Putting the life back in science fiction

Magical Conservatism
August 30, 2010, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I normally don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, but when I see reports arguing about how many people showed up for some Tea Party event in Washington to somehow mark the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I get…well, what?

Annoyed, certainly. But this is so typical, I really don’t want to spend the energy. What’s the description for just wishing that a problem would go away? I don’t particularly want to ignore it. I just want the people involved to spontaneously combust, so that the rest of us can mourn their passing and getting on with our lives.

Rather, I want all the talking-head reporters covering Washington (yes, I’m looking at you NPR) to understand that there’s this thing called reality. Reality generally has numbers attached to it. One set of numbers, with an error bar as needed.

It seems that the Conservative segment of US politics has wholeheartedly embraced magical thinking. As defined by me, this is the idea that you can through special knowledge and practice, change reality, mostly by changing how you see it.

Remember good ol’ Bushie II? He seemed to run on the idea that if he said something, it was therefore true, especially if he could threaten anyone who disagreed with him. That’s the playbook we see now: bullshit (or lying when they care about the truth), threaten those who disagree, and keep reinforcing the story up until it becomes people’s consensus reality.

This is magic, and unfortunately, it works. It’s also not new: if you look at spell, enchant, charm, glamour, even fetish, you see that these all describe types of media manipulation. People often think that our ancestors were stupid to believe in magic. They weren’t: what they called magic was when a slick-talking stranger came to town and drew up a paper that said that the land they had farmed for generations now belonged to some other dude. And they knew they couldn’t fight him, because they didn’t know how to spell. Only the truth would set them free, and all to often, their church told them that they owned that truth too, bound up in the words of the Bible. Magic is a perfectly good way to describe such a world, when you’re ignorant and powerless. The fact that people still use it today should leave us wary, not complacent.

What’s fascinating to me is how inefficient this type of magic is: No one is sure how much the Koch brothers (link to New Yorker article) are spending to bankroll the Tea Party movement, but it’s a lot. And it’s not terribly effective, despite the noise.

Still, it sucks that so many angry people are getting manipulated so badly, conned into parroting the interests of a group that demonstrably do not have their best interests at heart. Unfortunately, this group would be perfectly willing to destroy my life in multiple different ways, so I’m not that sympathetic.

But all things considered, I prefer the cold iron of real numbers. They’re more useful than the magical BS these dudes are promulgating.


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Even if we can get everyone talking in terms of numbers, it’s not clear that the conversation will be any less rancorous. During the torture debate of the last few years I’ve queasily read anti-torture editorials couched in terms of utilitarian benefit: torture doesn’t produce truthful confessions, building rapport with prisoners is more effective, etc. Are those essayists going to concede the fight if torture science advances to the point that sadists can make a human reveal secrets both accurately and quickly? I would hope not, but it seems like a dangerous rhetorical position to take even though there’s currently not evidence for effective torture. I note that torture currently appears ineffective, but my opposition is absolute — I’m not going to defer to the numbers if they show torture is correct by utilitarian lights.

The same principle applies to tobacco control efforts. Much of the opposition to tobacco is phrased in terms of health care costs to the government due to morbidity and mortality, but since users die earlier they also spend fewer years drawing on Medicare and Social Security. Tobacco may be revenue-neutral or even revenue-positive to the government when those early exits from social programs are included. So is the debate resolvable with a sufficiently comprehensive spreadsheet, or a struggle over principles that’s been disguised as a matter of numbers?

Liberals often try to advance numbers in lieu of their own heart felt opinions, not just as adjuncts to them. Reactionaries seem more likely to lead with their heart felt opinions but add numbers too. Using numbers often seems like a cargo cult ritual honoring technocracy, and opposing groups care about them only to the extent that their opponents may have used wrong numbers and therefore provided another target for rhetorical attack. The World Wildlife Fund isn’t going to endorse nuclear power no matter what the impact on GHG emissions. Concerned Women for America isn’t going to endorse comprehensive adolescent sex education even if it slashes the unplanned pregnancies that lead to abortion.

Appealing to the numbers just obscures the latent principles at work and the real struggle. If we were all in agreement that (e.g.) the goal of a health care system should be to maximize quality-adjusted life years for the entire citizenry within democratically chosen budget constraints, numbers could do the talking. But we’re not anywhere close to that in the United States. As your last entry noted, “The great need isn’t to explain the science one more time, as many reporters seem to think.”

I’ve tried to give examples that aren’t purely about reactionaries and conservatives, because nobody with a political bone in their body can or should just defer to numbers, but I don’t mean to imply a false equivalence. The enemies of human well-being are overwhelmingly conservative. When they need to be stopped, one Ambrose Bierce is worth a thousand statistical abstracts.

Comment by Matt

Good points, but Ambrose Bierce is still fighting magic with magic, or still, fighting belief with disbelief.

I happen to like magic of this sort in an intellectual way. However, one very useful thing I learned in grad school is that even the most seductively cool ideas need to be checked against reality, and numbers are one of the better ways they can be checked.

And yes, we need those dreams. The problem we environmentalists are facing is that we don’t have a good magician spinning the vision of a sustainable future. But you know, that vision needs numbers behind it too.

Comment by Heteromeles

As another example, decarbonizing the global economy would be a very expensive endeavor. Better building insulation and compact fluorescent light bulbs are just the tip of an iceberg.

Environmental activists have numbers on their side: hectares of flooding land, pH unit changes in acidified oceans, percentages of people facing the end of glacial water resources. Conservative defenders of the status quo have numbers on their side too: economic growth percentages deferred or reversed, jobs lost, trade balances tipped against the industrialized world. Even if you can get both sides to agree on the causes and effects of climate change, they’re talking past each other as a matter of values.

We have a rough idea of what unmitigated climate change will mean in terms of geophysical consequences. We have a much poorer idea of what it will mean in terms of human prosperity, particularly in the industrialized nations; they have more to lose from economic slowdown and less to lose from a warmer, stormier world. Conventional economic reckoning says that it is much better to have a dollar’s worth of something now than a hundred times as much in 100 years. Compound interest on present prosperity is overwhelmingly powerful if you try to project economic effects by the numbers; the future is very sharply discounted once you get to the length of a single human lifetime or beyond. Of course this methodology leads to absurdities: it is economically rational, using conventional projections of future growth, to grow the world economy by an extra 2% this year even if it guarantees global human extinction in 1000 years. The total destruction of the world economy and humanity in the nebulous future is worth less “by the numbers” than a small increase in wealth right now. Economists who have thought about it realize that’s absurd, but that doesn’t mean there are yet good numerical models that can handle next century as well as next quarter.

This isn’t solely a planning deficit of capitalism, though modern capitalism, heavily driven by next-quarter returns to the shareholders, has promoted short term thinking to an absurd degree. Communist countries had 5 year plans — an enormous improvement over next-quarter plans, but far short of the 50 year and 100 year plans we need for a rational response to climate change.

Comment by Matt

Have to disagree with you on this on Matt. Speaking from the environmental side, the problem I see is the effects of more unpredictable weather, and it affects everyone. California already historically has had multi-decade droughts (1860s-1880s) and according to the tree rings, most of the 10th century was a drought period, broken by flash flood deluges.

We’re simply not capable of handling this kind of extreme environment without a massive investment in infrastructure, and we can’t seem to find the will for that.

It’s basically a question of how many storms and droughts any nation can weather before the government falls apart. We’re already in a situation where The Big Earthquake that destroys LA or San Francisco will probably cripple the US (scaling up from Hurricane Katrina). Adding instability from the weather only makes it worse.

China’s even more precariously positioned than the US is. Absent costly infrastructure (which the Chinese are willing to at least attempt), Beijing has less than a decade of water left in its aquifers, for example.

This is a case where the numbers should be driving principle and policy, but aren’t. It’s also a reason why I’d like to see the science fiction visionaries start grappling with this topic a little more. We need to live in this future, and the cost of the problems caused by the future will dwarf the economic slowdown now.

Comment by Heteromeles

Yes, warming and its secondary effects will be felt everywhere, but some places more than others. The USA will get off comparatively lightly, despite having caused more than its fair share of the problem. As we saw in Haiti, even if rich and poor nations faced exactly the same natural disasters the rich would still fare better, because they had better-built infrastructure to begin with. Disasters that cause a handful of deaths in the USA can destroy cities and kill thousands elsewhere. Of course the gap is closing as American infrastructure deteriorates, but I think the calculus will hold for decades to come.

At the same time, Americans face far more short-term disruptions in order to decarbonize their lives. Nobody has to ask Bangladesh’s citizens to walk, bike, bus, or car pool; most cannot afford a single-passenger car commute in the first place. So the sacrifices and big changes needed now are mostly among the global rich (and I include the vast majority of Americans in that group) and the consequences of delaying that change will fall hardest on the global poor. No wonder that a committed response to climate change is so hard to muster, even before applying economic models that say the value of the future approaches zero.

I think inequality within nations also delays appropriate responses to long-term problems. The negative consequences of short-term thinking are spread across the citizenry but the benefits go to the top. Many people fear, quite rightly, that if we sacrifice today to preserve tomorrow the rich will not be among the “we” making the greatest sacrifices. If wealth distribution in the USA was flatter we could sacrifice all GDP growth for the next 20 years to decarbonize and most people would still be better off than now… but it’s hard to see any way there from here. Even more radically, the same principle applies on a global scale: if developing nations had a greater share of global wealth they’d be less adamant about their own right to dirty industrialization.

Unless you want to rely on the standard space opera trope of super-robots eventually solving everything, ecological science fiction must be social science fiction. We won’t come close to solving the most urgent looming ecological problems with current social norms and arrangements.

Comment by Matt

Another area I disagree on, Matt. I think the rich and powerful have as much or more to lose than use plebes. That’s why I referenced that article about the Koch Family. They made billions in the oil business, and they’re some of the chief financial backers of the people trying to discredit global warming.

In general, I don’t think that being rich due to the status quo is necessarily a good thing, especially if most of that money is invested in the status quo.

Yes, we’re going to have to adapt, but to me, that makes for great science fiction. Not that I’m writing near future stuff either, but it’s a great opportunity for someone.

Comment by Heteromeles

Well, it depends on how you look at it. If someone owns a billion dollars’ worth of oil assets and sees their value slashed to $100 million, he’s lost $900 million or 90% of the value. If someone is making near the global median income yearly income, say $2000, then a decrease in income to $1800 is only a $200 or 10% cut. But even though the plutocrat has lost far more in absolute dollars and in percentages, that $200 cut is far more likely to lead to palpable privation.

On the other hand, I’ve read before (sorry, no links at hand) that the general citizenry of developing nations is generally at least as concerned about climate change as the citizens of wealthier nations, and supportive of mitigation efforts, so perhaps it’s more the wealthy leadership of developing nations (as with many other nations) that is wedded to the status quo. Rich Leaders of USA Denounce Emissions Commitments, Rich Leaders of BRIC Nations in Violent Agreement.

The worst part is that time is on the side of the merchants of doubt. If they can delay action long enough, the client scientists’ own models show that catastrophic warming will happen regardless of further mitigating action. At that point the deniers or their descendants can say “oops, the scientists were right all along, but now the ice caps are doomed no matter what so there’s no point in wasting any more money on mitigation.”

I give to environmental causes but I often feel like it’s just deferring the worst by an eye-blink. I am not hopeful about avoiding unprecedented warming. I don’t think it’s going to drive humans extinct, or even substantially accelerate population declines, but I think the future of 100 years hence has hotter climate, wilder weather, grimly homogenized and stressed ecosystems, and the continued acceleration of species loss. I think I’m probably going to live to see the extinction of most African megafauna and big cats. That should be a good time to become an alcoholic. It will probably be most wrenching for those who live through it, because following generations won’t miss so much what they never experienced in the first place.

Other times I feel quite hopeful. After all, North American forest cover reached its nadir around World War I, and has recovered substantially since then. Today we have more communication tools and organizations for environmental causes, more scientific knowledge, and more people thinking about solutions to our problems. On the other hand, the legions of doom can use modern communication tools too, they have more money, and much of the damage they can do now will never be reversed.

The final thing that drives me to despair is that so many people are suckered by paid arguments that don’t even need special expertise to challenge. I sometimes think that if Exxon was astroturfing used motor oil as a cheap alternative to salad dressing the nation’s emergency rooms would overflow with poisoned fools — and in my grimmest moments I think that they would all deserve it.

Comment by Matt

All I can say to that is: yep.

No point in giving into despair though. That just does the idiots’ work for them without any effort on their part.

Look on the bright side: just think how many species we’ll get once rats start diversifying…

Comment by heteromeles

In terms of SF solutions to large scale problems, I confess that I daydream of robots (but more like Mars rovers than silicon gods of the Singularity). Solar power is already good enough to power machines that can run autonomously for months. Sensors, actuators, processors, and software continue to improve at a heady pace. Can we build autonomous solar machines to hunt invasive species like zebra mussels and kudzu? Can we build similar machines to collect widely dispersed waste materials for roasting to biochar? Can we assign a third tier of machines to mine the world’s landfills for minerals in lieu of new primary production? MIT has developed autonomous solar powered robots for ocean oil collection, and I think that’s just the beginning of what the combination of renewable energy and electronic control can do.

Of course I’m not the first person to think we should try to hunt invasive species, bury carbon, or recycle our huge waste dumps. The conventional problem is that human labor — at least human labor afforded a conscionable level of wages and safety — is too dear to spend pursuing small crumbs of dispersed value. So either it’s rarely pursued (independent recyclers in the West are mostly interested in metals that are easy to separate from other wastes or that are pretty pure to begin with) or it’s done in a horrifying way (e.g. open air roasting of electronic scrap in China).

A related problem is more basic: even if the workers are volunteers, how much net carbon sequestration does your biochar program yield after you account for the diesel trucks taking material to the processing plant? We don’t want to spend more fossil energy cleaning up the very messes fossil energy caused. I think that there are untapped opportunities here. For example, no commuter or business owner wants a solar-electric truck that travels only 25 miles per day at a top speed of 5 miles per hour. But such a machine may be just what the doctor ordered for bringing wastes scattered over thousands of hectares to a processing plant.

The most immediate improvements we can effect are to invest in efficiency and conservation. Install insulation instead of wind turbines until all climate-controlled buildings are well insulated, and nudge the thermostat settings a few degrees too. Then there’s investment in low-carbon energy sources to serve as replacement for the high-carbon sources we (hopefully) take offline. Finally, and I haven’t heard much about this, there’s the potential to use new energy technologies not just as drop-in replacements for the old ones, but to fit our loads to the new energy supplies.

For example, we might fit manufacturing to the intermittency of the wind and waves instead of making intermittent sources act like coal plants. Instead of building tons of batteries to make renewables behave like the old grid and run factories 24/7, develop processes that we can pause and restart faster so production can follow the speed of the wind or brightness of the sun. It’s not a warp speed Star Trek future, but it’s certainly not low tech either, and I haven’t seen the idea developed much in fiction or outside of it. Maybe I’m not just reading in the right places.

Comment by Matt

Good points, Matt. I think that targeting the zebra mussels and kudzu will be a substantial barrier, particularly since you don’t want the machines harvesting rare natives by mistake. As for trash, the South Koreans are doing some interesting modular (I think) mining facilities for getting resources out of their landfills, and they’re already working to export the technology.

Biochar…. There’s a long history of fire ecology in places like remnant prairies, and I was interested early on in that technology. In temperate climates, you don’t get a lot of carbon stored in the soil. In the tropics, biochar and terra preta looks like a godsend. In the temperate zone, growing things like chaparral plants that have most of their biomass underground might work better. Potatoes, not smokestacks. Something like that.

The only place I’ve seen this approach to technology is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, and that was over a decade ago. I was just rereading Red Mars this morning, in fact.

Maybe now that the Singularity is getting a little threadbare, people will come back to this kind of idea. I know I’m playing with it a bit.

Comment by heteromeles

One interesting thing is that better sensors plus better software has given rise to machines that are much better at perceiving real world objects than they were just a few years ago. In 2006, the NIST ran a vendor challenge for recognition systems that are supposed to match human faces against a database of stored faces in real time. The results for the same challenge in 2000 and 2002 were pretty poor, but in 2006 the best vendors not only did well in absolute terms, they did better than humans.

Machines can get an edge by “cheating”: they can use passive imaging that covers a much wider spectral range than human vision, plus active sensors like radar and laser scanning, then fuse the different senses together for highly robust and accurate classification. Humans may still be better pattern recognizers but our eyeballs aren’t getting upgrades as fast. Automatic classifiers plus vision systems are already being tested for precision agriculture that can dramatically optimize use of herbicides, or even replace herbicides with mechanical weed control. My daydream of kudzu-terminators is really just scaling that concept to a very large “weed control” problem.

Comment by Matt

I would say that the backers of the Tea Party are getting pretty good bang for the buck. Remember, they’ve probably spent only (!) a few hundred million dollars. And in return they’ve:

1) Mitigated a well-deserved backlash from f*cking up the world.
2) Limited the regulation of the financial industry. It has been partially regulated, but the right has avoided anything like the 1930’s.
3) Limited tax increases on the rich.
4) Limited the increase in environmental protections.
5) Nurtured the war state.
6) Limited any investigations and publicity about their crimes during the plundering expedition call the Bush Presidency.
7) Taken over a large number of state governments, where they’ve looted, gotten crony contracts, and have gerrymandered/suppressed voting to keep control.

Comment by Barry

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