On the Road Again: Huanacaxtle and Martín

(continued from January 11, 2019 post)

After a few days and a couple of back-and-forths with Seff Ramirez, locating a source of Huanacaxtle near La Peñita didn’t work out, so I tried another tack. I’d seen what appeared to be a tiny carpinteria in Los Ayalas, a small nearby beach town dominated by hotels and condos. I went to the carpinteria on a back street and asked to buy some wood. “No, no tenemos ninguno para vender; debe hablar con Martín en La Peñita.” He described the location of Martín’s Carpenteria y Maderaria (carpentry shop and lumber yard). I got the general area, but graphics always beat language for me.

“Tiene una mapa?” I asked. He drew me one on a scrap of wood. It was accurate to less than a half city block. What I saw there when I found Martín’s shop, the uninformed might consider a wood junkyard – they would have been oh so wrong.

I think that Martín the carpintero, has something, maybe a lot of things, to teach us post-modern corporatized professionals and entrepreneurial elitists in a world gone industrially mad. For now, I’ll just scratch the surface.

Despite my marginal Spanish conversation skills, Martín and I talked for over an hour as he showed me his dirt-floored shop, minimal machinery, and the wood he had stacked everywhere. We discussed wood and life at length.

I lusted for some exquisite 2-inch thick planks of Huanacaxtle more than two feet wide and maybe 15 feet long – absolutely beautiful. But I had no way to transport such a long

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My Huanacaxtle

piece – woodworker’s rule of thumb: never cut a piece of wood unless you need to for what you are making. So I looked for pieces I could fit into the bed of my pickup truck. I picked out a couple of boards that had exceptionally interesting grain patterns. They were a bit longer than my six-foot truck bed, but we were able to fit them in diagonally. I later packed all our stuff on top of those boards for the trip home to Santa Fe.

Martín has a passion for his work like I cannot remember seeing in anyone else. “Madera es mi vida!” he smiled. He had been to many cities in the U.S. earlier in his life, but for the past 50 years, he had been working with wood in his home town, making beautiful furniture, windows, doors, and cabinets from Huanacaxtle and other tropical woods. Martín has definitely “followed his bliss” in La Peñita. He will die one day a contented man. How many of us can say that?

I have a hunch that if we of the industrial-consumer culture had been able to find our bliss, and then follow it, we would not be in the disastrous position we find ourselves in today. Instead, we have followed the ideology of everlasting economic growth, personal acquisitiveness, and national empire building, all at the expense of our humanity. It was a great ride in some ways, for some, while it lasted – and a heavy burden for many more. But it is nearly over now, except for the kicking and screaming.

Now we must figure out how to unwind the industrial leviathan and live at human scale again. This time we have the advantage, if we take it, of immense technical and scientific knowledge. We can even use some of that knowledge to develop new ways to live in harmony with the natural world we may again recognize ourselves as part of. We must construct a new human culture, extending the benefits of the old ways, in order to reintegrate with the living Earth System that once sustained us. To get it right we need to learn from those who still understand the old ways. To achieve that would not be unlike Martín’s life, at least in some very important ways.

Communication, Contagion, and Conspiracy

Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous

Tulipomania

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy,” 1637

collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.

The New Contagion

Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.

Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.

Conspiracy of Concordance

Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.

The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.

Science and Sanity

The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of

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High water coming to Miami soon.

plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.

It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.

It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.

The Eccentric Lipidologist Revealed

What’s a lipidologist? Well, immediately we can see that the term’s Latin roots indicate that a lipidologist is someone who studies lipids. Ah, lipids: the dreaded cholesterol, et al. That seemed simple enough. A friend told me that a lipidologist practiced in Santa Fe, the only one in the whole state of New Mexico.

Okay, it’s a small state, population around 2 million, about half that of the city of Los Angeles, California. Only about 400 lipidologists work in the entire U.S. Why are they so rare? After all, blood lipids are a big deal these days. Interestingly, there is very little information in Wikipedia’s entry on Lipidology.

Despite its simple bad reputation, cholesterol is far more complicated than a mere matter of suppressing “bad” cholesterol and supporting “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream. The drug companies have worked hard to popularize the idea that cholesterol is “bad.” We produce cholesterol in the liver and we ingest it in the food we eat.

So, why do they cast cholesterol in such a bad light? Think drug company profits. I won’t get into the complex disputes over the efficacy and dangers of statin drugs in attempting to control cholesterol in the bloodstream. Or the role statins play in minimizing the risk of plaque building up in the coronary arteries. Suffice it to say, it is not all science.

artery.crossectionPicture to the left is a  Micrograph of an artery that supplies the heart showing significant atherosclerosis and marked luminal narrowing. Tissue has been stained using Masson’s trichrome. As Dr. M. explained, old plaque is scar tissue, and may not necessarily cause such blockage. High performance on a stress test indicates no blockage of cornonary arteries. Unlike new plaque, old plaque does not flake off, risking heart attack or stroke, unlike new plaque. However, both contain calcium, so measures of plaque do not distinguish between the two. So, you can have a very high score for plaque, pass the stress test indicating no blockage, and have low risk. Yet most cardiologists don’t make such distinctions; they just prescribe statins. If my arteries looked like the one in the picture here, I could not have passed the stress test with ease, as I did.

Dr. M. occupies a modest office in the local cluster of medical practices near the only hospital in Santa Fe. When I went to see him, he seemed in no hurry and spent an hour and a half with me. We had a very informative (for me) conversation about heart disease, medical practice, and the flaws of scientific practice in medicine in the U.S., where so many decisions are controlled by the insurance companies and where medical practices are dominated by the drug companies – otherwise known as “Big Pharma.”

When Dr. M. described the complex of bio-chemical, genetic, environmental, and behavioral elements that are involved with the multiple variable factors in the way cholesterol acts, I was impressed. No cardiologist had ever mentioned any of this stuff to me. It had always been a simple, “if your LDL is too high, take [the latest statin drug].” End of story.

The practice of medicine is too often a high-volume assembly-line operation that executes the “standard of care” in conformity to the specifications of Big Pharma and the medical insurance industry. Dr. M. does not play that game. He and a few other practicing medical scientists carefully measure the complex of interacting factors that may be at play in each individual and adjust treatments based on re-testing of bio-chemical and genetic factors and patient characteristics. Such doctors epitomize the scientific practice of medicine.

Medicine, it seems to me, should involve the scientific study and practice of treatments, traditional as well as modern, of potential benefit to patients. It requires carefully testing the efficacy of each treatment for a particular problem and adjusting treatment to the conditions of the individual patient. It is far more labor intensive than simple prescribing pills in accordance with the “standard of care.” I know only one lipidologist, but if he is representative of others in the specialty, then lipidology represents the best practices in medicine.

Lipidology is to the “standard of care” in cardiology as prostate oncology is to the “standard of care” among urologists, who are surgeons.

Fake Everything

With the proliferation of digital sources of “information” and technologies of communication, it seems more and more difficult to determine the difference between fact and fakery. Social media allow just about anyone to post outlandish claims and arguments without a shred of evidence. Fake evidence and false logic proliferate. If it is sensational enough or hits a sore spot for many people, a falsehood or an otherwise meaningless meme may “go viral.”

Fakery is not new, but its access to everyone has exploded with the advent of social media. Critical thinking and the weight of evidence are lost in the process. Powerful elites deny any verified fact that conflicts with their economic or political interests. Fossil-fuel industry campaigns of disinformation about carbon emissions, global warming and the extreme weather events they cause follow the model the tobacco industry used in its public relations campaigns to deny the scientific facts lung cancer caused by smoking cigarettes.

Fake News

Almost any news report today is subject to the accusation that it is “fake news.” The term’s recent growth in popularity may have originated when ‘liberals’ accused Fox News of prevarication when its stories were so biased that they did little if any justice to facts. Of course, the prevalence of propaganda has a long history. Fake news is not new, but it grew rapidly as the institutions of traditional journalism were folded into the entertainment divisions of the major networks and print newspaper sales declined.

The blatant false characterizations of “liberals” by Fox New anchors, and extreme right-wing radio “personalities” while their regular misrepresentations of facts drew mockery and ridicule from “liberal Democrats.” The fake news anchors denied the legitimacy of the “Black President,” with the lies that with the help of “The Donald” became known as “the birther movement.” At the same time, corporate interests exploit the resentments and fears of the declining white working and middle classes by funding the extreme politics and racism of the Tea Party movement, which the Republican Party embraced and began calling its “base.”

Fake President

Unsubstantiated claims, rhetorical tricks, exploitation of fears, and outright lies permeate the speech of the Fake President. Cheating and fakery characterized the entire

Fake President_image, Northern Sun

Image: Northern Sun

business career of the Dangerous Donald. Big lie or small, the Fake President simply repeats falsehoods in the face of publicly verified contrary facts. “Fake President”? Yes. What began as another attempt to gain more notoriety as a “celebrity,” unfortunately resonated with the anger and fears of many Americans. His open pandering to racism, misogyny, and hate brought the neo-Nazis and white nationalists out into the open.

“The system” had destroyed the aspirations of middle and working class white folks through job outsourcing, cultural marginalization, and political indifference. Corporate Democrats and Republicans both contributed to forming the corporate state against the interests of citizens. Each blamed the other for the plight of ordinary people; both were guilty of betraying the people while pandering to wealthy corporate donors. Trumpery arose by effectively exploiting the political chaos of fake democracy.

Fake Congress

Everyone knows that the Congress operates to serve the interests of the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals, not the people. Senators and Representatives feign concern for the people while taking huge bribes in the form of “campaign contributions.” The Supreme Court abetted their corruption by the fakery of defining corporations as “persons” and allowing unlimited corporate money to influence

Inhofe.snowbal.congress_Wash.Post

Senator Inhofe faking climate denial, with the chance of a snowball in Congress. Washington Post photo.

elections. The Republican Party effectively used unfettered funding to influence elections by various forms of voter suppression and propaganda. They ruthlessly gerrymandered minority voting groups out of electoral influence. Russian bots and trolls abetted the chaos of fakery.

The Democratic Party elite, dependent on large corporate and Wall Street funding, stuck with Hillary, the corporatist candidate, suppressing the booming popularity of Bernie, the independent bearer of the old FDR-liberal policies. The desire of many democrats for a female candidate – the logical follow-up to the Black President – conflicted with the resistance to the corporatist party elite. Resentment resulted in many not voting and some even voting for the Fake Outsider, Trump, the master of demagoguery and economic exploitation.

Fake Experience

However, politics is not everything. It is merely a core driver of the fakery of modern life itself. Fake experience proliferates, from fake adventure (theme parks, staged ‘adventure’ vacations, and video games), from fake meaning in consumerism to fake

Virtual.Reality.Woman_The Guardian

Virtual Woman. Image: The Guardian

reality itself (so-called “reality shows” on TV and diverse digital “experiences” that mimic non-existent realities).

The fakery of suburban life, for those who can still afford it, reflects a trained incapacity to live beyond the illusions of the fake domination of nature that characterizes the consumer culture. The real world consists of the complex of ecosystems upon which all of humanity depends, but few recognize for its survival importance. Most remain insulated from real experience.

Revenge of Reality

It is all coming to a head. Reality has a way of eventually forcing itself upon us. We have lost our fake control of our environment, as the laws of physics, chemistry, and bio-systems continue to rule the material world from which we have alienated ourselves.

Growing numbers of people have become aware of their dissociation from reality. They realize at a gut level that the fake realities that digital technology generates are no substitute for the feeling of a warm breeze on a spring day. Reality impinges on illusion.

Growing numbers of IT geeks now carry physical notebooks to write in. Music lovers return to the analog sounds of vinyl records and live music. Children are discovering actual toys again. Who needs a “driverless car”? Smartphones, texting (while not driving), and Facebook are far from disappearing. Nevertheless, reality will continue to insert itself into our abstracted lives and disrupt our digital and social illusions. That is when the denial of reality will dissipate and a democracy grounded in ecological reality will return.

 

The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

old-bridge

Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

Malthus, Mistakes, and Missing the Obvious

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. It is all about scientific ideas or theories that the authors of its many small chapters believe are impeding scientific progress in a wide variety of specialties. The book is called, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015). Edited by John Brockman, the theme is based on the famous quote by theoretical physicist Max Plank (1858-1947) to the effect that a new scientific truth triumphs not by convincing its opponents, but because opponents eventually die off. Opponents of new ideas are usually older than those who come up with them and are usually “believers” in the dominant paradigm of the time. They resist changing their beliefs.

Yes, scientists can hold on to their notions of truth in the face of new evidence or ideas just as vehemently as the rest of us. The idea of inevitable progress is one such idea. We must make our progress, despite the claims of “rational optimists.” We must make progress by facing reality and dealing with it; progress won’t happen just by believing it so. That is what hopeful realism is about.

Most of the several dozen chapters that I have read out of the 285 or so in Brockman’s book are quite thought provoking if not downright enlightening. The chapters range from one to three pages long, ideal for a quick perusal in anyone’s reading room. I began reading way over my head when I was a child; I was fascinated by the graphic illustrations in The Scientific American. I tried to get the general idea, just reading right past complex formulae about which I didn’t have a clue. Well, I was only twelve. Some of the chapters in Brockman’s book gave me a similar feeling: way over my head in any technical sense. But even reading the chapters on topics related to the ephemeral unified “theory of everything” or the “singularity” in theoretical physics, or the idea of infinity and the extent of our universe, I could get the general idea. Anyway, it is all good intellectual exercise.

Of course, I am much more familiar with some of the topics discussed, such as economic growth, about which I have written a number of posts here. IQ is a topic that has always been controversial for me as a social psychologist. Issues around the confusion of correlation with causation have always intrigued me as a problem in research methodology, as has the question of anecdotal versus experimental evidence, and the issue of timing in causal analysis. So, I have enjoyed reading these diverse discussions of controversial ideas in various sciences.

Misreading Malthus

But when I read Matt Ridley’s chapter on Malthusianism, I was flatly annoyed. I had been annoyed similarly many years ago on reading Julian Simon’s claims that extensive economic growth should not raise concerns over resource depletion because it involves improved productivity and that population growth contributes to prosperity, not resource depletion. Ridley, a self-proclaimed “rational optimist,” dismisses the Club of Rome’s “Malthusian tract,” The Limits to Growth, despite the fact that its forecasts have been right on target over the decades since its publication. It has always been amazing to me how some writers can preach their “theories” in the face of mounting and even incontrovertible evidence – e.g., the climate deniers whose outlook on the petro-industrial system is quite similar to that of Mr. Ridley.

But the essence of my irritation is really quite simple. Timing is everything. Ridley obtusely exploits the short-term burst of industrial growth in the West to claim validity to the absurd idea that endless economic growth is somehow sustainable on a finite planet. He conveniently ignores the fact that western prosperity has been achieved on the backs of indigenous peoples across the globe, ever since the first European “explorers” began pillaging their lands and enslaving them. That is more than annoying. The “ingenuity” that turned material resources into capital was and remains grounded in violence perpetrated against diverse peoples and environments almost everywhere.

In predicting a quasi-Malthusian population crisis, Paul Ehrlich had been premature in his book, The Population Bomb, back in 1970, but he was not wrong. Technology did delay the clash of population growth with resource depletion, in large part because economic growth has been mainly confined to the Western industrial nations that have plundered resources from every continent. Population growth has had much less impact on the environment in the “developing” world, despite having been faster than in the West. That is because poor people living under oppressive regimes backed by the western industrial nations, consume very little energy or other resources. Poverty in the third world has been more extreme in part because of the imperial resource extraction from the “underdeveloped” nations that allowed techno-industrial growth in the West. But if the rest of the world had the same rates of consumption as the U.S. and Europe, global resources would have been depleted already. So, technology did facilitate growth in productivity, allowing the West to sustain a short-term prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century. That pattern cannot be sustained and is already showing major signs of impending collapse.

Irrational Optimism

Enter climate disruption, about which Ridley has nothing to say in this short chapter. However, his dismissal in his book, The Rational Optimist, of the not so optimistic forecasts resulting from massive and diverse data sets processed by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide disqualifies him as a “science writer.” Rather, he acts as a propagandist for the naïve optimism that dominates the extractive industrial culture that he so vehemently defends against any evidence that it has problems. His blind faith, not science or evidence, drive his foolish arguments that we have nothing to worry about. If the dominance of favorable ratings by other optimists on Goodreads and Amazon is any indicator, one thing we do have to worry about is the persistence of this a priori optimism in the face of an observed reality we must face if we are to retain any hope of achieving human survival in the next half century.

The mistakes about population growth are not Malthusian as Ridley claims. They are found instead in his myopic “Simonist” ideology of endless economic growth that simply denies the environmental and human impact of profligate extractive capital. The complexities of global demographics today have been given far too little attention. Ridley’s quasi-religious faith in human ingenuity is part of the technophilia that continues to culturally prop up the global capital-growth project. If the destructive trajectory of industrial “civilization” is allowed to continue just a little longer, the forecasts of Thomas Robert Malthus will soon seem understated. They will be mistaken only in the details of the collapse of a global techno-industrial system of plunder that he could not have predicted.

Magical Thinking: It’s Everywhere and Getting More Dangerous

We all labor under certain illusions, some modest and minor, others enormously majestic. Social illusions have always been with us. We tend to think of the myths of “primitive” peoples as illusions and our own beliefs as facts. But that may be the biggest illusion of all. Some of what at first appear to be outlandish illusions turn out to be, on further investigation, valid and useful. Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein come to mind. Their scientific theories were at first dismissed as blasphemous or absurd.

Illusions, Then and Now
For millennia, human groups have labored on the basis of illusions, myths, or stories. Such stories gave them a conceptual framework for making decisions about their lives in the places they inhabited. What seems to confuse us moderns is that the stories on which ancients and “primitives” depended for guidance in their lives seem so fanciful and unreal. Yet they worked. As anthropology eventually figured out, the myths of ancient and indigenous peoples worked for them in their time and place. That is because they were consistent with the conditions of life for those groups in their environments. However little sense they make for us, their structure and content led to useful behavior for the tribe, or group, in the lived environment. However unreal the myths of others may seem in our modern and post modern context, they worked in their time and place.
Today, the stakes are much higher at a vastly larger scale. Many of the myths and stories we believe are increasingly unrelated to the conditions of modern life. The social and environmental conditions of the modern world have changed radically in the last two hundred years. The illusions of any era seem perfectly reasonable to those who believe them. In more stable times, those illusions were relatively stable over time and were consistent with the conditions under which people lived. When they were not, the group that held them in spite of changing conditions died off because their myths failed to lead to the decisions needed for survival.
That’s pretty much where we find ourselves today, except that the scope and depth of changing conditions are worldwide and “mission critical” for human survival. The scary part is that we may very well be wandering down the same path to collapse as the societies of the past that failed to respond to changed conditions because they insisted on holding to the beliefs they had always felt comfortable with.

Science and Magical Thinking
We are very proud of our science, technology, and exploitation of fossil fuel energy, which have produced the conditions and conveniences of modern life. The exploitation of fossil-fuel energy has allowed an overabundance of new and entertaining products the world has never before known. We pride ourselves on our reasoning, our “rationality.” But in many ways such pride rests on illusions that can kill us.
Then there are the utterly foolish notions of those anti-scientists such as Senator James Inhofe.  In the face of mountains of evidence from all over the world for human caused global warming, Inhofe declared it all “the greatest hoax.” Inhofe’s magical thinking is, of course, closely tied to the oil and gas interests that support him.
The very science and technology that has for a very short historical period allowed us to live in relative luxury, have produced conditions that are disrupting the earth systems upon which we rely. But our industrial culture has failed to inform us of the dangerous environmental and social trends that have resulted from our extractive massive-waste producing economy.
Instead, the most important element of science itself, skepticism, has been suppressed by the culture of consumerism brought on by the economic domination of society by the corporate state. It is relatively easy to manipulate a population that is mostly unable to engage in critical thinking by encouraging and directing magical thinking. One of the key components of magical thinking is the ignoring of evidence – the Inhofe syndrome. In contrast, critical thinking is attuned to the many forms of illusions that marketers use to convince us to buy buy buy – both products and politics. Reasoning on the basis of evidence overcomes the untruths of magical thinking.

The Growing Danger of Magical Thinking
Magical thinking results from the capacity to ignore evidence in determining one’s beliefs. It is able to override both facts and logic in order to arrive at a comfortable belief that relieves the believer of the responsibility to critically judge all claims to knowledge. Magical thinking overrides facts and ignores logic in order to retain the comfort of believing that, for example, dire circumstances that may require us to make difficult decisions simply do not exist. We don’t want global warming to disrupt climate, damage crops, raise the sea level, and cause long term droughts, or produce resource wars, etc., etc. It is easy to ignore ominous facts if you allow magical thinking to shape your beliefs. The relief from responsibility is a powerful unconscious motivator.
The short term economic interests of some giant corporations are for people to not believe the overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate disruption. Exxon-Mobil paid the same marketing and public relations propagandists that had helped the tobacco industry deny the harm done by cigarettes, to plant all sorts of “climate denial” disinformation in the mass media. Continued magical thinking resulting in “climate denial” puts us all at grave risk.