Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Towards Justice

Polygraph 22
Science, Justice, Science Fiction: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson | Gerry Canavan
Outstanding interview with Kim Stanley Robinson. Can't thank the folks at Polygraph enough for sharing this. I printed out the pdf and have been reading, re-reading, and marking it up with some thoughts/connections that leapt to mind. For this post, I'm just going to pull four quotes and ramble a bit around them. Together they speak to a theme of justice as technology, a technology we can apply to the pressing problems of society.  Justice, Mr. Robinson argues, is the key to human survival. Like Sam Harris (in this recent TED talk), he sees science as providing the method we get to know how to live justly, with each other, to create a moral universe whose arc, in fact, bends towards justice. Those two gentleman come from somewhat different angles and may not agree in all things, but there is a consilience (a key concept in interview) of ideas going on there. We may need to "struggle forever," never attaining utopia; however, the hope that informs Mr. Robinson's writing lies in the acknowledgement that, even if struggling forever is the best we can do, if we're doing it right, it's going to be OK. (The interviewers from Polygraph do a great job drawing this out -- I love that they've clearly done their reading and are coming from an informed position with regard to the older novels.)
From "Pacific Edge," by Kim Stanley Robinson

The problem, of course, is we're not doing it right. The false equivalence of democracy with capitalism is bringing us dangerously close to the brink, if we are to believe the scientific opinion on climate change. Not a scientist, and certainly in no position to make the call myself, I'm forced to apply my best judgement to the available evidence. Climate change deniers don't make reasonable arguments, cling to flimsy statistics (bought and paid for by those with an interest in preserving the status quo), are married to fallacious reasoning, and are defecting to the side of the credible scientists. Even if you don't buy into the urgency of addressing climate change, you have to imagine that our supply of coal and oil is limitless (nobody believes that) and the pollution produced by burning them is harmless to not believe we need a global change in strategy with regard to carbon burn -- and not even the most denialist denier doesn't at least acknowledge there is such thing as pollution. The open question seems to be: when does climate change become a crisis that actually puts human survival in clear and present danger? Whether you think it's in twenty, two hundred, or two thousand years, it doesn't change the fact that we either have a responsibility to ourselves and to future generations to create a sustainable permaculture, or not. I'm afraid an answer of "or not" precludes our being able to discuss pretty much anything.
We are somewhat past the high point of the recent “free market” ascendancy because of the financial crash, but the underlying power of capitalism is not yet much diminished, and exterior constraints on capitalist growth are still so unwelcome that they are usually denied as real constraints. So we are entering a zone of history where the struggle between science and capitalism for dominance of our culture—which I think has been clear all along, but which many do not see or agree is the situation—may become explicit and open. I hope so; this is a scientific culture as well as a capitalist culture, and I’ve been arguing for years that the utopian ethics and politics buried in the scientific method makes science the equivalent of the most powerful leftist politics we have ever had. Now the climate crisis may make that much more obvious to everyone.
Socialism is a dirty word in the U.S. these days,  there's an undeniable shrill stridency to the anti-socialist rhetoric coming from the opponents to health care reform and financial reform; and they're not being laughed off the stage, that's the scary part. The cult of Capitalism is just that, a cult. Free markets (as if capitalists actually like free markets) are a myth, an ideology, or an "-ism," if you like. It's not just the largely invisible subsidies and tariffs that taint the purity of our so-called free markets: collusion, price fixing, corruption, and fraud tilt the playing field. That fields never been level. The goal has to be to make rules to make the game fair. Free market ideologues aim to tilt field so the ball always rolls into the goal of the wealthy.
I’ve been trying to use standard economic terms to describe the situation in ways capitalists might have to come to terms with and that might serve as entry-points to a larger discussion: that the implicit promise of capitalism was that a generation would work so hard in the working class that its children would be in the middle class, and that if extended this program would eventually lift everyone on Earth., But now resource analysis makes it clear that for the three billion living on less than two dollars a day this promise can never be fulfilled, so that capitalism is really nothing but a big Ponzi scheme, and would be illegal if run in a single state or community.

The pricing we put on things, carbon especially, does not include the environmental costs of making the thing, so that we are practicing systemic predatory dumping, and the competitors we are predating on are our own children and the generations to come. So we are predatory dumpers, out-competing non-existent people, which is easy enough, but they will suffer when they come into existence, and we are cheaters.

So these are different ways of saying that capitalism is a system of lies, but I hope they open the discussion again, because I don’t think capitalism can be defended from these criticisms using its own vocabulary.
That last bit, it's key. There isn't even a rational defense of capitalism. It's not a case of there being room for reasonable people to disagree on the subject of capitalism's detrimental effects, reason is all on the side of how can we move from capitalism to a just economic system. But, it's like trying to discuss religion with the faithful, using reason at all in the discussion makes you an enemy to be defeated, not a partner in a discussion whose aim to get at the truth. Only undeniable reality that shakes the capitalists or the religious to their very foundations will change their minds. I don't think the media and their corporate owners are going to be able to conceal the fact that we're running out of ice and dumping so much oil and shit into the sea that nothing is going to be able to live there much longer. As long as the evidence doesn't kill us first, it's bound to change some minds.
There are some very serious obstructions. Or to put it more clearly, there will be many very capable, serious, and well-funded people doing everything they can to impede, forestall, and reverse any progress we might make. Many of these people are stuffed with anger and resentment—why I am not so sure, maybe just because the world is not turning out the way they wanted it—but whatever the cause, they are intensely motivated to do bad. That this is true is a shame, but it is true. A science fiction that could convince even these people of the value of government in creating a sustainable civilization, and of the reality of the crisis moment we are in now in our relationship to the biosphere, would be a really powerful science fiction…
Well, first we have to remind people somehow that government is just another way of saying "the things we decide to do together" and stop, you know, hating it. It's a really unpleasant display of self-loathing. (Tangent: the Right's various displays of self-loathing are almost comical. The really vociferous anti-gay marriage guy, preaching about how the homosexuals are destroying society, isn't it laughably predictable by now that guy is getting his knob shined by a gigolo and it's only a matter of time before the scandal breaks?) The science fiction Mr. Robinson describes here might seem too good to be true, but let's not forget it's just stories people tell that have sold the narrative of the paternalistic benevolence of our corporate overloads.
A real examination of rhetoric—a scientific examination of how people are persuaded of new ideas—this too would be good, to consciously improve our tools and methods.


You may scoff at the idea of scientifically examining persuasiveness, but scientists do it all the time, and their results are very suggestive. We should be learning from them, and Lakoff’s work on framing narratives is a good start in that direction.


It’s instructive also to remember the story of how the carbon industry researched the possibility of swaying public opinion, to confuse people about how unified the scientific community was concerning the reality of climate change and resulting biosphere damage. As related by Naomi Oreskes, they studied what the tobacco industry had done when hoping to achieve similar confusion, and then they spent half a million dollars to perform experiments in a number of American cities, taking polls before and after various kinds of advertising and publicity campaigns, several based on the tobacco industry’s experience. As Oreskes noted, “they behaved more scientifically than the scientists” by running and evaluating experiments and then acting on the basis of the results, to good effect for their cause.

The left should be using and engaging science in the same way.

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