Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Climate Change Activism: A Post-Mortem

As I write these words, much of North America is sweltering under near-tropical heat and humidity. Parts of the Middle East have set all-time high temperatures for the Old World, coming within a few degrees of Death Valley’s global record. The melting of the Greenland ice cap has tripled in recent years, and reports from the arctic coast of Siberia describe vast swathes of tundra bubbling with methane as the permafrost underneath them melts in 80°F weather. Far to the south, seawater pours through the streets of Miami Beach whenever a high tide coincides with an onshore wind; the slowing of the Gulf Stream, as the ocean’s deep water circulation slows to a crawl, is causing seawater to pile up off the Atlantic coast of the US, amplifying the effect of sea level rise.

All these things are harbingers of a profoundly troubled future. All of them were predicted, some in extensive detail, in the print and online literature of climate change activism over the last few decades. Not that long ago, huge protest marches and well-funded advocacy organizations demanded changes that would prevent these things  from happening, and politicians mouthed slogans about stopping global warming in its tracks. Somehow, though, the marchers went off to do something else with their spare time, the advocacy organizations ended up preaching to a dwindling choir, and the politicians started using other slogans to distract the electorate.

The last gasp of climate change activism, the COP-21 conference in Paris late last year, resulted in a toothless agreement that binds no nation anywhere on earth to cut back on the torrents of greenhouse gases they’re currently pumping into the atmosphere. The only commitments any nation was willing to make amounted to slowing, at some undetermined point in the future, the rate at which the production of greenhouse gas pollutants is increasing. In the real world, meanwhile, enough greenhouse gases have already been dumped into the atmosphere to send the world’s climate reeling; sharp cuts in greenhouse gas output, leading to zero net increase in atmospheric CO2 and methane by 2050 or so, would still not have been enough to stop extensive flooding of coastal cities worldwide and drastic unpredictable changes in the rain belts that support agriculture and keep all seven billion of us alive. The outcome of COP-21 simply means that we’re speeding toward even more severe climatic disasters with the pedal pressed not quite all the way to the floor.

Thus it’s not inappropriate to ask what happened to all the apparent political momentum the climate change movement had ten or fifteen years ago, and why a movement so apparently well organized, well funded, and backed by so large a scientific consensus failed so completely.

In my experience, at least, if you raise this question among climate change activists, the answer you’ll get is that there was a well-funded campaign that deployed disinformation against them. So? Every movement for social change in human history has been confronted by well-funded vested interests that deployed disinformation against them. Consider the struggle for same-sex marriage, which triumped during the same years that saw climate change activism go down to defeat.  The disinformation deployed against same-sex marriage was epic in its scale as well as its raw dishonesty—do you recall the claims that ministers would be forced to perform gay weddings, and that letting same-sex couples marry would cause society to fall apart?  I do—and yet the movement for same-sex marriage brushed that aside and achieved its goal.

Blaming the failure of climate change activism entirely on the opposition, in other words, is a copout. It’s also a way to avoid learning the lessons of failure—and here as elsewhere, those who ignore their history are condemned to repeat it. Other movements for social change faced comparable opposition and overcame it, while climate change activism failed to do so; that’s the difference that needs to be discussed, and it leads inexorably to a consideration of the mistakes that were made by the movement.

The most important mistakes, to my mind, are these:

First, the climate change movement was largely led and directed by scientists, and as discussed here two weeks ago, people with a scientific education suck at politics. Over and over again, the leaders of the climate change movement waved around their credentials and told everyone else what to do, in the fond delusion that that’s an adequate way to bring about political change. Not so; too many people outside the scientific community have watched scientific opinion whirl around like a weathercock on too many issues; too many products labeled safe and effective by qualified scientists have been put on the market, and then turned out to be ineffective and unsafe; too many people simply don’t trust the guys in the white lab coats any more—and some of them have valid reasons for that lack of trust. Thus a movement that based its entire political strategy on the prestige of science was hamstrung from the start.

Second, the climate change movement made the same mistake that the Remain side made in the recent Brexit vote in the UK, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign seems to be making on this side of the pond: it formulated its campaign in purely negative terms. David Cameron failed because he couldn’t talk about anything except how dreadful it would be if Britain left the EU, and Clinton’s campaign is failing because her supporters can’t talk about anything but the awfulness of Donald Trump. In exactly the same way, the climate change movement spent all its time harping about the global catastrophes that were going to happen if they didn’t get their way, and never really got around to talking about anything else—and so it failed, too.

I’m not sure why this sort of strategy has become such a broken record in contemporary political life, because it simply doesn’t work. People have heard it so many times, if all you can talk about is how awful this or that or the other thing is, they will roll their eyes and walk away. To win their interest, their enthusiasm, and their votes, you have to offer them something to look forward to. That doesn’t mean you have to promise rainbows and jellybeans; you can promise them blood, toil, tears, and sweat; you can warn them of a long struggle ahead and call them to shared sacrifice, and they’ll eat it up—but there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel, something that doesn’t just amount to the indefinite continuation of a miserably unsatisfactory status quo.

The climate change movement never noticed that, and so people quickly got tired of the big bass drum going “doom, doom, doom,” all the time, and wandered away. It didn’t have to be like that; the climate change movement could have front-and-centered the vision of a grand new era of green industry, with millions of new working-class jobs blossoming as America leapt ahead of the oh-so-twentieth-century fossil-fueled economies of other nations, but it apparently never occurred to anyone to do that. Instead, the climate change movement did a really fine impression of a crowd of officious busybodies trotting out round after round of doleful jeremiads about the awful future that would swallow us up if we didn’t do what they said, and that did about as much good as it usually does.

Third, the climate change movement inflicted a disastrous own goal on itself by insisting that nobody with scientific credentials ever claimed that an ice age was imminent, when anybody over fifty whose memory is intact knows that that’s simply not true. Any of my readers who are minded to debate this point should get and read the following books from the 1970s and 1980s:  The Weather Machine by Nigel Calder, After the Ice by E.C. Pielou, and Ice Ages by Windsor Chorlton and the editors of Time Life Books. These were very popular in their time, and they’re all available on the used book market for a few bucks each, as the links I’ve just given demonstrate. Nigel Calder was a respected science writer; E.C. Pielou is still the doyenne of Canadian field ecologists, and the third book was part of Time Life Book’s Planet Earth series, each volume of which was supervised by scientific experts in the relevant fields. All three books discuss the coming of a new ice age as the most likely future state of Earth’s climate.

While you’re at it, you might also pick up a couple of really good science fiction novels, The Winter of the World by Poul Anderson and The Time of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg. Anderson and Silverberg were major SF authors in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when success in the genre depended on close attention to scientific fact, and both authors drew on what were then considered credible forecasts of an approaching ice age to ground their stories about the future. If you’re going to insist, along the lines of George Orwell’s 1984, that Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia, you’d better make sure that nobody’s in a position to check. If they can, and they discover that you’re lying, your chance to convince them to trust you about anything else has just gone out the window once and for all. That’s how a great many people responded to the climate change movement’s attempt to rewrite history and erase the ice age scare of the 1970s and 1980s.

Every time I’ve brought up this issue among climate change activists, they’ve responded by insisting that I must be a climate change denialist. That’s the fourth factor that’s contributed mightily to the crumpling of the climate change movement: the rise within that movement of a culture of intolerance in which dissent is demonized and asking questions about tactics and strategy is equated with disloyalty. I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of an embarrassing screed by climate change activist Naomi Oreskes, which insisted with a straight face that asking questions about whether renewables can replace fossil fuels is “a new form of climate denialism”. As it happens, there are serious practical questions about whether anything—renewable or otherwise—can replace fossil fuels and still allow the inmates of today’s industrial societies to maintain their current lifestyles, but Oreskes doesn’t want to hear it: for her, loyalty to the cause demands blindness to the facts. As a way to alienate potential allies and drive away existing supporters, that attitude’s hard to beat.

Stunning political naïveté, a purely negative campaign, a disastrous own goal through a constantly repeated and easily detected falsehood, and an internal culture of intolerance and demonization: those four factors would have been a heavy burden for any movement for social change, and any two of them would most likely have caused the failure of climate change activism all by themselves. There was, however, another factor at work, and to my mind it was the most important of all.

To understand that fifth factor, it’s useful to return to a distinction I made here two weeks ago between facts, values, and interests. Facts are simply statements of what happened, what’s happening, and what will happen given X set of conditions—the things, in other words, that science is supposed to be about. Whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing the global climate to spin out of control, whether or not books published in the 1970s and 1980s by reputable scientists and science writers predicted a coming ice age, whether or not the project of replacing fossil fuels with renewable resources faces serious difficulties—these are questions of fact.

Facts by themselves simply state a case. Values determine what we should do about them. Consider the factual statement “unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for an ongoing increase in weather-related disasters.” If the rate of weather-related disasters doesn’t concern you, that fact doesn’t require any action from you; it’s when you factor in “weather-related disasters ought to be minimized where possible,” which is a value judgment, that you can go on to “therefore we should cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Not all value judgments are as uncontroversial as the one just named, but we can let that pass for now, because it’s the third element that’s at issue in the present case.

Beyond facts and values are interests: who benefits and who loses from any given public policy. If, let’s say, we decide that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut, the next step takes us squarely into the realm of interests.  Whose pocketbook gets raided to pay for the cuts? Whose lifestyle choices are inconvenienced by them? Whose jobs are eliminated because of them? The climate change movement has by and large treated these as irrelevant details, but they’re nothing of the kind. Politics is always about interests. If you want your facts to be accepted and your values taken seriously, you need to be able to respond to people’s interests—to offer an arrangement whereby everybody gets something they need out of the deal, and no one side has to carry all the costs.

That, in turn, is exactly what the climate change movement has never gotten around to doing.

I’d like to suggest a thought experiment here, to show just how the costs and benefits offered by the climate change movement stacked up. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that there’s an industry in today’s industrial nations that churns out colossal amounts of greenhouse gases every single day. It doesn’t produce anything necessary for human life or well-being; it’s simply a convenience, and one that, not that many decades ago, most people in the industrial world did without and never thought they’d need. If it were to be shut down, sure, a certain number of people would lose their jobs, but most of the steps that have been urged by climate change activists would have that effect; other than that, and a certain amount of inconvenience for its current users, the only result would be a sharp decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide and certain other greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere. That being the case, shouldn’t climate change activists get to work right now to shut down that industry, and shouldn’t they start off by boycotting it themselves?

The industry in question actually exists. It’s the commercial air travel industry.

You may have noticed, dear reader, that nobody in the climate change movement has been out there protesting commercial air travel, and precious few of them are even willing to cut back on their flying time, even though commercial air travel a massive contributor to the problems the movement claims to be fighting. I know of two scientists researching climate change who have pointed out that there’s something just a little bit hypocritical about flying all over the world on jetliners to attend conferences discussing how we all have to decrease our carbon footprint! Their colleagues, needless to say, haven’t listened. Neither has the rest of the climate change movement; like Al Gore, who might as well be their poster child, they keep on racking up their frequent flyer miles.

On the other hand, climate change activists are eager to shut down coal mining. What’s the most significant difference between coal mining and commercial air travel? Coal mining provides wages for the working poor; commercial air travel provides amenities for the affluent.

The difference isn’t accidental, either. Across the board, the climate change movement has pushed for changes that will penalize people in what I’ve called the wage class, the majority of Americans who depend on an hourly wage for their income. The movement has gone out of its way to avoid pushing for changes that will penalize people in what I’ve called the salary class, the affluent minority of Americans who bring home a monthly salary. That isn’t a minor point. There’s the hard fact that, on average, the more money you make, the bigger your carbon footprint is—but there’s also a political issue, and it goes to the heart of the failure of the climate change movement.

I’ve had any number of well-meaning climate change activists ask me, in tones of baffled despair, why they can’t get ordinary Americans to take climate change seriously. My answer is not one they want to hear, because I tell them that it’s because well-meaning climate change activists don’t take climate change seriously. If you don’t care enough about the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to accept some inconveniences to your own lifestyle, how much do you actually care about it? That’s the kind of logic that ordinary Americans use all the time to judge whether someone is serious about a cause or simply grandstanding, and by and large, climate change activism fails that sniff test.

Ordinary Americans, furthermore, are all too used to seeing grandiose rhetoric deployed by the affluent to load yet another round of burdens onto ordinary Americans. It’s not the affluent, after all, who have been inconvenienced by the last thirty years of environmental regulations, trade treaties, or what have you. To wage class Americans, anthropogenic climate change is just more of the same, another excuse to take jobs away from the working poor while sedulously avoiding anything that would inconvenience the middle and upper middle classes. The only way climate change activists could have evaded that response from wage class Americans would have been to demonstrate that they were willing to carry some of the costs themselves—and that was exactly what they weren’t willing to do.

The bitter irony in all this, of course, is that the climate change movement was right about two very important things all along: treating the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer in which to dump wastes from our smokestacks and tailpipes was a really dumb idea, and the blowback from that idiocy is going to cost us—all of us—in blood. Right now all three of the earth’s major ice caps—the Greenland, West Antarctic, and East Antarctic ice sheets—have tipped over into instability; climate belts are lurching drunkenly north and south, putting agriculture at risk in far more places than a crowded, hungry planet can afford; drought-kindled wildfires in the American and Canadian west and in Siberia are burning out of control...and unless something significant changes, it’s just going to keep on getting worse, year after year, decade after decade, until every coastal city on the planet is under water, the western half of North America is as dry as the Sahara, glaciers and snowfall are distant memories, and famine, war, and disease have left the human population of the planet a good deal smaller than it is today.

That didn’t have to happen. It might still be possible to avoid the worst of it, if enough people who are concerned about climate change stop pretending that their own lifestyles aren’t part of the problem, stop saying “personal change isn’t enough” and pretending that this means personal change isn’t necessary, stop trying to push all the costs of change onto people who’ve taken it in the teeth for decades already, and show the only kind of leadership that actually counts—yes, that’s leadership by example. It would probably help, too, if they stopped leaning so hard on the broken prestige of science, found a positive vision of the future to talk about now and then, backed away from trying to rewrite the recent past, and dropped the habit of demonizing honest disagreement. Still, to my mind, the crucial thing is that the affluent liberals who dominate the climate change movement are going to have to demonstrate that they’re willing to take one for the team.

Will they? I’d love to be proved wrong, but I doubt it—and in that case we’re in for a very rough road in the centuries ahead.

On a less dismal note, I’m pleased to report that the print edition of The Archdruid Report is up and running, and copies of the first monthly issue will be heading out soon. There’s still time to subscribe, if you like getting these posts in a less high-tech and more durable form; please visit the Stone Circle Press website.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Retrotopia: The Far Off Sound of Guns

This is the twentieth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator is forced to rethink his ideas about progress even further, as the Lakeland Republic and the other nations of post-US North America are confronted by a sudden crisis with all too familiar roots...

A phone rang in the darkness. For a moment I had no idea where I was, but then the bed shifted, footsteps whispered across the floor, and Melanie’s voice said, “Hello.” I blinked, and tried to guess what time it was. It felt as though we hadn’t been sleeping for long.

“Okay,” she said then, in a completely different tone. I finished waking up in a hurry. You don’t hear someone speak like that unless something’s gone very, very wrong. “Okay,” she said again. “I’ll be in as soon as I can. ‘Bye.” The handset clicked into its cradle, and Melanie said, “Peter?”

“What’s up?”

“Trouble.  Texas and the Confederacy are at war.”

I sat up and said something unprintable.

“Pretty much,” she agreed, and turned on a light. She was as naked as I was, of course, but the look on her face wasn’t particularly alluring.

“Any details?” I asked.

“Just a few. Texan ships attacked three Confederate drilling platforms around one o’clock; no word on damage yet. The Confederate navy came out, and there’s fighting going on in the Gulf right now.”

“That’s bad.”

“There’s worse.  The Confederate Army’s crossed into Texas territory between Shreveport and Texarkana. Our people down there think there’s division-strength units involved.”

I gave her a blank stare for a long moment. “Okay,” I said, getting out of bed. “You’re going in right away, of course.”

“Yes. Not the way I’d have chosen to end a really pleasant evening.”

I took her in my arms and kissed her. “No argument there,” I said when the kiss was done. “Give me a call when you get some free time.”

“I’ll do that,” she said, with a smile. “If you can stand it, stay close to your phone. I may be able to arrange something for you.”

I promised I would, and then she headed for the shower, and I pulled my clothes on, called a cab, and let myself out. She was right, it was a hell of a way to end a really pleasant evening, but if you’re in politics you get used to that kind of thing. I knew that, and so did Melanie; if things worked out, we’d find some time to spend together before I took the train back to Philadelphia, and one way or another—

I stopped the thought in its tracks. Later, I told myself. Later, when a couple of really hard decisions are over and done with.

The sky was still pitch black when I left the apartment building, stood on the curb waiting for the cab. The clop-clop of horse’s hooves announced its arrival a couple of blocks in advance. Moments later I was inside, watching the city of Toledo in its sleep. Here and there a light shone in a window, or a lone figure hurried down the street. It seemed hard to believe that not much more than a thousand miles away, robot tanks, assault drones, and long files of young men with guns were streaming through the pine woods of northeast Texas.

The cab got me to the hotel promptly enough, and I paid the cabby, said good morning to the tired-eyed desk clerk, and headed up to my room. I didn’t really expect to get more sleep, but decided to give it a try, and blinked awake four hours later with the pale gray light of morning coming in through the window. The clock said quarter past eight; I hurried through a shower, got myself shaved and dressed, weighed the odds that Melanie might call if I took the time to run to Kaufer’s News to get the morning Blade, and decided to call the concierge instead. Not five minutes later a bellhop knocked on the door with a copy. “We got a stack of ‘em down at the desk,” he told me. “Half the guests are gonna want one as soon as they wake up.”  I thanked him and gave him a good-sized tip, and he grinned and made off.

The paper didn’t have much more information on the current state of affairs than I’d gotten from Melanie, but the reporters had done their background research; the inside of the front section had big articles sketching out the history of the quarrel, running through both sides’ military assets, quoting a couple of experts from Toledo University on the potential outcomes of the war, that sort of thing. Tucked away toward the end was a terse little article about two moresatellites being taken out by debris.  I was maybe halfway through that last article when the phone rang.

“Peter? It’s Melanie. Can you get to the Capitol by nine-thirty?”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

“There’s a courtesy briefing for the North American diplomatic community—the ambassadors will be meeting with Meeker; this is for attachés and staff.  I’ve arranged to get you in as a special envoy from Ellen Montrose’s staff.”

“No kidding. Thank you, Melanie.”

“Sure thing.” She gave me the details, we said our goodbyes and away I went.

The city was wide awake as I walked the four blocks to the Capitol. Newspapers and conversations in low voices were everywhere. The streetcars, horsedrawn cabs, and occasional cars still rolled down the streets; lamps shone in windows, contending with the gray winter light; nothing visible had changed since the morning before, and everything had. I remembered stories some of my older relatives used to tell about the first days of the Second Civil War—carefully sanitized stories coming over the mass media, wild rumors carried by blogs and private emails, and everywhere the sense that something had changed or shifted or broken once and for all, and the world would never be quite the same afterwards.

Somehow, the morning around me felt like that. I told myself not to be silly; there had been other wars since Partition—the three-way scramble between Texas, the Confederacy, and the Missouri Republic in ‘37, the Confederate-Brazilian invasion of the Lakeland Republic in ‘49, and the ongoing civil war in California—but this felt different.

“Extra!” shouted a paperboy on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol, where people were streaming by. “Richmond’s declared war.” He was selling copies nearly as fast as he could hand them out, but I managed to get one before his canvas bag was empty. I wasn’t the only purchaser to turn toward the Capitol’s big front entrance, either. We filed in the doors, and then some of us turned right toward the Senate end of the building, went down the first big staircase we found, and ended up in front of a big door flanked by two guards in uniform and a man in a wool suit.  I recognized him after a moment: Stuart Macallan, the Lakeland Republic’s assistant secretary of state for North American affairs.

“Mr. Carr,” he said, shaking my hand. “Good to see you again.Yes, you’ve been cleared—favor to the incoming administration in Philadelphia.” He winked, and I laughed and went on to the coatroom, where I shed hat and coat before going further.

The room inside was a big comfortable space with a podium up front and rows of tables and chairs facing it, the kind of place where important press conferences and public hearings get held. All the usual impedimenta of a high-end briefing were there—pitchers of ice water on each table, and so on—and something I hadn’t expected:  a notebook and pen in front of each place. Of course I understood the moment I saw them: lacking veepads, how else were the attendees going to take notes? Even so, that reminded me how many details of life in the Lakeland Republic I still hadn’t seen.

I sat down and opened the paper. The Confederate Congress had voted to declare war, as the boy said; the Texan legislature was expected to return the favor shortly. In the meantime, the naval battle in the Gulf was ongoing, with people along the coast reporting distant explosions and smoke plumes visible on the horizon. Nobody was sure yet what was happening on the land front; the entire region from Shreveport and Texarkana west to the suburbs of Dallas was closed to journalists, and the entire highway system was off limits to anybody but government and military, but long lines of army-green trucks were streaming east across Texas toward the war zone, and a reporter who’d gotten as far north as Henderson before being turned back by military police reported that he could hear artillery rolling in the northern distance like summer thunder.

Someone sat down at the chair next to mine, and I did the polite thing and turned to greet him. “Hank Barker,” he said as we shook hands, “with the Missouri Republic delegation.” I introduced myself, and he brightened. “You’re Ellen Montrose’s envoy here, aren’t you?  Once this is over, if you’ve got a minute to talk, that’d be real welcome.”

“Sure,” I said. It wasn’t until then that I noticed that he was dressed the way I was, in typical Lakeland business wear. Most of the other people filing into the room wore bioplastic, though we weren’t the only ones in wool. “Got tired of bioplastic, I see,” I commented.

He nodded. “Yep. You see this sort of thing more and more often these days, out our way. ‘Course a lot of the wool and leather Lakeland uses comes from our side of the Mississippi, so it stands to reason.”

I glanced at him, wondered whether any other Lakeland Republic customs had found a foothold across the Mississippi. The Missouri Republic’s big, reaching from the river to the crest of the Rockies and from what used to be Kansas and the northwestern two-thirds of Missouri to the border of West Canada, but a lot of it’s desert these days; it’s pretty much landlocked—its only ports are river towns on the Mississippi and Duluth on Lake Superior—and if they were paying off World Bank loans and coping with the same economic pressures we were in the Atlantic Republic, they’d have to be in a world of hurt. Before I could figure out how to ask the question that was on my mind, though, the last of the attendees had taken their seats and a familiar figure rolled his wheelchair across the low stage to one side of the podium.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming,” Tom Pappas said. “We’re still waiting for more details from the war zone—”

“Like everyone else,” said a voice with a French accent close to the front of the room.

“I’m not arguing,” Pappas said, with a broad grin. “But we’ve got a basic idea what’s going on, and we can also fill you in on our government’s response.”

An aide, a young woman in Lakeland army uniform, came up onto the stage, went to the back wall and pulled on a cord. Down came a big, brightly colored map of the eastern half of the Republic of Texas and parts of the Confederacy adjacent to it.  Pappas thanked her, took a long pointer from behind the podium, and wheeled over to the map.

“The three drilling platforms the Texans attacked last night are here.” The pointer tapped a patch of blue water in the Gulf. “Those are the ones Bullard claimed were using horizontal drilling to poach Texan oil. Based on what information we’ve gotten at this point, all three platforms were destroyed. The Confederates counterattacked less than an hour later, and both sides suffered significant losses—they’ve both got decent antiship missiles, and you know how that goes.”

A murmur spread through the room. “The thing is, the Confederates didn’t just fire on the Texan ships,” Pappas went on. “They used long range missiles to target Texan offshore oil assets. We’re not sure how many were targeted and how badly they were hit, but it doesn’t look good.

“Right now there’s still fighting going on, and both sides are bringing in naval assets from outside the area. Texas has a short term advantage there.  The Confederates have a lot of their ships on the Atlantic coast, and it’s going to take a while to get them around the south Florida shoals and bring them into action, but once those arrive, the Texan navy’s going to be in deep—trouble.”

That got a laugh. “Okay,” he said, and moved the pointer up to tap on the area between Shreveport and Texarkana. “That’s a sideshow. Here’s the show that matters. As far as we can tell, the Confederacy’s thrown three divisions into the ground assault:  one armored division, two infantry. More are being brought up as fast as the transport grid will carry them. The Texans are throwing everything they’ve got on hand into the fighting. It’s anyone’s guess whether they can get enough of their army into play before the Confederates reach Dallas; I’m guessing they will. Meanwhile Texan drones and land based missiles have been hitting military targets as far as the Mississippi, and the Confederacy’s doing the same thing—we’ve had reports of missile strikes as far west as Waco.

“And this is where it gets ugly. Both sides have allies overseas. The Confederates have already asked Brazil to intervene; no word from Brasilia yet, but given their track record in the past, it’s probably a safe bet that they’ll get Brazilian munitions and advisers, and maybe more. Texas has a mutual-aid pact with China, and after the business in Peru two years ago, the Chinese have got to be itching for an opportunity to take Brazil down a peg or two; a proxy war would be one way to do that. So we could be facing a long and ugly war.

“That’s the military situation. Stuart, you want to fill them in on our response?”

Stuart Macallan climbed up onto the stage. “Sure. Point number one is that we’re staying out of it. We’ve declared ourselves neutral, and President Meeker is working with the other North American governments right now to draft a joint declaration of neutrality and an appeal to the combatants to accept an immediate ceasefire and settle this at the negotiating table, using the mechanisms set up in the Treaty of Richmond.

“Point number two is that we’ve ordered a defensive mobilization all along the southern border, just in case. Those of you who know anything about our military know that this isn’t a threat to anybody, unless they decide to invade. If you’re not familiar with our system, Colonel Pappas here can fill you in on the details after we finish.

“Point number three is that we’re going to look for every possible way to expedite trade agreements with the other North American republics. Half our exports go via the Mississippi, and I know some of our neighbors are in the same boat—so to speak. We’re prepared to help the other North American republics keep their economies intact, to the extent that we can, and we’d welcome any help you can give us along the same lines.

“Finally, there’s the petroleum situation. For all practical purposes, the Gulf oil fields, onshore and offshore, have just dropped off the face of the Earth, and they’re going to stay that way until this whole business gets resolved. That’s a big enough fraction of world oil production to send markets into a tizzy. It won’t particularly affect us, as you know,. but it’s going to be a problem for pretty much everyone else in North America. We’re going to look at agreements with each of your countries to try to cushion the economic hit, but whatever you’re paying for fuel these days—our best estimate is that it’s going to double, maybe triple, maybe more, if you can get it. The way so much oil production is locked up in long term contracts, some of you probably won’t be able to get it at all.”

Hank Barker, sitting next to me, shook his head. Under his breath: “We are so screwed.”

Back here in 2016, I'm delighted to announce the impending publication of David Fleming's astonishing book Lean Logic, an encyclopedic guide to the principles and practice of life in a deindustrializing world. Fleming was a central figure in the British sustainability movement for decades, and played an important role in the founding of the UK Green Party, the Transition Town Movement, and the New Economics Foundation; he spent some thirty years assembling Lean Logic as a comprehensive book on the ways of thinking and acting we're going to need to get through the mess ahead. (I'm quite sure it's still in print in the Lakeland Republic in 2065!) The hardback edition is now available for preorder here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity

While we’re discussing education, the theme of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report, it’s necessary to point out that there are downsides as well as upsides to take into account. The savant so saturated in abstractions that he’s hopelessly inept at the business of everyday life has been a figure of fun in literature for many centuries now, not least because examples of the type are so easy to find in every age.

That said, certain kinds of education have more tightly focused downsides. It so happens, for example, that engineers have contributed rather more to crackpot literature than most other professions. Hollow-earth theories, ancient-astronaut speculations, treatises arguing that the lost continent of Atlantis is located nearly anywhere on Earth except where Plato said it was—well, I could go on; engineers have written a really impressive share of the gaudier works in such fields. In my misspent youth, I used to collect such books as a source of imaginative entertainment, and when the jacket claimed the author was some kind of engineer, I knew I was in for a treat.

I treated that as an interesting coincidence until I spent a couple of years working for a microfilming company in Seattle that was owned by a retired Boeing engineer. He was also a devout fundamentalist Christian and a young-Earth creationist; he’d written quite a bit of creationist literature, though I never heard that any of it was published except as densely typed photocopied handouts—and all of it displayed a very specific logic: given that the Earth was created by God on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 in the morning, how can we explain the things we find on Earth today?

That is to say, he approached it as an engineering problem.

Engineers are trained to figure out what works. Give them a problem, and they’ll beaver away until they find a solution—that’s their job, and the engineering profession has been around long enough, and had enough opportunities to refine its methods of education, that a training in engineering does a fine job of teaching you how to work from a problem to a solution. What it doesn’t teach you is how to question the problem. That’s why, to turn to another example, you get entire books that start from the assumption that the book of Ezekiel was about a UFO sighting and proceed to work out, in impressive detail, exactly what the UFO must have looked like, how it was powered, and so on. “But how do we know it was a UFO sighting in the first place?” is the one question that never really gets addressed.

It’s occurred to me recently that another specific blindness seems to be hardwired into another mode of education, one that’s both prestigious and popular these days: a scientific education—that is to say, a technical education in the theory and practice of one of the hard sciences.  The downside to such an education, I’d like to suggest, is that it makes you stupid about politics. Plenty of examples come to mind, and I’ll be addressing some of the others shortly, but the one I want to start with is classic in its simplicity, not to mention its simple-mindedness. This is the recent proposal by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I quote in full:

Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 29, 2016

That might be dismissed as just another example of the thought-curtailing properties of Twitter’s 140-character limit—if a potter makes pots, what does Twitter make?—except that Tyson didn’t say, “here’s the principle behind the constitution, details to follow.” That’s his proposed constitution in its entirety.

More precisely, that’s his sound bite masquerading as a constitution. An actual constitution, as anyone knows who has actually read one, doesn’t just engage in a bit of abstract handwaving about how decisions are to be made. It sets out in detail who makes the decisions, how the decision-makers are selected, what checks and balances are meant to keep the decision-makers from abusing their positions, and so on. If Donald Trump, say, gave a speech saying, “We need a new scientific method that consists solely of finding the right answer,” he’d be mocked for not knowing the first thing about science. A similar response is appropriate here.

That said, Tyson’s proposal embodies another dimension of cluelessness about politics. Insisting that political decisions ought to be made exclusively on the basis of evidence sounds great, until you try to apply it to actual politics. Take that latter step, and what you’ll discover is that evidence is only tangentially relevant to most political decisions.

Consider the recent British referendum over whether to leave the European Union. That decision could not have been made on the basis of evidence, because all sides, as far as I know, agreed on the facts.  Those were that Britain had joined the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973, that its membership involved ceding certain elements of national sovereignty to EU bureaucracies, and that EU policies benefited certain people in Britain while disadvantaging others. None of those points were at issue. The points that were at issue were values on the one hand, and interests on the other.

By values I mean judgments, by individuals and communities, about what matters and what doesn’t, what’s desirable and what isn’t, what can be tolerated and what can’t. These can’t be reduced to mere questions of evidence. A statement such as “the free movement of people across national borders is good and important” can’t be proved or disproved by any number of double-blind controlled studies. It’s a value that some people hold and others don’t, as is the statement “the right of people to self-determination must be protected from the encroachments of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.” Those values are in conflict with each other, and it was in large part over such values that the Brexit election was fought out and decided.

By interests I mean the relative distribution of costs and benefits. Any political decision, about any but the most trivial subject, brings benefits and has costs, and far more often than not the people who get the benefits and the people who carry the costs are not the same. EU membership for Britain was a case in point. By and large, the affluent got the majority of the benefits—they were the ones who could send their children to German universities and count on border-free travel to holidays in Spain—and the working poor carried the majority of the costs—they were the ones who had to compete for jobs against a rising tide of immigrants, while the number of available jobs declined due to EU policies that encouraged offshoring of industry to lower-wage countries.

What made the Brexit referendum fascinating, at least to me, was the way that so many of the pro-EU affluent tried to insist that the choice was purely about values, and that any talk about the interests of the working poor was driven purely by racism and xenophobia—that is to say, values.  As I’ve noted here in numerous posts, the affluent classes in the industrial world have spent the last four decades or so throwing the working poor under the bus and then rolling the wheels back and forth over them, while insisting at the top of their lungs that they’re doing nothing of the kind.

Wage earners, and the millions who would be happy to earn a wage if they could find work, know better.  Here in America, for example, most people outside the echo chambers of the affluent remember perfectly well that forty years ago, a family with one working class income could afford a house, a car, and the other amenities of life, while today, a family with one working class income is probably living on the street. Shouting down open discussion of interests by insisting that all political decisions have to do solely with values has been a common strategy on the part of the affluent; the outcome of the Brexit referendum is one of several signs that this strategy is near the end of its shelf life.

In the real world—the world where politics has to function—interests come first. Whether you or I are benefited or harmed, enriched or impoverished by some set of government policies is the bedrock of political reality. Evidence plays a role: yes, this policy will benefit these people; no, these other people won’t share in those benefits—those are questions of fact, but settling them doesn’t settle the broader question. Values also play a role, but there are always competing values affecting any political decision worth the name; the pursuit of liberty conflicts with the pursuit of equality, justice and mercy pull in different directions, and so on.

To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.

That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.

In science, furthermore, interests are entirely irrelevant in theory. (In practice—well, we’ll get to that in a bit.)  Decisions about values are transferred from the individual scientist to the scientific community via such practices as peer review, which make and enforce value judgments about what counts as good, relevant, and important research in each field. The point of these habits is to give scientists as much room as possible to focus purely on the evidence, so that facts can be known as facts, without interference from values or interests. It’s precisely the habits of mind that exclude values and interests from questions of fact in scientific research that make modern science one of the great intellectual achievements of human history, on a par with the invention of logic by the ancient Greeks.

One of the great intellectual crises of the ancient world, in turn, was the discovery that logic was not the solution to every human problem. A similar crisis hangs over the modern world, as claims that science can solve all human problems prove increasingly hard to defend, and the shrill insistence by figures such as Tyson that it just ain’t so should be read as evidence for the imminence of real trouble. Tyson himself has demonstrated clearly enough that a first-rate grasp of astronomy does not prevent the kind of elementary mistake that gets you an F in Political Science 101. He’s hardly alone in displaying the limits of a scientific education; Richard Dawkins is a thoroughly brilliant biologist, but whenever he opens his mouth about religion, he makes the kind of crass generalizations and jawdropping non sequiturs that college sophomores used to find embarrassingly crude.

None of this is helped by the habit, increasingly common in the scientific community, of demanding that questions having to do with values and interests should be decided, not on the evidence, but purely on the social prestige of science. I’m thinking here of the furious open letter signed by a bunch of Nobel laureates, assailing Greenpeace for opposing the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice. It’s a complicated issue, as we’ll see in a moment, but you won’t find that reflected in the open letter. Its argument is simple: we’re scientists, you’re not, and therefore you should shut up and do as we say.

Let’s take this apart a step at a time. To begin with, the decision to allow or prohibit the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice is inherently  political rather than scientific. Scientific research, as noted above, deals with facts as facts, without reference to values or interests. “If you do X, then Y will happen”—that’s a scientific statement, and if it’s backed by adequate research and replicable testing, it’s useful as a way of framing decisions. The decisions, though, will inevitably be made on the basis of values and interests. “Y is a good thing, therefore you should do X” is a value judgment; “Y will cost me and benefit you, therefore you’re going to have to give me something to get me to agree to X” is a statement of interest—and any political decision that claims to ignore values and interests is either incompetent or dishonest.

There are, as it happens, serious questions of value and interest surrounding the genetically engineered rice under discussion. It’s been modified so that it produces vitamin A, which other strains of rice don’t have, and thus will help prevent certain kinds of blindness—that’s one side of the conflict of values. On the other side, most seed rice in the Third World is saved from the previous year’s crop, not purchased from seed suppliers, and the marketing of the GMO rice thus represents yet another means for a big multinational corporation to pump money out of the pockets of some of the poorest people on earth to enrich stockholders in the industrial world. There are many other ways to get vitamin A to people in the Third World, but you won’t find those being discussed by Nobel laureates—nor, of course, are any of the open letter’s signatories leading a campaign to raise enough money to buy the patent for the GMO rice and donate it to the United Nations, let’s say, so poor Third World farmers can benefit from the rice without having to spend money they don’t have in order to pay for it.

These are the issues that have been raised by Greenpeace among others. To respond to that with a straightforward display of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad auctoritatem—“I’m an authority in the field, therefore whatever I say is true”—is bad reasoning, but far more significantly, it’s inept politics. You can only get away with that trick a certain number of times, unless what you say actually does turn out to be true, and institutional science these days has had way too many misses to be able to lean so hard on its prestige. I’ve noted in previous posts here the way that institutional science has blinded itself to the view from outside its walls, ignoring the growing impact of the vagaries of scientific opinion in fields such as human nutrition, the straightforward transformation of research into marketing in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-widening chasm between the promises of safety and efficacy brandished by scientists and the increasingly unsafe and ineffective drugs, technologies, and policy decisions that burden the lives of ordinary people.

There are plenty of problems with that, but the most important of them is political. People make political decisions on the basis of their values and their perceived interests, within a frame provided by accepted facts. When the people whose job it is to present and interpret the facts start to behave in ways that bring their own impartiality into question, the “accepted facts” stop being accepted—and when scientists make a habit of insisting that the values and interests of most people don’t matter when those conflict, let’s say, with the interests of big multinational corporations that employ lots of scientists, it’s only a matter of time before whatever scientists say is dismissed out of hand as simply an attempt to advance their interests at the expense of others.

That, I’m convinced, is one of the major forces behind the widening failure of climate change activism, and environmental activism in general, to find any foothold among the general public. These days, when a scientist like Tyson gets up on a podium to make a statement, a very large percentage of the listeners don’t respond to his words by thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” They respond by thinking, “I wonder who’s paying him to say that?” That would be bad enough if it was completely unjustified, but in many fields of science—especially, as noted earlier, medicine and pharmacology—it’s become a necessary caveat, as failures to replicate mount up, blatant manipulation of research data comes to light, and more and more products that were touted as safe and effective by the best scientific authorities turn out to be anything but.

Factor that spreading crisis of legitimacy into the history of climate change activism and it’s not hard to see the intersection. Fifteen years ago, the movement to stop anthropogenic climate change was a juggernaut; today it’s a dead letter, given lip service or ignored completely in national politics, and reduced to a theater of the abusrd by heavily publicized international agreements that commit no one to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the rhetoric of climate change activism fell into the same politically incompetent language already sketched out—“We’re scientists, you’re not, so shut up and do as you’re told”—and the mere fact that they were right, and that anthropogenic climate change is visibly spinning out of control around us right now, doesn’t change the fact that such language alienated far more people than it attracted, and thus helped guarantee the failure of the movement.

Of course there was a broader issue tangled up in this, and it’s the same one that’s dogging scientific pronouncements generally these days: the issue of interests. Specifically, who was expected to pay the costs of preventing anthropogenic climate change, and who was exempted from those costs? That’s not a question that’s gotten anything like the kind of attention it deserves—not, at least, in the acceptable discourse of the political mainstream. We’ll be talking about it two weeks from now.

In other news, I'm pleased to report that the print edition of The Archdruid Report is now open for subscribers. Stone Circle Press, appropriately enough, will be publishing the Report monthly as a zine. Their sales website, still very basic as yet, is here.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Retrotopia: You See It Is Not So

This is the nineteenth installment* of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator apologizes for an almost-quarrel, spends an evening on the town, and gets a sudden insight into the nature of the Lakeland Republic’s achievement from a seemingly unlikely source...

*(The actual nineteenth; the last one was misnumbered.)
I felt a little worse for wear the next morning, but not too bad, and so when the alarm on the wind-up clock next to the bed went off at eight-thirty I mumbled something unprintable and got up. It was Sunday, of course, and I planned to go to the Atheist Assembly again, so I got to work making myself presentable. My electric razor did its usual halfhearted job on my stubble, and I shook my head and wondered what men used in the Lakeland Republic to keep their chins smooth when they didn’t let the barber take care of it. Probably some antique technology that works better than ours, I thought sourly.

To say I was in a rotten mood was a bit of an understatement, but it was my own doing. I’d decided on the cab ride back from the Harbor Club that I needed to call Melanie Berger sometime the next day and apologize. That’s not something I enjoy at all, and I also knew perfectly well that it might be wasted effort, but there it was. Partly, the professional in me wasn’t willing to lose a useful contact in the Lakeland government just because the two of us had both been too tired to be tactful; partly I felt  embarrassed that I’d handled the whole thing so clumsily, and partly there was the chemistry I’d sensed between the two of us. There may have been more than that, too, but that was enough.

So I’d decided to call her early in the afternoon, after I got back from Assembly and had lunch. I was brooding over that while I shaved and showered and got dressed, and I was still brooding over it at nine-fifteen as I got my tie settled. Just then the phone rang, and wouldn’t you know it, it was none other than Melanie Berger.

“Peter? I hope I’m not calling too early.”

“Not a bit,” I said. “I was just getting ready to go to Assembly. What’s up?”

She paused for a moment, in exactly the way I would have, and said, “I wanted to apologize for the way things went Friday night.”

“I was going to call you later today and say the same thing,” I told her.  A moment of silence passed, and then we both started talking at the same time; we both stopped, and then she laughed, and so did I.

“Okay,” I said, still laughing. “I’ll gladly accept your apology if you’ll accept mine. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Melanie. “The thing is, I’d like to make it up to you. Are you free this evening?”

“Sure.” That sounded promising.  “What do you have in mind?”

“You mentioned that you’d wanted to see the Toledo Opera production of Parsifal. Jaya and Ramaraj Patel have season tickets, and I heard from them last night—they both came down with the same flu you got, and they’re not going anywhere tonight—so I thought I’d find out if I could interest you in a night at the opera.”

“I’d be delighted,” I said, “on one condition.”


“That you let me take you out to dinner first.”

“You’re on,” she said. We got the details sorted out and said goodbye, and I got out of the room and down to the street just in time to catch the streetcar to the Capitol Atheist Assembly.

The meeting was pleasant but not particularly memorable, though Sam Capoferro was up to his usual standard on the piano, playing Handel and Bach with understated elegance, and everyone I met greeted me as though I was already an old friend. The reading was a rousing bit of Bertrand Russell, and the talk was about telling the difference between reason and the habits of thought that people confuse with reason, which was edgier than anything I’d heard in the Philadelphia Assembly for a good long time. Afterwards we sat around in the social hall over coffee and cookies, and talked.

The tensions between Texas and the Confederacy got a good share of the talk, and I listened closely when Senator Chenkin sketched out the situation to a couple of friends who hadn’t been following it closely. “Both countries would go broke without the income from their petroleum industries,” she said, “and they’ve both had production declines for the last half dozen years, so neither side is in any position to back down. This could get really bad.”

“How bad?” one of her friends asked her. She didn’t answer, just shook her head, but I could see the answer in her eyes, and it wasn’t anything I wanted to think about.

So I filed that away and caught the streetcar back to the hotel not long thereafter. Once I was there I talked to the concierge about what you wear to an opera in the Lakeland Republic—I’d wondered whether they’d gone back to opera capes and top hats, and was relieved to find out that ordinary evening wear would do—and then went out to see if the barber I’d visited my first day in Toledo had Sunday hours. Fortunately he did, and he was just finishing up a shave and trim on another customer when I got there. When it was my turn, he greeted me effusively and said, “You got a special evening planned, I bet,” and laughed when I asked him how he’d guessed. “Of course you do.  Any guy comes in here midway through a weekend day for a shave and trim, dollars’ll get you doughnuts that’s what’s on the schedule. Don’t you worry, I’ll get your face smoother than a baby’s butt.”

He did, too. I left there looking ready for an evening out. A pleasant lunch in the hotel café, a talk with the concierge about restaurants, and a couple of leisurely hours reading the Sunday paper and getting caught up on the news: that filled the rest of the time before I caught a cab over to Melanie Berger’s, picked her up, and headed for a top-end restaurant not quite two blocks from the Toledo opera house.

We had a great time. The food was really good and the wine was better, and both of us had the common sense to keep the conversation well away from progress or anything related to it. Of course we talked about politics—get two people who work in any line of business together, even for a social evening, and they’re going to talk shop—but that wasn’t the only subject of conversation by a long shot. One of the others was the performance we were about to take in. The Toledo Opera had a homegrown bass, a young guy named Michael Bickerstaff, who would be singing the part of Gurnemanz.  He’d done a stellar job the year before in his first major role as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, but of course Wagner’s much harder on singers than Mozart ever dreamed of being.

“They say he’s really good,” Melanie said. “Good enough that a couple of European opera companies are interested in him, and some people here are talking about what kind of a Wotan he’d make.”

That impressed me. “Are they planning on doing the Ring cycle here?”

“Jaya tells me there’s been some tentative discussions with the Minneapolis Opera about a joint production,” she said. “They’ve got some really solid singers—tonight’s Kundry is one of theirs.”

Dinner wound down pleasantly, and in due time we headed for the opera house.  Like most of Toledo, it was new construction but old-fashioned design, with a spacious lobby and comfortable seats. Ours were about halfway toward the left wall on the first balcony. We got settled, and of course then had to stand up a couple of times while latecomers made their apologies and edged past to their own seats. Our conversation wound up, the lights went down, the conductor got up on his podium and the first bars of the Prelude sounded in the dim light.

When the curtains slid open, I admit I braced myself. In Wagner’s operas, there’s really only room for one monumental ego, and it’s his, but you get directors who don’t get that and try to make a production original by pulling some visual stunt or other. I’ve seen Wagnerian operas where all the singers were in Old West outfits, or superhero costumes, or bulbous yellow things that made them look like a flock of rubber duckies—I never did find out what those were supposed to be about. Apparently the Toledo Opera had managed to escape that bad habit. The set was abstract to the point of starkness, with fabric veils and shafts of light providing most of the decor; you could tell the designer had taken a close and thoughtful look at Bayreuth productions from the middle of the last century. The costumes looked more or less the way you’d expect a bunch of Grail Knights to look, which was a pleasant surprise.

Then Gurnemanz got up from under the abstract tree where he’d supposedly been sleeping, and broke into his first lines—He, ho, Waldhüter ihr!—and I knew right away that we were in for a treat.

Most of the singers were, in the strict sense of the word, second-rate: one notch below first-rate, which is still good enough to enjoy.  The soprano who sang Kundry, Maria Vargas Ruz, was better than that; she didn’t have the absolute purity of tone you need for the most demanding soprano roles, but the role she was singing actually goes better with a little roughness in the voice.

Then there was Michael Bickerstaff. He wasn’t just first-rate, he was world-class, a big barrel-chested young man with one of the best bass voices I’d heard in years. The role of Gurnemanz, the old Grail Knight, is the backbone of Parsifal; a good Gurnemanz can make a mediocre production enjoyable, while an unimpressive one drags like a lead weight on a performance that might otherwise be worth hearing. Bickerstaff was stunningly good; he more or less picked up the show and carried it on his shoulders, and I enjoyed the result tremendously.

The first act flowed past, and the second; Parsifal vanquished the self-castrated sorcerer Klingsor and recovered the Holy Spear; the third act got well under way, and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, and Kundry were on stage, surrounded by a tolerably good suggestion of a field of flowers. The passage that’s called der Karfreitagszauber, the Good Friday Enchantment, started up, Bickerstaff sang Du siehst, das ist nicht so— “You see it is not so”—and that’s when it hit me.

You know how sometimes you can brood over some problem for hours and get nowhere with it, and then when you go do something else for a while and you’re not thinking about it at all, the answer basically downloads itself into your brain? That’s what happened. I’d spent most of the day thinking of just about anything but the paradox Melanie Berger had dropped on me two nights before, and right then I realized that it wasn’t a paradox at all. I managed to drag my attention back to the performance before Bickerstaff was more than a few words further on, and kept the realization I’d just had at arm’s length for the rest of the evening, but it wasn’t going anywhere and I knew it.

Here’s what I figured out. As you might expect, it begins with opera.

These days, nobody listens to twentieth-century opera. That’s not accidental, either—it’s either painfully derivative or it’s impossible to sit through. Once I went to see a revival of one of Benjamin Britten’s pieces, I forget which one, and what I mostly remember was the audience gamely trying to pretend that they were appreciating something that was about as enjoyable as listening to a chorus of dental drills. The standard joke in opera circles these days is that opera companies put on twentieth century works when they’re tired of the inconvenience of performing in front of an audience.

One of my Philadelphia friends, who’s a much more serious opera buff than I’ll ever be, explains it like this. Any art form has a certain amount of notional space to it, and each work done in that space fills up part of it. Before you’ve filled up the space, innovation works more often than not, but after the space is full, innovation just generates noise. That’s why the history of every art gets sorted out into a period of exploration, when you succeed by trying new things, and a period of performance, when you succeed by doing old things very, very well. If you keep on trying to innovate when the notional space is full, the results are either going to be derivative or unbearable, and either way they’re not going to be any good, because the good options have already been taken.

You know that an art is getting close to the edges of its notional space when innovation involves a lot of risk. Wagner was right up against the edges of opera’s notional space, which is why his late operas are so exhilarating—you can watch him tiptoeing right up to the edge of noise and balancing there—but they don’t have the easy grace of operas written a couple of generations before his time. You see the same thing in jazz, starting in the second half of the twentieth century: people like Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck were self-consciously testing the boundaries, figuring out just how far they could go without falling over the edge into noise. Another generation or two, and you get the kind of jazz that nobody bothers to play any more, because by and large it’s just pretentious doodling.

The thing is, it’s not just true of art. Nobody’s pushing brand new alphabets any more, because that notional space got filled in a long time ago. Nobody’s inventing new can openers or bathtubs, and nearly all of what passes for innovation these days in cars, say, is just gimmickry aimed at getting the clueless to shell out money. I knew all that, but it never occurred to me that technological progress followed the same trajectory:  it had its period of exploration and then crossed over into its period of performance, but nobody noticed, and so everyone just kept on buying into the latest innovations, even though most of those had fewer benefits and worse downsides than the things they replaced.

I’d missed that completely.  I’d been wandering around the Lakeland Republic, noticing that the way they did things had better outcomes, lower costs, and fewer downsides than the way people do things everywhere else, and I still didn’t get it. It was as though I’d been listening to an opera by Mozart or Verdi and thinking that the poor people in the audience must be feeling horribly deprived because they weren’t getting Benjamin Britten. Du siehst, sang Gurnemanz, das ist nicht so.

Writing it all out like that, it sounds all clear and straightforward. It wasn’t. There was the first sudden realization while Bickerstaff was singing, and then other details—many more than I’ve written out—came dropping into my mind over the next couple of hours. All the while I was mostly paying attention to other things, such as a really solid performance of an opera I love, and the attractive woman I was seeing it with, and certain other things I’ll mention in a moment, and the things I’ve written were tumbling around in the back of my head. It wasn’t until I was in the cab headed back to my hotel the next morning that I finally sat back and let the whole thing come together into a coherent argument. Long before that happened, though, I’d stumbled straight through the door into a different world.

But again, there was an opera to take in. After the final minutes of the music, when it always feels to me as though the opera house has shaken off gravity and gone soaring into the sky; after the applause—we were all on our feet, and when Michael Bickerstaff bowed I’m surprised the roar didn’t cause structural damage to the building; after the house lights came up at last, and people started filing out, Melanie said, “Season tickets get us into the reception, and there’s someone there I’d like you to meet.”

So we filed out and went down a side corridor; Melanie showed our passes to an usher out in front of an unmarked double door, and in we went. The room on the other side was big and airy, with a mural of scenes from famous operas on one wall, and a bank of tables along the other with champagne and finger food. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and I gathered that the person Melanie wanted me to meet hadn’t arrvied, so we got a couple of glasses and sipped bubbly for a few minutes while more people filed in. Finally, when the room was getting good and packed, Melanie led me through the crowd.

“Janice,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, from Philadelphia—one of Ellen Montrose’s people.” With an impish smile: “And a limited partner of yours. Peter, Janice Mikkelson.”

Mikkelson was maybe sixty, with short straight hair the color of steel wool and a pantsuit that looked plain at first glance but probably cost as much as any of the fancy dresses in the room. She gave me an assessing look as we shook hands, and I said, “To the extent of one share of Mikkelson LLC.”

She laughed. “Not exactly a vote of confidence, but I’m pleased to meet you anyway.” I got introduced to her wife Sharon, a gorgeous Asian woman maybe fifteen years her junior, and we stood chatting for a while about the performance. Mikkelson turned to me, then, and said, “Any chance you have time in your schedule to talk? I’m interested in the possibility of doing business in the Atlantic Republic.”

“I can do that,” I said. “Also, if you don’t mind, I’d be interested in getting your perspective on things here in Lakeland.” She nodded, we both checked our notebooks, and scheduled something for Tuesday afternoon. “Come up to my place,” Mikkelson said. “Some drinks, some conversation, some business—I think it’ll be productive.”

We chatted a little more, and then moved on in the usual way. Not much later Melanie and I were on our way down the long ramp to the lobby and then out to the street, where cabs lined up waiting for easy fares. We took one to her place, a brick row house a dozen blocks from the Capitol, and I walked her to her door. I had a pretty good idea by then of how the evening was going to end, and so it wasn’t any kind of surprise when she gave me the kind of raised-eyebrow smile that means exactly one thing. I went to pay the cab fare, came back to her, took her hand and followed her inside.

In other fiction-related news, the anthology of deindustrial-SF stories set in the future outlined in my novel Star’s Reach is finally, after an unconscionable delay, coming together. I’d like to ask everyone who submitted a story to that project to visit the Meriga Project website—I’ve got a new post up and need some data from contributors. Many thanks!