by Bud Nye, R.N., M.S.
First, I contend that all speaking and writing has a bias based on the thinking and world-view of the author. This includes all articles published in the most prestigious scientific journals, it includes Guy McPherson’s writing and speaking, it includes the writing and speaking of all of McPherson’s critics, and it certainly includes mine. How could writing and speaking possibly work otherwise when we all necessarily tell others about our unique perceptions and learning history in the world? Keeping that principle in mind, I have written this essay.
People often attack the work Guy McPherson does in informing the public about the risks to humanity and other life on Earth related to global warming, ecological, and nuclear collapse. Surprisingly often, they do not attack only his ideas, but him as a person, his character, and they sometimes do this quite passionately. I wonder why. Obviously, economics and social power play critical roles for some people because, as Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It seems blindingly obvious that the rich and powerful wish to maintain their wealth and power for as long as they possibly can, which means, at best, continuing business as usual for as long as possible—and the environment be damned—and at worst lying and killing “as needed” in order to maintain their wealth and power at the expense of other humans, other species, and the planet. So this group has obvious, strong psychological, emotional, and practical motives for attacking those who produce evidence related to global warming, ecological, and nuclear collapse, thus threatening their power positions.
But what about the large percentage of people who do not have that wealth and power? What motivates them in their attacks—besides “the American dream” and their wishing, someday, to join the ranks of the rich and powerful? (As George Carlin says, “They call it ‘the American dream’ because a person has to be asleep to believe it!”) As powerful as the money and power motives certainly prove for so many people, in this essay I wish to focus on a number of other, more subtle but often just as powerful motives. Aside from the obvious motives related to protecting the money one makes, or hopes to make, and their present or hoped for power position within our society, what psychologically and emotionally motivates the attacks that often go far beyond mature, respectful, reasoning-based argumentation about the issues that McPherson talks and writes about? I do not presume to know “the answer” to this question, but I will discuss, here, some of my present thinking about this under these six major headings: cognitive dissonance; human supremacist beliefs; naïve beliefs about science & technology; symbol/reality confusion; doing something about it; and fear and anxiety. Obviously, many of the principles I discuss here regarding the frequent attacks on Guy McPherson also apply directly to many people’s reactions to the ecological collapse, global warming, and nuclear collapse issues.
What Guy McPherson argues
Some critics appear to believe that Guy McPherson argues that probable human extinction will come exclusively from global climate change, but he does not. Instead, he argues that a mass die-off, with probable human extinction, will come from one or some combination of three, global-scale, mutually interacting processes: global climate change, environmental collapse, and/or nuclear meltdown. (For more specifics on this, see this article written in November, 2011: http://transitionvoice.com/2011/11/three-paths-to-near-term-human-extinction/ .) Directly related to this, he also argues that, due to peak oil, peak potable water, peak soil, other peaks, and general ecological collapse, industrial civilization will soon collapse. Because of greatly reduced atmospheric reflectance, this will quickly result in an increase in average atmospheric temperature to 2 C° (3.6 F°) over the pre-industrial baseline. Meanwhile, the interiors of large continents heat much faster than the global average, so those areas will become uninhabitable for humans shortly after the collapse of industrial civilization.
Does he argue that these things will happen with absolute 1.0 level certainty? No. With an extremely high probability on the order of 0.98, or so? Yes. Does he base this high probability on a particular, peer reviewed, published paper that takes all of these reciprocally interacting processes into account? No, because such a study would involve computer modeling and he prefers to report actual data and trends, not predictions based on computer models. The probability amounts to a professional judgment, an opinion, based on the pattern and trend of the presently available evidence. Does this qualify as “unscientific” because he has not mathematically calculated his probability estimate? Certainly not. To argue that amounts to arguing that doctors and surgeons who quickly make extremely complex, life-or-death decisions many times every day do so “unscientifically”, with no “real” basis in science, because they do not mathematically calculate each probability for each step along their reasoning chain, nor even the probability related to their final decision.
Despite this important point, some critics argue in a rigid, narrowly limited, exclusive way focusing only on McPherson’s arguments related to climate change unrelated to any other processes. (Scott Johnson’s “How Guy McPherson gets it wrong” discussion at his Fractal Planet blog comes to mind.) It seems to me that this amounts to a weak, distracting, and confusing straw man argument in response to McPherson’s argument that the probable die-off will likely occur as a result of many complex, interacting, almost certainly irreversible processes besides just climate change. Thus, the often narrow, exclusive focus on global warming looks like a desperate hope or claim that: (1) climate change poses the only serious threat to human survival, (2) climate change is a reversible “problem” that we can “solve” if we will just make the right engineering efforts (almost certainly a false assumption for Earth’s complex, chaotic, living biosphere), (3) that we can and do dominate Earth, after all, and (4) we can definitely “solve” this climate change “problem” through science and technology, which processes assure our continuing (alleged) dominance and control over Earth. All four of these claims strike me as naïve, grandiose, obviously false assumptions. They conveniently slide past and ignore the related, critically important issues of Earth’s carrying capacity, overpopulation and overconsumption, ecological collapse, and nuclear melt-down.
This kind of distracting, straw man attack seems quite irrational to me—especially coming from people who often insist that they think almost entirely in calm, reasoned, scientifically rational and accurate ways while claiming that McPherson, supposedly, does not. This begs the question, Why? Why do they behave this way? I propose some answers to this question here.
Cognitive dissonance and self-justification
It seems clear to me that cognitive dissonance and self-justification play critical roles in the attacks on Guy McPherson, as well as in the denial of Earth’s carrying capacity, global warming, ecological collapse, and nuclear collapse. In psychology, when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, we call the results cognitive dissonance, a term coined by the psychologist, Leon Festinger in the 1950s. This internal stress and discomfort may also occur within a person who holds a belief and performs a contradictory action.
Festinger‘s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When we experience inconsistency (dissonance), we largely become psychologically distressed. His basic hypotheses include: (1) “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance”, and (2) “When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.” Remember these two critical points: When a person experiences cognitive dissonance they try to reduce it, and they actively avoid situations and information that might increase the dissonance.
Festinger founded cognitive dissonance theory on the assumption that people seek consistency between their expectations and reality as they perceive it. Because of this, people engage in a process called dissonance reduction in order to bring their thoughts, actions, and perceptions in line with one another. Creating this consistency between thinking, acting, and perceiving reduces psychological tension and distress. According to Festinger, people can achieve dissonance reduction in four ways, listed below. Let’s consider just one of hundreds of possible examples of how cognitive dissonance works related to the global warming and ecological collapse issues:
Attitude: “I love nature, Earth, and life.”Behavior: Working at a business, technology, or science-related job that contributes significantly toward global warming and killing biomes on Earth.
- Change behavior/cognition (Examples: (1) Change jobs. (2) Change thought to: “Sure, I love nature, Earth and life, but humans are superior to all of that, at the top of a Great Chain of Being, and we can do whatever we want to with it.”)
- Justify behavior/cognition by changing the conflicting cognition (Ex: “My job doesn’t do much damage. Besides, I don’t have any choice.”)
- Justify behavior/cognition by adding new cognitions (Examples: “I’ll recycle things and support an organization that helps reduce global warming.” “We can fix the problems with our science and technology whenever we really focus on doing it.” “I’ll buy an electric car.”)
- Ignore/Deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (Ex: “Earth is way too big for humans to damage. Besides, the science does not support the idea that humans do significant damage to it or that many or all humans will die as a result.”)
To summarize: People experience dissonance when confronted with evidence inconsistent with their beliefs. If they do not reduce the dissonance by changing their beliefs, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others—exactlyas we see with a large percentage of people related to the ecological collapse, global warming and nuclear collapse issues.
I love Jared Diamond’s statement in his book, The Third Chimpanzee, that “The past was a Golden Age, of ignorance, while the present is an Iron Age of willful blindness.” As Barbara Ehrenreich describes so well in her book, Bright-Sided, How Positive Thinking Is UNDERMINING America (2009), it seems clear to me that positive, hopeful, wishful, technotopian thinking—especially as related to the perfect storm of economic, social, ecological, peak oil, global warming, and nuclear power plant collapses now well under way as I write this and as others read it—contribute significantly to that willful blindness and amount to attempts to reduce cognitive dissonance in the face of the many interrelated collapse processes.
For sure, one’s developing an understanding of the nature of the changes so rapidly occurring, as well as the implications of those interrelated changes for all humans and other species, produces massive cognitive dissonance, anxiety, fear, anger and other related psychological and emotional responses for many if not most people. This proves especially true if one has spent a significant portion of their life making their living and otherwise supporting Earth-killing beliefs and processes. Wishful, hopeful, technologically utopian thinking may help a person to feel better in the short term, but it ultimately only compounds and worsens the longer-term, negative consequences for all humans and other life on Earth. In distinct contrast with the denial and self-justification that so commonly occur when people experience cognitive dissonance, I agree with Carl Sagan that “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” For those who may have an interest in this, the books Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan and Mistakes Were Made (but not by ME), Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, both discuss at length the self-justification that most individuals and organizations resort to when they experience cognitive dissonance.
Human supremacist beliefs(Thanks to Derrick Jensen, presently unpublished, for some of the ideas I have discussed in this section.)
“A smarter planet is built on smarter analytics.” —IBM “smarter planet” ad
As illustrated in this ad, human supremacist beliefs run very deep in the history of civilization, and certainly in our fossil fuel powered, science and technology-based capitalist, industrial culture. These beliefs occur as many variations on the theme of “Nature has worth only through human’s using and valuing it, and humans can repair and improve on nature.” While cognitive dissonance plays a critical psychological process role in the planet killing, human supremacist beliefs form an important part of the psychological content that largely drives the global warming, ecological collapse, and nuclear collapse processes. Human supremacists—at this point almost everyone in this culture—have shown time and again that maintaining their belief in their own superiority and the entitlement that springs from this belief have more importance to them than the well-being or existence of every other species on the planet. Indeed, they have shown that maintaining this self-perception and entitlement have more importance than the continuation of all life on Earth. Guy McPherson openly and blatantly challenges this long-held cultural belief and thus finds himself under sometimes brutal attack.
Until we seriously question this supremacism—and dismantle it—the self-perceived entitlement that flows from the supremacist thinking guarantees that every attempt to stop this culture from killing the planet will fail. These attempts will fail in great measure because the supremacist thinking informs and limits the change attempts. Thus, all attempts will at best amount to ways to only slightly mitigate the harm, with the primary point, always, of making certain never in any way to question or otherwise endanger the deeply held supremacist and entitlement beliefs, structures, and policies.
In short, people protect what they consider important, and human supremacists have shown time and again that they consider their sense of superiority and the tangible benefits they receive in the short term more important than not destroying the capacity of Earth to support life. They do this largely because of their refusal to perceive other species as anything other than inferiors or resources for exploitation. (Ironically, in the longer term this ultimately affects their own lives, their children’s lives, and their grandchildren’s in profoundly negative ways.)
One of the most harmful and foundational ideas of Western Civilization involves that of the Great Chain of Being, or, in Latin, the scala naturae, which literally means “ladder or stairway of nature”. This alleged hierarchy of perfection has God at the top, then angels, then male humans, then female humans, then mammals, then birds, and so on, through plants, then precious gems, then other rocks, then sand at the bottom. It works as a profoundly life- and body-hating notion. According to those who articulated this hierarchy, those at the top—the perfect—exist as pure spirit while those at the bottom—the imperfect, the corrupt—live as pure matter, pure body, in this “merely”(!) “worldly” existence. Within this model both men and women live in a battleground of spirit and body, with men tending to live more in a box encompassing mind/spirit/better/perfected, and women tending to live more in a box encompassing body/life/death/corruption/imperfection. In this model, this conceptual construct, humans exist as the center of attention of Creation, with those above humans having a bodiless and perfected form, and those below fully embodied, imperfect, and having no mind. Of course within each of these categories sub-categories exist. So a civilized man presumably has far more perfection than a “primitive” man, who exists barely removed from animals (with animals in an entirely separate, completely disconnected category). We see this kind of thinking everywhere, only now, in this largely secular culture, we have for the most part gotten rid of God and the many categories of angels, thus leaving civilized (especially white) male humans at the top. Of course those at the top get to use those below however they want. Men have access to the bodies of women, because men exist higher on the hierarchy than women. And humans have access to all other species; and all of Earth exists as “resources” for humans because humans exist higher on the hierarchy than any of those merely worldly things.
Realizing these things I remain unimpressed by anyone’s academic degrees, political, or business positions in the social hierarchy, and the “rights” and “privileges” that this obviously insane society confers on a few humans (mainly rich, white males) at the massive expense of most other humans and other life on Earth. I do not think for one instant that my academic or other “credentials” give me any more “rights” or “privileges” than any of the millions of completely uneducated Africans—and many others!—dying from hunger as I write this, or the 200 species fighting for survival but that will lose that fight and become extinct today. I do not see myself as living at the top of some fanciful, hierarchal, Great Chain of Being as so many human supremacists do. I do not need, nor do I want, that kind of conceptual model of life on Earth, with me, supposedly, at or near its top.
People sometimes make comments to the effect that “McPherson’s arguments harm progress and finding solutions.” These people make the unwarranted human supremacist assumption that, because humans have dominated Earth (for a very short period of time in geological history), using science and technology we can engineer the planet however we want or need it. These arguments grow directly out of magical, human supremacist reasoning with popular ideas to the effect that “We can do anything if we just put our minds to it” and “No limits exist to what we can do on Earth.” In reality, many physical, biological limits exist to what humans can and cannot do on Earth. We have long since passed Earth’s carrying capacity, and we have lived for decades, literally on borrowed time, by burning the sun’s energy stored on Earth in the form of the limited quantities of fossil fuels practically available to us.
Naïve beliefs about science and technology
Here, I will discuss some popular, naïve beliefs about science and technology under three headings: the nature of natural science; wishing for and assuming simple, linear, reversible systems and processes; and assumptions about “value-free” science and technology.
The nature of natural science
Many of McPherson’s arguments and the attacks against him involve philosophy and concepts related to natural science. For this reason, readers need to understand and keep in mind a number of different important principles concerning natural science. A brief review of some of these relevant principles includes the following:
First, contrary to much popular thinking, natural science does not merely register facts. Indeed, our brains do not work like a cash register to tabulate a series of facts in a neutral sequence one after another. Instead, all of us, including scientists, construct our “facts” based on our experiences with the world through our individual, unique perceptual systems. Then each of us connects one fact with another. We seek and create order and relationship, arranging the facts so that we see them linked by inner laws in a coherent network. Thus, natural science works as a collection of ways to organize our constructed knowledge. Scientists do not use just one, experimental scientific method, but several different methods: An “experiment” may involve passively observing something happening that we have not set up or controlled in some way. Or, it may involve observing some kind of historical record, such as fossils. So, natural science includes a number of different methods, not just controlled experiments as many people believe. Thus, the popular term “the scientific method” or “the science” really does not fit very well. We would better think in terms of “scientific methods” (plural).
Next, all measurements made in science occur with uncertainty and get plotted with “error bars” that indicate an estimated range of uncertainty for the data. Competent natural scientists then make probability statements regarding these uncertain observations and measurements. They come to tentative conclusions based on reasoning and judgment about those evidence-based probabilities. So all science models and “facts” occur tentatively, always remaining subject to change based on additional evidence and reasoning. As tentative, changeable, fallibly human judgments, nothing rigidly and 100% certainly “factual” exists about any of it.
Note the implications of all of this for something as complex as making predictions about living, chaotic nature on Earth, especially on a global scale. Certainly we can make meaningful, probabilistic statements about the future of Earth, but no one, including the world’s scientific experts, has any omniscient insight into ultimate Truth regarding either the mechanisms presently occurring or the future behavior of those mechanisms. The experts all state their fallible, human opinions and judgments concerning the probabilities based on the particular evidence they explore and the methods they use to gather and explore that evidence.
Meanwhile, much of the discussion concerning global warming involves predicting the future behavior of chaotic, complex Earth systems. Within this discussion, “experts” state their opinions about probabilities of various outcomes. Yet some people claim, sometimes with absolute, religious-like zealotry, that only one interpretation of “the science” can occur. For example, some people make statements to the effect of “The science shows that near term human extinction cannot possibly occur.” They claim that, based on “the science” their views “are right”, and that anyone who disagrees with them “is wrong”. This seems very similar to fundamentalist zealots and fanatics who claim that their particular interpretation of the Bible or some other allegedly infallible authority “is right” and anyone who disagrees with them “is wrong”.
A physicist might ask a question like this: “From the perspective of a physicist, does it matter whether we have human caused global warming? We know lots of chaotic systems, weather being one of them. Yet, we can reasonably predict the weather tomorrow (by ‘reasonably predict’ I mean that we have specified probabilities that the fluid dynamics models we run will make predictions that will agree—up to a specified level of agreement—with weather variables tomorrow). So, just because the weather is a formidably complex, chaotic system does not immediately mean that we can say nothing meaningful about it. Science is in the business of probabilities and constructing models of mechanisms. A mechanism that is catastrophic but exceedingly rare needs to be assessed as such. So, the question for me is not “Is global warming occurring or not?” but “With what probability do we predict that a specified outcome will occur?” Science does not tell us what to do. Science provides us with probabilistic guidance so that we (with our world views, philosophical commitments, values—all extra-scientific considerations) can make decisions on the basis of scientific narratives.”
So, we carry out our narrow-focused, technical tasks with little knowledge, concern, or sense of response-ability concerning anything else. In response to this, I think it matters whether we have human caused global warming and ecological collapse occurring. Why? Because I care not only about the weather tomorrow (which, the argument just presented notwithstanding, we cannot accurately predict), but also the climate next year, next decade, and next century. I care about the climate my children and future generations of humans will experience, and I care even more about how our geoengineering Earth—something we have already done—will affect the millions of other species on Earth. So, as a living, breathing, biological physicist with children and grandchildren and concerns about other life on Earth, all of this definitely matters to me.
All statements in natural science occur as probability statements based on the background knowledge, observational data variability, and judgment of the person making the statement. In science, we usually measure probability on a scale from 0, something that will not happen, to 1.0 if it definitely will happen. For example, if, as a scientist, I say that “Tomorrow morning Earth will rotate in such a way as to make it appear to us on Earth that the sun ‘rises’” you may appropriately take issue with me for not more accurately saying something to the effect of “With a probability of 0.999, tomorrow morning Earth will rotate in such a way as to make it appear to us on Earth that the sun ‘rises’”. If I correct myself with this new statement, you might then disagree with me and, based on your background knowledge, judgment, and various kinds of experience, argue for a higher or lower probability. For example, you might argue (correctly) that the probability lies more on the order of 0.99999999.
Regarding the role that global warming will play in the unfolding mass human die-off, some people have the concern that Guy McPherson either has not correctly made his probability statement(s), or they disagree with his estimate. If McPherson says that the probability of near term human extinction equals 1.0 (and he does not claim that), you may consider that too high an estimate. Based on your background knowledge, the evidence you know about, and your judgment, versus his, you may consider a probability estimate of 0.999, 0.95, 0.9, 0.8, or 0.6 a much better estimate. This raises a fascinating question. What probability of human extinction occurring could Guy McPherson possibly make in order to avoid many of the attacks on him?
Would his making ANY probability statement, other than 1.0 as some allege he has claimed, have avoided the attacks? I rather doubt it. Why? Because I think the attacks occur mainly for reasons that have little to do with natural science, itself. I think they have much more to do with psychological and emotional issues related to the idea of a horrific, mass human die-off and probable extinction. Death remains THE number one taboo in our society, after all, and human supremacist beliefs concerning our alleged ability to dominate and control nature run deep at the heart of civilization, most especially our present capitalist industrial civilization that relies almost entirely on the support of natural science and fossil fuel-based technology. McPherson’s views ignore the death taboo and clash dramatically with those deeply held human supremacist beliefs. I think that, fundamentally, these two belief system clashes—flouting the death taboo, and denying human supremacism—mainly drive most of the attacks on him from some in the scientific community and from many in the general public.
Wishing and assuming simple, linear, reversible systems and processes
Many people naively believe that stabilizing greenhouse gases will stabilize atmospheric warming within a time period relevant for humans. “It is,” presumably, “all just physics.” Yes, it does all work based on physics, AND NOT the simple, linear physics that many insist on invoking and narrowly focusing on, but instead the physics related to dissipative structures, complex systems, and irreversibility as described by Belgian physical chemist and Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine.One may “know what chaos theory is”, but not understand either its basic principles or its implications for many physical systems, most especially Earth’s global-scale systems. Meanwhile, the complexity and irreversibility principles and implications remain critical for any discussion of ecological collapse and global warming. To discuss complex systems as though they work as simple, linear, reversible systems, which they are not, amounts to incredible naivety and ignorance. Earth’s ecology and climate work as infinitely complex, reciprocally interactive systems, not simple linear systems, and NOT necessarily reversible as many insist on and wish to believe. Many people super-simplistically assume controllable, reversible processes in Earth’s ecosystems—completely and dramatically unwarranted assumptions. Furthermore, they often super-simplistically conflate the mass human die-off and possible extinction, which die-off has only just begun, exclusively with global warming, and focus narrowly and exclusively on that while MANY other CRITICAL processes reciprocally interact to produce it.
I hope that nothing I have written here suggests that we cannot say anything meaningful about chaotic systems in general, or more particularly about Earth’s climate and ecosystems. I have not intended to say that. On the other hand, I have intended to insist that our world views, philosophical beliefs, values, economic and political contingencies, and so on—all extra-scientific considerations—strongly bias the scientific research that we do, the evidence we collect and focus on, and our interpretations of that evidence in making our predictions and in formulating our personal and social responses. I do presently consider it both naïve and dangerous to think that natural science can and/or does work outside of the culture that produces it, or that “science and technology are ‘neutral’”, as so popularly believed.
Concerning these issues, one can see nine minutes of Tad Patzek, Professor and Chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin with a number of comments on the reversibility and complexity here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXsvsksHi5g#t=107. Given that we now know that Earth lies within one percent of the solar system habitability zone, his final (faith-based) comment may very well not have much accuracy, but it seems certain that no human well ever know. Meanwhile, from a thermodynamic perspective, does it make sense to consider any process “reversible”? Only by artificially simplifying, by limiting the definition of the system defined in a highly reductionist way.
Value-free science and technology?
We find ANY interpretation or “justification” anyone ever makes of any data and other forms of observational evidence occurring through and based on the particular scientific model, the lens, the scientific biases, through which the individual views and interprets that evidence. To remain ignorant of and/or purposely to ignore Prigogine’s Chaos theory regarding the many mutually interacting ecological collapse and global warming processes in order purposely to keep things analyzed and simplified in a reductionist way seems both foolhardy and, well, ignorant, to me. To analyze MEANS to break apart and look at things as separate, disconnected, simplified pieces. Meanwhile, we cannot reasonably reason about and come to appropriate conclusions about complex, living organisms and Earth systems exclusively though the massively popular Cartesian/Baconian, reductionist lens. We do NOT live in a machine world of soulless dead matter! Thus the importance of Prigogine’s work and the need for an emphasis on holistic models, studies, and work. What do those more holistic models that consider all of the major, mutually interacting processes suggest about the future? I think this serves as a critical question for us all to follow up on. Why do many people wish not to take these issues into account? I don’t presume to know, but the only reason I can think of involves, precisely and purposefully: to keep things—the interpretation of the data, the interpretation of the evidence—simple and linear in a Cartesian/Baconian, reductionist way so as to remain in that comfortable box of predictability, out-of-touch with complex, living, biological reality, which Chaos theory deals specifically with.
Related to all of this, a surprisingly large percentage of people, both within the scientific community and outside of it, consider natural science and technology “value-free”. They insist that science produces “objective” results independent of the culture that produces the science and technology. I have ten thoughts related to these allegedly “value-free” beliefs that permeate many aspects of our culture. Thanks to Derrick Jensen, presently unpublished, for most of the ideas I discuss here:
(1) Reality exists with much more complexity than any analysis or interpretation of it. This means that by definition we must impose our values through what we do and do not include in our scientific and technological analyses or interpretations. We impose our values because the universe exists with far more complexity than any mere human brain can conceive—and of course with far more complexity than any computer can process. We impose our values because the universe exists with far more complexity than we often believe it to. And, finally, the universe exists with far more complexity than we have the capability of thinking—and of course with far more complexity than machines have the capability of computing.
(2) This myth of value-free science makes sense only if one holds the human supremacist belief that only humans have cognition, true volition, will, or functionality. If one believes that the other animals and, more generally, other life forms, also think, feel, have volition, and have critically important functionality, then the roles our denied values play in justifying our human supremacist domination and control become crystal clear.
(3) The myth of value-free science and technology makes sense only if one forgets that unquestioned assumptions work as the real authorities of any culture. In the face of this forgetting we then presume that anything that questions those assumptions amounts “merely” to emotional “speculation” or “philosophizing”—as opposed to the presumably more legitimate “analyses” that fail to question the assumptions.
(4) The common belief that science supposedly exists and works “above”, “outside of”, or “independent from” the culture that produces it serves as an example of our psychological, emotional, and philosophical separation, disconnection, and alienation from nature. This disconnection and alienation has served as an important philosophical/religious foundation of dominance-oriented, patriarchal civilization for about the past 10,000 years and especially since the time of Bacon and Descartes. It has largely driven the millennia-old, civilizational exploit/ expand/ exploit/ expand cycle, recently culminating in industrial capitalism, which cycle has killed innumerable indigenous peoples, species, ecosystems, and, quite possibly, may kill Earth itself.
(5) Many of us, seriously(!?), think of research that in some way attempts to extend human control over the universe as “value-free”. Meanwhile, attempts by humans to control the universe, to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when, serve as our very definition of how we consider something “true”! This, of course, screams the question: How can any process that attempts to control as much of nature as humanly possible conceivably qualify as “value-free”, “neutral”, or “objective”?
(6) The idea of extending human control over the universe expresses a value! And it works as a value that materially benefits the humans doing the research, those funding the research, those publishing the research, and those using the technologies that emerge from the research—all in the short term—and so long as one does not mind a murdered planet. No one can ever, with any self- or other-honesty, consider any of these people or processes “neutral”, “disinterested”, or “value-free”.
(7) For those who believe that they, or we, can reverse and “solve” the climate change, ecological collapse, and nuclear power collapse “problems” (“solving” “the problem” serves as a seductive euphemism for our actual predicament: our self-annihilation trap), I ask, What do you genuinely, realistically believe anyone can do on the real, external, national and international scene to reverse or end catastrophic climate change and the many other ecological and nuclear collapse processes? At this point in the progression of complex, chaotic, almost certainly irreversible catastrophic climate change and ecological collapse, how do you propose to keep up with the global-scale, self-reinforcing feedback loops related to the release of many different greenhouse gases, not just CO2? How do you propose to reverse global-scale ocean acidification? How do you do you propose to greatly reduce the massive human over-population and over-consumption? How do you propose to stop, much less remove, the plastic and other chemical pollution from the oceans? How do you propose to stop, much less remove, the nuclear pollution from the land and oceans? How do you propose to stop and reverse soil erosion, desertification, and aquifer depletion? I and others could ask many more similar questions, but I will stop here.
(8) The avoidance and denial of the values and morals inherent in all natural science and technology pose obvious dangers for the culture that produces that science and technology. First, it puts great power into the hands of people who deny their values, moral principles, and responsibilities to themselves and other humans, including their own children and grandchildren. Second, the systemic avoidance and denial leads ultimately to a dead planet. As we see. Throughout the entire history of natural science, the religious, military, political, and economic power-elite have almost always made those decisions. Based on this allegedly “objective” and “value-free” reasoning, the scientists who did the medical experiments on the Jews in Nazi Germany had no moral culpability. Similarly, based on this reasoning we should not have any ethical concerns about experimentation on humans or other animals (and certainly not plants). This frequently voiced moral evasion of personal and group responsibility in the science and technology communities usually means letting psychopathic “people”, known as limited liability corporations, make most of our most important moral and ethical decisions. It seems to me that this passive, “I don’t want to bother myself with this” thinking most certainly DOES amount to a strong moral position—or immoral, depending on one’s perspective.
(9) In the face of all of this, it seems obvious to me that life on Earth serves as THE Platinum moral standard. Why? Because without a living planet that supports life, nothing else matters (to humans). Thus, to the extent that the decisions a person or a group makes supports the living planet in the long term, to that extent they behave morally. To the extent that those decisions harm the living planet in the long term, to that extent they behave immorally. Based on this principle, what does the history of natural science and technology demonstrate from a moral perspective? Hiding behind the claim that science and technology remain “neutral” and “value-free” strongly supports the power-elite with their ultimately planet-killing agendas—a highly immoral stance, in my opinion, with horrific, long-term consequences for most, if not all, life on Earth.
(10) All of this probably produces massive cognitive dissonance for many people in our society who might read it, perhaps most people, but probably especially for many of those who have devoted perhaps their entire lives to an allegedly “objective” and “value-free” science and technology. Many of these people also have important contingencies operating in their lives related to their making a living in this culture. Given these realities, can anyone reasonably expect many of these people to change their thinking—indeed to change their fundamental paradigm concerning their and humanity’s positions of power and control within nature? Given that cognitive dissonance produces strong self-justification much more often than it produces a thought-full assessment of one’s thinking and values, probably not. This raises another critical question about making changes in addition to those raised in point #7. (Regarding this point, see the previously mentioned books Mistakes Were Made (but not by ME), Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Tavris and Aronson (2007), and Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan (2011)).
Given all of this, does it make sense to think of a scientist who has and expresses social concerns, as Guy McPherson does, “irrelevant” and “detracting from ‘the science’”? Does it make sense to insist that if a person has and expresses social concerns, then they presumably cannot do “real science”? I don’t think so. We all state our opinions based on our background knowledge and experience. Some of us, though, rather than just stating our arguments, further claim in a fundamentalist way that “My opinion is better than yours because mine comes from a better authority, and since my authority is better than yours, you don’t have the right to express your opinions.” Religious zealots and fanatics commonly do exactly that: quote their interpretations of allegedly infallible authorities, insist that others should and must follow their interpretations of those alleged authorities, and do their best to stop others from expressing ideas that differ. I don’t think so. I disagree.
The simple truth exists that, like it or not, the way we see things, what we think about them, and the meaning of it, all differ for each of us, and the wonderful processes of natural science simply do not eliminate this reality no matter how strongly some may wish it in order to manage their anxiety and fear. Do some sources have more reliability than others? Certainly! Should we argue about the various sources, reliability, implications and meanings of evidence? Of course! Should we stifle ideas because we disagree, sometimes strongly, and resort to subtle or not-so-subtle personal character attacks, elitism, and/or language intended to elicit strong, negative emotions in others when we consider those argumentation tactics “necessary”? I don’t think so.
Confusing symbols with reality
Even though by far the shortest section in this essay, based on S.I. Hayakawa’s wonderful, must-read book, Language In Thought & Action (1978), and Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, An Introduction To Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), I consider it, perhaps the most important section:
Nature works as nature works completely irrespective of any mere human’s thinking or feeling about it, scientific, philosophical, religious, economic, or otherwise. If someone insists that nature works according to their particular interpretation of “the science”, and that they “are right” and anyone who disagrees with them “is wrong”, as some people sometimes do, this serves as a wonderful example ofconfusing symbols (one’s thinking and visualizing) with reality (the world that exists outside of one’s head).
A symbol IS NOT the thing symbolized.
A map IS NOT the territory.
A word IS NOT the thing.
A mathematical equation IS NOT the reality it only models.
The natural science processes and content ARE NOT the nature that they only model.
One’s thinking, feeling, and visualizing ARE NOT the things they think, feel, and visualize about.
To summarize this point: reality exists independent of and separate from anyone’s thinking about it, no one has special, infallible knowledge concerning ultimate Truths about the universe, and—nature bats last.
Doing something about it
People often hold it against Guy McPherson that, regarding doing something about the global warming and ecological collapse self-annihilation trap that we have constructed for ourselves, we might spend significant time focusing inwardly and helping each other emotionally and socially—as though we find ourselves in hospice. In distinct contrast with these inward considerations, some people within our domination-based society, in perfect alignment with our human supremacist, reductionist science (vs. holistic science), strongly think in terms of “doing something” as meaning mainly or exclusively doing something “externally” to “solve the problem”, to “save the planet”, or one of hundreds of variations on those themes. Meanwhile, for those of us who consider it almost certainly too late for us and probably most other species, and who now fight to maximize the number of species who may pass through the inevitable extinction bottleneck that we have created, in addition to the external action meaning of “doing something”, perhaps more importantly doing something points to a whole different class of behaviors. As one person recently stated it so succinctly and so well, “Minimize the suffering, for as long as we’re here.” Or, as another put it almost as briefly and just as well, “But do it because it brings you joy, connects you with others, human and non, not because you think it’s going to save the planet at this point. If it does, so much the better.”
It seems to me that different people having different ideas about what “doing something” means often produces a good bit of confusion and misunderstanding, sometimes even some “horizontal hostility”. If one person thinks “doing something” means, or should mean, taking action to “solve the problem” or to “save the planet”, or some variation on those themes, while another thinks of it more as minimizing the suffering during the inevitable and unavoidable horrors unfolding around us because it now proves way too late either to “save the planet” or most humans, we will surely have some important confusion and misunderstanding—as well as some differences in how we personally prioritize our limited time and efforts. I don’t mean to suggest any one, “right” or “best” use of the term, “doing something”. I only wish to point to a need to clarify what we mean with the key words and phrases that we use when we use them—and to strongly discourage a tendency some people seem to have to think in binary terms about this.
To me, it seems critically important for us not to frame this discussion in binary, all-or-none terms, as many do. Consider this radical idea: one can work on both the internal and the external issues, often at the same time. In doing this, it seems to me that one best makes the internal issues their priority. Why? Because the results of that internal work will largely determine their priorities concerning the external work that they will do.
Fear and anxiety
A number of people demand an impossible standard of perfection of Guy McPherson—including holding it AGAINST him that he may experience a profound sense of grief and loss over what we have done and continue to do to most, if not all, life on Earth, and also his desire to help others as they experience similar grief and loss issues. Amazing. We should kill the messenger because he experiences human grief and loss emotions? The argument runs something like this: “What kind of scientist must he be if he experiences and expresses actual, human EMOTIONS!? And he even wishes to help others who also experience those emotions—AND he speaks openly about his concerns in direct opposition to the power-elite and our military-industrial establishment. Horrors! Completely unacceptable for any real scientist!” Completely unacceptable, or setting a new and badly needed standard of self- and other-honesty and behavior? Might McPherson find himself getting the standard whistle blower treatment?
This anti-emotion idea probably comes from the popular but false belief that “people exhibit their best judgment with minimal emotion”. Wrong. Much psychological and neuroscience research demonstrates clearly that people exhibit best judgment WITH significant emotional arousal: neither too much, nor too little. Look at it this way: based on the idea that “people have the best judgment with minimal emotion”, we must conclude that psychopaths—people who from birth experience no or strongly blunted emotional responses, with a rate of about 1 in 100 in the general population, and about 1 in 20 among business, political, and military leaders (and scientists?), would have the best judgment. Do we really want to trust the judgment of the psychopaths in our business, political, military, and scientific leadership functions? Do we want to trust the judgment of psychopaths concerning the global warming and ecological collapse issues? I certainly don’t. I will trust the judgment of a Guy McPherson who experiences emotional responses to what he sees happening, any day over the judgment of an emotionally cold psychopath. (Though it remains true that about 80% of the murderers in prisons meet the criteria of psychopaths, it also remains true that most psychopaths, by far, do not murder other people. They just behave in incredibly destructive ways.)
As I reflect on this, it strikes me that perhaps this denial and avoidance of emotions attracts many people to science based on the false belief that science should, can, and does work without emotions (and with a psychopathy rate of 1 in 20 or higher?). Along with this, when we don’t know—as we certainly do not with global warming and general ecological collapse issues!—and we think we need to know—as many of us strongly believe we do, concerning these issues!—we feel out of control. We feel frightened. Then, perhaps, many of us distract ourselves with authoritarian science as a way to manage our anxieties and fears through—we hope!—dominating and controlling the world around us. Meanwhile, much more effective ways for coping with our anxieties and fears exist.
Concerns about the future
Given the complex, chaotic nature of the universe (see Prigogine and others), given that we cannot predict the behavior of complex systems, which reach tipping points and then change dramatically, rapidly, and irreversibly, and given the rapidly accumulating evidence, making claims of continuing short- or long-term stability of Earth’s climate and ecosystems seems childishly naive to me. I think that about the best one can reasonably say looks something like this: we have major changes occurring very rapidly in all of Earth’s ecosystems, including the climate systems, those changes will almost certainly have profoundly adverse effects on most, if not all, life on Earth, certainly including humans, and we will soon experience famine, war, and disease on a global scale unlike anything our species has ever experienced in its entire evolutionary history. Will this produce near-term extinction of humanity? Probably, but I don’t presume to know—and academically arguing that trivial point in the midst of the mass death unfolding around us and including us seems a ridiculous (and desperate) distraction to me.
Extinction, or not, I think that at least 95% of humans will soon die, probably within about the next 20 years. If I or Guy McPherson end up wrong about this probable time-line by 10 or 20 years, does it really matter? And if those of us who think this way end up wrong, how does this qualify as a “counterproductive message” as some claim? We might not further exploit other species and the planet as quickly and to as great an extent as we would have had we continued our human supremacist business as usual? We might help and support each other in caring ways while doing our external work to make things better for all in the long term? We might feel peaceful while living our lives, while doing our external work, and while, finally, dying?
Science and technology as fear and anxiety management
Much that Guy McPherson speaks and writes about challenges the commonly held idea that “science and technology will save us”. It seems to me that much of the science-focused conversation in many places consists largely, at its roots, of managing fear and anxiety by maintaining our present and historical cultural sense of dominance and control over nature that we wish to believe natural science and mathematics confer. But, in reality, despite the apparently blinding “successes” of science and technology that the power-elite have produced over the past few thousand years, culminating in global-scale industrial capitalism, they provide us, ultimately, with a false sense of dominance, control, and security. Ah yes. Feeling in control. It works for a while. But then reality catches up with us. And we now find reality rapidly catching up with us, in spades. Many, if not most of us, can feel it in decidedly unscientific ways in our guts. (Given that we have conscious awareness of less than one millionth of what goes on in our brains, and given that we can solve far more complex problems non-consciously than we can consciously, perhaps we would find ourselves well advised to pay much closer attention to our decidedly unscientific guts?)
I think that the fundamental truth, the fundamental reality, exists that we have no “control” and certainly no “dominance” over Earth, certainly not in any long-term way, and our fossil fuel driven science-based technology that has provided the end to our 10,000 year-old civilizational exploit/ expand/ exploit/ expand cycle has come to its final, gasping, global-scale climax. The cycle will soon end horrifically for even the richest and most powerful of us in this country just as it already has in the past and presently does for so many other human and non-human living beings on Earth. We will ALL soon lose our wealth and power. Correct: this exists only as my opinion: my best judgment based on my education, experience, and reasoning about the evidence (plus what my guts tell me). I think that only a small percentage of people wish to acknowledge these brutal realities, strongly preferring, instead, to distract themselves, to “pussyfoot around”, with playing the technotopian game of “Science, math, technology (and nuclear energy) will save us!” Presumably, and with childish naivety, many people love to believe that “If we just stay firmly and clearly with the science and technology, they will save us.” (Or permaculture; or learning primitive skills; or whatever.) In our ignorance, fear, and anxiety we need our contingency plans in order to help ourselves feel powerful and in control. I don’t think so. In my experience this strategy of power and control created and/or supported by science, mathematics, and technology does not lead to peace in the world, it does not lead to ending the exploitation cycle, and it certainly does not lead to personal peace, which I prefer over fear, anxiety, anger, depression, and other painful emotional states in my life.
Contrary to what some people may believe based on this essay or other comments I have made, I do NOT hate or reject science, math, and/or technology. For the most part, I love them(!), and I have loved them for my entire life, including BOTH “reductionist” AND “holistic” science. How can I write the previous paragraphs and follow them with this sentence? Because I have aged enough and had enough experience, now, to have passed THROUGH science and technology while still including them in deeply, cognitively, and emotionally accepting my personal lack of dominance and control in life, as well as our collective lack of dominance and control in life—our hundreds of years of human supremacist, Cartesian and Baconian hubris and magical thinking notwithstanding. Again, I agree with Carl Sagan, as Guy McPherson also does, that “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring” and that means acknowledging and accepting that science and technology do NOT provide us with the means to dominate and control either nature or Earth as so many wish.
I find it fascinating (but certainly not surprising!) that many people fervently and rigidly believe that natural science can and does exist separately and disconnected from the political, social, religious, philosophical, and economic forces that produce the scientific researchers, processes, and content. They wish to proceed based on a fantasy that mathematics and science, with their specially qualified, “objectively independent” and anointed priesthood, can and does, presumably, inform us about Objective Truth. Meanwhile, Guy McPherson, or anyone else who does not fit the presently accepted anointment criteria, definitely does not belong to this exclusive club! It seems obvious to me that ALL purveyors of natural science, present and past, express their culture’s values and ethics to at least as great an extent as they construct and express tentatively held “truths” and “laws” about how the universe supposedly works. It seems blindingly obvious to me that we consider scientists as “objectively separate” and somehow “above” or “outside of” today’s insane, out-of-touch with biological reality culture that produced and supports them only at our great peril.
Many have the belief and hope that we can and should, presumably, continue using science and technology to attempt to dominate and control Earth for just as long as we have any ability at all to continue with that agenda. The idea looks something like this: “‘The science’ does not REALLY say that industrial civilization is over yet! We still don’t know that with absolute certainty, so we should continue the exploitation of other humans, other species, and Earth for just as long as possible—at least until our scientific elite tell us, with absolute, mathematical, scientific certainty, that we really cannot continue the exploitation processes any longer.” The evidence that Guy McPherson presents, and the things he says about it, strongly contradict this view. He suggests that we find ourselves experiencing the end of a cycle that started with agriculture about 10,000 years ago, a global-scale, capitalist industrial climax turbocharged by science and technology. We now see that exploit/ expand/ exploit/ expand cycle ending. Unfortunately, we evolved as short-term hedonists, a species hard-wired for immediate gratification, not for long-term hedonism. Thus, for many deep psychological and emotional reasons, many of us continue to insist that we can, should, and must pour our efforts into continuing the science-based and supported exploitation processes until the last possible second.
Given our present situation, one might appropriately ask whether the idea that humans presumably “are rational animals” makes any sense. I don’t think so. Viewed through a “rational animal” lens, little that we see in human history and today makes much sense. With the “rational animal” lens we keep insisting to ourselves and others, “These things (mass murders, war, overpopulation, ecological exploitation and collapse, global warming, etc., etc.) should not be happening!” If, instead, we view humans as first and foremost highly irrational and emotional animals, then, from that reversed and I think much more accurate perspective, everything we see going on around us makes perfectly good sense. Exactly as Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
As the famous clinical psychologist, Albert Ellis (“the grandfather of cognitive psychology”), so often insisted, “Humans are nuts!” We find humans, for the most part, fundamentally insane. This means, literally, out of touch with physical, biological reality. Consider the obvious, everyday evidence in support of this claim: We commonly, naturally, and easily act in highly emotional, highly irrational ways. On the other hand, only with great difficulty and with much focused practice, often requiring the help of others in various situations, do we behave calmly and in a rational manner—and then we quickly, easily, and naturally slide back toward irrationality, much like a hot object cooling to the ambient room temperature. Clearly, if humans actually existed as rational animals, as so many so passionately wish to believe, we would not find ourselves doing our best to kill Earth just as quickly and efficiently as possible while using science and technology for the continuing dominance, control, and killing of other humans, other species, and the planet. To summarize, many powerful, subtle and not-so-subtle economic, psychological, and emotional processes combine to account for the attacks on Guy McPherson as well as accounting for the pathological denial of global warming, ecological, and nuclear collapse.
Eco-collapse Support Group (ESG)
Well over a year ago two friends and I started a group in Tacoma that we call an Eco-collapse Support Group (ESG). We meet once a month in order to provide social and emotional support for those of us who understand what we see happening in the world and coming here soon. For most people these come as emotionally difficult and painful realizations. Very easy to manage, the group works informally and with a continually changing meeting leadership. If anyone would like a copy of our agenda as a help in starting a similar group of your own, I will feel glad to send you a copy if you send me an email request at email@example.com .
“The past was a Golden Age, of ignorance. The present is an Iron Age, of willful blindness.”
—Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee
My thanks to Patricia Menzies for her editing and suggestions.
McPherson participated in a debate about anthropogenic climate change on the radio last week. The result is embedded below, and you can also catch it here.