Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blaming the Victims

I first became aware of the blaming-the-victims strategy for avoiding responsibility soon after Hurricane Katrina when an ultra-conservative friend of mine went on a rant about why his tax dollars shouldn't be used to provide disaster relief or repair the levees that had flooded the city of New Orleans. He argued that the residents of the area had known for a long time about the dangers, and foolishly chosen to live in an area that lower than sea level. Clearly, it was their fault, and they were so stupid that they wanted to rebuild their city and take the chance of the same thing happening again. Why should the rest of us have to pay for their mistakes?

In 2008, as the housing bubble was collapsing, this same friend meticulously collected “evidence” from a number of dubious sources, “proving” the cause was Clinton-era policies that enabled greedy, stupid, poor people to get mortgages they knew they couldn't afford. If they lost their homes, they deserved to. It was – and is – a common assessment by many on the political right.

The last straw for my friend was the possibility that a black, former community organizer (who by definition was in favor of the pernicious giveaway mentality of the political left) could become president. When Barack Obama won the election, undeserving people might get much more of his money, and the new president would have to be impeached. It was the last time we would speak, because, after years of tolerance, I had come to loathe the idea that some people's lives are more valuable than the lives of others, and to believe that we must take responsibility for harming others, whether directly or indirectly (such as through neglect).

Blaming people for their condition is a justification for neglect. It also permits us to harm people without internal deterrent, just like a person with a sociopathic personality disorder. It has enabled the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few people who were neither inclined, nor capable, of using that power to stop huge population loss, and might even favor it as a logical consequence of their competitive ethos. This, for me, is the ultimate evil.

When we refuse to help others, or harm them either directly or indirectly, we not only allow or increase the amount of pain and death in the world, we potentially harm ourselves because we can't learn what they might teach us. I've written about the blind spots we all have, which both endanger us and keep us from becoming aware of opportunities to increase happiness. Others can potentially see things we can't, and vice-versa; so working together is the best chance we have to improve our visibility. In addition, collective efforts at exploration can help us learn about things we don't currently see, and move together toward opportunity and away from danger that may be right over the horizon.    

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dying World

Spoiler Alert!
This review includes book details.

Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist’s View of the Crisis We Face, by marine ecologist Peter Sale, describes the details of Earth's Sixth Great Extinction as it's unfolding around us, including its history, causes, what the future may hold, and things we might do to stop it. Throughout the book, Sale makes the case that no single factor is responsible; rather, a number of interacting factors are causing the rapid demise of the majority of species, the most significant being habitat destruction, which will soon to be eclipsed by human-induced climate change.

Our Dying Planet is also an excellent primer on contemporary ecology, and how our understanding has undergone a revolution in the last few decades. For example, ecologists have totally dispelled the notion of the “balance of nature,” a reason commonly used to ignore human effects on the natural world. The real world is dynamic, without predetermined equilibrium states and subject to rapid as well as gradual change. As a result, as Sales' experience with coral reefs reveals, our huge impact on ecosystems could have unpredictably bad consequences (the reefs themselves may disappear in this century).

Sale explores why we have the effect we do, including our insensitivity to gradual, absolute change; our use of fossil fuels; economics that doesn't factor in the productivity of other species (or its loss); the devaluing of other species in our culture; and reproductive behavior leading to a huge population multiplier on our consumption. He also lays out the details of what we're doing, with an emphasis on over-harvesting, habitat loss, and pollution, and compares historical and projected extinction rates with previous mass extinctions (they're at least as high as the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs). The huge role of fossil fuels is also discussed, along with the ecological impacts of alternative energy supplies since we will need to transition off of fossil fuels soon for a number of good reasons which include climate change.

The book ends with several future scenarios. They include: doing nothing different; seeking a more natural lifestyle; bypassing nature with technology; and using innovation to maximize quality of life without further ecological damage. The details of these scenarios, while sketchy, are believable, and Sales explains how likely he thinks each of them is based on recent history. He is hopeful about achieving the last scenario, but doesn't seem optimistic that we will avoid the worst case.

In my view, Our Dying Planet is the perfect book for someone who appreciates the scientific perspective and wants to learn the state of ecological understanding about our relationship with the natural world. As a leading expert who has clearly come to his conclusions based on an enviable amount of experience and thought, Sales adds a lot of credibility to the concern that humanity is seriously threatening the fabric of what sustains it and other life on Earth. The details he provides are at times overwhelming, but that's pretty much unavoidable. He has, I think, realistic expectations about what people are likely to do and why, though they can be a bit uncomfortable to read. Overall, I recommend the book, and expect to find it very useful in future discussions.