Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Well-insulated (from the truth)

Archeologists often use monuments to tell them the condition of a society over time. If the society is properous and produces a lot of surplus food, there's more than enough to feed artisans and builders who themselves produce no food at all. Lots of monuments get built under these conditions. In the case of the ancient Mayans, the last known monument is dated more than a century after the beginning of a long dry period punctuated by three decade-long severe droughts. Shortly after this last monument was completed Mayan civilization disappeared altogether. The question arises, if things were so bad by that point, why would anyone in his right mind think it wise to set aside food and labor to build one more monument, the last one as it turns out, before the collapse of his civilization?

Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies," offers an explanation. The elites are often protected from the difficulties encountered by the rest of society during an ongoing collapse. They fail to respond to it because from where they sit nothing appears to be wrong. They are comfortable, they have plenty of food, the servants are still being fed, and the work on monuments in still proceeding even as the marginal death is occuring in the countryside (or perhaps a faraway country in our case).

So, it should come as little surprise to us that the managers of ExxonMobil, Monsanto and other hubs of environmental disinformation should think that nothing is wrong. Their surroundings, their wealth, the ease with which they go through life betrays no signal of distress. I used to think that such people were merely greedy, that is, dark-hearted and cruel. They know full well the damage they are doing to the environment and they don't care, I told myself. They don't even care about their own children and grandchildren who will have to live with the consequences.

Tainter's explanation brings the issue into better focus. He makes clear why the power elite can calmly hire public relations specialists and pseudo-scientists to tell us with straight faces that global warming isn't occurring or that humans have nothing to do with it if it is, and many other fibs as well. This elite views real scientists and environmentalists as simply reformers trying to diminish their wealth and power. The world the members of this elite move in is filled to overflowing with whatever they want. And, their certitude is reinforced by an army of well-paid sycophants telling them that the future will be just like the past, only better.

Believing that the powerful were merely cynical convinced me that they shared my views on the dangers of their policies and actions for the environment. I assumed they were merely trying to hang on to power a bit longer by denying the truth. What I realize now is much more alarming: They have a different truth. It's not just a question of exposing them; it's a question of convincing them. That's going to make progress on environmental and energy issues much more difficult than I ever imagined.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

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