Sunday, May 18, 2014

The West Antarctica Ice Sheet and Us

Pretty often, my conscience takes a hit from the ongoing alteration of this planet Earth that we have decided we own. A huge complacency-shattering moment came a few days ago. Two papers in separate scientific journals concluded: (a) a huge chunk of the West Antarctica ice sheet is melting away and it is inevitable, (b) this strongly suggests that the whole ice sheet will melt and that other big sheets could melt as well. What does this mean? Think of a coastal urban area anywhere in the world. Now image it underwater.

Here are some excerpts from the New York Times article:


A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on Monday. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries ...

“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, said in an interview. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”


This is the kind of announcement I’ve felt was coming but had hoped never to see. My longstanding sense of dread no longer just potentially has teeth: it has very sharp fangs of prophetic truth. Our legacy to our children is going to be a world disfigured by myopic consumerism. These unfortunate inheritors will stand on hills above metropolises that have gone into the brine, and shake their heads at those pitiable effigies of the mythical Atlantis. I am assuming, of course, that the anomie precipitated by displacing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people, will not lead to the complete breakdown of civilization.

I mean ...

if just one hot-headed country launches a single nuclear weapon, it could precipitate hellfire of biblical proportions. Even without nukes, it is easy to envision militias staking out territories, returning us to feudal if not despotic times.

It’s happening. Planetary cataclysm will be our legacy. We are as fated a force as the archean algae that oxygenated the primal methanous atmosphere. We are, in this sense, as programmatic as a primitive plant. It took humanity only 12,000 years from the rise of agriculture to radically rewrite the ecological script. And, as my analogy to algae implies, we did this not of choice, but rather driven by the spurs of denial, avarice, and selfish acquiescence.

It’s convenient and economic for us to buy “Made In China,“ ignoring the cost in coal emissions, sweatshop labor, animal cruelty and Earth degradation. A few get rich, a sino-bourgeoise grows, the citizens of the US empire gain a trifle of satisfaction--the vast rest of the world suffers. “Greed is Good,” although steeped in drama off the lips of Gordon Gekko, is indeed the overarching maxim of our capitalism-ravaged times. Police state capitalism, ‘free market’ capitalism, in both cases the plutocracy takes and takes.

What can I say to future generations? I doubt anyone in the far, or even relatively near, future will ever read my words. But let’s pretend that in the early 22nd century, archaeologists dig an internet mainframe out of some submerged structure, and somehow Owl Who Laughs blog gets retrieved.

I’ve already apologized to the future, over and over. How did it happen and why were we so callous? There are many themes to our failure, like strands in a carcinogenic DNA.

Part of it is just the old story: elites focused on maintaining and expanding their power. To do so, they need a loyal base, the fanatic masses. This goes back to the basics: humans are programmable via culture. Social programming can be immensely more powerful than common sense, reason, justice, or even all three combined. And as history shows, social programming replicates from generation to generation.

As long as no major catastrophe shakes up the status quo, social programming is highly resistant and resilient. Isolated individuals or splinter groups that challenge the ‘mindware’ succeed only at rare times when the system is at a vulnerable point. Even when a challenge is successful, it is usually only partial. Reasonable analysis rarely results in a gestalt shift in terms of societal values. So, for instance, it took thousands of years for women to begin to get even a semblance of recognition as intelligent equals, and to not be treated as property or slaves.

Note that when a society is in crisis, as in pre-WWII Germany, demagogues strive to harness anger and turn it into the fuel of hatred, creating stronger and stronger fascist parties. The spread of the Tea Party in the USA has some of these elements. Under such conditions, the spread of reasonable, ethical awareness is dubious at best. More on this below.

Fully amenable to cultural programming, as if the two were made for each other, are the common psychological habits that we have just begun to examine objectively: denial, projection, repression, reaction formation, splitting, and so on. A major problem here is that facing global warming is extremely painful, but when faced with such an intense stimulus, many people simply repress it.

Don’t want to deal with GW? Go into denial. Problem solved for the ego in question. There are plenty of demagogues eager to help you keep your repression strong.

Our very distant ancestors had little knowledge of psychology, or the concepts of free will, autonomy and human rights (let alone the moral standing of animals and nature). However, we ourselves, the beneficiaries of the Enlightenment, don’t get to appeal to this somewhat plausible excuse. We have an intellectual inheritance that was hard won over centuries: in our day, Western civilization has dug a niche for rational autonomy, equality, and a corresponding empathy.

The Native American philosophy was far ahead of ours long ago, and still is; but when Europeans 'discovered' this continent that I write from, typing away on my weird device known as a laptop, the resulting holocaust showed the extent of human idiocy even in the face of monstrous wrong-doing. I mean, how more plant-like, or virus-like, in our behavior can we get? Our ancestors don't get a pass on this centuries-spanning genocide, whose tendrils still infect our society today.

We also, today, have the advantage of hindsight. We can see how women were denied fair treatment for thousands of years and reflect on how to avoid such dysfunction. Educational networks are in place today that allow for a far-sighted self-programming. Such self-programming, aka a liberal education, can override entrenched cultural programming. Women’s Studies, for instance, is now an academic discipline. The study of how oppression and ignorance work within culture has a global body of networked scholarship.

Therefore, you could say that the failure of our time, in relation to environmental disaster, is a failure to give people the ability to self-program, and thereby challenge the conformist social programming. It’s a tough battle. On one side, you have television and other mass media spreading consumer narcissism and all the denial and repression that entails. On the other, you are asking people to break out of what they are being told by their beloved ‘conservative’ leaders, including charismatic Christian preachers, entrenched legislators, and ‘heart-of-America’ firebrands like Rush Limbaugh, who claims that global warming is a hoax, a conspiracy perpetuated by scientists all over the world to undermine the Republican Party (the only major party in an industrial, democratic country to deny human-caused global warming).

A lot of people simply have no time or energy to think about these matters. They are toiling simply to get by, or raise a family. Of course, the plutocracy likes it this way. It does not want people to think for themselves--to start self-programming--because that would challenge their cultural programming.

The right-wing propaganda machine includes:

Welfare is bad, ‘freedom’ for corporations is good.
(keeps people too busy to think, helps advance de-regulation, more tax breaks for the rich, etc.)

If you fail, you didn’t work hard enough.
(creates obedient workers, takes the focus off of the corrupt system)

Schools, universities should be privatized, made cost-efficient, and tenure eliminated.
(gives corporates control of education so it becomes an arm of their cultural programming)

Higher education has been made a luxury in the Empire, and as the Empire declines, expect less people to have access to it, and therefore more vulnerability to the persuasion of powerful interests.

So, my ultimate answer to those who wonder how we have done so much damage is this: as civilization currently stands, the large majority of humans are programmed by avaricious forces outside of themselves, instead of thinking for themselves with the open-mindedness exemplified in, say, the scientific method, and in the liberal-arts tradition of the humanities.

We are such conformist creatures--though we can learn to be more. In a way, though, our potential to be better only magnifies the tragedy of our actual failure.


No comments:

Post a Comment