Sunday, March 25, 2007

Environmental discourse and the paradox of the open society

Those who regard themselves as environmentalists generally take pride in their openness to new information and to dialogue. After all, that is how they learned about the ecological predicament we currently face. And so, it is a paradox that those who may be the strongest advocates of an open society are now challenged to protect it by not being open to people who would try to destroy it with disinformation and intimidation.

Given the increasing weight of the evidence on such issues as global warming, energy depletion, industrial agriculture, fisheries destruction, and water supply and quality, the natural course for an open society would be to discuss ways to minimize the risks of possible adverse developments. Instead, with the emerging exception of global warming, the discussion continues to be whether any of these concerns rate as real problems. This discussion, of course, isn't taking place in a vacuum. Vast sums are being spent on public relations by large corporate interests in an effort to convince the powerful and the not-so-powerful that the problems we face are either not problems at all or at worst, are easily managed by the very corporations complicit in creating them.

The main tactic, of course, is to cast doubt on the scientific findings. Either the findings are portrayed as unreliable or simply too preliminary to take seriously. "We need more study," is the hue and cry of the corporate interests. Often, when the scientific evidence is overwhelming, the PR men (and women) will continue to claim (by digging up a few well-compensated PhDs) that there is considerable disagreement among scientists--something that can only be classified as a lie when it comes to global warming.

What the public relations masters are doing is relying on a false notion that many people swallow without reflection, namely, that we make decisions based on certainty. It is a tenant of the open society that no one has a corner on the truth; rather, truth emerges, however imperfectly, from the interplay and discourse of many voices trying out various avenues of inquiry. In this way the open society tracks closely with science.

A modicum of reflection reveals that we almost never make decisions in our daily life based on certainty. We are constantly judging the probabilities of danger and advantage, of loss and gain, of failure and success, and acting with imperfect knowledge. The corporate public relations masters are fond of telling the public such nonsense as, "We can't be sure," and "All the evidence isn't in yet" in order to convince them that public policy is always made under certainty rather than risk. Yet, the very companies that fund these shills are constantly making decisions about new products, new advertising campaigns, and new marketing strategies, all under a cloud of uncertainty.

Another tactic used by the hired skeptics is to say that any attempt to address critical environmental problems will involve economic hardship and government intrusion into our daily lives in a way that curbs our individual liberty. It ought to be obvious that individual liberty will be meaningless if climate change undermines the food and water supply and if oil production abruptly declines without a suitable substitute or a plan to adapt to a lower energy world. In such a world we will be at liberty to be hungry, thirsty, unemployed and cold. Nevertheless, the individual liberty argument remains a very potent one, not least because fossil fuels have given us the illusion of autonomy. We never have to deal with or even think about most of the people whose efforts provide us with our food, water, clothing, electricity, heat and gasoline. We just pay the bill and imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient.

Finally, when all else fails, attack the messenger. When Al Gore returned to Capitol Hill to testify about global warming last week, critics could do little to refute his message. So, the right-wing pundits and corporate-funded think tanks began a smear campaign. If you can't win the argument, move on to another argument.

So, the question arises, How does one fight back without destroying the very principles of openness that make it possible to draw on the talents of all while safeguarding freedom of expression? The first response I think is to point out that there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and the freedom of corporations to do whatever they wish. In fact, a good libertarian ought to be suspicious of the concentration of power in the hands of both government and corporations. Such a concentration actually works to curtail individual liberty as both entities come to run larger and larger parts of our lives. Such a concentration often leads to cronyism, special treatment and widespread corruption. And, such a concentration of power is frequently associated not with freedom, but with fascist governments which Mussolini said are characterized by an alliance between big business and government.

Second, the political philosophies behind the denial of science have two things in common: narrow self-interest and the defense of privilege. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a talk on global warming. Well into the question and answer period, a young male college student began spouting the discredited mantras of the corporate-funded climate skeptics. His main tactic was to hog the floor by pretending to engage in a conversation in which members of the audience tried to convince him that he was mistaken.

He admitted that the globe is warming, but denied that humans have had anything to do with it. (This is the latest tactic of the corporate-sponsored critics since the evidence is now so overwhelming that warming is, in fact, occurring.) I asked him, "If we accept your premise, does that mean that we should do nothing about global warming given all that we can surmise about its future effects?"

His response was that there was really nothing any of us could do but look out for number one and cut our losses. I suggested that this implied that he believed he had absolutely no responsibility to his fellow citizens or to future generations. He tried to change the subject by spouting more disinformation. I retorted that now that we understood his position quite clearly, the group would probably like to hear from other audience members. Shortly after this he got up and left.

It may not seem like it, but I take no pleasure in confronting such people. Nevertheless, I do think it is important to make explicit their assumptions so that listeners can evaluate those assumptions. And, I do think that disruptive behavior, no matter how cleverly cloaked as innocent dialogue, needs to be challenged. The aim of this student was the same as the aim of the PR master, disrupt our dialogue, in this case, by monopolizing the floor and effectively shutting us down. I think that is the opposite of the open society.

Regarding the personal attacks on prominent figures in the environmental movement, I myself advise against responding to them. This is precisely the conversation that the corporate-funded skeptics want to have since it prevents the public from focusing on the real issues and because it simply turns people off.

A final response involves reorienting people to the idea of risk. Even if the uncertainties about, for example, climate change, were greater than they are, we would be well-advised to begin addressing the risks. That is because climate change has the potential to destroy the very civilization we have built and kill hundreds of millions if not billions of people over the next century. What the members of the public don't realize is that when the severity of a low probability event is high, they can be strictly pragmatic. House fires are not all that common. But the results can be catastrophic. And so most of us have multiple levels of protection including fire extinguishers in key places, smoke alarms and finally, insurance to cover both our lives and our possessions if the first two levels fail.

Would that the public could start thinking about multiple levels of protection when in comes to climate change. I believe they would if they understood the gravity of the situation, that is, if they understood that climate change is no longer a low probability event; it's here!

It is often said that the solution to free speech is more free speech. We ought to challenge those corporate shills and mischievous ideologues who try to dominate the conversation because they have a lot of money or because they take advantage of the comity of people of goodwill. The difficulty lies in challenging such tactics in a way that doesn't destroy genuine, good faith exchanges and thereby protects the kind of open society we want and will need to make the transition to a sustainable civilization.


Anonymous said...

Great piece.

Tom Konrad said...

Well said. I find it endlessly frustrating dealing with people who refuse to understand that they have to live on the planet they deny we're destroying as well, but, as you say, we cannot let our frustration turn to apathy, inaction, or silence.

Step Back said...

"The main tactic, of course, is to cast doubt on the scientific findings."

Kurt, good point, but not the full picture. The MAIN tactic is to take advantage of the frailities of the primitive human brain.

The average listener suffers from information overload and attention deficit (ADD). He or she relies heavily on "credibility" (Whom do you trust?) as a means of determining what might be true and what not to believe.

Logic has very little to do with the way we "think". If you paid attention to Senator Inhofe's debate with Gore on 3/21/07, you would have "logically" noticed that Inhofe asserted two inconsistent things: (a) there is no GW (where's GW when you need it in Buffalo?) AND (b) there is GW, but's it's not our fault (the Martians are doing it, the Sun is doing it).

Deep down, the GW-denier camp knows most of its arguments are full of hot stratosphere, but the real fear, the maim meme, is loss of "our freedoms". They don't want more government regulation. They see it coming and they don't like it.

Anonymous said...

I it not entirely believable that the Earth is going to "Hell in a hand basket" in a big hurry. There are enough scientists on both sides of this issue to safely say each has their own agenda and can not be budged from their own myopic point of view.