Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 7 March 2010

The world badly needs a radical idea

Over the last week, a few items, in the limited media that I access, have increased my awareness that the world needs a new radical idea, and I don’t have it. At the start of the 21st Century we are like a species on steroids, from the planet’s point of view, and that’s not healthy for the planet. And if it’s not healthy for the planet, it’s not healthy for us. Why do so few of us even seem to be aware of this?

It started with last week’s New Scientist’s cover story: Earth’s Nine Lives; whereby an environmental journalist, Fred Pearce, looks at 9 natural parameters that give an indication of the health of the planet from a human perspective. By this, I mean he looks at limits set by scientists and how close we are to them. He calls them boundaries, and they are all closing or already passed, with the possible exception of one. They are: ocean acidity; ozone depletion; fresh water; biodiversity; nitrogen and phosphorous cycles; land use; climate change; atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

Out of these, ozone depletion seems to be the only one going in the right direction, and, according to Pearce, three of them, including climate change, have actually crossed their specified boundaries already. But, arguably, the most disturbing is fresh water where he believes the boundary will be crossed mid-century. It’s worth quoting the conclusion in its entirety.

However you cut it, our life-support systems are not in good shape. Three of nine boundaries - climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen fixation - have been exceeded. We are fast approaching boundaries for the use of fresh water and land, and the ocean acidification boundary seems to be looming in some oceans. For two of the remaining three, we do not yet have the science to even guess where the boundaries are.

That leaves one piece of good news. Having come close to destroying the ozone layer, exposing both ourselves and ecosystems to dangerous ultraviolet radiation, we have successfully stepped back from the brink. The ozone hole is gradually healing. That lifeline has been grabbed. At least it shows action is possible - and can be successful.

The obvious common denominator here is human population, which I’ve talked about before (Living in the 21st Century, Sep.07 and more recently, Utopia or dystopia, Sep.09; and my review of Tim Flannery’s book, The Weathermakers, Dec. 09).

In the same week (Friday), I heard an interview with Clive Hamilton, who is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University, Canberra. He’s just written a book on climate change and despairs at the ideological versus scientific struggle that is taking place globally on this issue. He believes that the Copenhagen summit was actually a backward step compared to the Kyoto protocol.

Then, today (Saturday) Paul Carlin sent me a transcript of an interview with A.C. Grayling, who is currently visiting Australia. The topic of the interview is ‘Religion in its death throes’, but he’s talking about religion in politics rather than religion in a genuinely secularised society.

He’s looking forward to a time when religion is a personal thing rather than a political weapon, that effectively divides people and creates the ‘us and them’ environment we seem to be in at the moment. Australia is relatively free from this, but the internet and other global media means we are not immune. In fact, people have been radicalised in this country, and some of them are now serving jail sentences as a consequence.

To quote Grayling, predicting a more tolerant future:

‘And people who didn't have a religious commitment wouldn't mind if other people did privately and they wouldn't attack or criticise them.

So there was an unwritten agreement that the matter was going to be left quiet. So in a future where the religious organisations and religious individuals had returned to something much more private, much more inward looking, we might have that kind of public domain where people were able to rub along with one another with much less friction than we're seeing at the moment.’

To a large extent, I feel we already have that in Australia, and it’s certainly a position I’ve been arguing for, ever since I started this blog.

But Grayling also mentions climate change, when asked by his interviewer, Leigh Sales, but hints, rather than specifies, that a debate between a science expert on climatology and a so-called climate-change-sceptic would not be very helpful, because they are arguing from completely different places. One is arguing from scientific data and accepted peer-reviewed knowledge and the other is arguing from an ideological position because he or she sees economic woe, job losses and political hardship. It’s as if climate change is a political position and not a scientific-based reality. It certainly comes across that way in this country. As Clive Hamilton argues: people look out their windows and everything looks much the same, so why should I believe these guys in their ivory towers, who create dramas for us because it’s how they make their living. I’m not being cynical – many people do actually think like that.

But this is all related to the original topic formulated by the New Scientist article – it goes beyond climate change - there are a range of issues where we are impacting the planet, and in every case it’s the scientists faint, but portentously reliable voices, who are largely ignored by the politicians and the decision-makers of the world who set our economic course. And that’s why the world badly needs a radical idea. Politicians, the world over, worship the god of economic growth – it’s the mantra heard everywhere from China to Africa to Europe to America to Australia. And economic growth propels population growth and all the boundary pushing ills that the planet is currently facing.

The radical idea we so badly need is an alternative to economic growth and the consumer driven society. I really, badly wish 2 things: I wish I was wrong and I wish I knew what the radical idea was.


Andrew Louis said...

Yeah, I here you loud and clear, Paul.

How do you drive people away from their agendas?

larryniven said...

The best idea I've heard floated around in response to all of this is to collapse cities, in a way: there's so much energy that's wasted transporting people (and objects &c), and also climate control is harder to achieve over larger spaces, that people are saying we could save a lot of energy (both in terms of human effort and electricity) by making living areas more compact.

To my mind, this has at least a few pragmatic challenge. For one thing, we in the U.S. are practically wedded to owning cars, which makes zero sense in a really dense urban area (see: NY, LA). Also, a lot of people will feel cramped - but I think good design can fix that. And then you would have to actually be willing to live in close proximity to a diverse population, which of course has its own difficulties.

Anyway - it's an idea, at least. It won't do much to fix some of the problems - enmity and water consumption, for instance, seem like they wouldn't be affected too much - but it would be a major change if we were to adopt it.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Andrew,

Good question. I think it's interesting that it always seems to be conservatives who are most sceptical about the science and most optimistic about the outcomes.

In engineering, as I'm sure you're aware, the more uncertain the data, the more pessimistic one should be, yet it's human nature to be the opposite. In psychology, it's well known that only depressed people are realistic - it's psychologically healthy to be optimistic.


I used to be optimistic about this - I used to believed that we had the technology and wherewithall to solve the problems we've created, but I'm no longer so sure.

Ten years ago (in 2000) I heard the 'scientific advisor' to the British government give a talk to a small group of academics at Oxford University, on this very topic, producing graphs of energy, food and water consumption. He didn't have any solutions either.

What struck me about that talk was: why was he talking to a small lecture theatre of 50 to 100 people? (It wasn't even the topic, which was supposedy the dot com revolution.) Obviously, he chose that venue because no one else wanted to hear it, least of all the British government.

Regards, Paul.

Paul Carlin said...

Hi Paul

Thanks for sending me your most recent blog - the world is in need of a radical event. Off the top of my head, I cannot think when Man exercised a "radical event". In most cases it seemed to require a catastrophe to occur to galvanise a radical event. You refer to margaret throsby's recent interview with Clive Hamilton. I think it was earlier last week she interviewed a sociologist who argued, that until someone with vision and political capacity redefined human beings as creative people rather than exploiting them as consumers, the prospect of any sustained change was unlikely.

The reference to Grayling's assertion that it is not productive for a climate scientist to engage/debate with a climate sceptic is spot on. I brlieve this point can be extended to state that it is likely to be unproductive for an NGO or environmental group to make recommendations to governments if Govts assess that accepting any of them is likely to reduce their take and power. The 7.30 Report tonight on its focus on poker machines is a good example. Those in Nick Zenaphon's camp can only talk over or past the poker machine lobby - there is no listening or engagement. There is no respect for vulnerable people or for "communitarian" values.

Many thanks Paul Carlin

Andrew Louis said...

You're quite right, Paul, in engineering it's really quite a skill to remain uncertain. I often find myself telling people not to jump to conclusions, that we need to be more data/evidence driven, etc..
But people naturally want to jump.

I never really thought about it that way before - nice observation.

Technocracy is science in the social field said...

This work has been done almost a century ago by the scientist founders of the Technical Alliance. They were the forerunners of Technocracy.

"The research and study by the Technical Alliance (New York, NY, 1918-21) marked the first time in history anywhere in the world that a country or a Continent was objectively examined and analyzed on a functionally multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary basis, not as nations and their people have always been compared and rated--and still are--on the basis of their political economic/financial ideology, their military forces, and their philosophical premises. Instead, the Technical Alliance measured and assessed the extent of the land's natural resources of soil, metals, fuels, hydrology and its energy resources, its transport and communications and construction capabilities, its industrial and technological productive capacity, its available scientific, engineering, biological trained personnel--all to determine whether this Continental area could provide an equitably individualized high optimum standard of living for its population, and if so, how this could be brought about."

Investigate Technocracy now, it is the only viable alternative to our moribund Price System.