"Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."

I'm still here...

07:56 Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The 2018 mid-terms were largely a disappointment for Florida. For those who like drama, I suppose Florida delivered. It's like we flip a coin to decide these things, and it lands on its edge far too often. How Florida can be so evenly divided is a mystery to me. Either Republicans aren't suppressing enough votes, or Democrats aren't submitting enough fraudulent ones. Take your pick.

The bad news is, Florida and the nation will likely do nothing meaningful on either the state or national level about climate change. And that's really bad news. At the "grass roots" level, the "little people" like me are going to do what we can.

There's a debate going on between climate scientists and journalists about climate change communication. Why isn't the message getting through? How should it be framed? On the one hand, we're facing the end of civilization; on the other hand, we don't want people to give into hopelessness and despair.

It's a tough question, and I don't know the answer any more than anyone else seems to

It's impossible to predict with certainty what's going to happen, and the uncertainty seems to be all many people need to just ignore the whole issue. While it's impossible to say with certainty exactly what's going to happen, we can be certain that the effects will be disastrous, they will be widespread and they will destabilize international relations.

We know that nations under stress often turn to authoritarian rulers. We see that happening in many places in the world today, even here in America. We know that authoritarian rulers often turn to violence to control their internal population, or to create nationalistic fervor by provoking old enemies and engaging in aggression.

We have enormous challenges just trying to rebuild a world economy that is carbon neutral in a decade, it makes the Apollo Project look like a weekend hobby effort. Add in widespread violence, the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, and the problems just seem insurmountable.

What do we think we know?

We think, if we can get to a carbon-neutral energy infrastructure within ten years, and begin net-negative emissions shortly thereafter (that means carbon sequestration in some fashion, pulling CO2 from the atmosphere), we can keep the rise in global average temperature below 1.5°C.

We think we can maintain a world civilization that keeps most of the world's population alive and with some basis for believing in a better future in a climate that is 1.5°C warmer than the pre-industrial period. That's a guess, because it's possible that even 1.5°C is too much to prevent the emergence of positive climate feedbacks that continue to add warming, chiefly the release of methane from melting permafrost. But 1.5°C is far better than 2°C.

We will still have to cope with huge economic and population movement disruptions in getting to an adapted civilization. This will call for strong, resilient governments and international relationships. Something we're not doing very well right now.

So, the challenge is enormous. And our politics and our methods of communication don't seem to be up to the scope of the threat.


08:33 Thursday, 8 November 2018

Well, in about 36 hours, we'll have a result. But until then, those of you who haven't voted still have a choice.

I'm not terribly optimistic about anything. I have a certain amount of hope, and I think if this civilization manages to survive climate change, then Steven Pinker's rosy view of the present might go on to a better, more just future. But I'm not optimistic.

Ignorance is what's probably going to do us in, eventually. Some of that is willful, some of it is just ignorance. Why would anyone choose to be "willfully" ignorant? It's in our nature.

Thinking takes effort. We have brains with higher level cortical regions that are capable of performing "reasoning," but it expends energy. Evolution selected for cognitive ability, but it also did so in a resource-constrained environment, so much of what the brain does is done by elements that require less power. You could check out the author and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and get a more in-depth discussion of this. Suffice to say, much of what we do is habituated thinking that is prompted by cues from our "feelings." You can call it "your gut."

Much of the information we receive is processed through this "somatic representation" pre-processor. We hear something, or read something, and it invokes a feeling in us. That feeling prompts whatever further action may be necessary, often nothing, sometimes just yelling at the TV, or clicking "Like" on Facebook. Sometimes, if it's something novel, information that we haven't encountered before, there's no "somatic representation" that invokes a "feeling." If there are cues in the information that it's something that requires our attention, i.e. something that we're "interested" in because the information is about a subject we enjoy or care about, then we do some additional low-level processing, before we do any actual thinking. We look for cues about how we "should" feel. Say the information comes from Fox News, then a guy like me is likely to dismiss it, if it seems incongruent with what I already know. If it's from Scientific American, then maybe I accept it because I like Scientific American, and I file it away as an additional "bit" of information about a topic I care about.

This is part of what "confirmation bias" is about. If you're unfamiliar with that, just google it.

But here's the thing, much of our store of "somatic representations" is created during our growing-up years. And that is a deliberate process that all cultures and societies engage in to make new members of the group, and to make them reliable members of the group. A shared belief system helps create internal cohesion.

When I was growing up, American history was a pretty glossed over subject. Now, I was fortunate enough to be growing up during the 60s and 70s, when there seemed to be some amount of awareness of the mixed record of American history. Nevertheless, it was still a pretty glossy presentation, and I think most of us, apart from whatever opinions we may have formed on our own, had the desired "good" view of American history. We "felt" good about being Americans. Nowadays, the Texas school board decides what goes in every kids' history book, and I guess America is pretty great.

For those of you of my generation, do you ever recall hearing anything about "patriarchy" in our history lessons? I don't. That's because it's like water to fish. Because it's all around you, it's what you exist in, and so you never notice it. Kind of like The Matrix. And it's a cinch nobody ever had to write a term paper about white Christian patriarchy.

And if someone says "white Christian patriarchy" to you today, it probably doesn't invoke an immediate feeling, so you have to do an internal search. You know that individually, each term has an emotional valence depending on the context. And when you try to evaluate the context, even of just the phrase in isolation, you kind of know that "white"+"Christian"+"patriarchy" probably has a negative emotional valence, because in must relate somehow to non-whites (i.e. "minorities"), non-Christians (Jews, Moslems), and women. Groups that are often objecting to white Christian males. That negative emotional valence creates an interior state of discomfort, and so the information is rejected, and you move on to something else. (Bye!)

If you are in a "discussion," either on Facebook or at a bar or something, and you can't just move on to something less negative, you wind up having to reason to yourself to explain your feelings. You "reason" backward from your feelings. (We all do, at all times, even when we're doing math homework. "I HATE math!" for example. Personally, I enjoy math. I'm just not as good as it as I used to be.) So the arguments you may offer to your interlocutor may not be as good as arguments fashioned without the negative emotional valence guiding your cognitive processes. You're excluding a great deal of information because of its negative emotional valence, and only calling on information that doesn't make you feel uncomfortable, regardless of its validity. This is "willful ignorance."

Because here's the thing, we live in a white Christian patriarchy. That is to say, the dominant group in our culture and society is the group of white, Christian males. This is the group that establishes the "norms" of society. For much of our history, this has included the norm that white Christian males are superior to all other individuals outside that group, and all other groups must show deference to the dominant group. And, for much of our history, this is pretty much how it has been. "Christian" was formerly exclusively Protestant, but it has expanded in recent decades to include Catholics, somewhat provisionally (mostly due to Roe v. Wade and Catholic opposition to abortion). If you're a white male non-Christian, you get to enjoy some of the privileges of the dominant group, but not all. Like when Jews couldn't join certain country clubs. Same thing with race. The military has historically been a very patriarchal institution and has resisted efforts to become more inclusive. The military integrated African Americans before they integrated women, and that wasn't an accident.

"White privilege" should really be extended to say "white Christian male" privilege. What that means is that as the dominant group setting the norms, white Christian males get to establish what is "acceptable" speech, art, music, literature, etc. And they are allowed to utter the core beliefs of the dominant class and expect that those beliefs will receive deference, not be challenged, in public discourse. "Political correctness" is a pejorative term that has been coined by the white Christian patriarchy to describe speech that attempts not to proceed from the position of privilege, and to acknowledge the history, worth and dignity of those groups outside the white Christian patriarchy, that have historically suffered under it. The dominant group regards this form of speech as a threat to its dominance, and therefore must reject it and so gives it a pejorative label to pound it with, over and over again in the white Christian patriarchal media (Fox News).

Out groups are challenging the white Christian patriarchy today. (I should probably add "hetero" to that list.) It's under more pressure than it has ever experienced before. Barrack Obama was a profound challenge to it, even though he is a male. The idea of the first black President being followed by a woman President was just too much for the patriarchy, and it reacted by falling into line with the prototypical privileged white, nominally Christian, male, a former game show host and likely Russian money launderer, Donald Trump.

All of this is to say that "make America great again," is really about making members of the white Christian patriarchy comfortable in their dominant position again. It's not about some objective definition of "greatness." It's about making white Christian guys feel good about getting to be on top.