How to Save The World by Reading Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/21

Many people have the inner confidence that the world will always muddle through. That we’ll solve our problems naturally through the unfolding of uncontrolled events. Other people believe as the population of humans grow, we’ll eventually reach a breaking point and things will fall apart. If you read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you know the history of the world is a history of failed civilizations. Whatever goes up must come down, and if you’re the kind of person that uses numbers and graphs to anticipate the future, it doesn’t look good.

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a science fiction “novel” where he imagines humanity intentionally solving our big problems. The book is called The Ministry for the Future. It’s hard to recommend this book because people who expect a novel to work in a certain way could have difficulty reading it. I’ve already written about how The Ministry for the Future isn’t structured like a typical novel so you might want to read that essay before buying it.

The Ministry for the Future imagines how humanity could save itself. It’s just one possible scenario, but it does offer more hope than I’ve seen elsewhere. Now, it’s not entirely Pollyannaish, because it also assumes a massive economic depression and worldwide acts of terrorism will force us to change at times too, warning us there are no easy solutions, and to expect a bumpy ride.

The chief task to saving our planet is reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Robinson suggests this can mainly be done by inventing a new worldwide currency he calls the carbon coin. Like the gold standard, this currency will be based on carbon kept out of the atmosphere. Once worldwide financial institutions back the carbon coin, and people and corporations realize future wealth depends on it, there will be an incentive to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. At one point, Robinson says we’ll pay Saudi Arabia to keep its oil in the ground and that will create more worldwide wealth. That’s hard to believe, especially if you watch this film. (Really, watch this film.)

Robinson also imagines many giant geoengineering projects, including pumping water out from under glaciers to slow their pace into the oceans. He also assumes we’ll pursue different kinds of carbon sequestering combined with switching to renewable energy sources. These are all technical solutions that we’re considering today, but Robinson also has several chapters about why many of our current big ideas will fail.

The whole goal is to get CO2 back down to 350 ppm. Near the end of the novel, which spans many decades, CO2 peaks at 475 ppm. Robinson promotes the success of the real 350.org movement in the book. Last month we were averaging 413.95 ppm of CO2, so we’re currently about half-way to Robinson’s future in real life. To get back to 350 ppm we’ll have to stop using all fossil fuels and retrieve a lot of CO2 already in the atmosphere and put it away somewhere safe. Generally, that’s into trees, or sequestered. So, Robinson imagines the world reforesting on a vast level. But can you really imagine that we’ll stop taking oil, gas, and coal out of the ground? That’s trillions of dollars in wealth that people have invested trillions of dollars to own.

Concurrent with the CO2 problem is the extinction problem. Robinson also embraces Half-Earth Project to give half the Earth back to wildlife based on E. O. Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Within Robinson’s novel, huge tracts land are purchased to create wildlife corridors to connect the larger national parks around the world. This is a beautiful vision that I hope comes true. But to achieve it would require buying up small towns and destroying roads on a vast scale. That adds another giant expenditure for saving the world. Robinson claims this will add jobs and eventually grow the economy, but will people see saving animals as an investment?

Robinson foresees two horrible sources of good for the earth that are evils for people. A giant worldwide depression will slow the release of CO2, and he imagines vast networks of ecoterrorists that will stop air and sea travel by any machines that run on fossil fuel. Robinson pictures us returning to clipper ships and dirigibles, as well as new kinds of electric planes and ships that use renewable resources.

In this book Robinson doesn’t dwell on rising seas and other natural disasters like he has in her earlier novels, but he does focus on the refugee problems. He imagines we’ll eventually develop a global citizenship status that will allow us to fairly resettle the millions of refugees. Will we be that wise and kind?

All of this is just a tip of the iceberg among Robinson’s speculations. Overall, The Ministry for the Future is a very hopeful story, but you must read between the lines to account for all the horrors. However, his first chapter is an extremely dramatic scene of one terrifying ecocatastrophe, and I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It’s available online to read.

After finishing The Ministry for the Future, I keep asking myself: Will we really save ourselves? Robinson believes we’ll more than muddle through, and even find triumph in our achievements. Robinson is almost gung-ho for the future. Americans can’t even pull together in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, so why expect us to pull together at far greater challenges? Will we muddle through despite ourselves? I don’t think so. Humans have always muddled through in the past because there were always been an abundance of options and resources. Solving climate change is where the Ponzi scheme of Capitalism finally comes due. Saving ourselves will require moving to a new paradigm for the politicaleconomy. I’m not sure that will happen. In fact, I seriously doubt it. Why? Because it will require humans to work together at a level of cooperation that we’ve never shown in the past.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an optimist. I’m a pessimist looking for hope. I believe it’s important to read science fiction novels like The Ministry for the Future because we need to all ask ourselves if such dreams are possible. Are we capable of making these kinds of changes in our lives? My hope says its theoretically possible. My pessimism says no.

If you haven’t really thought about how we’ll save ourselves in the future, then you might want to read The Ministry for the Future. It’s not a fun page turner, but I believe it covers most of what you’ll need to consider.

JWH

The Psyche of Blind Faith

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 9, 2021

This essay is not about Donald Trump or politics, but I’m going to use the January 6th riot at the Capitol as an example of blind faith. In the days following the riot several news reports have appeared where followers of Donald Trump have denied he was the instigator of the riot, and in some cases, that the rioters were not the real followers of Donald Trump.

The evidence for Trump instigating the riot is overwhelming, and growing, as law enforcement and the media assemble a timetable of events and clues. I can easily see January 6th becoming the subject of future congressional hearings like those covering the JFK assassination where we heard weeks and months of testimony. In the end, most people will believe that Trump was the inciter-in-chief in the same way the congressional investigations concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. But like lone gunman deniers, there will always be deniers to Trump’s guilt.

This kind of denial comes from a psychology of blind faith. I find that psychology fascinating. We see blind faith everywhere. What allows some people the ability to tune out aspects of reality to maintain their faith in a particular belief? One good example is the free-market capitalists whose faith keeps them from seeing pollution, climate change, wealth inequality or any other negatives to capitalism. They must deny all evidence to the contrary to maintain their faith in the purity of Milton Friedman’s teachings.

The ultimate example of blind faith came just after the crucifixion of Jesus. The followers of Jesus saw that he was dead. However, they couldn’t accept that death, so they invented a faith to prove he still lived. Their blind faith created a new view of reality that they see but others don’t.

The only way to maintain blind faith is through denial. I now see denialism everywhere, which implies blind faith is everywhere.

Donald Trump inspires blind faith in his followers. What causes that? How does it work? Why him? It’s obvious that no amount of evidence can penetrate such faith. It’s a survival mechanism. Believers obviously benefit from other positive mental states once they let go and accept a faith. Once a faith is accepted any threat to that faith is also a threat to the new sense of wellbeing.

This blind faith is why I’ve given up talking with my conservative friends about Trump. The wall between us is impenetrable. To talk with them feels just like being John Cleese trying to convince Michael Palin the parrot is dead.

The inspiration for this essay.

JWH

Can Humanity Move to an Eco-Paradigm?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 9, 2020

Humanity has gone through a number of major paradigm shifts. Probably the most famous is the Copernican revolution when we realized Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. I’m guessing the biggest recent shift was in the 20th century when we realized women were not inferior to men. But as you can see from this map of when women became eligible to vote that a paradigm shift is slow and doesn’t hit all at once. (Source.)

When women could vote

We need to shift to a new economic paradigm where capitalism protects the environment. Many environmentalists feel we need to jettison capitalism to save the Earth, but I don’t believe that’s possible. Capitalism is how humans survive, how they feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. Current capitalism is killing the Earth, and will eventually make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and other species.

The present paradigm assumes the Earth is a storehouse of consumable resources for the taking. Our basic drive, which comes from our reptilian and mammalian portions of our brain pushes us to take and not give. We struggle for resources, mates, and raising our offspring. It’s quite natural. The greed we’re seeing in conservative political movements around the world is a natural survival mechanism. Everyone is programmed to grab all they can before its gone.

It really is survival of the fittest on a vast scale. Under the existing paradigm, the strong will survive with abundance while they take everything from the weak who won’t. Like I said, it’s the way of nature, it is natural — if you consider humans are animals. But can we transcend our animal nature? Can we use our neo-cortex to become something different? Moving to an Eco-paradigm means transcending our animal nature.

For our species to survive will require moving to this new paradigm. Some have called it Lifeboat Earth. That’s an apt metaphor, but most people don’t like its grim connotations. Probably a better term to promote would be Eco-Capitalism. That’s why we’re hearing so much about the Green New Deal.

My liberal friends and I are becoming philosophically depressed over current trends in American politics. Conservative American politics means many things, but to me, it represents a rejection of the new paradigm. Conservative philosophy has always been backward-facing, stay-the-course, return to the good old days thinking. To protect its beliefs, conservative philosophy has become anti-science, and anti-environmentalism.

I see the U.S. 2020 presidential election as a referendum, with two choices on the ballot. Keep the old paradigm, or move to the new paradigm. I’m sure most voters will see it in terms of their own special interests.

The reason why I wrote my last essay about cognitive tools we used to work with reality is to understand how people think about this referendum. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want, but the Democrats haven’t. Most liberals just want to replace Trump, but obviously, Republicans will do anything to get what they want, including following such a repugnant leader. Democrats are arguing over who should be their leader, and not what they want. They are under the illusion they are fighting Trump, but what they are fighting is what the Republicans want. And what the Republicans want is not to change.

The world seemed to be moving to the new Eco-paradigm but then conservative movements around the globe emerged. My philosophical question of the day: Can humanity move to the new Eco-paradigm? I’m not asking will we, but can we.

When we look at the map of women’s suffrage and see that it took a hundred years to change (and it’s far from finished), that I have to wonder if it will take any less time to move to the new eco-paradigm. (And do we have the time?)

The Atlantic is running “Why Men Vote for Republicans, and Women Vote for Democrats” that provides some additional data for my conundrum. It appears that women are a driving force in liberal politics. We are changing, but are we changing fast enough? And like the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment by conservative women, many women have chosen to maintain a conservative path.

I’ve been reading more and more articles about political burn-out. That old adage about not letting the bastards wear you down has new relevance. I know that I and some of my liberal friends are being worn down. This makes me feel we won’t make it to the new paradigm.

The 2020 election will give me exact numbers on how my fellow citizens feel. We still have ten months of political turmoil. Who knows, lots could happen. Liberals want it to be a vote about Trump, but I’m starting to see that’s an illusion. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want. The majority of the conservatives want a world where they can grab all the can, keep all they can, have no regulations on the grabbing, and spend the least on fixing up the nation or helping the needy. A minority of conservatives want to fight for certain religious beliefs that challenge liberal values.

The Democrats don’t have a clear goal. To the Republicans all the Democrats want is to give way their money. The Democrats haven’t made a Green New Deal their primary goal. They spend a lot of time talking about the environment and immigration, but they appear to make expensive social programs their deciding issues, and some of those issues don’t even have universal appeal to liberals. Republicans know their key desires and vote in lockstep.

I believe the young are more concerned with the new eco-paradigm, but I’m afraid too many of them have completely given up on political action.

Right now, I don’t believe we’ll make it to the new paradigm shift. I suppose if we suffered some truly catastrophic natural disasters, way larger in scope than the present disasters, we might start pulling together. But that might only cause more fighting in the lifeboat.

Readers might think I’m psychologically depressed because of this essay. I’m not. I might be philosophically down, but not personally down. I have a stoic existential psyche. What happens is what happens. We all want reality to be what we want, but our reality is what is. I’m just trying to guess where humankind is going. I want to imagine what the future might be after I die. But guessing the future is next to impossible. Yet, it amuses me to try.

JWH

 

Is Travel Evil?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 4, 2019

I read two works this morning that makes me ask if travel is evil. The first was a short story “A Full Life” by Paolo Bacigalupi at the MIT Technology Review. I’m going to spoil the story since I doubt most of you will take the time to read it. It’s about a young girl named Rue, 15, who moves across the country several times as her parents seek work fleeing climate change catastrophes. Bacigalupi pours it on thick and heavy, showing weather-related heartache in Colorado, Austin, Miami, New York, and Boston. Poor Rue is one unlucky girl.

With each move, Rue gets encouragement from her grandmother, Nona, who extols the wonderful life she’s lived, of drinking espresso in Italy and meditating in Kyoto. Nona consoles Rue that travel is what makes life worth living each time Rue’s family is forced to move. In the end, Rue comes to hate her grandmother because she realizes all that travel done by Nona’s generation is what destroyed the world for Rue’s generation.

I don’t know if magazines coordinate their publishing efforts, but The New York Times featured this essay, “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” by Andy Newman about how travelers are devastating the environment is a perfect afterward for Bacigalupi’s story.

Most people want to do something about climate change, at least theoretically. We just can’t change our habits, the way we live now. I’m sure people in the 19th century that owned slaves knew it was wrong too, but they couldn’t give up their way of life either, so they rationalized, to themselves and each other.

I don’t mean to sound holier than thou, I worry a lot about the future, but I do little to improve it. Does that make us evil? Are we all living some Greek tragedy where we know our fate but can’t avoid it?

I’m currently reading Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor. Taylor would interview people asking them to define what democracy meant to them. Everyone defined it in terms of freedom, especially to do what they wanted. None of them felt democracy was about equality, even though in the time of the American and French revolutions, equality was part of the definition. Equality can mean many things, including sharing in the wealth, but also sharing the costs of freedoms.

What Taylor figured out is people want the opportunity to do what they want, and that’s how they defined democracy and freedom. They didn’t care about inequality as long as everyone had equal opportunity. But what are the costs of opportunity?

Democracy doesn’t mean freedom, but rule by the people. It means we’re all responsible for running things. I don’t know why everyone in Taylor’s survey redefines democracy to mean freedom. I guess they figured if we’re running the joint we can do what we want.

I tend to think we all want to do what we want, and we don’t care about the consequences. Is this evil, or just human nature? We may think visiting Venice or Paris is enriching our lives, but what are the costs to everyone else?

My friends keep saying I’m dwelling on depressing topics. And that I must be depressed. I’m not. I’m fascinated by the interesting times in which we live. (A Chinese curse is to condemn your enemy to live in interesting times.) As a kid, I was fascinated by the Titanic. I even wished to time travel back to 1912 to be on that doomed ship. In a way, I’ve gotten my wish. We’re all passengers on the Titanic. I consider problems entertaining challenges. Are there solutions to climate change? Are there ways to travel that don’t doom the future? I think there are.

The most fascinating problem for me is: Will we solve our problems? If we are the rulers, then it’s our job. But I think Taylor’s survey about democracy is more revealing than my first thoughts. Maybe everyone does think democracy means we’re all free to do our own thing.

JWH

Does Donald Trump Reveal the Percentage of Liars in America?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 4, 2018

To liberals, it’s obvious that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. There are countless websites and newspapers that track his malarky. But what do his supporters think? Are they savvy to his fibs and accept Trump’s lies because he gets them what they want? What percentage of his followers believe he’s actually truthful? How many think his lying is only routine political shenanigans? What percentage are forgiving Trump for just being careless with facts?

I worry that there’s a significant percentage of Trump supporters who think lying is an effective way to get ahead. Does that imply that millions of Americans use lying in their own lives? Trump’s current approval rating is at 40%. Does that mean 40% of Americans approve of lying? Or even that 40% of Americans are liars?

Is Trump aware of his own false statements? Or is he psychologically blind to them? He could be a wheeling and dealing con man who says whatever is needed to get what he wants, a P. T. Barnum of politics believing we’re all suckers. I expect biographers will analyze this endlessly for centuries.

What worries me is the acceptance of Trump’s lying. Will this set a precedent? I don’t think many Americans trust politicians, but they used to expect a certain level of integrity, or at the very minimum, a certain level of an appearance of integrity. Has Trump thrown that out the window? Depends on your politics. Will any kind of integrity ever return to politics?

The Fifth Risk by Michael LewisTrump knows almost nothing about everything, but he’s got a Ph.D. in political corruption. The nightly freak show news programs that chronicle Trump’s daily antics diverts us from what’s going on all levels of government where his policies are becoming true. Just read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. His appointees also use lying to get what they want too, although many of them are more skilled at lying than their master.

I’ve always hated lying and liars. I always assumed most people didn’t lie. Now I wonder. How much do people lie in their day-to-day lives? Has Donald Trump revealed that 40% of Americans are liars? Or is that 20% liars and 20% gullible believers? Donald Trump claimed he was going to drain the swamp in Washington, but has instead turned the entire nation into one massive swampland.

There’s a science fiction novel by China Miéville called The City & The City where millions of people live in one location but see two cities. Half see a city named Besźel and the other half a city named Ul Qoma. Each has their own language and culture yet occupy the same physical space. Residents of each must have a passport and go through customs to visit the opposite city. When they do they drive the same roads but hear a different language and see a different city. I’m afraid that’s how our country is becoming.

The current political climate worries me. I see the large crowds at Trump’s rallies and I wonder about those folks. They seem like the same people we see at work, play, worship, or shopping. Yet, they adore a man who tens of millions of other normal folks see as a pathological liar. I suppose it could be like climate change and his followers deny his lying. But that’s just as troubling. Do they really believe he’s not lying, or just lying that they don’t?

I worry that Trump’s supporters see a different reality than liberals. Liberals think conservatives see the false one, but conservatives are sure liberals are the deluded ones. I believe this will continue to be true if most citizens can’t tell lies from the truth. We should all work to eliminate lying, but can such a plan succeed if such a large percentage of the population find lying so rewarding?

JWH