Friday, March 18, 2016

Reclaiming citizenship: democracy and its discontents - 1

abbreviations used:

CC - climate change
GW - global warming
LIA - Little Ice Age

            Civilization is at a tipping point. There is now no serious doubt left that mass human die off is a distinct possibility. Overpopulation, environmental destruction, badly managed natural wealth (renewable resources like the ocean fisheries), climate change - all these augment geopolitical instability. Witness the rise of terrorism in recent decades. Mass human die-off is the human equivalent of "ecological overshoot" followed by population collapse which occurs when an organism manages to temporarily overexploit a vital resource, causing a population boom followed by a bust when the resource runs out. Various assumptions about human response to the environmental / demographic crisis naturally lead to different die-off "scenarios": geographical specificity, intensity, duration, possibility of rebound,.. After Rome fell, Western civilization was reborn during the Renaissance eight centuries later. Other civilizations vanished like the dinosaurs. One thing is certain to most (if not all!) thinking people today: we live in a Time of Troubles. These are usually associated with mass human die-off.

A historical example: The onset of the Little Ice Age (LIA). Duration: circa 1300 - 1850. At the beginning of the 14th century: the Renaissance, Europe was urbanizing, the bourgeosie flourished as did commerce, wealth and population. These were the Good Times of the Medieval Climatic Optimum: slighly elevated temperatures, climatic stability and in Europe, generally good, if not superior crop yields. Cultivars migrated northward: olives and wine were grown in England! Microbes migrated too: malaria and leprosy - tropical diseases today - were edemic throughout Europe, as far north as Scandinavia.

               But things changed incredibly rapidly, within the span of a few decades, as the LIA slammed into Europe with astounding ferocity.

             The early years of the 14th century marked a rapid transition from the Medieval Optimum to the LIA: extreme weather destroyed crops, extensive - and inhabitual - flooding combined with repeated cold waves resulted in many deaths from hypothermia and malnutrition related infections (due to immunosuppression). Then the bubonic plague hit, a newly emergent disease similar to AIDS, Ebola and SARS in our day. New epidemic strains of old diseases are killing the little brown bat of North America and amphibians worldwide. Epidemiologists and ecologists suspect that changing climate plays a role in emergent diseases by modifying host-parasite interaction. Today, for example, we see malaria spreading to regions formerly malaria free as global warming (GW) allows mosquitios to inhabit regions formerly too cold. At any rate, once bubonic plague appeared, its spread was facilitated by extreme weather induced crop failure and mass malnutrition which suppressed human immune systems. (In modern times, it is estimated that malnutrition induced disease kills as many as 10 times the number that initially starve to death.) Waves of "environmental refugees" flooded into towns and cities seeking employment. These mass migrations became "vectors" of bubonic plague transition. Overcrowed, malnourished, immunosuppressed migrants living in unhygenienic conditions were fertile ground for the plague to take root. Those that survived fled - and carried the plague with them. Waves of plague washed over Europe from country to country. A century and a half later, circa 1450, Europe's population had declined by a whopping 25 - 40% according to the experts you consult - at least they concur that it was a Time of Troubles accompanied by mass human die-off, note 1.

         The fact that we live in a Time of Troubles is the central fact of our existence today (deny it as we will). If we choose to live authentically, we must accept it (though we quibble over its general significance, personal relevance, timing, outcome..)

         One point, though, stands out as capital: we cannot blame fate. Our "fate" was collectively constructed - or "chosen". It was not imposed by God. Undoutedly, evolution played a role in the way our minds work but that simply means we are the products of evolution, not its slaves. A big part of the evolution of the human mind was the development of a "General Problem Solver" which evolved to operate in a relatively context free fashion on all sorts of complicated and ambiguous problems. Above all, humans are endowed with "reflective reason": the capacity to "stand outside ourselves", view our own actions from "above", study their trajectory, postulate where that trajectory will lead and take corrective action, if needed.

           It is high time that citizens of democracies reclaim their citizenship from the economic / commercial / financial / industrial / bureaucratic juggernaut which has "stolen" our citizenship, our power and our rights.

          Reclaiming citizenship? In democracies citizens are free, equal and bonded in fraternal respect. That's the theory anyway..

                  Liberty  -  Equality  -  Fraternity
                  Liberté  -  Égalité    -  Fraternité
                  Libertad - Igualidad - Fraternidad

             Le Peuple est Roi! The people are the rulers in a democratic regime. The buck stops at the people. If we don't like the state of the world - and we take democracy seriously - the people are responsible for the state of the world. Either the people are King or they are not - you can't have it both ways..

             But what do we see today? The "King" - the People - have let themselves be divested of their power by Corporate power and greed (and the influence it buys). My favorite definition of fascism runs:

Fascism: the control or seizure of the State by the Corporate Elite.

            We need only think of how mass media control the flow of information and the biases (if not outright lies) they introduce to serve the political and social agenda of their clients (the fossil energy industry, for example). The fossil energy lobby has mounted a somewhat effective compaign against climate science and renewable energy technology. This campaign was not sufficient to block renewable energy development, only slow it significantly (particularly in North America and, by providing a false model of "development", in large third world countries like China and India).       

          Of course, it is easier to displace blame onto a cabal of Evil Greedies than to step up to the plate and accept responsibility: we, the people, have let ourselves be duped; we have bought into a soul destroying, culture destroying, planet destroying hyper-consumer society. Now the shit is in the fan and we ain't got nobody to blame but ourselves. Easier to blame someone else than give up all the goodies we've gotten ourselves addicted to, eh?

Logical inconsistency in conspiracy theories

          There exists an omnipotent, omniscient - and evil - Universal Conspiracy (names vary) which controls all aspects of our lives and the life of human societies in general. 
Since the Universal Conspiracy controls all information flows, the information we have about UC and its doings cannot be trusted. Therefore, we can conclude nothing about UC, even its existence. 

When conspiracy theories become dangerous. The most obvious case is when displaced responsibility is shifted to defenseless scapegoats. These are useful to ruling elites because they can be safely abused, temporarily releasing pent up frustration, fear and rage among the masses. Unfortunately, the fix wears off fast so a fresh bout of hate-spew (if not violence) is soon required.

           More insidiously, conspiracy theory hate-spew excuses one from taking concrete action in one's personal life and immediate surroundings. This is why you see so much hate-spew on the internet. You get an immediate and potent "hit" or "high" with little real effort, an emotional "bolus" effect, like an injection of your favorite poison or a toke on a crack pipe. Ego gratification is also easily achieved by "unmasking" and hate-smearing Evil Greedies. Community based activism, on the other hand, is slow, demanding, often more ego-bruising than ego-stroking. Ultimately, conspiracy theories are another "last resort of the powerless" (or those who see themselves as such, whether it is admitted or not). In a similar vein: "cynicism is the last resort of the powerless" (unknown source).

The psychology of powerlessness and the lure of authoritarianism. What can finite, feeble, isolated, anomic wo/man do, facing such a protean, polymorphic Force of Evil? Raised as a traditional - if not reactionary - "christian", I recognize the situation of mankind facing the Ultimate Enemy, Satan, his power and his legions of evil spirits. The solution (I was) offered by the Church was to throw ourselves at the feet of God, beg his Mercy and Forgiveness and "seek to offend Him no more, obey Him in all things". Such views are often linked to the Authoritarian Personality as is the the most extreme form, fatalism, the belief that we are powerless before destiny.

"Another trait which is common to all authoritarian thinking,.. typical of authoritarian character, is the conviction that life is determined by forces outside the person, outside his interests and wishes, and that the only possible happiness consists in submission to these forces." 

For the classical work on the Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al): 

             So, then, are conspiracy theorists, CC / GW "sceptics" and deniers really closet authoritarians (consciously or consciously) seeking a Führer to submit to? Do they seek an embodiment of Absolute Good who will, in turn, give them a mandate to brutalize (evil) scapegoats with a clear conscience? (note 2)

              Personal experience suggests this might be so as do many observable tics and character traits shared in common with the classical Authoritarian Personality type (see especially the original work by Adorno et al - above link):

- stereotypy: individuals are judged collectively according to the group they belong to, not as individuals,

- black / white (dichotomous) thinking: "You're either with us or you're against us" - George W Bush. The world is divided into warring camps, no nuance (or alternatives) permitted. One side, "ours", is all Good, the other, "theirs" is the Incarnation of Evil.

- vilification, viturperation, denigration ("hate-spew"): CC /GW "sceptics" and deniers do not "debate" atmospheric physics, they spew hate. This was a major trait of authoritarians (nazi sympathizers) observed by Adorno et al: The Authoritarian Personality.

- fatalism: we are controlled by external forces. These are evil in nature. Our sole salvation - if there is salvation - is to submit to a force of Absolute Good (God or the Führer) who will guide us on the Right (and only right) Path.

- hypocrisy: clinical testing of high scorers on the "A-Test" (Authoritarin Scale) showed a "poorly integrated", "polyfacetted" personality structure. A "fractured" personality with poorly communicating parts (in extreme cases, on could speak of latent sub-personalities). The right hand did not know what the left hand did (and might not "want" to know - in the Freudian sense, a willful or self-interested ignorance). The authoritarian is often seen by others as hypocritical (perhaps manipulative and uncaring if a position of authority). Authoritarians accuse the groups they hate of the very traits and actions that are so evident in their own characters and actions. CC / GW "sceptics" and deniers abuse climate scientist of "cherry picking" data that fits their theories but one can find few greater cherry harvesters than the "sceptics" and deniers themselves! 

- scapegoating: high A-Test scorers show a greater need to find scapegoats to blame for all that's wrong with the world. Given the chance to work out their aggressiveness, some find great zest and pleasure (sadism).

- paranoia: trust does not flow easily. Few are trusted, the worst is always seen or sought for. The world is a hostile place, full of evil and - of course! - conspiracies.

- jargonized speech: authoritarians often spout a weird, emotionally charged jargon. Warning! Professions and specialized branches of study - medicine, mathematics, philosophy.. - naturally develop specialized jargon ("shop talk") to communicate more effectively with their peers. Terms like "velocity" in physics don't have the same meaning as they do in ordinary usage: velocity in physics refers to the speed on an object relative to some reference point and includes the direction the object is moving in (relative to some frame of reference).
            The jargonized speech of authoritarians, though, seems intended either to obscure or to manipulate (or both). In a foundational document (Party Platform), published in September 1919,
the Fascist Party of Italy put forth the principle that reasoned thinking (or debate) on political issues was to be short-circuited by linking hot-button words (communist traitor, Reds, pinkos, liberal, secular humanist, faggot, the N word,..) to individuals, groups, political positions and social policies. The goal is to mobilized the masses through demagogy. Donald Trump provides a good contemporary example of this use of hot button, emotionally charge hate-spew..

 - obsessional concern with social rank and convention: a trait well exemplified by many US Republicans (especially the conservative wing of the party). These folks are also more likely than Democrats (especially liberal Democrats) to deny CC / GW. They often attribute CC / GW with a plot to create a Socialist State (often centered in the United Nations). Many of those folks would seem to conform to light or moderate Athoritarian Personality Type profiles. However, I've observed that some of the flakier conspiracy theorists (professing belief in multiple - sometimes mutually exclusive - conspiracies) present a somewhat modified attitudinal profile. These "hard-core" conspiracy theorists openly flaunt their non-conformism and marginality. They flatter themselves as "counter-cultural". They seem little concerned with adapting to conventional norms. Are they simply variants of the Authoritarian Personality? Are they non-Authoritarians because they lack an essential trait? I am not sufficiently versed in social research to answer that question. (I intend to discuss this issue with a couple of psychologists, though..)

Aside: It is an interesting and informative exercise to apply these criteria to the Right Wing types making so much noise of late: Stephen Harper and many of the people around him, Donald Trump and other GOP luminaries in the presidential race (USA).

            What the long term effects of conspiracy theories, GW / CC denial, etc might be, one thing can be said of their practical effects in the here-and-now. They rationalize / justify maintaining the status-quo which, for many middle (especially upper midddle) class Occidentals, still ain't so bad, compared to the Third World or our own poor. Conspiracy theories functionally deresponsibilize a still relatively comfortable - but increasingly skittish - citizenry from reclaiming personal responsibility for the state the world is in. 

            Yet, if society is to "advance", or more modestly, if only a surviving fraction of humanity is to have a chance of flourishing, the citizen must reclaim the right, duties and responsibility of Citizenship.   


1- If we take the midpont of the above estimated range (25 - 40% die off), we obtain a 33% mortality. One out of three Europeans died between, say, 1300 and 1450 due to famine, plague, flood, hypothermia, malnutrition induced disease and their various combinations. However, this 1 in 3 figure surely underestimates the impact of the CC induced disaster. It represents the decline in population relative to the value attained circa 1300. In reality. population was "flourishing" - by Medieval standards - in 1300 and so the  real impact should be measured against this rising  trend and the value population would have reached if the LIA and plague had not intervened. If we consider the (hypothetical) case of a modest 2% population growth rate per decade for the period 1300 - 1450, we achieve a "business-as-usual" projected population increase of 34.5% between these two dates. Crunching these figures gives a more realistic die-off ratio of 1 in 2. That is, population declined by 50% compared to the value it would have reached if the Good Times of the Medieval Climatic Optimum had continued.

                       (1.345 - .67) / 1.345 = .5

          1.345 is the ratio of the "business-as-usual" projected population for 1450 compared to the real population of the baseline year 1300. The ratio of the real population in 1450 compared to the baseline is .67 (signifying a real population decline of 33%). The numerator 1.345 - .67, or  .675, is the difference between the real population in 1450 and the population projected if the Good Times of the Medieval Climatic Optimum had continued.

2- sceptic: original meaning versus use by CC / GW "sceptics". The term has its origins in Greek philosophy. Today, there are a variety of usages, sometimes contradictory. The following is the one at most variance with the attitude of most CC / GW "sceptics" I've met:

" methodological skepticism is an approach that subjects all knowledge claims to scrutiny with the goal of sorting out true from false claims" 

In contradistinction, CC / GW "sceptics" are ideologues who possess The Truth: CC / GW are lies concocted by the Evil Greedies in order to do evil things. Example: pro-GW college professors plot to make "trillions" off carbon credit trading - ignoring, of course, all those oil company CEOs and investors who risk losing millions or billlions if decentralized, locally controlled, renewable energy systems were to be widely developed! 

No comments:

Post a Comment