Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Life and Death, Autonomy and the Dao

I recently went to hear a lecture by Gwynne Dyer about climate change. Basically, his message came down to the idea that it is technically and economically feasible for the human race to take the measures necessary to prevent runaway global warming, but it is beyond our political institutions. As a result, we will not be able to prevent CO2 levels from reaching the point where we start getting feedback effects that will result in more warming, which will trigger more feedback effects, which will trigger more warming, and so on.

The end point as Dyer sees it, would be a total human population in the millions clustered around the Arctic Ocean. Everyone else will be dead either by famine or war or disease within one or two hundred years.

Dyer doesn't think that this is inevitable, however, because he thinks that there are "on the shelf" geo-engineering solutions that will allow the human race the "breathing room" necessary to develop solutions to the greenhouse problem. These include things like spraying the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide, creating fleets of wind-powered robot ships that spray water into the air, building giant space mirrors to shade earth, etc. The idea is that these techno-fixes would reflect enough sunlight that they would keep the planet from heating up to a dangerous level.

What I'm interested about with regard to all of this is my personal reaction to Gwynne's dire predictions. I have devoted enormous amounts of time and energy in the battle to prevent global climate change. Primarily, this was based on a real terror of what could happen. As it happens around me, I've had to think deeply about the nature of that fear.

Oddly enough, I've come to the conclusion that it is fundamentally misplaced.

It seems horrible to consider the vast majority of the human race dying off in some sort of environmental cataclysm. But the fact of the matter is that every single person who has been born has died in one way or another. And most of the ways that people do die are pretty bad. Ultimately, what real difference is there between starving to death in just another run-of-the-mill famine or the "mother of all famines" caused by climate change? Or dying in an ordinary war caused by sheer stupidity instead of one caused by societies that are on the verge of collapse due to environmental catastrophe? Again, what is the difference between dying of cholera because your society hasn't really figured out how to give working people clean water versus getting something bad because your society has collapsed? Either way, in all of these cases, you end up dead. And I suspect that if you look at mortuary statistics the overwhelming majority of people in any age have died due to hunger, violence or disease.

So what would be all that new in Dyer's scenario?

Not much, really. There is the death of nature, but I don't think that I'd be being really honest if I said that that was the source of my extreme emotions. Instead, I think that a larger fraction of my concern is my own fear of personal extinction. Indeed, in a real sense the entire world "ends" when every one of expires---at least for the individual in question. Perhaps contemplating the death of nature (or, to me more precise, its radical change) forces me to direct my gaze in ways that I prefer not.

Another element of this issue came home to me today when I was at church. My local Unitarian congregation has an energetic group of members who have talked the church into installing solar voltaic energy panels on the roof. One member's also hot to create a more ecologically-focused congregation. I sat in on a question-and-answer session after the service to hear what people had in mind. I was appalled because it was the same old middle-class feeble attempt to deal with an absolutely existential problem with tiny "baby-step" solutions. I didn't hear any evidence that these people had even begun to wrap their heads around either the severity of the problem or the type of substantive change that would be necessary to prevent catastrophe. (I suspect that Dyer would say that this is what underlies the inability of our political system to actually come to terms with climate change.)

This highlights another key element underlying my frantic emotions about climate change.

I've always had some sort of faith in the human race. That is, I'd always felt that people's basic sense of "fair play" and "common sense" could be counted on in the long run. I suppose the best way to sum this up is to quote Abraham Lincoln "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." But looking around the room I came to the conclusion that while Lincoln might have been right within a very limited set of social circumstances, but with regard to existential issues, the overwhelming majority of people live their entire lives swimming in a sea of delusion.

One particular delusion that I have laboured under has been the idea that individual human beings can have much impact on the direction of human history. Dyer mentioned this fact at the end of his talk, when he said that it only makes sense that if an intelligent species of animal creates a technological society it is inevitably going to have to come to terms with the limits that its environment imposes on it. That is the situation that the human race faces. Our economy and society moves forward through the operation of impersonal cultural laws. And it will either be able to develop new ways of preserving the environment through these individual, inhuman laws or it will not. The efforts of all the environmentalists are only, at best, one tiny part of the way those laws operate.

In effect, I have to not only accept the fact that I---and all I hold dear to me---is mortal and doomed to die; but also that for that brief life I live, I am not much more than a chip of wood floating on the ocean current that is the Dao. The chip has no responsibility about where it goes, all it can do is just float. In the same way, individual human beings---even educated Daoists like me---have zero influence over whether we are going to suffer runaway climate change or no. This is a very hard lesson to learn intellectually.

I wonder if I will ever be able to know this truth in my bones?


baroness radon said...

"...the idea that individual human beings can have much impact on the direction of human history."

Some can. But not very many. And I have the impression that fewer have had positive effects and more have done a lot of damage. And the way things are now, it seems like the more the individual tries, the less influence has...drop in the bucket stuff. The only effect is to make ourselves feel "virtuous."

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

----and Dao save us from those who enjoy feeling "virtuous"!

Temet Nosce said...

Can't say I support the idea of geo-engineering or other "techno-fixes". It was the implicit belief that human beings have both the knowledge and the right to control the forces of nature. As Einstein said, there are some problems which cannot be solved at the same level of thinking which created them. I trust the feedback mechanisms of Gaia more than I do the projected models of human beings. Turning the entire planet into a laboratory for experiments that have never been tested on a planetary scale (i.e. seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide) seems like a recipe for further disaster. It also strikes me as running against the general message of the Dao De Jing vis a vis control, 'knowledge', knowing when to stop, etc.

If human beings do manage to survive the onslaught of runnaway climate change, we will need to configure our relationship with the natural systems within which we are embedded, not through the application of more 'solutions' that treat them as mere resources to be manipulated.

I do agree that 'activism' has more to do with making one feel good than actually changing the political and economic systems which are destroying the planet. I also have come to accept that it may very well be too late to stop such systems and the path of destruction they are hell-bent on pursuing. As you say, all things are transient, and death is as much a part of nature as anything else....