It’s that time of the year again, and I am once again in a reflective mood about the state of the world in which we live. That state, to put it mildly, is “not good”. We are rapidly headed towards a nasty collision with mother nature and the worst part about it, is that we’re really not doing much to stop ourselves. The problems we face are very large and multi-faceted, and it will take all of our human ingenuity (and then some) to fix these problems, however I foresee disaster not so much because I think we lack the ability to solve these problems (although that is a distinct and rather scary possibility) but because, even before we get to that, we will probably manage to stop ourselves from making a good attempt at it.
Take for example the incident in the Gulf of Mexico involving BP. There are many layers of badness here. First of all, at the most basic level, there is a lot of crude oil spilling into the ocean. More than has ever been spilled before and it will have profound effects on the ecosystems of the gulf. The other, in many ways more disturbing, thing about this incident is that almost every day, it is revealed that there was some kind of systematic cover-up. Sometimes we hear about regulators not being tough on BP, other times we hear about corners being cut by BP, and sometimes we even hear of very unusual things like the chemicals that are being pumped into the stream to “break it up into smaller particles” which serves to do nothing other than mask the true size of the spill. However, one of the worst things that I have heard recently, is when people stick up for the bad guys.
There seems to be an interesting sub-group of the human population who are either deluded from reading too much Ayn Rand and learning all their econ from Mises.org (or worse, Rush Limbaugh) who seem to feel that it is their duty to stand up for the “underdog”. In this case, the underdog is poor BP which is taking a hammering in the media at the moment. I hear cries of “what do you know about drilling for oil”, and “leave them alone, and let them clean it up” etc. One of the most unfortunate side-effects of the morally reprehensible PR campaigns of tobacco companies, who for a long time published fake scientific papers which basically said that smoking isn’t such a bad thing, is that it has become acceptable, even normal, for large corporations (who have the kind of money you need to make talented people lie like that) to stage expensive publicity campaigns to cover up their mistakes. This has a follow-on effect of making people believe the lies, and perpetuate them. The liars are always easy to spot, for the same reason that dumb high-schoolers who cheat on their homework are easy to spot – because they say the same thing, often not even bothering to change the wording. The number of times I’ve had the same fake climate science papers cited by climate change deniers is kind of amazing.
I find it incredible that human civilization, and all it’s wonderful achievements in science, technology, invention and so on can’t seem to get over this hurdle. At school (at least in Australia) we are taught “media analysis”, the object of which is the better equip us to separate the stuff from the fluff. When you watch Fox News for example, it’s mostly fluff and a quick analysis of the language used, without even checking their “facts” (which are mostly made-up), can usually reveal the true nature of the “news” being reported. Unfortunately, I have a suspicion that not everybody who is taught this at school actually learns it, or retains the ability. Even if they did, what match is an increasingly poorly-funded education system against an obscenely well-funded publicity machine with the backing of a large multinational corporation? I’ve thought about the strategy of giving proper scientists PR departments. Of course, that is a battle that nobody can win – an oil company who wants to deny climate change will ALWAYS have more money than the combined R&D spending of the entire planet.
I used to think that the truth would always win out because, well… it was the truth. Now I’m not so sure. In economic terms, it should be much easier to pay someone to publicize the truth than to publicize a lie. How much less expensive should it be? Well, it comes down to how much our society values the truth compared to how much our society values money – and now we start to see some of the problem. In an ideal world, you shouldn’t be able to pay someone to lie… but we all know that everyone has a price. I would like to think that my price would be more than the anyone could pay, and this may be true in monetary terms… but not all payment has to take the form of money. A death threat, for example; not to myself, but to someone very close, would conceivably force me to lie in a meaningful way. Corporations have been known to do this from time to time. Is it legal? It is if you don’t get caught; you would be surprised the number and types of things that can be bought if you have enough money and a bit of imagination.
That is, of course, only half of the problem. People are much more receptive to some things than others. If two people of equal standing were to present you the following conflicting “facts” – on the one hand, you have potentially catastrophic climate change where the solution involves developing whole new industries, and making drastic lifestyle changes, while on the other hand, you’re told that everything is going to be ok… I know what I would *rather* believe. Now add the fact that scientists, for some inexplicable reason, are not held in very high standing in the public eye, at least not next to smooth-talking celebrity talk show hosts. Yes Houston, we have a problem.
For a long time in my life, I only ever considered the problem of world peace on my long-term agenda (you can tell that I’m not a very ambitious person). World peace is one of those problems for which a “technical” solution doesn’t exist. That means, in my mind, that no amount of science or technology is going to achieve world peace, but the solution instead involves, in the immediate sphere, a lot of compromise, negotiation, and tit-for-tat, while in the long term, it will require an evolution of the way that a lot of people think. I have come to the conclusion that climate change is similar.
True, there are technological advances that can potentially solve the problem overnight. But those solutions are a long way into the future, and in many ways that would be “cheating”. Why? Because current technology is able to solve our problem (yes, I’m quite serious here) but it will take a lot of negotiation, and compromise to make that happen. Climate change is not a problem for which no technical solution exists, but the “best” solution is the non-technical one. Though it is likely that this crisis will end, or drastically reduce our large and complex civilization, it also has the potential to make us take the next step in our evolution, and that is to learn how to get along on a global scale. Climate change could be just the kick in the ass that we all need.
It is sometimes said that uniting against a common enemy can bring people closer together. I think that’s a bit childish. What if that common enemy is all of humanity itself? We are our own worst enemy. What would aliens think if they happened on our planet? They probably wouldn’t want anything to do with us, they’d probably leave, thinking “oh well, in a few hundred years they would have wiped themselves out and we can have this planet”. History constantly repeats itself, yet we never seem to learn anything from it. Is it because we’re too lazy to study history? I don’t think so. I think it has a lot more to do with the fact that we’re all fed a lot of bad information, and we have an overinflated sense of self-importance. I’ve been in a slightly cynical and somewhat philosophical move lately and if you were to ask me what my message to the people of the earth would be if I was some kind of all-powerful being who was somehow in a position to deliver a message to the people of earth that they would listen to, it would be “get over yourselves”.
While it is unlikely that people who happen on this website are the despicable types I mention above who whore out their consciences and voices to the highest bidder in defence of the misdeeds of corporations; if you are one of them, and have read this far, I encourage you to post a comment; because you have a lot to answer for. C’mon, bring it… my pugnacious streak is in need of some attention.
And to the rest (because those I mention above are generally beyond help) I leave you with two instructive footnotes. One of my favourite Carl Sagan quotes – pale blue dot, and one of my favourite speeches, JFK’s “peace speech“.