Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is abundance enough?

John Paul Lederach, a Menonite theologian, activist, and professor of peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has said that the main reasons why peacebuilding initiatives undertaken by the US military don't succeed is because we do not keep in mind the nature of the peace we want when waging war. Rather, we are caught trying to end what we feel are injustice and tyranny without a regard for what might come because of our disruptions. This is evident in the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are protracted, in the way we will be leaving behind unstable places while claiming rhetorically that "the mission has been accomplished".

These are deep thoughts reflective on the culture we live in. For given all of the knowledge we've accumulated, our focus is always the immediate next step, and not the outcome or the impact. When everything is linear and pointing upwards, we lose track of the end, and all that becomes important is a movement away from the past. So we feel compelled to take down dictators by going in and taking down a statue, with little regard for cultural history, ethnic tensions, religious diversity, political aspirations, and ecological conditions. What if the peace we wanted to build in the Middle East was durable and resilient, and such that the need to arm various groups in the future would be non-existent? What institutions would we need to build? How might we leverage what already exists? How would people need to behave?

The same influence of ends on means is translatable to thinking ecologically. We have this notion that ecomodernism, the "greening" of technology, the "free-market" will solve our ecological problems. (When it comes down to it, the powerful nations still can't decide whether to help out nations that will be severely impacted by climate change caused by the powerful.) All we need to do is create an abundance of everything, especially of "clean" energy, and everything will be okay. Limitlessness in the face of finiteness. But in an abundant world, will abundance be enough? And if so, do the steps we take today change in any measure? I would argue that they do, and drastically.

The fact is that many of us already lead abundant lives. (Of course much of that abundance has come from degrading other places.) We are very privileged. We are surrounded by an abundance of information, an abundance of energy and fuel, an abundance of food, an abundance electronics, an abundance of opportunity. But our abundance has led to an abundance of landfills. It has led to an atmosphere abundant with greenhouse gases, and waters abundant with fracking waste. Abundance comes from an unappreciation of what we have, with the added blow of then degrading the world we live in. As I have written previously, we then try to "buy" back what we lost already. A simple reflection on these realities would suggest that, if the end--an abundant future--justified the means--ecomodernism--then many of us are there already. We just need to be satisfied. Maybe then we'll leave a little more room in the world for others to meet their needs. Maybe then we'll open up a little more space in our lives to be more reflective, and be more helpful to others--the non-human world included--rather than oppressive.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Conscious abstraction

While I was sitting on the grass by some swings across from my home with Katie the other day, I noticed one of the cars on the road slow down. The driver was letting a squirrel pass. It was difficult for the driver of the car in the next lane to know why the car to its right was slowing down, and so, the driver maintained the car's speed. But just as the squirrel made it past the first car that had slowed, it got pummeled by the next one. It probably died on impact. But the impact unleashed a sound. It was the sound of a low pitched rumble you hear when a wheel passes quickly over a bump. It was the sound of a bass drum. And then the squirrel, already dead, got run over again...and again. Katie ran across the street, stopped before it, and cried, "I'm so sorry," as she picked it up by the tail and moved it off of the road.

I wonder what was going on through the squirrel's mind as it was crossing the road. Maybe it was on the way to eat something or hide it, or maybe it was about to climb up a tree it spotted. Maybe there was some other squirrel waiting on the other side for it. It is summer, after all. Maybe it was the one that casually walked up to me a few days ago while I was having dinner on the porch. I don't know. It is hard to tell with squirrels. Most of them look the same to my eyes. But I know that they are all individuals.

I had never seen any animal that large get killed in front of my eyes before. I thought to myself, "And this squirrel is another cost we accept as we drive cars that take us to where we need to be." That squirrel probably now forms part of some statistic somewhere. I can just see the title of the statistic. It is probably something like "Roadkill in the US." It probably has a breakdown of what kinds of animals are killed on the roads, and how many of them, every year...deer, chipmunks, and birds included. That statistic easily equates one squirrel is with another squirrel. A squirrel is a squirrel, and a squirrel killed on the road by a car is one of thousands, tens of thousands. In the end, their lives are boiled down to numbers, which we accept as a "cost" of our need to drive cars. It is a "cost" of our advances.

It made me think about the Herman Daly passage I quoted at length in a recent blog post. We are constantly fighting this battle of abstraction. We just don't seem to be able to grasp the abstract. Climate change happening slowly, unboundedly, over the next one hundred years? What does that mean? What does it mean if someone in Detroit is breathing toxic air? These things are far. They are abstract. And that abstractness seems to debilitate us from showing an inkling of remorse or care.

But, abstraction is an excuse, for we actively pursue abstraction when we need it to fit our goals. If I were to pick a squirrel out and tell you I was going to run it over, or if you saw a specific squirrel get run over--and had any inkling of emotion--you'd be horrified. I definitely was. But when we read a number or hear about squirrel roadkill in the US, we are less affected. The abstraction of a squirrel killed to a number takes away the essence of what the squirrel was, its entire life, and what it was on its way to doing when it was killed. The abstraction allows us to distance ourselves from our actions.

I can hear people thinking to themselves, "So is he really suggesting that we should we not drive cars just because squirrels and deer and chipmunks and flies and bees are killed by them?" The point is that most all of the choices we make we make with an understanding of the potential outcomes. Some outcomes are acceptable. The others--the violent, the distasteful--we abstract. Given that we are now being confronted with important choices that will affect our land, our water, our air, take fracking, for example, will we continue to make choices in the abstract? Or is there a way to bring our choices closer to home, to be aware of the squirrels that populate our land and the fish the water?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tailoring the message

One of the most important things that I have learned over the past two years is that everyone comes from somewhere different. People come with their own languages, their own ways of thinking, their own wants, their own penchants and proclivities and dislikes. People are culturally molded to espouse particular beliefs and not others. This is wonderful and beautiful. A world full people that thought and acted in the same manner, with the same ethics and morals would be no fun at all and barely resilient; it would indeed be a world exactly like the one that is taking shape in this age of what Charles Mann calls the homogenocene.

I think that one of the fundamental challenges that I think needs to be overcome in homogenocene is the division we've created between "right" and "wrong". You are either pro-life or pro-choice, a capitalist or America-hater, someone that believes in the "free market" or the "welfare state" are an "tree hugger" or "job creator". In trying to advocate for changed relationships to people and the environment, I have realised that it is important to navigate these dichotomies by meeting people where they are. There are ways in which we can talk to people that don't agree with what we say. All it takes is the capacity to change languages, to make arguments that make sense to those that think differently than you.

We see these dichotomous camps most starkly in the public responses to climate change. It is abundantly clear that climate change is occurring, and that it is anthropogenic. But there are people that still vehemently deny these realities, that believe it is a hoax or conspiracy, that believe responses to it will take away "freedom". One is either a believer or a skeptic. That's it. But how come given all of this knowledge of the causes of climate change and the empirical evidence of our daily lives do people not believe in climate change? It seems as though it comes down to cultural differences--the politics of knowledge and opinion.

According to Dan Kahan and others at Yale University, it is who you are around, the culture you are in, and the culture you are from, that affects most your beliefs in climate change. It is actually not about scientific comprehension. Here are excerpts from Kahan et al.'s paper from the current issue of Nature Climate Change.
Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

[Therefore, a] communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups22. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance25.
There are two important conclusions that I have come to, for now, through experience and Kahan's work. It is that the message we deliver to advocate for ecologically responsible living must be tailored for the audiences receiving it. In drawing lines in the sand, in saying that there is a "right" and a "wrong", that one way of communicating is the best and the other is not, that "free market capitalism" is "free" and "socialism is un-American", we perpetuate the differences that fundamentally divide us.