Sunday, August 8, 2010

One Dao or Another

I just got finished watching an interview with Gwynne Dyer on Democracy Now. For the last bit of the show, they brought in Vandana Shiva to have a little debate between the two.

Dyer was saying, as part of his Climate Wars thesis, that the human race simply isn't going to get its act together fast enough to prevent significant climate change. As a result, there will be significant starvation in the global South, which will have serious military consequences in terms of mass migrations, failed states and war over dwindling water supplies. He said that as a result of this catastrophic failure to control greenhouse gas emissions the scientific community is now seriously looking at geoengineering solutions to manage the global temperature---such as seeding clouds with sulphur dioxide.

Mr. Gonzales kept trying to suggest to Mr. Dyer that "the corporations" and the military would use this sort of engineering to exploit the poor. He was also trying to suggest that even with global warming there wouldn't be any absolute scarcity of food once inequality was taken from the face of the earth.

When Ms. Shiva came on, she suggested that if people totally changed the food system to one based on organic agriculture and local food supplies, that there would be so much carbon sequestered in the soil that a large part of the problem would disappear.

Dyer agreed with Shiva about the solutions she offered. But he said that there simply wouldn't be enough time to institute all the social changes her prescription would need to actually happen. Her response was to say that the change is already happening and if people didn't live in the mindset of engineers and soldiers they would recognize that it is already happening around them.

I work at a top flight agricultural university and I haven't seen any of the big changes that Shiva seems to be talking about. I do hang with scientists, though, and all of them are deeply worried about the future. I also hang with politicians. Many of them are stupid as a sack of rocks and most of these don't think that climate change is an issue. The others feel their hands are tied because of the stupidity of the other politicians and the general public----and the enormous lethargy and torpor that our incredibly complex economic, legal and political system impose on social change.

What really struck me about the exchange was how totally and completely Shiva and Juan Gonzalez were refusing to listen to what Dyer was saying. They have a vision of why there are problems in the world and any argument or evidence that doesn't fit nicely into that paradigm simply gets trimmed to fit it---like people laying on a Procrustean bed.

I attempt to understand the world around me. I look at the flow of complex interactions and give it a name: "the Dao". And that name is how I identify myself as a religious person to the people I meet. When I watched that interchange between Dyer, Gonzalez and Shiva, I couldn't help but feel like Gonzalez and Shiva had become totally unglued from the Dao and were following some sort of delusion or mirage. It underscores what is probably one of the most important virtues that I honour: the ability to look the truth full on and without bias. I don't suppose this would be considered a Christian virtue, I'm not even sure that it is a traditional Daoist one. But it seems very important to me.


The Rambling Taoist said...

I think the ability to look at reality full on definitely is a Taoist virtue. That said, no matter how we try to remove our biases, they still remain. Maybe not ON the surface, but they are lurking beneath. ;-)

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

You've certainly got a point there. For example, I found myself time and again thinking when I saw the exchange between Dyer, Gonzalez and Shiva "What am I not getting here? Can't the two of them see the point that Dyer is making? He's being so clear and precise in what he is saying."

I would have been a bit more hesitant in my assessment of the exchange if I'd thought that Gonzalez and Shiva had made any effort to "wrestle" with the issue that Dyer was raising. In chess there is the issue of "tempo", which means that you not only have to have the right response, you also have to have it at the right time. This is also a key issue in warfare, which is Dyer's area of expertise. Gwynne raised this point right in the end of the broadcast which was cut off before she could respond.

She said that in three years agriculture could change to a form that would sequester carbon in the soil and reverse the release of greenhouse gases. I've heard this before, so I'm not going to dismiss it out of hand. Dyer made the point that it would require a lot longer than three years to reform the land ownership practices of the United States. I think that Shiva is being profoundly disingenuous to think that that nut could be cracked in such a short period of time.

The "two Daos" that I was referring to in the title is the Dao of nature---which I think Shiva understands; and the Dao of nature which includes humanity, which I think Dyer understands. Perhaps another way of saying it is that old saw of there being people who understand the bones of something versus those who understand the marrow of it.

RealityZone said...

I linked to you from The Rambling Taoist.
Glad I did.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Gonzalez, however I think that you are being rather unfair to Shiva (who, for the record, has a degree in physics) and seem to be giving Dyer a rather large pass.

Neither you nor Dyer bothered to respond to Shiva's central point, which is that that it is precisely the arrogant attitude that we understand and can control the "flow of complex interactions" that constitute our world that has gotten us into the mess of climate change and peak oil. It's a unique perversion of the modern mind that sees everything as a "problem" that needs to be solved.

For that matter, whom do we trust to handle the geoengineering? British Petroleum, perhaps? Not to mention the fact that there is no way to adequately test the effects of geoengineering beforehand -- unless you have a planet sized laboratory somewhere and several centuries to observe the effects (of course there is computer modeling, but we have no way of telling how well simulations map onto reality until we try it empirically..). What Dyer is proposing is that we turn the entire planet into a guinea pig for untested experiments.

Overall I would say Dyer is the one who refuses to face reality, namely the reality that we are relatively powerless against nature and the forces we have unleashed. He is the one who clings to an irrational faith --- an irrational faith in human power to control the environment. Dyer also has a vision of why there are problems in the world, and he believes that he has the power to fix them. This isn't "science" -- it's an ideology. And Shiva is right to point out that it's this ideology that is destroying the biosphere.

As Bill McKibben argues in his latest book, Eaarth, our task is to adapt to these changes, not retreating into utopian techno fantasies of geoengineering.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I think you are reading too much into what you saw of Dyer on Democracy Now. I don't think that Dyer is any sort of techno-eutopian. Indeed, as he said to Ms. Shiva, he agrees with almost everything she says.

Look at the issue this way.

The forces that are causing global warming are the same that have caused just about every catastrophe in the history of the human race. On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), for example, someone had to realize that cutting down the last big palm trees that provided the timber for building sea-going canoes was a crazy idea----but it still happened.

Someone also had to have pointed out that devoting a huge economy to building big stone heads was also stripping the environment bare. (I grew up as a peasant, environmental destruction is pretty obvious to the lower levels of a farming or hunting society.)

The point is, though, that the people in power simply wouldn't listen and the aristocracy of Rapa Nui destroyed the island's ecology. This led to horrible civil wars over scarce resources, (exactly what Dyer is predicting in his book Climate Wars.)

Even when the climate isn't directly involved, this sort of hierarchical thinking is the root source of poverty over most of human history. Absolute scarcity probably ended in the early 18th century for Europe---after that it was simply inequality that kept the majority of people poor. Even today it can be argued that the wealthy West has simply shipped most of its poverty overseas through the system of first colonialism and then neo-colonialism. The poor in China labour so the wealthy in North American can buy cheap stuff that is subsidized by the
Chinese proletariate.

If people couldn't solve poverty and oppression by changing the way we look at the world over thousands of years, why does Shiva think that we will be able to solve it for climate change in the much, much, much shorter time span?

Dyer is saying that the problem isn't "How do we deal with climate change?", but rather "How do we deal with climate change in a way that the ruling elites will allow us in the short time frame we have left?" That makes the problem a lot more difficult than the way Shiva framed it. That is why he is saying that the scientific community is giving up on its natural repugnance towards geoengineering and looking into it in a serious way.

As for the idea that it is a modern "perversion" to think of the world in terms of problems to be solved, I profoundly disagree. Human beings, are part of nature. And it is our distinct evolutionary advantage that we do think of the world around us in terms of "problems to be solved".

If we simply wait for nature to "follow its course", the earth will find a new equalibrium. Indeed, it may very well do so no matter what people like Dyer and myself say. But in the process a huge number of people are going to die nasty deaths and live horrible, short lives. I think that people who are trying to do the right thing simply cannot afford the luxury of refusing to see the problem as it really is instead of hiding behind their preconceived ideas.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...
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