“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The First Whole-World Problem in History

As I’m watching and listening to coverage of Copenhagen every day, while at the same time seeing clips of Big Oil Senator James Inhofe maintaining that nothing will be agreed upon by way of curbing emissions in the US Congress, and even seeing the giant of skepticism James the-seemingly-not-so-Amazing-anymore Randi joining ranks with the deniers, it occurs to me that this is the first truly whole-world problem in history. It’s no wonder there’s so much finger-pointing, responsibility dodging and blame denying. When has it ever been the case before that what one nation did affected not just one region, as in the case of outsourcing or colonialism, but the whole world? And it’s not just what any one nation does; it’s what every nation does. This is precisely what lies behind the denialists’ claims that the global warming issue is really a ruse to establish some chimerical New World Order or World Government. The fact that we’re having such a hard time coming to any kind of agreement on how to deal with the problem, which truly does demand a response from every nation in the world, belies the notion that such an elaborate hoax could ever be pulled off.

A whole-world problem—and the key to solving it is to get everyone to acknowledge it. But of course some people, some businesses, have more to lose once it is universally acknowledged than others. When concern about global warming was new, it was understandable that fossil fuel companies would be hold-outs longer than other sectors, even that the US, with its economy so dependent on oil, would be the last to come around. Something new and disturbing is happening today though. Industry channels millions of dollars into PR firms and so-called think tanks like Cato, and when any one person first makes the decision to invest in this kind of commercial and ideological “research” he or she must realize that the “findings” will be highly dubious, not to mention intentionally deceptive. But then somewhere along the line the industry as a whole decides to take the talking points seriously—to treat them as if they were real science. Soon the initial step of hiring the PR firms and commissioning the think tanks is forgotten altogether, and it’s a matter of “Our knowledge is as a good as your knowledge,” a shoppers’ paradise of ideas, a postmodern nightmare.

Maybe it’s not so remarkable that industries can so effectively delude themselves since, after all, individuals do it every day. What is remarkable, though, is how effectively they’ve enlisted so many people who aren’t even part of those industries to trumpet their patently contrived talking points—and to do it with such zeal. In past entries, I’ve hinted at some possible explanations for how this conversion and near-radicalization of ordinary citizens is accomplished. But I like to point out that, though it’s part of the denialists litany of canards that global warming is religion, it seems to me what the PR people have exploited in so many conservatives is their own cherished beliefs in the omnipotence and benevolence of the invisible hand of the free market and in the omnipotence and benevolence of America. Aren’t these beliefs much closer to a religion than the belief that carbon dioxide is rapidly accumulating in the troposphere (measurable, measured, verified), trapping heat from the sun (measurable, measured, verified), and causing the global average temperature to increase (amen?).

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