where we have arrived as a society, so be it! It is the fact that we have actually arrived at this level of intellectual bankruptcy as a civilization that is chilling.
The authors themselves seem relatively "blameless" too. From my reading, they arrived at their tragic conclusions out of desperation at the failure of modern society to halt its headlong rush toward ecological suicide. They appear, in effect, to be decent men acting from good, not evil, intent. And THAT really sends chills up my spine..

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: E O Wilson, The Future of Life

Edward O Wilson: The Future of Life (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 2002) 189 pages, chapter notes (extensive), glossary, index

abbreviations used: EROEI - Energy Return on Energy Investment
                                IMF - International Monetary Fund
                                WB - World Bank
             In writing Future, Wilson adopted the mantle of the Old Testament Prophet: redeem your ways or suffer the wages of your sin! His intentions are admiral but his proposals to rectify our ways are too often based on a faulty or over-optimistic reading of the state of the world, above all, of the human capacity for self-deception. 

            In the course of Future's nearly 200 pages,Wilson delivers a truly damning indictment of the destructive impact of human economic activity on earth's vital "bearing capacity", its ability to sustain life as we know it. As a naturalist, he knows that by degrading the natural world with our excessive numbers and badly designed technology, we are sawing off the branch we are sitting on.

             From a philosophical and moral perspective, particularly the latter, it is hard not agree with his analysis. I particularly appreciated his replies to "hard doomers", fueled by fundamentalist fervor that earth (or humanity) is doomed and nothing we can imagine or do will save us. The former doomer assertion is laughable: industrial society will collapse long before it renders the planet unlivable for hardy, archaic microbes: they are found kilometers deep buried in primeval rock and under the sea floor. Even if we somehow succeeded in sterilizing the earth's surface of life, ancient bacteria would eventually recolonize the seas and the land in a few zillion years.. Humanity, of course, is more fragile than the earth itself and so we could, conceivably, cause ourselves to go extinct. I just rather doubt it: protohumans and humans survived terrific hardships and are a resilient lot. More to the point: what the hell kind of world are my kids and grand kids going to live in..

             In all honesty, it must be admitted Prof Wilson has stepped up to bat. He has headed or supported various organisations devoted to international conservation efforts. My difficulties in accepting his proposals lie not in his scientific analysis of climate and ecosystem health but in the implicit "business-as-usual" perspective of human demographics and economic activity his analyses are based on. In short, Wilson is proposing what I would call the "liberal green action plan". This world view holds that, collectively, we are becoming more aware of environmental problems. Growing wealth of the world's population - especially the poorer segments of societies - permits greater positive interventions in the management of natural life support systems. Thus Wilson encourages his readers to become more informed and active in environmental issues: habitat destruction, energy development,.. It is important to work in both their local communities and, through donations, with international nongovernmental organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature, fair trade associations for third world agricultural producers, etc. This view, essentially optimistic, is founded, I believe, on the false logical argument that the future will resemble the past, that our current trajectory can be adjusted to deliver us to a predictable destination using tools and strategies we are familiar with. Since I do not share Wilson's assumptions regarding the sustainability of the current trajectory, I find much to criticize in his proposals (and much less in his overall guiding principles). 

            In discussing declining global birth rates - page 30 - Wilson speaks of these almost as if they reflected declines in absolute population levels. Such reductions in population growth may provide reason for "guarded optimism" perhaps, but not reason to rejoice just yet. Total global population has not leveled off yet, it's just growing more slowly..

             Wilson attributes the observed declines in growth rate to the globalized industrial economy, urbanization and the empowerment of women. Historically, modernization has indeed depressed mortality below traditional birth rates, creating a chronic excess of births over deaths. During modernization, European societies generally doubled their population sizes from the Enlightenment (latter half of 18th century, the early Industrial Era) to today. Thus it is perhaps a bit disingenuous to claim that the major, or immediate, impact of trends like economic globalization and women's liberation is a decrease in population growth! The short and medium term perspective seems rather the converse: a multigenerational pulse of population growth until birth rates once again drop to equilibrium with mortality rates, the condition that existed in "steady state" traditional economies (except that there, high birth rates were in equilibrium with high mortality rates).

             Thus, when modern medicine and hygiene are introduced, the immediate impact will be a sharp reduction in infant mortality creating a "baby boom". Even if these kids have fewer children than their parents (say three rather than five), there will be a glut of young parents producing a huge number of offspring. Moreover, this second generation glut of babies, like their parents, will have a lower mortality rate thereby causing a secondary, or "echo", baby boom in the next generation. Even if birth rates continue to drop in successive generations, it will take several generations for birth and death rates to equilibrate. During this time, if European societies are any guide, population will probably double. To worsen matters, the "baby boom" generation of early modernization will produce a glut of unemployed, often unemployable, young men looking for trouble (it's a hormone thing aggravating lousy future perspectives..) How much of contemporary terrorism is actually due to "socio-demographic factors" is anyone's guess, given the state of evolution of the human and social sciences. But failed development, rampant population growth and poverty, the "boomerization" / juvenilization of the population, the breakdown of traditional social arrangements without adequate replacement - none of this announces a smooth transition into the "Information Century".

             Prof Wilson does make a capital point, though: "the freeing of women socially and economically results in fewer children". This has been established but the question remains: does the liberation of women necessarily result from globalization? Can globalization, as currently practiced, not actually hinder the empowerment / liberation of women? One thinks of the repressive regimes bankrolled by the USA, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Pinochet in Chile, Mubarak in Egypt come immediately to mind!

link: torture-under-pinochet

              Prof Wilson appears to (naively) believe the West will act in the best interests of third world countries. Given the last 500 years of colonization and exploitation by Europe, the track record is not good.. defintely not a good start. I personally believe that, more often than not, the West acts in the (perceived) interest of its own ruling elites and, only secondarily, in the interest of "symbiotic" third world elites who serve their Western masters by keeping the "natives in their place". (It's called neocolonialism.) A rather shocking example: to recuperate bad loads made to thrid world states, IMF and WB forced third world cut backs in social safety nets which actually act as brakes on procreation. In these traditional societies, children are their parents' old age pension plan. Cut back on modern social safety nets and you re-instate the traditional argument for huge families! (Sometimes it's hard to believe that people working for IMF and WB generally have university degrees - makes you wonder what they are teaching these days..) A non-ideological approach to development would instead work to fine tune social programs like old age pension, social medicine, affordable or free schooling, family planning with ready access to contraception, etc in order to speed up the "demographic transition" to a steady state low birth rate / low death rate modern society. Even more damning for the perspective that the West acts as a "moral agent" in the world: the support by the West - particularly the United States - of Islamic "freedom fighters" during Cold War anti-Soviet conflicts. These policies have now come back to bite us in the rear end as former mujahideen "freedom fighters" have morphed into today's "islamofascists", "extremists" and "terrorists".

"The arms race between the Cold War superpower rivals sapped the Soviet Union of its economic lifeblood and presaged the collapse of communism. The decisive battle of the Cold War was fought and won for the West in Afghanistan by Muslims. They were trained, indoctrinated, armed and given financial assistance with the approval and support of the West and the more affluent “moderate” Islamic countries, notably Saudi Arabia. Thousands of volunteers from Muslim countries and particularly the Arab world were flown to training camps in Pakistan and sent into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation forces. They were acclaimed as the “mujahideen” or holy warriors and were lionised as the heroes of the liberation struggle. By one account, mujahideen commanders were paid between US $ 20,000 to $ 50, 000 each per month while those that were more influential received US $ 100,000. Afghan, Arab and Pakistani mujahideen were convinced they were fighting a holy war against the godless communists. This is what they were taught in some, but not all, of the seminaries or madrassas of Pakistan. In 1971 there were approximately nine hundred madrassas in Pakistan by mid-1988 the number soared to eight thousand recognized religious schools and “an estimated twenty-five thousand unregistered ones.”"

                That's right, we have Ronald Reagan and his macho gang to thank for the disastrous political climate we are living in now. (When I discovered these facts, I could hardly believe it: why are our leaders such - apparent - idiots? And what does this say about the institution of democracy - since the people put these joiks in power in the first place..)

              It is also obvious that many westerners do care about what happens elsewhere and about the fate of our earth for future generations. Witness the "ethical investement" and "fair trade" movements, not to mention third world adoptions, emergency relief aid, etc. That is not the point. The west, like everyone else, is a house divided against itself, a house "of many mansions" with divided, often conflictual interests. Wilson, in essence, is providing us with an over idealized vision of the West and a very over optimistic judgement of its future capacity to "carry" third word "development" and emergency relief. In my reading, the capacity of upper middle class westerners, the people Prof Wilson is counting on, will diminish as the impacts of non-renewable resource supply short falls begin to work their way through the system.

             We are beginning to see the early stages of this process in the Peak Oil phenomenon. Oil, a non-renewable resource, exists in great quanity in the ground. When people began to exploit it commercially, at the beginning of the twentieth century, they logically went after the "low hanging fruit", the stuff easy to get at: it actually spurted out of the ground under pressure, no need to pump. For every barrel worth of energy used to extract, ship, process and distribute  the oil, the producer got the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil out of the ground. We say he had an "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" ratio, EROEI, of 100 : 1. Today, the low hanging fruit has all been picked. Today we are forced to go after the hard to get stuff. Despite technological advances, the EROEI for contemporary "new" reserves just going into production is a mere 7 - 8 : 1. An incredible depletion in resource quality in a mere century! 

              Obviously, from a physical perspective, an EROEI of 1 is the break even point for which you are wasting your time: for every barrel of oil worth of energy you get one barrel of energy back. Your net gain is zero. Economics, though, is a harsher mistress than physics: energy market analysts claim that an EROEI of about 3 - 4 is necessary for economic viability. We are not far from that already. In short, I find it unlikely that the Western societies will have the wealth - or the inclination - to support the kind of programs of nature conservation Prof Wilson advocates. Example: paying a third world country money NOT to extract oil but to perserve the land in a pristine forested condition. Or paying "carbon credits" for the maintenance of rain forest on the grounds that the ecosytem services provided (climate regulation) is worth more than the monies payed in perpetuity to maintain the forest as a wildlife refuge. Wilson admits that small amounts of sustainably harvested products may be extracted from the forest to offset its upkeep. In addition, ecotourism can provide some payback. Once again, I think he is being overoptimistic about the perspectives for a continued degree of affluence in an energy starved West. Our wealth and power are historically based on cheap energy. Take that cheap energy away and so goes our wealth and power. I may be wrong here, of course, but I don't see the future as rosy as Wilson does.

              Future, though, provides a wealth of information about human / environment interactions. Natural wealth includes essential "ecosystem services" such as oxygen, clean water, bacterial recycling of waste but also the esthetic and health restoring values of natural surroundings. A strong body of evidence is emerging that optimal human health, both physical and mental, is obtained, maintained, or regained by regular contact with the natural world and / or its domesticated representatives like cats, dogs, horses ("therapeutic animal visits" to pension houses, prisons or disturbed / spinal cord injured children for example). It turns out that when you begin adding up all the free ecosystem services in dollar equivalents you arrive at a sum that is (minimally) double the global Gross Nation Product! (Page 106)

             Fortunately, Wilson demolishes the simplistic dollar equivalence valuation. In reality, natural ecosystem serices are vital: without oxygen we die in a few minutes; without water, within a week or so; without food, maybe about a month. Simply put, life is worth more than money when push comes to shove. In practice, this means that the "marginal value" of natural ecosystem services rises exceedingly sharply with increasing scarcity. If water is rationed in an equitable manner and everybody get enough, we bathe less and bitch. Reduce the ration further and we're willing to go to war, eventually even to kill our neighbors to assure our family has enough. Simple dollar valuation cannot account for this quality of essential serves or goods. In the limit a dollar spent on water or food is not worth a dollar spent on a SUV or the gas to run it.

          Even in purely economic terms, going green sometimes wins hands down. Wilson analyzes the case of New York City and the Catskill Mountain catchment basin. As NYC population grew, forests were cleared, farms spread and water quality declined. A proposed filtration plant would have cost $6 to $8 billion with $300 million annual running costs. The city wisely chose an alternative route: it bought and upgraded forested land and subsidized the upgrading of sceptic tanks in the Catskill catchment. Cost a "mere" $1 billion and lower running costs. Better! In addition, the people of NYC and the catchment basin benefit from the "double gift from nature" in perpetuity of clean water at low cost and a beautiful recreational area at no, or little, additional cost. Seems like a no brainer: why don't our leaders do more "system thinking"? Alas, Future, offers no answer to this question..

              It's a bit hard rating a book a disagree with so much written by an author I generally admire. If I put myself in the place of a potentially targeted reader - a 16 year old asking questions, possibly with some interest in earth or space science - I would probably consider this an informative book on several levels: 1- a good, solid set of humane, life-affirming values and 2- a lot of info on human / natural interaction and its economic values and dis-values. From that perspective, I think Wilson has done a good job: give it 8 points on 10, then.