"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Anti-Intellectualism’

“It’s, um… bad. Really nasty.” : When The End Of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2015 at 8:17 pm
Glaciologist Jason Box, left, at work on the Petermann Glacier on Greenland's northwest coast, which has lost mass at an accelerated pace in recent years. Box and his family left Ohio State for Europe a couple years ago, and he is relieved to have escaped America's culture of climate-change denial.

Glaciologist Jason Box, left, at work on the Petermann Glacier on Greenland’s northwest coast, which has lost mass at an accelerated pace in recent years. Box and his family left Ohio State for Europe a couple years ago, and he is relieved to have escaped America’s culture of climate-change denial

Oldspeak:” Boy I tell ya, Hopium is a helluva drug. Fascinating to see the thought process and disposition that informs the majority of the climate scientists interviewed for this piece. Even in the face of steadily mounting data, evidence, and dire conditions observed, they still cling to the fantastical notions like: “We can solve this problem in a way that doesn’t disrupt our lifestyle” or “I don’t think we’re fucked. There is time to build sustainable solutions to a lot of these things.” or “If I spend my energy on despair, I won’t be thinking about opportunities to minimize the problem.’ /O_o\When you read those thoughts in the context of the reality that civilization is a heat engine, not likely to  de-grow, slow down or stop until all natural resources and capital required for its operation are exhausted and it collapses; at which point lethal clouds of radioactivity from some 400 melted down nuclear power plants will envelop the earth, you understand that hopes for “solving the problem” “sustainable solutions” and “opportunities to minimize the problem” are quite absurd. One went so far as to cite the change in attitudes and acceptance of gay marriage to justify a possible quick change in attitudes and acceptance of mass extinction. As if it’s at all appropriate to compare the impending end of most all life on earth to the socially agreed upon business contract that is Marriage. SMDH… Also found it interesting that some climate scientists express contempt, frustration, disgust and annoyance with climate change deniers, while harboring their own brands of denial.  Sigh… What we are witnessing is an intractably catastrophic calamity that is beyond human scale and ability to affect in any meaningful way. The sooner we accept this, let go of what was, recognize what is and get on with living the rest of our short ass lives, the better off we will be.-OSJ

Written By John H. Richardson @ Esquire:

The incident was small, but Jason Box doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s been skittish about the media since it happened. This was last summer, as he was reading the cheery blog posts transmitted by the chief scientist on the Swedish icebreaker Oden, which was exploring the Arctic for an international expedition led by Stockholm University. “Our first observations of elevated methane levels, about ten times higher than in background seawater, were documented . . . we discovered over 100 new methane seep sites…. The weather Gods are still on our side as we steam through a now ice-free Laptev Sea….”

As a leading climatologist who spent many years studying the Arctic at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State, Box knew that this breezy scientific detachment described one of the nightmare long-shot climate scenarios: a feedback loop where warming seas release methane that causes warming that releases more methane that causes more warming, on and on until the planet is incompatible with human life. And he knew there were similar methane releases occurring in the area. On impulse, he sent out a tweet.

“If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.”

The tweet immediately went viral, inspiring a series of headlines:

CLIMATOLOGIST SAYS ARCTIC CARBON RELEASE COULD MEAN “WE’RE FUCKED.”

CLIMATE SCIENTIST DROPS THE F-BOMB AFTER STARTLING ARCTIC DISCOVERY.

CLIMATOLOGIST: METHANE PLUMES FROM THE ARCTIC MEAN WE’RE SCREWED.

Box has been outspoken for years. He’s done science projects with Greenpeace, and he participated in the 2011 mass protest at the White House organized by 350.org. In 2013, he made headlines when a magazine reported his conclusion that a seventy-foot rise in sea levels over the next few centuries was probably already “baked into the system.” Now, with one word, Box had ventured into two particularly dangerous areas. First, the dirty secret of climate science and government climate policies is that they’re all based on probabilities, which means that the effects of standard CO2 targets like an 80 percent reduction by 2050 are based on the middle of the probability curve. Box had ventured to the darker possibilities on the curve’s tail, where few scientists and zero politicians are willing to go.

Worse, he showed emotion, a subject ringed with taboos in all science but especially in climate science. As a recent study from the University of Bristol documented, climate scientists have been so distracted and intimidated by the relentless campaign against them that they tend to avoid any statements that might get them labeled “alarmists,” retreating into a world of charts and data. But Box had been able to resist all that. He even chased the media splash in interviews with the Danish press, where they translated “we’re fucked” into its more decorous Danish equivalent, “on our ass,” plastering those dispiriting words in large-type headlines all across the country.

The problem was that Box was now working for the Danish government, and even though Denmark may be the most progressive nation in the world on climate issues, its leaders still did not take kindly to one of its scientists distressing the populace with visions of global destruction. Convinced his job was in jeopardy only a year after he uprooted his young family and moved to a distant country, Box was summoned before the entire board of directors at his research institute. So now, when he gets an e-mail asking for a phone call to discuss his “recent gloomy statements,” he doesn’t answer it.

Five days later: “Dr. Box—trying you again in case the message below went into your junk file. Please get in touch.”

This time he responds briefly. “I think most scientists must be burying overt recognition of the awful truths of climate change in a protective layer of denial (not the same kind of denial coming from conservatives, of course). I’m still amazed how few climatologists have taken an advocacy message to the streets, demonstrating for some policy action.” But he ignores the request for a phone call.

A week later, another try: “Dr. Box—I watched your speech at The Economist’s Arctic Summit. Wow. I would like to come see you.”

But gloom is the one subject he doesn’t want to discuss. “Crawling under a rock isn’t an option,” he responds, “so becoming overcome with PTSD-like symptoms is useless.” He quotes a Norse proverb:

“The unwise man is awake all night, worries over and again. When morning rises he is restless still.”

Most people don’t have a proverb like that readily at hand. So, a final try: “I do think I should come to see you, meet your family, and make this story personal and vivid.”

I wanted to meet Box to find out how this outspoken American is holding up. He has left his country and moved his family to witness and study the melting of Greenland up close. How does being the one to look at the grim facts of climate change most intimately, day in and day out, affect a person? Is Box representative of all of the scientists most directly involved in this defining issue of the new century? How are they being affected by the burden of their chosen work in the face of changes to the earth that could render it a different planet?

Finally, Box gives in. Come to Copenhagen, he says. And he even promises a family dinner.

***

For more than thirty years, climate scientists have been living a surreal existence. A vast and ever-growing body of research shows that warming is tracking the rise of greenhouse gases exactly as their models predicted. The physical evidence becomes more dramatic every year: forests retreating, animals moving north, glaciers melting, wildfire seasons getting longer, higher rates of droughts, floods, and storms—five times as many in the 2000s as in the 1970s. In the blunt words of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, conducted by three hundred of America’s most distinguished experts at the request of the U. S. government, human-induced climate change is real—U. S. temperatures have gone up between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees, mostly since 1970—and the change is already affecting “agriculture, water, human health, energy, transportation, forests, and ecosystems.” But that’s not the worst of it. Arctic air temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world—a study by the U. S. Navy says that the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice by next year, eighty-four years ahead of the models—and evidence little more than a year old suggests the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is doomed, which will add between twenty and twenty-five feet to ocean levels. The one hundred million people in Bangladesh will need another place to live and coastal cities globally will be forced to relocate, a task complicated by economic crisis and famine—with continental interiors drying out, the chief scientist at the U. S. State Department in 2009 predicted a billion people will suffer famine within twenty or thirty years. And yet, despite some encouraging developments in renewable energy and some breakthroughs in international leadership, carbon emissions continue to rise at a steady rate, and for their pains the scientists themselves—the cruelest blow of all—have been the targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies. Shortly before a pivotal climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, thousands of their e-mail streams were hacked in a sophisticated espionage operation that has never been solved—although the official police investigation revealed nothing, an analysis by forensics experts traced its path through servers in Turkey and two of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
No scientist has come in for more threats and abuse than Michael Mann, whose “hockey stick” graph (so named because the temperature and emissions lines for recent decades curve straight up) has become the target of the most powerful deniers in the world.

Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.”

Most of the dozens of scientists and activists I spoke to date the rise of the melancholy mood to the failure of the 2009 climate conference and the gradual shift from hope of prevention to plans for adaptation: Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth is a manual for survival on an earth so different he doesn’t think we should even spell it the same, and James Lovelock delivers the same message in A Rough Ride to the Future. In Australia, Clive Hamilton writes articles and books with titles like Requiem for a Species. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the melancholy Jonathan Franzen argued that, since earth now “resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy,” we should stop trying to avoid the inevitable and spend our money on new nature preserves, where birds can go extinct a little more slowly.

At the darkest end of the spectrum are groups like Deep Green Resistance, which openly advocates sabotage to “industrial infrastructure,” and the thousands who visit the Web site and attend the speeches of Guy McPherson, a biology professor at the University of Arizona who concluded that renewables would do no good, left his job, and moved to an off-grid homestead to prepare for abrupt climate change. “Civilization is a heat engine,” he says. “There’s no escaping the trap we’ve landed ourselves into.”

The most influential is Paul Kingsnorth, a longtime climate activist and novelist who abandoned hope for political change in 2009. Retreating to the woods of western Ireland, he helped launch a group called Dark Mountain with a stirring, gloomy manifesto calling for “a network of writers, artists, and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself.” Among those stories: progress, growth, and the superiority of man. The idea quickly spread, and there are now fifty Dark Mountain chapters around the world. Fans have written plays and songs and a Ph.D. thesis about them. On the phone from Ireland, he explains the appeal.

“You have to be careful about hope. If that hope is based on an unrealistic foundation, it just crumbles and then you end up with people who are despairing. I saw that in Copenhagen—there was a lot of despair and giving up after that.”

Personally, though he considers them feeble gestures, he’s planting a lot of trees, growing his own vegetables, avoiding plastic. He stopped flying. “It seems like an ethical obligation. All you can do is what you think is right.” The odd thing is that he’s much more forgiving than activists still in the struggle, even with oil-purchased politicians. “We all love the fruits of what we’re given—the cars and computers and iPhones. What politician is going to try to sell people a future where they can’t update their iPhones ever?”

He laughs.

Does he think it would be wrong to take a transatlantic airplane trip to interview a climate scientist?

He laughs again. “You have to answer that yourself.”

***

All this leaves climate scientists in an awkward position. At NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which early in the year was threatened with 30 percent budget cuts by Republicans who resent its reports on climate change, Gavin Schmidt occupies the seventh-floor corner office once occupied by the legendary James Hansen, the scientist who first laid out the facts for Congress in 1988 and grew so impassioned he got himself arrested protesting coal mines. Although Schmidt was one of the victims of the 2009 computer hacks, which he admits tipped him into an episode of serious depression, he now focuses relentlessly on the bright side. “It’s not that nothing has been done. There’s a lot of things. In terms of per capita emissions, most of the developed world is stable. So we are doing something.”

Box’s tweet sets his teeth on edge. “I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re fucked. There is time to build sustainable solutions to a lot of these things. You don’t have to close down all the coal-powered stations tomorrow. You can transition. It sounds cute to say, ‘Oh, we’re fucked and there’s nothing we can do,’ but it’s a bit of a nihilistic attitude. We always have the choice. We can continue to make worse decisions, or we can try to make ever better decisions. ‘Oh, we’re fucked! Just give up now, just kill me now,’ that’s just stupid.”
Gavin Schmidt in his office at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Box’s dire forecast annoyed him. ‘You don’t run around saying, ‘We’re fucked! We’re fucked! We’re fucked!’ It doesn’t incentivize anybody to do anything.’

Schmidt, who is expecting his first child and tries to live a low-carbon existence, insists that the hacks and investigations and budget threats have not intimidated him. He also shrugs off the abrupt-climate-change scenarios. “The methane thing is actually something I work on a lot, and most of the headlines are crap. There’s no actual evidence that anything dramatically different is going on in the Arctic, other than the fact that it’s melting pretty much everywhere.”

But climate change happens gradually and we’ve already gone up almost 1 degree centigrade and seen eight inches of ocean rise. Barring unthinkably radical change, we’ll hit 2 degrees in thirty or forty years and that’s been described as a catastrophe—melting ice, rising waters, drought, famine, and massive economic turmoil. And many scientists now think we’re on track to 4 or 5 degrees—even Shell oil said that it anticipates a world 4 degrees hotter because it doesn’t see “governments taking the steps now that are consistent with the 2 degrees C scenario.” That would mean a world racked by economic and social and environmental collapse.

“Oh yeah,” Schmidt says, almost casually. “The business-as-usual world that we project is really a totally different planet. There’s going to be huge dislocations if that comes about.”

But things can change much quicker than people think, he says. Look at attitudes on gay marriage.

And the glaciers?

“The glaciers are going to melt, they’re all going to melt,” he says. “But my reaction to Jason Box’s comments is—what is the point of saying that? It doesn’t help anybody.”

As it happens, Schmidt was the first winner of the Climate Communication Prize from the American Geophysical Union, and various recent studies in the growing field of climate communications find that frank talk about the grim realities turns people off—it’s simply too much to take in. But strategy is one thing and truth is another. Aren’t those glaciers water sources for hundreds of millions of people?

“Particularly in the Indian subcontinent, that’s a real issue,” he says. “There’s going to be dislocation there, no question.”

And the rising oceans? Bangladesh is almost underwater now. Do a hundred million people have to move?

“Well, yeah. Under business as usual. But I don’t think we’re fucked.”

Resource wars, starvation, mass migrations . . .

“Bad things are going to happen. What can you do as a person? You write stories. I do science. You don’t run around saying, ‘We’re fucked! We’re fucked! We’re fucked!’ It doesn’t—it doesn’t incentivize anybody to do anything.”

***

Scientists are problem solvers by nature, trained to cherish detachment as a moral ideal. Jeffrey Kiehl was a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research when he became so concerned about the way the brain resists climate science, he took a break and got a psychology degree. Ten years of research later, he’s concluded that consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe. Climate scientists are different only because they have a professional excuse for detachment, and usually it’s not until they get older that they admit how much it’s affecting them—which is also when they tend to get more outspoken, Kiehl says. “You reach a point where you feel—and that’s the word, not think, feel—’I have to do something.’ ”

This accounts for the startled reaction when Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas—who was a member of the group that shared a Nobel prize with Al Gore for their climate work—announced that she’d become “professionally depressed” and was leaving the United States for England. A plainspoken Texan who grew up in Houston as the daughter of an oil geologist, Parmesan now says it was more about the politics than the science. “To be honest, I panicked fifteen years ago—that was when the first studies came out showing that Arctic tundras were shifting from being a net sink to being a net source of CO2. That along with the fact this butterfly I was studying shifted its entire range across half a continent—I said this is big, this is big. Everything since then has just confirmed it.”

But she’s not optimistic. “Do I think it likely that the nations of the world will take sufficient action to stabilize climate in the next fifty years? No, I don’t think it likely.”

She was living in Texas after the climate summit failed in 2009, when media coverage of climate issues plunged by two thirds—the subject wasn’t mentioned once in the 2012 presidential debates—and Governor Rick Perry cut the sections relating to sea-level rise in a report on Galveston Bay, kicking off a trend of state officials who ban all use of the term “climate change.” “There are excellent climate scientists in Texas,” Parmesan says firmly. “Every university in the state has people working on impacts. To have the governor’s office ignore it is just very upsetting.”

The politics took its toll. Her butterfly study got her a spot on the UN climate panel, where she got “a quick and hard lesson on the politics” when policy makers killed the words “high confidence” in the crucial passage that said scientists had high confidence species were responding to climate change. Then the personal attacks started on right-wing Web sites and blogs. “They just flat-out lie. It’s one reason I live in the UK now. It’s not just been climate change, there’s a growing, ever-stronger antiscience sentiment in the U. S. A. People get really angry and really nasty. It was a huge relief simply not to have to deal with it.” She now advises her graduate students to look for jobs outside the U. S.

No one has experienced that hostility more vividly than Michael Mann, who was a young Ph.D. researcher when he helped come up with the historical data that came to be known as the hockey stick—the most incendiary display graph in human history, with its temperature and emissions lines going straight up at the end like the blade of a hockey stick. He was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be “shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.” Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair. In 2003, Senator James Inhofe’s committee called him to testify, flanking him with two professional climate-change deniers, and in 2011 the committee threatened him with federal prosecution, along with sixteen other scientists.

Now, sitting behind his desk in his office at Penn State, he goes back to his swirl of emotions. “You find yourself in the center of this political theater, in this chess match that’s being played out by very powerful figures—you feel anger, befuddlement, disillusionment, disgust.”

The intimidating effect is undeniable, he says. Some of his colleagues were so demoralized by the accusations and investigations that they withdrew from public life. One came close to suicide. Mann decided to fight back, devoting more of his time to press interviews and public speaking, and discovered that contact with other concerned people always cheered him up. But the sense of potential danger never leaves. “You’re careful with what you say and do because you know that there’s the equivalent of somebody with a movie camera following you around,” he says.

Meanwhile, his sense of personal alarm has only grown. “I know you’ve spoken with Jason Box—a number of us have had these experiences where it’s become clear to us that in many respects, climate change is unfolding faster than we expected it to. Maybe it is true what the ice-sheet modelers have been telling us, that it will take a thousand years or more to melt the Greenland Ice Sheet. But maybe they’re wrong; maybe it could play out in a century or two. And then it’s a whole different ballgame—it’s the difference between human civilization and living things being able to adapt and not being able to adapt.”

As Mann sees it, scientists like Schmidt who choose to focus on the middle of the curve aren’t really being scientific. Worse are pseudo-sympathizers like Bjorn Lomborg who always focus on the gentlest possibilities. Because we’re supposed to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, and a real scientific response would also give serious weight to the dark side of the curve.

And yet, like Schmidt, Mann tries very hard to look on the bright side. We can solve this problem in a way that doesn’t disrupt our lifestyle, he says. Public awareness seems to be increasing, and there are a lot of good things happening at the executive level: tighter fuel-efficiency standards, the carbon-pricing initiatives by the New England and West Coast states, the recent agreement between the U. S. and China on emissions. Last year we saw global economic growth without an increase in carbon emissions, which suggests it’s possible to “decouple” oil and economic growth. And social change can happen very fast—look at gay marriage.

But he knows that gay marriage had no huge economic downside, and the most powerful companies in the world are fighting to stop any change in the fossil-fuel economy. So yes, he struggles with doubt. And he admits that some of his colleagues are very depressed, convinced there’s no way the international community will rise to the challenge. He gets into that conversation in bars after climate conferences, always pushing the side of hope.

Dealing with all of this has been a long emotional journey. As a young scientist, Mann was very traditional: “I felt that scientists should take an entirely dispassionate view when discussing matters of science,” he wrote in a book called The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. “We should do our best to divorce ourselves from all of our typically human inclinations—emotion, empathy, concern.” But even when he decided that detachment was a mistake in this case and began becoming publicly active, he was usually able to put the implication of all the hockey-stick trend lines out of his mind. “Part of being a scientist is you don’t want to believe there is a problem you can’t solve.”

Might that be just another form of denial?

The question seems to affect him. He takes a deep breath and answers in the carefully measured words of a scientist. “It’s hard to say,” he says. “It’s a denial of futility if there is futility. But I don’t know that there is futility, so it would only be denial per se if there were unassailable evidence.”

There are moments, he admits, flashes that come and go as fast as a blinking light, when he sees news reports about some new development in the field and it hits him—Wait a second, they’re saying that we’ve melted a lot. Then he does a peculiar thing: He disassociates a little bit and asks himself, How would I feel about that headline if I were a member of the public? I’d be scared out of my mind.

Right after Hurricane Sandy, he was in the classroom showing The Day After Tomorrow with the plan of critiquing its ridiculous story about the Atlantic conveyor belt slowing down so fast that it freezes England—except a recent study he worked on shows that the Atlantic conveyor belt actually is slowing down, another thing that’s happening decades ahead of schedule. “And some of the scenes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy—the flooding of the New York City subway system, cars submerged—they really didn’t look that different. The cartoon suddenly looked less like a cartoon. And it’s like, Now why is it that we can completely dismiss this movie?”

He was talking to students, so it got to him. They’re young, it’s their future more than his. He choked up and had to struggle to get ahold of himself. “You don’t want to choke up in front of your class,” he says.

About once a year, he says, he has nightmares of earth becoming a very alien planet.

The worst time was when he was reading his daughter Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, the story of a society destroyed by greed. He saw it as an optimistic story because it ends with the challenge of building a new society, but she burst into tears and refused to read the book again. “It was almost traumatic for her.”

His voice cracks. “I’m having one of those moments now.”

Why?

“I don’t want her to have to be sad,” he says. “And I almost have to believe we’re not yet there, where we are resigned to this future.”

***

The spring day is glorious, sunny and cool, and the avenues of Copenhagen are alive with tourists. Trying to make the best of things, Jason Box says we should blow off the getting-to-know-you lunch and go for a bike ride. Thirty minutes later he locks up the bikes at the entrance to Freetown, a local anarchist community that has improbably become one of Copenhagen’s most popular tourist destinations. Grabbing a couple beers at a restaurant, he leads the way to a winding lake and a small dock. The wind is blowing, swans flap their wings just off the beach, and Box sits with the sun on his face and his feet dangling over the sand.

“There’s a lot that’s scary,” he says, running down the list—the melting sea ice, the slowing of the conveyor belt. Only in the last few years were they able to conclude that Greenland is warmer than it was in the twenties, and the unpublished data looks very hockey-stick-ish. He figures there’s a 50 percent chance we’re already committed to going beyond 2 degrees centigrade and agrees with the growing consensus that the business-as-usual trajectory is 4 or 5 degrees. “It’s, um… bad. Really nasty.”

The big question is, What amount of warming puts Greenland into irreversible loss? That’s what will destroy all the coastal cities on earth. The answer is between 2 and 3 degrees. “Then it just thins and thins enough and you can’t regrow it without an ice age. And a small fraction of that is already a huge problem—Florida’s already installing all these expensive pumps.” (According to a recent report by a group spearheaded by Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin, secretaries of the Treasury under Bush Jr. and Bill Clinton, respectively, $23 billion worth of property in Florida may be destroyed by flooding within thirty-five years.)

Box is only forty-two, but his pointed Danish beard makes him look like a count in an old novel, someone who’d wear a frock coat and say something droll about the woman question. He seems detached from the sunny day, like a tourist trying to relax in a strange city. He also seems oddly detached from the things he’s saying, laying out one horrible prediction after another without emotion, as if he were an anthropologist regarding the life cycle of a distant civilization. But he can’t keep his anger in check for long and keeps obsessively returning to two topics:

“We need the deniers to get out of the way. They are risking everyone’s future…. The Koch Brothers are criminals…. They should be charged with criminal activity because they’re putting the profits of their business ahead of the livelihoods of millions of people, and even life on earth.”

Like Parmesan, Box was hugely relieved to be out of the toxic atmosphere of the U. S. “I remember thinking, What a relief, I don’t have to bother with this bullshit anymore.” In Denmark, his research is supported through the efforts of conservative politicians. “But Danish conservatives are not climate-change deniers,” he says.

The other topic he is obsessed with is the human suffering to come. Long before the rising waters from Greenland’s glaciers displace the desperate millions, he says more than once, we will face drought-triggered agricultural failures and water-security issues—in fact, it’s already happening. Think back to the 2010 Russian heat wave. Moscow halted grain exports. At the peak of the Australian drought, food prices spiked. The Arab Spring started with food protests, the self-immolation of the vegetable vendor in Tunisia. The Syrian conflict was preceded by four years of drought. Same with Darfur. The migrants are already starting to stream north across the sea—just yesterday, eight hundred of them died when their boat capsized—and the Europeans are arguing about what to do with them. “As the Pentagon says, climate change is a conflict multiplier.”

His home state of Colorado isn’t doing so great, either. “The forests are dying, and they will not return. The trees won’t return to a warming climate. We’re going to see megafires even more, that’ll be the new one—megafires until those forests are cleared.”

However dispassionately delivered, all of this amounts to a lament, the scientist’s version of the mothers who stand on hillsides and keen over the death of their sons. In fact, Box adds, he too is a climate refugee. His daughter is three and a half, and Denmark is a great place to be in an uncertain world—there’s plenty of water, a high-tech agriculture system, increasing adoption of wind power, and plenty of geographic distance from the coming upheavals. “Especially when you consider the beginning of the flood of desperate people from conflict and drought,” he says, returning to his obsession with how profoundly changed our civilization will be.

Despite all this, he insists that he approaches climate mostly as an intellectual problem. For the first decade of his career, even though he’s part of the generation of climate scientists who went to college after Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, he stuck to teaching and research. He only began taking professional risks by working with Greenpeace and by joining the protest against Keystone when he came to the intellectual conclusion that climate change is a moral issue. “It’s unethical to bankrupt the environment of this planet,” he says. “That’s a tragedy, right?” Even now, he insists, the horror of what is happening rarely touches him on an emotional level… although it has been hitting him more often recently. “But I—I—I’m not letting it get to me. If I spend my energy on despair, I won’t be thinking about opportunities to minimize the problem.”

His insistence on this point is very unconvincing, especially given the solemnity that shrouds him like a dark coat. But the most interesting part is the insistence itself—the desperate need not to be disturbed by something so disturbing. Suddenly, a welcome distraction. A man appears on the beach in nothing but jockey shorts, his skin bluish. He says he’s Greek and he’s been sleeping on this beach for seven months and will swim across the lake for a small tip. A passing tourist asks if he can swim all the way.

“Of course.”

“Let me see.”

“How much money?”

“I give you when you get back.”

“Give me one hundred.”

“Yeah, yeah. When you get back.”

The Greek man splashes into the water and Box seems amused, laughing for the first time. It’s the relief of normal goofy human life, so distant from the dark themes that make up his life’s work.

Usually it’s a scientific development that smacks him, he says. The first was in 2002, when they discovered that meltwater was getting into the bed of the Greenland Ice Sheet and lubricating its flow. Oh, you say, it can be a wet bed, and then the implications sunk in: The
whole damn thing is destabilizing. Then in 2006, all of the glaciers in the southern half of Greenland began to retreat at two and three times their previous speed. Good Lord, it’s happening so fast. Two years later, they realized the retreat was fueled by warm water eroding the marine base ice—which is also what’s happening to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Just thinking about it makes him gloomy. “That’s unstoppable,” he says. “Abrupt sea-level rise is upon us.”

The Greek man returns with surprising speed, emerging from the sea like a god in a myth, laughing and boasting. The Greeks are masters of the waters! Pay me!

“I’m gonna give this guy a hundred kroner,” Box says.

He makes sure the tourists pay, too, and comes back smiling. He knows a Greek guy who’s just like that, he says, very proud and jolly. He envies him sometimes.

He leads the way to a quieter spot on the lakeside, passing through little hippie villages woven together by narrow dirt lanes—by consensus vote, there are no cars in Freetown, which makes it feel pleasantly medieval, intimate, and human-scaled. He lifts a beer to his lips and gazes over the lake and the happy people lazing in the afternoon sun. “The question of despair is not very nice to think about,” he says. “I’ve just disengaged that to a large degree. It’s kind of like a half-denial.”

He mentions the Norse proverb again, but a bulwark against despair so often cited becomes its own form of despair. You don’t dredge up proverbs like that unless you’re staying awake at night.

He nods, sighing. This work often disturbs his sleep, driving him from his bed to do something, anything. “Yeah, the shit that’s going down has been testing my ability to block it.”

He goes quiet for a moment. “It certainly does creep in, as a parent,” he says quietly, his eyes to the ground.

But let’s get real, he says, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can’t expect meaningful political change with them in control. “There’s a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system.”

So the darker hopes arise—maybe a particularly furious El Niño or a “carbon bubble” where the financial markets realize that renewables have become more scalable and economical, leading to a run on fossil-fuel assets and a “generational crash” of the global economy that, through great suffering, buys us more time and forces change.

***

The Box family dinner isn’t going to happen after all, he says. When it comes to climate change at the very late date of 2015, there are just too many uncomfortable things to say, and his wife, Klara, resents any notion that she is a “climate migrant.”

This is the first hint that his brashness has caused tension at home.

“Well, she…” He takes a moment, considering. “I’ll say something like, ‘Man, the next twenty years are going to be a hell of a ride,’ or ‘These poor North African refugees flooding to Europe,’ and how I anticipate that flux of people to double and triple, and will the open borders of Europe change? And she’ll acknowledge it… but she’s not bringing it up like I am.”

Later, she sends a note responding to a few questions. She didn’t want to compare herself to the truly desperate refugees who are drowning, she says, and the move to Denmark really was for the quality of life. “Lastly, the most difficult question to answer is about Jason’s mental health. I’d say climate change, and more broadly the whole host of environmental and social problems the world faces, does affect his psyche. He feels deeply about these issues, but he is a scientist and a very pragmatic, goal-oriented person. His style is not to lie awake at night worrying about them but to get up in the morning (or the middle of the night) and do something about it. I love the guy for it :)”

So even when you are driven to your desk in the middle of the night, quoting Norse proverbs, when you are among the most informed and most concerned, the ordinary tender mercies of the home conspire in our denial. We pour our energy into doing our jobs the best we can, avoid unpleasant topics, keep up a brave face, make compromises with even the best societies, and little by little the compartmentalization we need to survive the day adds one more bit of distance between the comfortable now and the horrors ahead. So Box turns out to be a representative figure after all. It’s not enough to understand the changes that are coming. We have to find a way to live with them.

“In Denmark,” Box says, “we have the resilience, so I’m not that worried about my daughter’s livelihood going forward. But that doesn’t stop me from strategizing about how to safeguard her future—I’ve been looking at property in Greenland. As a possible bug-out scenario.”

Turns out a person can’t own land in Greenland, just a house on top of land. It’s a nice thought, a comforting thought—no matter what happens, the house will be there, safely hidden at the top of the world.

Genuine Leisure Is No More: Modern Day Leisure Is Too Much Like Work

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm

Leisure in the ancient world did not mean time off, but was an activity in it’s own right. Illustration: Happiness by Harriet Russell http://www.harrietrussell.co.uk

Oldspeak: “Leisure for us, in other words, is a mere interlude in the productive process, a moment to unwind or recharge before the next bout of work. Indeed, a good deal of modern leisure is indistinguishable from work. We play squash in order to stay fit, party in order to network, invest quality time in our children in order to keep them sweet. No wonder a life of leisure fills us with dread! …. How can we recover genuine leisure? A first step would be to recall the original meaning of the term. Leisure in the ancient world – schole in Greek, otium in Latin – was not just time off work, but a distinct form of activity in its own right. It was what was done freely, for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. Leisure was a privilege of landed gentlemen. Slaves proverbially lacked it, as to a lesser degree did paid labourers, whose waking hours were devoted to servicing the needs of others.

Athenians called work of this sort ‘banausic’ or ‘mechanical’, words suggestive of servility and stultification. “We call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body,” wrote Aristotle, “and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.” -Edward Skidelsky

“We’ve been so perfectly acclimated to the sick society we’ve created, we actually believe we’re NOT DOiNG ENOUGH. More, more, more, we’re driven to do more, more extremely, faster, harder, louder, bigger, swaggier. There is no connection of the infinite growth model & ever more consumption to the exhaustion of all vital resources and by extension life on earth a.k.a mass extinction. How much is enough ‘stuff’? Ask yourself, why are we being told that idleness is to be avoided at all costs; that if you’re not “productive” you’re not therefore valuable.  We must let go of our emotion-backed obsessions to be productive ALL THE TiME.  We must realize that we are not our “productivity”, or the “value” of it. We must stop trying to profit from our leisure. We must just let it be. We must reduce our slave-like connections to our devices; the new overseers, scheduling every second of our lives with some multitasked, partially comprehended, quickly forgotten activities that absorb and degrade our minds. it would do us well to reclaim our humanity, spontaneity, untethered to the matrix selves.  Don’t freely surrender your YOU time to forces dedicated to draining and profiting from your life energy. Don’t let you’re leisure time be privatized by the vulture capitalist forces that pay you to use your life energy for their gain.  Breath deeply. Meditate.  Do Yoga. Disconnect. Focus on powering down and really building and maintaining your vital life energy. Balance your consumptive activities with non consumptive ones. You will heal yourself.  it’s sooooo much better than pills, energy drinks & self-help books. Reject your subservience to the Cult of Productivity.  Resist the savage inhuman slavery that’s being passed off as “success”.  You’ll live a calmer, longer, less stressed, more balanced life.” -OSJ

By Edward Skidelsky @ The Ecologist:

To be without leisure and do everything for the sake of something else, is to be only half alive, writes Edward Skidelsky.

Conventional wisdom holds that we must work more. The unemployed should be employed. People in part-time jobs should be in full-time jobs. And even those in full-time employment should work harder in order to keep pace with the industrious Indians and Chinese.

I think this is topsy-turvy. The great mystery of our time is not that we don’t work harder: it’s that we continue to work as hard as we do. When I say ‘we’, I refer, of course, to the working population. There are many people in our society – the unemployed and partially employed – who would dearly like to work more. But there are equally many people who would dearly like to work less. This is a deeply irrational state of affairs.

The obvious solution is for all adults to work, but to work shorter hours. It is only our devotion to the principle of the 40-hour week that condemns a large (and growing) sector of the population to the grim fate of unemployment.

Wealthy, but not joyful
We belong, let us recall, to one of the wealthiest societies that has ever existed in human history. Yet we have failed to realise the chief benefit of wealth: leisure. This should surprise us more than it does. In the past it was generally assumed that as people became richer they would work less.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes shared this assumption. In his essay of 1929, entitled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he predicted that standards of living in the affluent world would rise between four and eight times over the following 100 years, leading to a decline of working time to 15 hours a week, or just 3 hours a day. Liberated from the burden of toil, ordinary people would be able to share in the spontaneous, joyful kind of existence once the privilege of the lucky few.

I see us free”, Keynes wrote, “to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

Still working 40 hours a week. Why?
Well, it hasn’t happened like that. Keynes got one thing right though: standards of living in the affluent world have indeed risen about fourfold. But hours of work have not fallen anything like as much. Today in Britain we work on average about 40 hours a week (down from 50 hours in 1930), but nowhere near the 15 hours Keynes foresaw. Why?

My father Robert and I wrote a book last year called How Much is Enough? in which we tried to solve this “Keynes problem”. We considered various explanations: the inequalities of power in the labour market, the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth and incomes, and the power of advertising to kindle dormant passions of envy and vanity.

But according to some of our reviewers, we overlooked the obvious explanation for the failure of Keynes’ prophesy. Human beings, they said, want to work long hours, because they are frightened or nauseated by the prospect of endless leisure.

Here is Alasdair Palmer, writing in The Telegraph: “The Skidelskys have nothing substantial to say about boredom – and it is why their analysis is doomed from the start. The reason why most people keep striving long after they have satisfied all elementary needs is not, as the Skidelskys claim, that they mistakenly think that money is the ultimate value. It is simply that striving for it keeps boredom at bay… Boredom is the serpent in the Skidelskys’ garden of idle delights – and you can be sure that, were we ever to achieve it, that serpent would soon eject us from it.

Modern day leisure is too much like work
Now I don’t deny that many of us would be bored by a life of leisure, and carry on working primarily in order to avoid that prospect. But that is only because we do not know what leisure really is, or might become. We talk, revealingly, of ‘taking a break’ over the weekend or over summer.

Leisure for us, in other words, is a mere interlude in the productive process, a moment to unwind or recharge before the next bout of work. Indeed, a good deal of modern leisure is indistinguishable from work. We play squash in order to stay fit, party in order to network, invest quality time in our children in order to keep them sweet. No wonder a life of leisure fills us with dread!

How can we recover genuine leisure? A first step would be to recall the original meaning of the term. Leisure in the ancient world – schole in Greek, otium in Latin – was not just time off work, but a distinct form of activity in its own right. It was what was done freely, for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. Leisure was a privilege of landed gentlemen. Slaves proverbially lacked it, as to a lesser degree did paid labourers, whose waking hours were devoted to servicing the needs of others.

Athenians called work of this sort ‘banausic’ or ‘mechanical’, words suggestive of servility and stultification. “We call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body,” wrote Aristotle, “and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.”

True leisure vs recreation
The Greeks were well aware that slaves and workmen had to rest, perhaps even ‘unwind’ occasionally, but for them that was something altogether distinct from leisure. ‘Recreation’, as we might now call it, was simply the flipside of work, a necessary respite from its pain and constraint. Leisure in the true sense had nothing restorative about it. It took place beyond the work/recreation cycle; it was human activity unleashed from any external purpose.

Leisure could thus be strenuous in the highest degree – far more strenuous than work – without losing its leisure character. The modern identification of leisure with recreation, as embodied in the ‘leisure centre’, simply shows how far the concept has strayed from its original and deeper meaning.

Leisure in the ancient world took many forms. For most Athenians, it was synonymous with athletics and oratory, the conventional occupations of the propertied elite. But for a dissident minority, leisure meant philosophia, love of wisdom – an activity quite unlike the academic discipline that now bears its name. Philosophia was free, open-ended speculation, unconstrained by dogma or money.

Plato contrasted it with litigation, in which the goal is to win one’s case, and win it quickly. (“Law is philosophy on a stopwatch,” said a friend of mine who had recently switched from one occupation to the other.) For Aristotle, philosophy was a celestial activity, the closest we come to the contemplative bliss of the gods.

Not just a Western ideal
Leisure is not just a Western ideal: it crops up wherever a minority is freed from the necessity of earning a living. The Chinese cultivated the arts of leisure with a whimsy absent from the more strenuous Greco-Roman version. Here is Shen Fu, a failed scholar of the early 19th century, reminiscing about happier times: “We would spend the whole day doing nothing but criticising poetry and talking about painting. My friends were like swallows on the rafters, coming and going as they pleased. Yün even sold her hairpins to buy wine without a second thought, because we did not want to give up lightly such a beautiful time and place. But now we are all parted like clouds blown by the wind. The jade is broken, the incense buried! I cannot bear to look back.”

These visions of leisure, Western and Eastern, are in many ways repugnant to us. Aristotle’s gentleman philosophers would have lived on the labour of slaves – “human tools”, as he charmingly calls them – while Shen Fu, a local government secretary, received an income that was almost certainly made up largely of bribes. How can an ideal of life erected upon such murky foundations hold any appeal for us today?

Freedom from drudgery
I share these worries. Yet when all is said and done, what else matters, ultimately, apart from leisure? To be without leisure, to do everything for the sake of something else, is to be only half alive. Imagine a man who works long hours at a boring job to pay the school fees; eats brown rice not because he likes it but because it is good for him; reads books in order to increase his stock of knowledge and culture; and keeps fit for the sake of his ‘erotic capital’.

Such a man is perpetually looking forward to a consummation he can never, in the nature of the case, enjoy. As Keynes put it, “he does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom.” He will die before he has ever really lived.

Nor should we be overly troubled by accusations of elitism. True, some can enjoy leisure only if others dig the coal and wash the dishes, but in a technological age there is no need for those others to be human beings. Mechanical work can, and should, be done by machines. “Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his visionary essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. “On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” We now have machinery sufficient to free the affluent world from drudgery. It is only our failure of political organisation and ethical imagination that holds us back.


Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University, and author, together with his father, Robert, of How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life (Allen Lane).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turning A Blind Eye To Catastrophic Truths In The Age Of Unreality

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2012 at 7:31 pm

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Oldspeak:Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures . . . they may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. George Gerbner  Fear. It is a powerful motivator. It is a powerful captor.  It drives us to greatness & calamity.  It captivates us with ubiquitous illusions of safety, stability & sanity. It plays an essential and ironically unseen part in our refusal to see truths like those imparted by Osho – ‎”Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.” We’ve been socially engineered to not see that which is. To not think, just react. To avoid all that is real. This engineering has one fatal flaw. It has not taken into account the unavoidability of reality and the natural world we are a part of.  It it only a matter of time before we are no longer able to turn blind eyes to catastrophic truths.” “”Ignorance Is Strength”

By Chris Hedges @ Truthdig:

Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification. They trust naively in the notion of linear progress and in assured national dominance. This is what nationalism is about—lies. And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called “screen memories,” those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it. He uses the Oedipus story to make his point. He argued that Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon and the “blind” Tiresias grasped the truth, that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother as prophesized, but they colluded to ignore it. We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured. Steiner describes a psychological truth that is deeply frightening.

I saw this collective capacity for self-delusion among the urban elites in Sarajevo and later Pristina during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. These educated elites steadfastly refused to believe that war was possible although acts of violence by competing armed bands had already begun to tear at the social fabric. At night you could hear gunfire. But they were the last to “know.” And we are equally self-deluded. The physical evidence of national decay—the crumbling infrastructures, the abandoned factories and other workplaces, the rows of gutted warehouses, the closure of libraries, schools, fire stations and post offices—that we physically see, is, in fact, unseen. The rapid and terrifying deterioration of the ecosystem, evidenced in soaring temperatures, droughts, floods, crop destruction, freak storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, are met blankly with Steiner’s “blind eye.”

Oedipus, at the end of Sophocles’ play, cuts out his eyes and with his daughter Antigone as a guide wanders the countryside. Once king, he becomes a stranger in a strange country. He dies, in Antigone’s words, “in a foreign land, but one he yearned for.”

William Shakespeare in “King Lear” plays on the same theme of sight and sightlessness. Those with eyes in “King Lear” are unable to see. Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out, finds in his blindness a revealed truth. “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,” Gloucester says after he is blinded. “I stumbled when I saw.” When Lear banishes his only loyal daughter, Cordelia, whom he accuses of not loving him enough, he shouts: “Out of my sight!” To which Kent replies:

See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.

The story of Lear, like the story of Oedipus, is about the attainment of this inner vision. It is about morality and intellect that are blinded by empiricism and sight. It is about understanding that the human imagination is, as William Blake saw, our manifestation of Eternity. “Love without imagination is eternal death.”

The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote: “The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.” “Let faith oust fact,” Starbuck says in “Moby-Dick.”

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see.

“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” Shakespeare wrote, “Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Human imagination, the capacity to have vision, to build a life of meaning rather than utilitarianism, is as delicate as a flower. And if it is crushed, if a Shakespeare or a Sophocles is no longer deemed useful in the empirical world of business, careerism and corporate power, if universities think a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayek is more important to its students than a Virginia Woolf or an Anton Chekhov, then we become barbarians. We assure our own extinction. Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think.

To think, we must, as Epicurus understood, “live in hiding.” We must build walls to keep out the cant and noise of the crowd. We must retreat into a print-based culture where ideas are not deformed into sound bites and thought-terminating clichés. Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “a soundless dialogue between me and myself.” But thinking, she wrote, always presupposes the human condition of plurality. It has no utilitarian function. It is not an end or an aim outside of itself. It is different from logical reasoning, which is focused on a finite and identifiable goal. Logical reason, acts of cognition, serve the efficiency of a system, including corporate power, which is usually morally neutral at best, and often evil. The inability to think, Arendt wrote, “is not a failing of the many who lack brain power but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded.”

Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival.

“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in “The Brothers Karamazov,” to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.