Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earth Hour. Because the World Isn't Worth a Whole Day.

Ninety percent of the world's charismatic megafauna is gone. Hormone disrupters are turning the fish off Lakeshore into hermaphrodites, if the tumors don't get them first. The Arctic is heading for ice-free status by 2030, the Wilkins Ice Shelf is a measly six kilometers away from disintegration, air pollution in this miserable dick-ass excuse for a country alone helps kill 16,000 people a year. How do we rise to this challenge? How do we lie in this bed we have made?

Earth Hour. Sixty minutes during which we turn out the lights and pat ourselves on the back for saving the planet. Kings, Corporations, and Communities are all very much on board with this, naturally: in what other context could anyone pose so publicly while actually doing so little? Today's edition of my local Toronto Star is creaming its jeans all over Earth Hour; they're giving it almost as much coverage as can be found in any three pages of the two thick sections they devote daily to selling automobiles. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Torontonians will celebrate the event by climbing into their SUVs and driving out to Downsview Park, there to light candles in the darkness. The Eaton's Center up at Yonge and Dundas is festooned with all sorts of big glossy posters trumpeting their whole-hearted love of Mother Earth. Why, I'll bet the reduced environmental impact from turning off those lights might even recoup a small fraction of the resources consumed to drive the massive multimedia extravaganza advertising Earth Hour.

Oh, wait. There isn't going to be any reduction in environmental impact. Not unless the world's power-generating utilities decide to scale back the fossil fuels they're burning to reflect a one-time, one-hour tick in the time series.

Yes, I know. It's only supposed to make "a statement". It's supposed to be a symbol. And what does it symbolize, exactly? It symbolizes "hope" — which is to say, our infinite capacity for denial, our unwillingness to restrain ourselves in any meaningful sense, our brain-dead refusal to see the brick wall we're hurtling towards. It symbolizes the sick fucking joke that is the human race.

Back in the early nineties I had a girlfriend who volunteered for the Guelph branch of OPIRG. Sick of the flood of smiley-faced books and schizoid puff pieces insisting that being green doesn't mean giving up your second SUV ("And now I sleep just fine at night, knowing that by serving one meat-free meal a week, I'm doing My Part to Save the Planet!"), she proposed countermeasures: a booklet entitled "Fifty Ways to Ease Your Conscience While Continuing to Destroy the Environment." I thought it was a brilliant idea. Everyone at OPIRG absolutely hated it. Too cynical, they said. Too negative. It'll alienate more people than it converts. We must be cheerful. We must be positive.

Evidently this is a fairly common rule among environmental activists afraid of alienating the skittish: No Cynicism. (Which, these days, is tantamount to saying No Cognition...) And so now, after more than a decade of putting on a happy face to keep from scaring the soccer moms, here we are: Earth Hour.

How far we've come.

There was never a time when things could be turned around with such petty gestures. You want to effect real change? You've got to address the root of the problem: human psychology. We evolved in the moment, we evolved to recognize imminent and proximate threats: pestilence, predators, an alpha male coming at us with murder in his eyes. The sight of a rotting corpse or a deformed child makes us squirm; the toothy smile of a great white freezes our blood. But we never evolved to internalize graphs and columns of statistics. They may be real; they just don't feel that way.

They're starting to now, though. Now, even here in the privileged and so-called "developed" world, we're starting to reap what we sow. The outbreaks break out ever-faster, the critters on our doorsteps die in record numbers. But even now, that's just us— and we're not the ones calling the shots. The ones piloting the Titanic are way up in the bridge, isolated, unaffected, never more than a heartbeat from sparkling sands and clean water and the very best in medical care. It's still gonna be a while before the shit piles high enough to matter to them. And so they'll do nothing, because for them the threat is not imminent; and if it is not imminent, neither is it real. So sayeth the Human gut.

So, you want to effect real change? You've got to make the threat matter to the ones who matter. You have to take the shit into their hallways until even they can smell it. You have to threaten something valuable to them, and threaten it now, if you want to awaken that fierce innovative spark of self-preservation that burns brightest when the danger is in your face and the piss is running down your leg.

This is what you'd have to do: hunt down the Harpers and the Gordons and the Martins, the Roves and Cheneys, the Harrises and the Kleins and Bairds. (You might want to hunt down the Dubyas, too— they don't make any of the real decisions, but the symbolism is important.) Dig up the carcass of Dixie Lee Ray while you're at it, and throw its sorry rotten parts into the corral with her living soul mates. (For seasoning, you know.) Hunt down every pundit and commentator who, after years ridiculing the signposts, now shrugs and says Oh, well, I guess we fucked up the planet after all. Too late to fix it now, let's just adapt and make sure that economic growth doesn't drop below five percent... Take every family member who sided with any of them (most have); explain to them all the proximate nature of threat-perception in the human animal, and that you're going to motivate them only way you can.

Then kill half of them. Give the other half a year to fix things. Hold back their families in, as the publishers say, "reasonable amounts against returns".

That's probably what it would take to get these people to give a shit.

Of course, you could never pull it off. All that security, all that well-founded fear of those being governed. And you know, even if the bridge crew did suddenly get serious and try to turn things around, we're still in for a really rough ride. The trajectory of a planetary biosphere is not something you can change on a dime, especially not after the race downhill has been picking up speed for half a century. It's probably too late no matter what we do, unless Venter and Kurzweil turn out to be right.

Still, there's something to be said for simple accountability. And you might even find allies in some pretty unlikely places. Air pollution alone must kill more people in a month than all the serial killers anyone ever sent to the gas chamber; any death-penalty advocate capable of even rudimentary logic would pretty much have to get on board...

Anyway. Pondering such solutions will make my Earth Hour go down a little easier, as I sit here in the dark. I hope it does the same for you.

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39 Comments:

Blogger Keith David It's-a-Taylor-Series! Smeltz said...

There's a story "Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum" where IIRC these scientists looking at m. radiodurans work out how to harden humans against radiation, but get to worrying about unintended consequences. (If people stop fearing radiation...)

Coal burning slowed deforestation but accelerated global warming. Petroleum burning solved horse-related problems but... cars. *shudder* Atrocities.

Some thought TV would link the world together into one people, bring an end to war. Others thought teaching people Esperanto would help. If you've got good buddies in Korea, maybe you think a little differently. Maybe you think better. A few thought the hydrogen bomb would end war. Bill Gross thinks his solar arrays will be cheaper than coal inside 10-20 years. But that's too long to wait. Species gone. Entire genera gone. Families?

If there was one thing we could do that might end global warming, what would it be?

When the problem is the fact that enough people are tragic jackasses to ruin the commons for the rest of us.

March 29, 2008 at 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great logic. Political murder to advance your agenda. Hey, as long as what's good for the goose is good for the gander - right? It's easy to sit in quiet Canada and cream your jeans over this, but here in the US it's harder to ignore the fact that a bunch of other folks followed the exact same logic and merrily dashed out the door to pipe bomb family planning clinics and take out doctors with high-powered rifles.

And that really showed the rest of us that they were right and abortion wasn't such a good idea.

Wait, how about you behead the journalists who wrote the articles you hated in the paper today. On video? And post them on the internet? Wait, someone already thought of that one also. That did an awesome job of bringing everyone around to their way of thinking.

March 29, 2008 at 11:48 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

The tellingly-named "anonymous:" said...

Great logic. Political murder to advance your agenda.

Hate to break it to you, Big A, but murder has always been used to advance political agendas. On the micro end of the scale, it might take the form of an exploding cigar, or raping an Iraqi girl to death in the name of fighting tewwowism. At the other end, I think the word you're grasping for is "war".

Here in the US it's harder to ignore the fact that a bunch of other folks followed the exact same logic and merrily dashed out the door to pipe bomb family planning clinics and take out doctors with high-powered rifles.

You forgot the animal-rights movement terrorizing the families of neuroresearchers. And as I recall, a fair number of doctors gave up performing abortions, and a fair number of research scientists swore off animal testing. They said it just wasn't worth the risk to their lives and their families.

It's also worth noting that the abortion-hating, "fags-and-feminists-caused-911" extremists you're talking about have pretty much set the political agenda in your country for the past eight years. Even John McCain found it necessary to suck Falwell's balls when it came right down to it. So your point is what, exactly?

And that really showed the rest of us that they were right and abortion wasn't such a good idea.

Ah, I see the problem. You think they care about your opinion. They don't. They'll be perfectly happy if they can just force you to do what they want.

Wait, how about you behead the journalists who wrote the articles you hated in the paper today. On video? And post them on the internet? Wait, someone already thought of that one also. That did an awesome job of bringing everyone around to their way of thinking.

Awesome enough that the mere prospect of seeing a picture of Mohammed in a local newspaper is now enough to send shivers down the spines of dickless wonders the world over. I don't know if you realize this, but pretty much every point you've made supports my argument: if you make the threat personal, you inspire change.

Actually, I get the sense you don't realize it. Which makes your choice of anonymity a lot more understandable. I probably wouldn’t want anybody knowing who I was either.

March 30, 2008 at 12:21 AM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

The "we'll kill you if you don't solve the problem" approach has been tried before (the Bader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Brigade in Germany, for instance); it doesn't work well because the rich and powerful get scared of the people who threaten to kill them and hire lots more security and police to kill them. And if you try to use less than lethal force, they hire lots more lawyers.

The most likely solution I see (other than most of us dying off and the rest going back to the caves) is what Brian Stableford wrote about in "Inherit the Earth": some microbiologists engineer a virus to sterilize most of Earth's population, resulting (a couple of generations later) in a population crash that reduces our load on Earth's resources enough to prevent the rest of us from dying off and/or being reduced to the stone age. And even if that were to work, it would be a very near thing.

March 30, 2008 at 1:41 AM  
Blogger Teresa said...

And yet he was good enough to add his name to my personal Earth Hour page.

I read you loud and clear my friend. We're fucked. And their ain't nothing we little folk can do about it.

But then there's this, found on my favourite message forum;

lynn2222 wrote:
Terry..I will be joining you for Earth Hour...


Jwinx said:
ME TOO!! Great idea!!
Did you post anything about it in conservation threads? perhaps solutions/actions? or conservation conversation?? perhaps get some dialog and interest going over there??


Later, after 9PM in Louisiana, Jwinx has this to say:

Now, because someone said they were "joining you " tonight, I looked it up.....posted what I did earlier and turned off the lights. Lit candles, poured wine.....cheese/crackers---- turned OFF the AC and went out on my porch to enjoy the night sky!!

well, for the first time ever, I SAW FIREFLIES IN MARCH!!!! and, during that hour, I communicated with both barred and barn owls!!!! and at least one armadillo was rustling in the leaves....they are quite noisy when the leaves are crunchy!! All of which would NOT have happened, had I not paid attention and turned off the lights!!!

WOW!! Thanks TerryTVgal!!!! Were it not for the post earlier this evening, I'd have missed the MAGIC!!!! I hope yours is as good in the northwest!!


It may not save the world but it might improve you evening.

March 30, 2008 at 3:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've had a bad little sky-fi idea in my head for a while.
"the 'Ender' series as a hoax"

step one
"Poke Earth with a stick"
by that i mean:
Drop a couple city killer asteroids on large urban areas.

mutiple Asian land impacts (India/China) only a few ocean impacts and the worst NA/EU impacts swatted by nuke intercepts

the backstory is that the Rich and the Greens make a deal to save the world and have a long war.

the cover story is that aliens attacked.

the EU/US combine forces to defend humanity and draft the rest of the world to fight and finance it.

does that kill one to save 10 idea still work when its billions?

March 30, 2008 at 5:55 AM  
Blogger cow_2001 said...

Watts assassinating some big ass multimillionaire politician from the USA is an amusing way to ignite the US-Canada war.

March 30, 2008 at 6:31 AM  
Blogger Keith David It's-a-Taylor-Series! Smeltz said...

I hear rumors that the Chernobyl quarantine area is really hopping with life. Endangered animals, big animals, predators and prey... animals rare in the rest of asia. They're pretty healthy, too.

Apparently human life is more toxic than an assploded reactor.

So I know exactly what to do with all that hellishly radioactive waste we're burying in salt mines. We salt the rainforests. Yes, it'll kill a lot of wildlife but more importantly it'll keep humans away from them for a long, long time. Wildlife wins?

March 30, 2008 at 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome enough that the mere prospect of seeing a picture of Mohammed in a local newspaper is now enough to send shivers down the spines of dickless wonders the world over. I don't know if you realize this, but pretty much every point you've made supports my argument: if you make the threat personal, you inspire change.

Sorry, but I'm calling bs on your argument. You're mixing stories and you know it. The collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Sunni areas of Iraq, along with the poor showing of Islamic militant parties in the last Pakistani election is expressly because they freaked out their base with their bloodthirsty youTube postings and demented hijinks.

Aside from the moral questions you're raising - and there's plenty - I challenge you to show me a small, highly violent, blood-spattered group of militants who achieved anything close to their goals in the past 100 years. Abortion clinic bombers? Abortion still legal. ETA? No Basque homeland. IRA? Orangemen still parade every year. Red Army Faction? Nothing. Weathermen? Zip. P2 Masonic Lodge? Nada. The list is pretty extensive. And we can go even further back. Anarchist bomb throwers? Militant suffragettes? John Brown?

Change is brought by building a mass political movement, even though it's less interesting if you're looking for torture porn. Did the temperance movement achieve prohibition by hanging brewery owners up on meat hooks?

And what you propose isn't even something that can be accomplished by executing a few heads of state, because we're all involved in problem. Are you planning on killing half of the people who drive SUVs?

Your thinking is less about global warming than the more general lust for apocalypse that is - interestingly for a Canadian - something that I associate with those of us south of the border. Every 10 years we have a bunch of retards heavy breathing and crossing their fingers on the next big hope. Remember Y2K?

Yes, global warming is a problem. And problems can be solved. We don't need to line people up against the wall or nuke half the population. We just need to de-carbonize our energy supply. And move on with life. The solutions exist today.

And, I'll note that all three of the remaining US candidates all support legislation to fight global warming. Even McCain. That's a step in the right direction.

March 30, 2008 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Is there enough time to accomplish the necessary change without wholesale revolution, though? This is new ground and the only way we are likely to find out is when San Francisco goes swimming.
Violence aside - and it's naive to think that relatively small groups of violent men haven't changed the world in the past - long term change is only likely to occur through suborning we the masses in a method consistent with our needs, wants and long-term worldview. Unless our survival drives kick in, we're only going to go out and start buying low-energy lightbulbs and no-emission cars if it's steadily pounded into our heads and our kids' heads that this is what people do and anything else goes against the grain.

March 30, 2008 at 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right. Let's compare the environmental records of homicidal, turn back the clock, Pol-Pot style dictatorships - which, if you guys are really being honest with yourselves, you'll realize you're advocating - with democracies.

Somehow, the US and Europe managed to clean up their air (not including carbon, of course) and water and start regrowing their forests from the raping of the industrial revolution without rivers of blood flowing down every boardroom and mainstreet.

I agree that overpopulation is at the root of a lot of these problems, to echo another poster. But the most surefire way we've found of lowering birthrates is education for women, living in cities - and economically developed, industrialized countries. Not as sexy as thrill killing, but you can't argue with the numbers.

March 30, 2008 at 6:33 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Actually, I wasn't necessarily advocating so much as opining that historically, violence has effected world change. How many people do you suppose decided to resist King George? How many to topple Louis XVI, especially when they stormed the Bastille? Look at the history of the Roman leaders. How many passed power peacefully, the will of the people supreme?
It could be argued that only recently has peaceful change come to have a significant effect on the world change.
Europe has down wonders, but it has often been said that as a hundred cultures, they have learned a certain maturity, in no small part due to the amoount of blood shed. This applies to Western Europe, of course. Recent history in Bosnia is more indicative of the bloodshed-to-change tendency.
As for whether the U.S. has cleaned up yet - environmentally or politically - that's absolutely in great debate.

March 30, 2008 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Anonymous continued...

Sorry, but I'm calling bs on your argument.

Okay, let's do this.

I challenge you to show me a small, highly violent, blood-spattered group of militants who achieved anything close to their goals in the past 100 years.

How small is small enough for you? The CIA too large? Why should the size of the group even be a factor? Are you outraged by the claim that violence forces compliance, or by the claim that a weak and tiny force is enough to overthrow a government? If the latter, your challenge is simply misinformed; I never made that claim, and it's irrelevant to the subject under discussion. If you object to the former, you're being disingenuous. You might as well dare me to name one bunch of kids with slingshots who successfully overthrew a nuclear power, watch me shrug, and then conclude that "violence doesn’t work".

But if you remove that ridiculous constraint, well, the US got its way in Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala (to name but a few Latin American examples) by going into other countries and killing people. The Taliban, Amin, Hussein, Pol Pot — hell, even the DHS and CSIS goons who hound brown-skinned people with pilot's licenses — it's actually pretty difficult to think of any system that isn't maintained by the threat of force. Hell, that's what police are; and in this city, the police are notorious for beating the shit out of homeless people, falsely arresting innocent blacks, shaking down the owners of local restaurants to pay off their debts to organized crime, and getting hand jobs from cross-dressing hookers. They do it all — and occasionally enforce the law as well — through the use and threat of force.

Your complaint seems to be that only state-sanctioned thugs should get to do that.

And what you propose isn't even something that can be accomplished by executing a few heads of state, because we're all involved in problem. Are you planning on killing half of the people who drive SUVs?

You're kind of missing the point here, which is to change the behavior of the people who actually make the fundamental decisions. Not that the world might not be better off without half its SUV drivers, but I think it would be more effective to target the folks who are ultimately responsible for things like emissions standards. Which would come down to, wouldn't you know it, heads of state.

See how neatly that all works out?

Yes, global warming is a problem. And problems can be solved. We don't need to line people up against the wall or nuke half the population. We just need to de-carbonize our energy supply. And move on with life. The solutions exist today.


I agree. What doesn't exist is the political will. Which was kind of my point.

And, I'll note that all three of the remaining US candidates all support legislation to fight global warming. Even McCain. That's a step in the right direction.


How very encouraging. The avalanche hurtles down the slope, the very bedrock shaking with the thunder of its collapsing mass — and three political candidates have "taken a step". Who knows? Maybe they'll have a chance to take two steps — or even three! — before the descending mountainside turns us all into teeth and pulp.

How I could have ever been such a gloomy gus?


Right. Let's compare the environmental records of homicidal, turn back the clock, Pol-Pot style dictatorships - which, if you guys are really being honest with yourselves, you'll realize you're advocating - with democracies.


Okay, take a deep breath. I'm starting to think you didn't actually read my posting.

I didn't actually advocate the hostage killing of politicians. In fact, I said that such a plan would probably be impossible to pull off. And while I did say that violence could provoke constructive change, I never said there were no nonviolent ways to do so (although "Earth Hour" sure as shit isn't one of them).

What I said was: "That's probably what it would take to get these people to give a shit."

And you better believe I stand by that. Natural selection has shaped us to care preferentially about things that affect us personally. And an idiot frat-boy like Dubya is not going to give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut about anything else.

Speaking of the personal, Anon — knowing a thing or two about tirades in my own right, I've notice a recurring theme in yours, to wit:

...it's less interesting if you're looking for torture porn ... the more general lust for apocalypse ... Not as sexy as thrill killing, but you can't argue with the numbers...

...and you know, it's not "the numbers" that catch my attention here. It's that fact that while a number of folks have weighed in on this subject — and while one or two of us may even have pointed out some obvious benefits to political assassination — nobody but you has even hinted that multiple murder is something that gets one's rocks off. And you don't even seem to actively make that suggestion so much as simply take it for granted; you just assume, as a matter of course, some kind of sexual-arousal response while the rest of us are talking politics and revolution.

Yes, you speak of "lust for apocalypse" and "death porn" with obvious stern disapproval; but nobody else mentioned it at all. And it brings to mind the remarkable fact that those US politicians who rail most stridently against wanton immorality — to the point of leading Senate commissions and passing homophobic family-values legislation — are also the politicos that seem to get caught soliciting gay blow jobs in public toilets, coming on to underage pages, and hanging out with high-class hookers. So I guess I'm wondering how closely you've examined your subtext, as it were.

March 30, 2008 at 11:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

SpeakerToManagers said...

The "we'll kill you if you don't solve the problem" approach has been tried before (the Bader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Brigade in Germany, for instance); it doesn't work well because the rich and powerful get scared of the people who threaten to kill them and hire lots more security and police to kill them. And if you try to use less than lethal force, they hire lots more lawyers.

Yup. That's the problem. It's not that violence doesn’t work, it's that it does — and the guys in charge have so much more violence at their disposal than the rest of us.

The most likely solution I see (other than most of us dying off and the rest going back to the caves) is what Brian Stableford wrote about in "Inherit the Earth": some microbiologists engineer a virus to sterilize most of Earth's population, resulting (a couple of generations later) in a population crash that reduces our load on Earth's resources enough to prevent the rest of us from dying off and/or being reduced to the stone age. And even if that were to work, it would be a very near thing.

Frank Herbert riffed on that too with "The White Plague" — although IIRC, that was about a guy avenging his wife's IRA-caused death by destroying the human race. Kind of an overreaction, if you ask me. But the bottom line was still reduced environmental impact.

Teresa
said...

And yet he was good enough to add his name to my personal Earth Hour page.

I was. And yes, fireflies in March would be wonderful (it was minus fucking six with windchill out here. God I miss the west coast). It's good to turn out the lights.

But it's not enough, dammit. It's not even a start. And I would maintain it might be even worse than doing nothing at all, because it lets people do something completely ineffective and then feel good about themselves. It lets them feel that they're off the hook, somehow; it reduces motivation, rather than increasing it.

That's the fear, anyway.


(A presumably different) Anonymous said...

i've had a bad little sky-fi idea in my head for a while.
"the 'Ender' series as a hoax"...

That works for me.

does that kill one to save 10 idea still work when its billions?


Yup. It's never the numbers; it's always the ratio.


cow_2001
said...

Watts assassinating some big ass multimillionaire politician from the USA is an amusing way to ignite the US-Canada war.


Yeah, but Terence and Phillip already did it way better than I ever could.

Keith David It's-a-Taylor-Series! Smeltz said...

I hear rumors that the Chernobyl quarantine area is really hopping with life. Endangered animals, big animals, predators and prey... animals rare in the rest of asia. They're pretty healthy, too. Apparently human life is more toxic than an assploded reactor.

It is. The wildlife is dangerously radioactive, but it's thriving. I think the term is "accidental wilderness": being an area deserted by humans because we poisoned the shit out of it and can no longer live there. At which point it becomes a wildlife refuge.

Wired did an article on that site a few years back, I think. There's this chick who patrols the place on a motorcycle, doing bounce-dives into the hot zone to check things out without taking too many rads.

March 30, 2008 at 11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an anecdote...

I was in a Major Department Store Chain a month or so ago, needing to replace light bulbs. As I stood in the Lighting aisle, examining a three-pack of CFBs (compact fluorescent bulbs), a woman walked down the same aisle and stopped near me. She glanced over at me and asked, "Have you used those before?" (meaning, I guessed, had I used similar bulbs in my home). I said I hadn't, but that they apparently helped reduce energy usage by not illuminating at 100% until about 30 seconds to a minute had passed after activation (words to that effect, anyway).

I also said I'd decided to try them out, and put them in my basket. As I walked away, I glanced back. She was holding a package of the same bulbs I'd just selected (the CFBs). I was glad she was at least considering using them. I looked again, and she was putting them into her cart.

It's just one day, one thing, one example. But one person can become a leverage point for so much more. The annual TED conference is ample proof of that.

Yes, we can and should continue the call to start reducing the damage humans inflict on the planet now. But we also need to push change forward by making sure others see what we do as part of the group seeking change. It's not about bragging, it's about leading by example.

Have you ever made a list of the things you now do to reduce energy usage, help clean up polluted areas, assist in animal conservation, reuse/recycle items that can be re-purposed or recycled? Give it a whirl; the results might surprise you.

March 31, 2008 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger Janbo said...

Sorry, that Anon post was me, I pushed the wrong button.

March 31, 2008 at 2:26 PM  
Blogger The Lake Fever said...

"It's easy to sit in quiet Canada and cream your jeans over this, but here in the US it's harder to ignore the fact that a bunch of other folks followed the exact same logic and merrily dashed out the door to pipe bomb family planning clinics and take out doctors with high-powered rifles."

Oh, yes. The Shit only happens in America. In the quiet sleepy pastoral utopia that is the United Motherfucking Kingdom, we are profoundly moved and touched by the terrorist violence that brutalises America, although of course we can't really *understand* it. No-one here ever uses violence and fear as weapons, and certainly no-one kills the children anymore.

March 31, 2008 at 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, I just have one question.

What do you think you're odds are of visiting the US anytime soon? Thank you Homeland Security and the monitoring of internet blogs for threats to the government.

Actually, if anyone thinks that violence does not achieve its ends, look no further than 911. In order to protect their way of life the US imprisoned people at Gitmo, legalized warrant-less wiretaps, tried to convince people that water-boarding is not torture, expelled people to Syria for subcontract torture....

Before 911 I could enter the US with a drivers licence and a smile, the US could actually be proud of their freedoms (except for that right to bear arms crap) and the Dixie Chicks could criticize their president without worrying about career suicide; I could actually pack shaving cream and shampoo in my carry-on; I could laugh at Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly because I knew that no one took them seriously. Oh yah, and I had confidence in the global economy because the US had a, more-or-less, balanced budget.

If the 911 wackos goal was to change the American way of life, which is what dubya says they are fighting to preserve, I would say that their violence was very effective in achieving their goals.

KM

March 31, 2008 at 5:32 PM  
Blogger John Henning said...

If the 911 wackos goal was to change the American way of life, which is what dubya says they are fighting to preserve, I would say that their violence was very effective in achieving their goals.

This is a very good point. There has been quite a change in the past 7 years. In fact, I'm surprised "change" is such a buzzword in the US Democratic Presidential race since Bush did nothing but bring about great changes and it wasn't such a good thing.

A very liberal friend of mine once mentioned that the best way conservative presidents can get rid of welfare programs is not to simply cut them, but put incompetent people in charge of them so that they become so bloated and ineffective, the voters beg you to get rid of them.

I feel that way about a lot of the environmental and humanitarian causes today. The largest groups who promote these causes and practically have a monopoly on them also seem to be the ones with the least ability to do anything substantial about the problems we face.

I worked as an associate producer on a television documentary about endangered species a few years ago. Basically, I found and interviewed various experts and activists on the subjects prior to their being interviewed for the show. The activists without scientific training usually focused on their spiritual connection to the various species and didn't really seem to have much of a handle on the actual physical challenges involved in their causes. The scientific experts were very "concerned" but off camera cynicism was high. Most of them seemed to think that the time to do anything significant was long past (by a couple of decades).

I think in your Locus interview you point out that short term gains often overlook long term consequences when it comes to human behavior. I don't think that the human race consciously decided to get itself in this situation collectively. I don't even think the people in charge were actively responsible for all the emergent events that led to this position.

So, since we really did not actively "create" these problems, I don't think we can "actively" solve them either. I also don't think that concentrating on individuals is much of an approach either. I think that industrial activity far outweighs the collective individual contributions to pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gases. Even if we significantly conserve as consumers, I think that will simply provided more available resources for industries to consume.

It's sort of a nightmare. We can be conscious of the problem, aware of the consequences of what's happening, but really remain incapable of doing anything about it (other than pretend that we're doing anything about it).

March 31, 2008 at 6:10 PM  
Blogger Keith David It's-a-Taylor-Series! Smeltz said...

Mr Anonymous:

Dmitry Sklyarov
Maher Arar
Ahmad Abou El-Maati

Who wants to visit the USA? I'm telling my friends not to!

Furthermore, global warming is not just "a problem". It is part of a larger task - the assassination of our planet. That one cannot be solved, unless and until we can restore lost biodiversity (and that ship has sailed).

All we can hope to do is stop things from getting even worse. We can do that and we must because despair is as condemnable, as contemptible as collusion.

You say we can de-carbonize. Good. But do you intend to let the assassins remain strong?

March 31, 2008 at 6:32 PM  
Blogger John Henning said...

Another note, I thought the proposed "kill the leaders" was an intentionally absurd proposition like the often cited anti-war proposition -

"You want to stop war? Instead of fighting it with armies, strip the world leaders naked, drop them into a muddy pit and let them fight to the death. Whoever wins, wins the war."

Let's see how Hawkish Bush & Cheney would be if that were the case.

The point is that it is absurd to think this way, but it's extremity casts the primary problem with war and many "righteous causes" in sharp definition. The people who support and benefit from these courses of action, are also rarely the people who suffer the greatest consequences of those actions. Even the downfall of tyrants hardly compensates those who suffered from their rule (both those who followed them and those who opposed them).

I didn't think anyone would take the idea of murdering the rich seriously, but I did enjoy the debate on the ability of violence to accomplish great change.

March 31, 2008 at 6:45 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

The Irgun seemed to get what they wanted, if you're looking for non-American examples of violence working.

"Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum" is by Michael Flynn. First published in Analog, collected in The Nanotech Chronicles.

March 31, 2008 at 7:48 PM  
Blogger Raja said...

I read you loud and clear my friend. We're fucked. And their ain't nothing we little folk can do about it.

As little folk, our actions are certainly a drop in the bucket, I agree. But that doesn't absolve us of a responsibility to do what little we can to conserve. And I say that as someone who's as guilty as the next guy or gal, me with my consumer electronics fetish.

------------

Although I actually find myself in something of a unique situation here: I have a chemical engineering degree, and while most of my job involves helping the company I work for make money, part of it does involve reducing our emissions, and I've already been able to contribute to some fairly significant reductions. I'd like to do more, though, so I'm trying to find a job where I can contribute directly to solutions rather than working to mitigate the problem.

We may be fucked, but I guess I feel like I owe it to the human race to contribute to something that might help us solve our problems.

March 31, 2008 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger gene said...

this thread is a wonderful little microcosm of the human mentallity towards the current woes of the species.

we have been for decades, and will continue, to split hairs and argue the semanitcs in favour of any really palpable change or action.

(these opening paragraphs make me sound like a rabid, militant green, which i am not. For the record i reckon we're pretty fucked. Whats the current stat? 100 years of environmental change that is now set in stone? 2 - 6 degree temperature change? anything above 4.5 degrees being pretty much unsurvivable for the majority of the species?)

We will be red in the face and pointing fingers when the lights start to go out for real and only the smartest of us will have already headed for the hills, caves and hideaways.

Ironically from the context of this thread this is when violence really will start to let you get your way. The "give me all your stockpiled food or i will shoot your daughter in the face" approach to social interaction/survival will be very effective.

but i didnt really want to gibber about such things.

i was really only going to mention another horrible token gesture in the same vain as earth hour that is happening in the UK at the moment and i would also presume in the US:
plastic bag fascination
im pretty sure that at the moment in the UK a plastic bag is rarer than a ghost fart and worth more than gold on the open market. Supermarkets currently have obscene hardons for proclaiming their green cred by getting rid of as many bags as possible. neat idea. but it won't save us. Only slightly less ridiculous than earth hour.

The root cause of our problems is unavoidable. Over population. I remember biology lessons as a teenager. snowshoe hares. boom and bust, take the lynxs out of the equation and theres hummanity right there dead in a snow drift.

whilst it has been alluded to previously surely population reduction is the only way to combat this problem (although i must admit i do have a slight population deciamtion fetish but i dont get off on torture porn.)

April 1, 2008 at 5:48 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I couldn't agree more, Peter.

The resident soccer mom with a cause rushed around on friday evening at the office, turning off computers that are typically left on by their users. She looked so proud of herself on monday morning at the water cooler. You could almost see her thumping her chest in pride. Of course, she didn't bother monday evening, because she was in a hurry to leave. And the people who typically leave their PCs on did, and nothing's really changed at all.

But man, does she look like she feels good about herself.

April 1, 2008 at 10:52 AM  
Anonymous rick phillips said...

Isn't the problem too many people? Shouldn't the governments of the world be seeking ways to convince folks to NOT reproduce?

Or, is that just too much common sense?

April 1, 2008 at 11:20 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Janbo remarked ...

It's not about bragging, it's about leading by example. Have you ever made a list of the things you now do to reduce energy usage, help clean up polluted areas, assist in animal conservation, reuse/recycle items that can be re-purposed or recycled? Give it a whirl; the results might surprise you.

OK. I recycle. I've never owned a car. I got myself sterilized in my early thirties (tried back in my early twenties, but nobody would perform the operation). I spent two decades doing ecological research on threatened and endangered species on both coasts, studies ranging from population collapse to the environmental impact of northern hydro development. (In those cases when such studies turned out to be industry-funded shams, I quit in a huff and took up writing science fiction instead.) I wrote the screenplay for a cheesy documentary (on the maritime seal/fisheries controversy) that both won a major award from the federal government and was blacklisted as antigovernment propaganda by the federal government. I do stuff around the edges, as the opportunity arises: occasionally help trap feral cats for neuter-release, pitch in to relocate the occasional amphibian population out of the path of impending development. Spent a few days as an oil-spill cleanup volunteer on the west coast once. I live in a one-bedroom apartment lit with CFBs (although granted, that may be more a function of poverty than conscience; check back with me after I've written a massive bestseller and see where I'm hanging my hat then.)

On the minus side, I now work in an industry that wastes paper at a fucking obscene rate, thanks to idiotic rip-and-return policies dating from the depression. The publishing business is anything but environmentally friendly.

And after all this time, what really cheeses me off is that a) the world has not got any better, so this whole "lead-by-example" thing is just not doing it, and and b) the whores and assholes who make prissy pronouncements about environmental protection while taking industry money to fund whitewash studies are doing just fine, thank you very much, revelling in high-income tenure and regular jaunts to the tropics while we who stood on principle live hand-to-mouth and consider it a good year when we get to fuck their wives behind their backs.

Actually, didn't we have this conversation a few years ago?

Anonymous said...

Peter, I just have one question. What do you think you're odds are of visiting the US anytime soon?

We're about to find out. I'm headed for Nebraska at the end of the month.


rick phillips said...

Isn't the problem too many people? Shouldn't the governments of the world be seeking ways to convince folks to NOT reproduce?

Well, that was one of the suggestions Janet put forth for her proposed "50 Ways to Ease Your Conscience..." book. Suggested actions would have been ordered ordered on the basis of whether you wanted to actually do something or just pat yourself on the back, and the example she used as proof-of-principle was:

1. Don't have kids.
2. Okay, if you must have kids, at least keep the numbers down (we're looking at you, Catholics).
3. Okay, if you're not going to keep the numbers down, at least use cloth diapers..."

And so on.

Like I said, OPIRG hated it. And if you can't even win over a bunch of explicitly left-wing Birkenstock-wearing granola-eating environmentalists on the whole reproductive front, what hope do we have with the mainstream? There's a reason they call these things "motherhood issues".

April 1, 2008 at 12:49 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Jesus, Odin, and Cthulhu...you bring the noise, Watts. I'm forwarding this thread EVERY-freakin' where. And hitting the tipjar again. Keep it up, boss.

April 1, 2008 at 5:40 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

gene said...

i was really only going to mention another horrible token gesture in the same vain as earth hour that is happening in the UK at the moment and i would also presume in the US:
plastic bag fascination.

im pretty sure that at the moment in the UK a plastic bag is rarer than a ghost fart and worth more than gold on the open market. Supermarkets currently have obscene hardons for proclaiming their green cred by getting rid of as many bags as possible


I wish. I keep 2 reusable cloth bags in the car, but if I forget them and run for something quick, I invariably (and I do mean invariably; it's sad) have to refuse a plastic bag for as little as one single item. If I'm not putting it in my pocket while they're ringing it up, someone wants to use a plastic bag.

I try to refuse them gently, generally using my patented "let's save a plastic tree today" comment, which at least gets a groan as often as not...but I'm befuddled by the thoughtlessness. No one even ASKS if I'll just carry stuff. *sigh* I guess it's some bizarre form of "customer service".

April 1, 2008 at 6:03 PM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

Population control is very important to some governments. China, with the largest population of any country, has had a draconian "one child per family" rule for decades. They've forcibly sterilized women who had more than one kid, forcibly aborted "excess" children, and had sneaky medical programs where people were sterilized without their knowledge. It was holding back the tide; the population growth rate in China didn't start to go down until the standard of living started to improve for a large percentage of the current population, just a few years ago. And, guess what? The evironmental load per person went up drastically to sustain that standard of living.

At this point, we are more likely to limit population because of reductions in fertility whose cause we don't know. Growth rates are down all over; the only industrialized nation with a large positive growth rate just now is the US, which has a large population that reproduces for religious reasons. Several European countries (and Japan) have negative growth rates. And we don't know why; we do know that in many countries there's been a significant decrease in the average motility of sperm. This has lead some of the more fuitbatty of the environmentalists to declare that Mother Earth has decided to kill us off so we won't damage her anymore. I"d be more inclined to call it suicide than pesticide, though the result may be the same.

And as for what you, personally, can do to help; do you know what the total effective energy and material load of a CFB is versus an incandescent? They cost a lot more energy to make than standard bulbs; anyone seen any studies that show they end being better, all told? Biofuel is very likely to be worse than dino-based gasoline in terms of total carbon load. So running off after the latest eco-enthusiasm may make things worse.

Someone said upthread that most of the problem is industrial, not personal, and I think that's correct. Huge amounts of energy, much of it from fossil fuel, is used to create the things we use day-to-day, and no one seems to be willing to talk about that in public. That's the other way the rich and powerful control the situation; they control what the bulk of the population gets to hear about the problem and the potential solutions. If you don't know what's wrong, and you don't know what can fix it, you're stuck with going along with the program. You did know Dubya used to be an oil company executive (most emphatically not a non-sequiter?

April 2, 2008 at 9:55 AM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

Peter, the West Coast isn't doing a whole lot better in terms of temperature. In Portland it was -1 C last night, and about -8 in the outlying towns in the valley (so it was even colder in the hills). And it's snowed significant amounts here at about 500 feet elevation on three days in the last week.

April 2, 2008 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Peter,

Do you accept marriage proposals via comments? ;)

I can always count on your wit and and no-bullshit arguments to wake me when I find myself haphazardly sliding into a consumerism coma.

I had been wondering about our slide into dystopian fascination the last few months, and with your fine examples of the true human condition, I can see why we're so attracted to our own self destruction.

Keep up the real.

Kate Baker

April 2, 2008 at 6:33 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Hell, these days I'd accept marriage proposals via semaphore. But you'd have to clear it with your family first, and I doubt they'd like me very much. I don't do well with kids.

They see right through me.

April 3, 2008 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Whew! What a thread!

I don't think the problem is the size of our population, this earth is beautifully abundant and life giving. The problem is that we all can't live like we do presently in the West. "What would happen if everyone on Earth did/bought what I'm about to" is the question every consumer/politician should ask themselves before they commit to anything.

I can’t deny, a population cull is the easy way out and we do seem to be getting more sterile (I would assume in the poetically just way of the world as a side effect of our own actions) but attempting to control population a la China's example has its own downsides. Turning children into rare commodities, especially in a culture where they are expected to support their aging parents, puts insane pressure on youth and leads to skyrocketing suicide rates among teenagers who think they aren't good enough to fill the role and want to give mum and dad a chance to try again, I’ve seen it first hand. Alternatively, parents off their own daughters because they wanted sons and the result is cities of millions of men and NO women. If I needed an army in an hurry, and one that was easy to motivate at that...! *shudder*

Making children the variable we manipulate is lazy, WE are the ones who need to change.

My sci-fi apocalyptic theory is that something will shut down the global market for, hmmm maybe months? That should kill off most city dwellers (either by starvation, hypothermia, or mass homicide – because hungry people are sooo compassionate in a crisis) and utterly wipe out any commerce whose survival depends on quarterly dividends and share holders. If you are a producer with a direct connection to your consumer, you'll be fine. If you have 47 layers of bureaucracy and your goods need to travel halfway around the globe to get to your market, you might just be fucked. That should sort us out... with just enough collateral damage to teach us to know better in the future, but also with the perfect opportunity to start again. I’m not saying we can’t/shouldn’t have a global market/village, I’m just of the opinion that we ignored what was coming down the pipe for so long now people with power have cemented the means to retain it. Now that we’ve all had a chance to read Adam Smith, maybe it’s time for a do-over.

April 7, 2008 at 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...making children the variable we manipulate is lazy...

But historically, and still over much of the world, that's exactly what we've done. Kids are cheap and powerless, easily motivated and, ultimately, dispensible-with, especially when they're from the abundant and ever-replenished ranks of the poor. There's always more where these ones came from. Abundant inexpensive children obviate the necessity for any sort of social organization that might guarantee a less insecure future. A high reproductive rate is not the cheapest option, but the most expedient, in most human societies.
This is arguable, but I think that what a population policy like China's does is make kids expensive. More likely to be individually valued. Not something that you produce in bulk to secure your future.

- Lars

April 7, 2008 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Kids are expensive, period. There is no 'sweet spot' where x kids over y years end up being self sufficient.

The moral of the story, or I would say this thread, is that the methods of the past have proven ineffective in the long run. Permanent and peaceful change comes from the realisation on the individual level that harm to one is harm to all, something we have ample scientific data to support. Ignorance or ideological habits are no longer excuses and control and coercion, barbaric and irrational. There has never been a person with power who didn’t make a mistake (even if it was based on limited information) so the arrogance of a manifest destiny should be apparent to anyone armed with common sense and a history book.

The only downside to this realisation is that it is meaningless unless it is voluntary, something the God of Abraham has been trying to tell us for millennia. You can’t force equality – you can’t even effectively legislate it – the best you can do is stigmatize inequality, and lead by example (confer: basketball rules in the Grapes of Wrath.) Call the prodigal son a cunt while he’s in town, but open your arms when he comes home. We'll just have to wait and see how much of our inheritance he squanders.

April 8, 2008 at 11:12 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Kathy said...

I don't think the problem is the size of our population, this earth is beautifully abundant and life giving. The problem is that we all can't live like we do presently in the West. "What would happen if everyone on Earth did/bought what I'm about to" is the question every consumer/politician should ask themselves before they commit to anything.

While I agree with the question, I disagree profoundly with the preamble. The Earth is not "beautifully abundant and life-giving"— that would imply that it was some kind of nipple that existed mainly to dole out the juice for us special biped folks. The Earth is not here for us, any more than a car exists to serve its spark plugs; the Earth is the vast tangled energetic metasystem that we were lucky enough to have emerged from, and the best thing we can do is keep from knocking that system onto its side with the metastasizing of our own population. There are simply too many of us for the system to sustainably support, and there is no other system to turn to.

We have to reduce our impact. We can do that either by cutting our numbers, or by reducing our per-capita impact. Unfortunately we evolved in a system in which other life forms were trying to kill us off at every turn, either by competing with us for resources or by turning us into resources, and the way we survived those conditions was by increasing our numbers and grabbing as much as we could. We are programmed, right down in the bone, to do the very opposite of what is now necessary to survive as a species.

In that light, I don't see voluntary efforts being especially successful. Some measure of coercion seems called for.

My sci-fi apocalyptic theory is that something will shut down the global market for, hmmm maybe months? That should kill off most city dwellers (either by starvation, hypothermia, or mass homicide — because hungry people are sooo compassionate in a crisis) and utterly wipe out any commerce whose survival depends on quarterly dividends and share holders.

Culls are good too.

If you are a producer with a direct connection to your consumer, you'll be fine.

Or enslaved by nonproducers wielding big sticks with nails driven through them.

The moral of the story, or I would say this thread, is that the methods of the past have proven ineffective in the long run. Permanent and peaceful change comes from the realisation on the individual level that harm to one is harm to all, something we have ample scientific data to support. Ignorance or ideological habits are no longer excuses and control and coercion, barbaric and irrational.

I agree, but the question was never whether these things were excuses. The question is whether we are capable of throwing off three and a half billion years of natural selection for greeding and breeding. The evidence to date suggests we aren't.

The only downside to this realisation is that it is meaningless unless it is voluntary, something the God of Abraham has been trying to tell us for millennia.

There must be two Gods of Abraham out there. The one I know about is a psychopathic dickhead who routinely endorsed rape, genocide, and slavery. I roll my eyes when evangelical protestants insist that one cannot be a moral person with having scriptures to fall back on, given the bloodthirsty intolerance of so much of their source material. (And don't bother trying to erase the whole Old testament by Jesus. Jesus in turn got erased by Paul; and that guy was one dickhead in a million.) (And don't get me started on the whole "progressive revelation" shtick....)

April 12, 2008 at 1:22 PM  
Blogger Keith David It's-a-Taylor-Series! Smeltz said...

"I roll my eyes when evangelical protestants insist that one cannot be a moral person with having scriptures to fall back on, given the bloodthirsty intolerance of so much of their source material."

That is one very good reason to reject ghod as any sort of moral standard - the simple fact that he's immoral. But that's almost beside the point, next to the realization that we are able to judge him at all! That means that he never was and could not have ever been the one moral foundation, even if he had spoken and acted perfectly. In that case we would have judged him perfect and in so doing asserted our moral authority over him.

Religion-based morality, *any* religion-based morality is as ultimately self-defeating as faith apologetics. (Got to love a religious movement that pumps out agnostics and atheists. Why is it those who've actually read the bible don't believe it?)

As Austin Dacey was rumored to have said: "...conscience cannot be based in a duty to God, for it is conscience that must tell us where our duty lies. ... Interrogating Euthyphro's definition of the righteous or holy as "that which is loved by the gods," Socrates asks: Is it holy because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love it because it is holy? No matter which horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma one takes, the ox of religion-based morality gets gored: If holiness is just whatever the gods love, then the gods' evaluation appears arbitrary or subjective. If, on the other hand, holiness is loved because it is holy, then the gods' evaluation appears superfluous--any reasons for recognizing what's righteous must be god-independent."

Why bother critiquing one religion when you can wipe out whole classes, *families* of them?

April 12, 2008 at 9:51 PM  
OpenID slattern23 said...

Hello, it's June 4th, 2008. I'm commenting from the future to inform you that, as you suspected, Earth Hour didn't accomplish sweet f**k all, except make a bunch self-righteous people feel even smugly self-satisfied.

June 4, 2008 at 4:27 PM  

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