Putting on my tasseled cap as the professor for a moment, I have a student who comes to me often, but is not ready to hear what I have to say. He is combative, contentious, disrespectful. He stops his ears to my advice. He thinks he knows better, but he keeps coming back, peppering me with more questions.
What should I do?
The old saw is, there are no such things as bad questions, only bad answers. I am beginning to think that, while humorous, that is wrong. I have been giving good answers but my student is unready to hear them. I think the student needs to evolve a bit more clarity of his own to be able to catch my meaning.
I am trying to think what might be some good homework. The student needs a challenge, an ordeal; something to instill receptivity. Short of recommending a shamanic conversation with some medicinal plants, I looked to my bookshelf to find some recent literature that might broaden his perspective.
The books I was about to recommend were The Diamond Cutter by Michael Roach, The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann and Tribe by Sebastian Junger. Then I picked up The New York Times Magazine for August 1, 2018 and read the book-length article by Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.
His assignment starts there.
Rich’s tale begins in Spring, 1979, but let’s first go back another 3 years, to when I was recovering from a fall off a roof that had punctured a lung. Confined to The Farm’s infirmary, I was living in a stuffed recliner and forced to make the best of that old wooden building’s limited supply of reading materials. I latched onto a college mathematics textbook and taught myself computer programing, or more specifically, Dartmouth BASIC. From here this story could have swerved into my new career as a blackbox hacker who decided to go to Cupertino and meet Steve Wozniak, or to Australia to tutor a young Julian Assange. Instead, I next lifted a dog-eared issue of High Times from the Clinic’s magazine rack and was drawn to a story about giant mutant sponges in San Francisco Bay — a real life story of radioactive chaos attributable to the Navy’s decision to dump its submarine waste into the ocean.
That led to my taking the Tennessee Bar Exam and going four times before the US Supreme Court in my Quixotic attempt to shut down global nuclear power. That is where I was at age 32 in the Spring of 1979, when I first encountered MITRE, or the shadowy figures Rich calls The Jasons.
While Rich’s protagonists, Rafe Pomerance, Gordon MacDonald, and James Hansen were starting to stir the pot about climate change, I was tilting at radioactive windmills. No doubt I crossed paths with those guys in the marbled halls of the Capitol. Standing in a white tablecloth buffet queue at the Sheraton one time, I remarked to Ralph Nader, just behind me in the queue, that he should seriously think about whether “consumer rights” was a good frame. In that small world, I sat in on Hansen’s famous tutorial to a Joint Congressional Committee. I later used it to open the story line in my 1989 book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do.
I didn’t have this particular backstory before now and I am the first to acknowledge it is a finely told tale. Probably it is the best telling yet, and I say that after having recently gone back and re-read Bill McKibben’s classic, The End of Nature. But we all get better with practice.
Climate in Crisis holds up pretty well after 28 years. If I had it to do over, the only part that would change would be my obligatory what-to-do chapters at the end. Today, despite the fact you can read almost the same material in a current issue of Scientific American or The Atlantic, I am embarrassed by how lame my prescriptions were. Change your light bulbs to CF. Seriously? Buy an electric car (which really run on coal, if truth be told). Convert military spending. Well, okay, that one would still help.
Rich describes a three-day meeting assembled at a swank beach resort in Florida in 1980 that brought together some of DC’s top policy advisors.
“Do we have a problem?” asked Anthony Scoville, a congressional science consultant. “We do, but it is not the atmospheric problem. It is the political problem.” He doubted that any scientific report, no matter how ominous its predictions, would persuade politicians to act.
Pomerance glanced out at the beach, where the occasional tourist dawdled in the surf. Beyond the conference room, few Americans realized that the planet would soon cease to resemble itself.
What if the problem was that they were thinking of it as a problem? “What I am saying,” Scoville continued, “is that in a sense we are making a transition not only in energy but the economy as a whole.”
Peering back almost half a century it seems amazing how nuanced their understanding of the crisis we face was, but then that was the point Nathanial Rich was trying to make. We have known this for a very, very long time.
A few years ago I was attending the International Permaculture Convergence at a summer camp south of Havana and we were having a breakout meeting about climate change led by Starhawk. I said something about the goal being to educate people and was brought up short by a young woman from England. “Everyone already knows,” she said. “There is no point in trying to teach anyone anything.”
That remark stayed with me afterwards. It lingers today. There is an ostrich quality to the debate, if a debate it is.
In Charles Mann’s Wizard book, he closes with an appendix on climate change in which he tries to offer a balanced perspective, which is to say, drums up some pretty absurd reasons for human exceptionalism uber alles. It is a bit of a let down, coming right after a real masterpiece, and I suspect it will be a source of embarrassment for him in the future. What he is really saying is that our capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. If we read Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s excellent look at the evolutionary biology, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, we can understand why. We are hard wired that way.
In Denial, biologists Varki and Brower (Brower died in 2007) propose a novel explanation for why humans surpassed all other species in mental prowess. The authors argue that as humans contemplated the intentions of those around them, they began reflecting more deeply on the meaning of life itself, and this examination led to the frightening awareness of their mortality. To assuage such fears, humans evolved the unique ability to deny reality. The authors reason that religion and philosophy represent some of our best efforts to do so.
Scientific American goes on to opine that, “Although a gift for self-deception may have saved our ancestors from despair, it might also be our downfall. But recognizing this tendency in ourselves may push us to stop ignoring unpleasant truths, such as global warming and poverty, and start addressing them.”
To which I would have to say, uhh… no. We are not going to reprogram a neocortex that took millions of years to program as if it were BASIC. We may have to recognize, as Lynn Margulis tells Charles Mann in Wizard, each species, our own included, comes with an expiration date.
We just don’t quite know when that expiration date falls, and from that mystery springs all our hope, fear, despair, and joy in living the best possible life we can. There is no permanence. No promises. If my student can grasp this, then maybe we will get a chance to exchange some deeper thoughts.