“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 27, 2012

wanker moment 5: Exxon scepticism, a b c


The most important thing that happened in the double 0s, as we all know, was that more than 700 –800 million people were born in that decade. Of that group, at considerable number will live the lifestyles of the developed world. The lifestyle I live as I type this. Considered as a phenomenon of natural history, this is quite a strange lifestyle – a biped who stands 6 feet tall, and weighs in at between 145 and 165 pounds, uses every day the amount of energy that a blue whale, who stands at 95 feet and weighs 238,000 pounds. An expert on these matters, about 6 A.D., asked, what man by taking thought could add a cubit to his stature? About 1800, the answer was, any man with the a rudimentary sense of geometry and mechanics. By 1900, by taking thought a man could fly. But all bets are not off. Having taken thought and added 237,850 pounds to my stature – along with about a billion and a half fellow humans – I may well be part of a historical circus stunt that has not long to go.

Of course,  one can well ask whether any man was taking any thought at all in the 2000s, the decade in which the big environmental idea was to make the SUV a tax deductible item. It was another decade of la la la, acidifying the oceans, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, getting dangerously close to an underwater mining of methane pockets that were last disrupted during the Eocene era (also known as the big crash for the downer effect it had on everything except certain peculiar forms of bacteria), and promoting various housing booms in desert areas, for instance in the Western U.S., where even in normal circumstances all signs speak of the change to the sixty year drought cycle endemic to that region of the country. It is a distinct problem with homo sapiens even of normal size that he must drink fresh water.  70 percent of the freshwater on earth is now being diverted, in one way or another, to irrigate crops, leading to the massive desertification of land from the Imperial valley in California to the Andhra Pradesh – since irrigation makes the desert bloom,  first with plants,  and then with mineral salts that leach up to the surface of the earth (where the wind sweeps them in vast poisonous arcs) and down into the groundwater.
This is of course nothing new. To cut it short, in the developed world, populations  continue to live on the earth like meth fiends in a cheap apartment – and if the earth did have a landlord, he’d be kicking us out about now. We’d find our shit on Mars, and a large sign posted on the Himalayas: YOU ARE HEREBY ORDERED TO EXIT THE PREMISES.

But, let’s face it, meth is the only life we know how to lead. And since we aren’t going to change anything, the next best thing is to find wankers to assure us that we, a., don’t need to, b., couldn’t even if we did need to, and c., hey, did you see that thing happening across the street?

As is appropriate with long events, they allow us to say, lo, wankery here, and lo, wankery there, and enjoy, if we want, a corporation funded 24/7 surroundscape of wankery on this issue. Public intellectuals, so to speak, are added simply as sprinkles on the cake, the wonderful towering cake of shit that we are baking ourselves. But public intellectuals there must be, according to a rule first whispered by the snake to Eve  in the days when homo sapiens used up the energy that any other ape would use, and nobody, by taking thought,  could gain an inch. I like to think that the  master moment in 00s wankery on this topic are spread out between the appearance of Bjorn Lomborg in 2001, and the freakowankery spread by the holly jolly freakonomists from the school of Chicago in 2008.
 When I read the profile of the “skeptical environmentalist” in the NYT in 2001, I realized that here was a cat on the road to stardom. I knew that he going to be quoted, infinitely, to a,b, and c his way across our sad news landscape, and to be the counterpoint inserted into every environmental story by our good buddies, the petro-industry financed think tanks and foundations (and such are the surprises of the plutocracy that by the end of the decade, even the Sierra Club was on the dole of the natural gas companies). In my blog I wrote one of my first posts, on 8/8/2001, about the future I saw for Lomborg. I was frankly envious. At the time, I was freelancing – a conman’s game, for low low stakes – and it was as if I saw a pro step up to the table and proceed to three card monte the shit out of everything. Lomborg and the failed Texas oilman and cheerleader who was hoisted into the presidency eight months before by the cutest coup you ever saw, made such a good cultural couple that I thought for sure their sleazy, implausible, and irresistible ways would be the most we would have to deal with. Of course, as I was writing, Bush was dismissing reports about the Al qaeda operatives in the country with the memorable phrase: okay, you’ve covered your ass. He of course didn’t, and we saw plenty of his bare bottom later, on 9/11, and we didn’t care. Cause he was a hero!

But to return to Bjorn Lomborg: the cool thing about the con was the way he played according to character. For Lomborg, you see, wasn’t some oil type from Houston. No, he’d been a genuine Greenpeacer, a Scandinavian one at that, and then – he was converted. The 00s were, among other things, the decade of the conversion story. Americans love conversion.  There he was, according to himself, your average know nothing Greenpeace schmoe, kvetching about mass extinction and Global Warming on Planet Gaia, when he got knocked down (spiritually, that is) by libertarian skeptics of the environmental model. No doubt, like Saul, he had his days of reclusion and blindness, the night sweats, the fever - but a vision of Gale Norton apparently visited him, saying, in an unearthly voice, go and tell all mankind about the wonders of cost benefit analysis! So he arose from his bed and now he's come out with a book, and at such a convenient time, too! What with the trashing of the Kyoto accords and all, which looks so terrible in the press. The book plays a theme dear to the corporate mindset - that is, that environmentalists exaggerate, and that such things as climate change, or environmental damage, are myths generated by inaccurate or skewed stats and projections of enviro- Nazis. Of course, modern day converts never convert all the way - they want to bring their cultural capital with them, otherwise they become just another Jack in the Pack. So instead of taking the mantle of libertarian debunker, Lomborg, of course, is still describing himself as an environmentalist. He is of that less dogmatic type, undisturbed when they blacktop those pristine redwood forests in California. Plenty more where that came from! Hell, wonders of biotech nowadays, we'll just fix us up a batch in a laboratory. So come on down, Butterfly!!!

To go through Lomborg’s view that the environment is better today than it was in 1850 would be a waste of space. Scientific American, bless em, took care of the details – but in so doing locked the debate into a matter of mikiwiki-facts. What is needed in these cases as well is… the higher literary criticism! Or something like that.  Criticism that takes up the curious case of ‘scepticism’ in the anti-environmentalist discourse. It is curious that skepticism is a virtue touted by the dubious, and foisted off on the credulous, to prove the incredible. At the same time, in the same decade, in which the overwhelming power of Saddam  Hussein’s secret weapons of mass destruction were accepted as fact by the establishment and the population in the face of the fact that Saddam Hussein could not,  manifestly, even threaten the breakaway Northern part of Iraq with any real force (sure, he could attack the U.S., but not fearsome Kurdistan!), the same people went into the lab and poured over the science to understand, in as neutral a way as possible, whether pouring Mississippi’s of CO2 into the atmosphere was a good thing or not. Such was the thirst for skepticism that petro companies, in their scientific  fervor, funded think tank intellectuals to find out all about it.

As with so much of the 00s, it was like amateur comedy night at the moron’s club. And it blackened and generally shit one of the truly good things about the conservative temperament, which is real skepticism –real resistance to technocratically induced social change. The greatest single conservative book ever written by an American bears the title: Scepticism and Animal Faith. Santayana’s chapter, Knowledge and Faith, threads the needle for the conservative epistemologist. I’d have to quote the whole of it, but I’ll content myself with this paragraph – which, distinguishing the skepticism that affirms faith from the skepticism that affirms solipsism,distinguishes, as well, the conservatism of Burke, Yeats and Eliot from the for profit skepticism of Exxon and Lomborg:

Plato and many other philosophers, being in love with intuition (for which alone they were perhaps designed by nature), have identified science with certitude, and consequently entirely condemned what I call knowledge (which is a form of animal faith) or relegated it to an inferior position, as something merely necessary for life. I myself have no passionate attach ment to existence, and value this world for the in tuitions it can suggest, rather than for the wilderness of facts that compose it. To turn away from it may be the deepest wisdom in the end. What better than to blow out the candle, and to bed ! But at noon this pleasure is premature. I can always hold it in reserve, and perhaps nihilism is a system—the simplest of all —on which we shall all agree in the end. But I seem to see very clearly now that in doing so we should all be missing the truth : not indeed by any false assertion, such as may separate us from the truth now, but by dumb ignorance—a dumb ignorance which, when proposed as a solution to actual doubts, is the most radical of errors since it ignores and virtually denies he pressure of those doubts, and their living presence. Accordingly, so long as I remain awake and the light burning, that total dogmatic scepticism is evidently an impossible attitude. It requires me to deny what I assert, not to mean what I mean, and (in the sense in which seeing is believing) not to believe what I see. If I wish, therefore, to formulate in any way my actual claim to knowledge—a claim which life, and in particular memory, imposes upon me—I must revise the premisses of this nihilism. For I have been led to it not by any accidental error, but by the logic of the assumption that knowledge should be intuition of fact. It is this presumption that must be revoked.”

This presumption has a tendency to be assumed within the hierarchy and planning of all large organizations, including science, even as science officially renounces it for the play of probabilities – probabilities that are much like Santayana’s essences, variable places more real than the values that are inscribed into them. But enviro-scepticism is no such glorious intellectual bird -  it is, rather, that familiar species, the American buzzard, even if it wears a Scandinavian haircut.

Americans however have no need to import Danes to fill our buzzard quota. So the next wanker moment, the freakowanker moment, involves two pundits in the American grain.  

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