The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

I Can’t Even

6 Comments

There have been a lot of scary news stories of late, things I could talk about relative to climate concerns. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by this wealth of potential topics. Which do I cover first? How do I not fall into despair? That both my dogs are facing major medical issues right now is not helping.

But, in looking through my files, I found the following poem that seems to offer a small bit of comfort. I figure, maybe I’m not the only one who needs it?

And yes, I happen to be the author, so I can confirm that the reference to a large population was meant to imply all the environmental problems that go with a large and resource-hungry human population, including climate change.

Balance-Day

September 23, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Annan invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.

But

there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know

enough.

Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear

may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce

regard.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

6 thoughts on “I Can’t Even

  1. That’s a thoughtful poem. This line jumped out at me, as did others:

    “but these are also people who know we do not know

    enough.”

    Perhaps you’ve hit upon something that is the Achilles heel of the Western intellectual tradition – that of knowledge and the control imperative, which are intimately linked.

    Our paradigm seems to involve the idea that knowledge confers power and control and is always an unmitigated good without exception. If we can only measure ever more precisely and accurately the rate of melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet, for example, then that will be a good thing; it will put us “in control” going forward and optimize some kind of preferred or at least acceptable outcome.

    Even a “dumb savage”, unsophisticated and ignorant, has more wisdom than us! But we have a tradition of disregarding dumb savages…or worse. They’re certainly not invited to any sort of “conversation” at the table, as it were.

    If said dumb savage thinks that their origins have something to do with a mossy rock, a mycelial log, or something to do with a turtle and an island, or that mountains talk and salmon are “people”, we summarily and righteously dismiss and disparage such simple-mindedness.

    But I think the dumb savage – assuming there are any remnants of habitat left after this orgy of destruction we have enacted – will have the last laugh.

    I too studied science, but had a long, kicking and screaming falling out with it after much reflection.

    Damn the periodic table of the elements!

    We should have left well enough alone. Or, we might have sat back around the fire and expressed mere awe and fascination and rejoiced in wonder and mystery. But “we” didn’t . We invented the atomic age, and it has become an existential spectre looming over us. We invented the field of industrial chemistry, and now we worry about the fact that humans themselves, nevermind the trophic pyramid, are routinely ingesting and excreting microplastics and worse.

    Need I go on?

    We need to drop our weapons, declare a cease fire. Otherwise we condemn ourselves to an arms race with our own darker demons.

    My sincere condolences to your dogs…and my best wishes to the sapient apes. Cheers!

    • Thank you! And, in general, you are half right. That is, you are right about part of the scientific tradition, but there is another part of that tradition you should know about. As you may have gathered from the poem, that party was mostly attended by scientists, and they, and others who were not at that party, are part of that other tradition. If you’re up for reading a bunch of scientific papers, I highly recommend reading “Complex Ecology: Foundational Perspectives on Dynamic Approaches to Ecology and Conservation,” edited by Charles Curtin and Timothy Allen. The periodic table of the elements is not involved, I promise, but the book, especially the commentary written by the editors, explores precisely that Achilles heel you refer to–and a developing alternative perspective within the scientific tradition.

      You might also want to check out “The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems,” by Fritjof Capra, and “The Myth of Progress: Towards a Sustainable Future,” by Tom Wessels. Both books are written for a more general readership, making them less of a challenge to read but, in some ways, less radical.

      -best, C.

      • Thanks for your considered response. And thanks for the suggestions – I will pursue them. Admittedly, my comment was a bit of a subjective rant, an opinion, and so my thanks for suffering your way through it. I don’t think it much matters whether I am fully right or half-right or not right at all in the general scheme of things. The emergent inertia driving our apparent fate is considerably larger than my or anyone’s individuality! I am merely seeking clarity for myself through dialogue. And, like many who have been paying attention to our trajectory for the last while (decades?), I readily admit that I am confounded, bewildered and indeed frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult not to sink in to a state of either nihilistic or fatalistic or just plain feckless misanthropy!

        I don’t mean to suggest that science is an irredeemably evil monolith, any more than I would be so foolish as to suggest that “religion” is an irredeemably evil monolith. There is already too much “binary” thinking these days! (And I cannot help but think there is a correlation between it and the rise of the internet.) However, the track record of our transgressions against the natural world and indeed ourselves, aided and abetted and enabled by real, material “scientific discoveries” does warrant more of a critique than seems to be fashionable in this age of the dominance of STEM as the holy grail guiding society’s direction.

        Science is practiced by humans, and humans are, like as not, partial and subjective creatures. They are products of their contexts and cultures in space and time. The misguided “science” of eugenics, with its roots in Darwinism, is a good example of this. Another is the losing battle against microbes. Penicillin seemed like such a good idea at the time! Its benefits were immediate and demonstrable. Despite what we knew about evolution, natural selection and “fitness”, we deployed antibiotics carte blanche and in so doing inaugurated the age of the biological arms race, much to our peril. Did we not realize that the microbes would “fight back”? Any self-respecting and honest epidemiologist would readily admit as much.

        Science is not practiced by objective, disinterested space aliens. There is no “firewall” between scientific discoveries and the values and ethics – or lack thereof – of the rest of society. Science – as one way of pursuing knowledge or “truth” – happens within the prevailing forces of commerce, industry, politics and history. We are long past the age of “maverick” scientists tinkering in curious solitude in their personal and private laboratories. There is a direct line of descent from Darwin to Mendel to Watson & Crick to CRISPRcas9 gene editing. Most science is undertaken by well-funded research teams that span many institutions and the planet itself. Furthermore, what science is practiced is increasingly and almost exclusively the science of the marketplace. Is there money to be made in geoengineering innovation?

        In our own age, science has lost its “innocence”. In the public perception, science is now essentially synonymous with technology. And the conventional understanding, broadcast far and wide, is that technology is an unmitigated good. We’ll worry about the unintended consequences only after the cat is out of the bag, which is to say only after full-spectrum deployment. This strikes me as reckless and arrogant, as it would any seven year old.

        So, I guess the question I am getting at is this: do the two “traditions” of science you speak of have something to do with one being the science of precaution and the other being the science of exploitation? Is it that cut and dry? Because it seems to me that the latter is decidedly winning the game.

        After an overly long response (!), I would like to leave you with a few sources (among many others) that have contributed to my growing skepticism about the role that knowledge-seeking in the form of the present iteration of science has come to play in our culture and society.

        The first would be The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty by William Byers, professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics at Concordia University in Montreal. I read it a couple of years ago and it articulated some of my then amorphous misgivings about science being able to offer “solutions” or “remedies” to some of the seemingly intractable problems that science was largely responsible for in the first place.
        https://press.princeton.edu/titles/9406.html

        The second would be a slim, though dense, little volume called The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment by Neil Evernden, which attempts a deep dive into the paradigmatic paradox of western civilization’s relationship with knowledge and conceptions of nature and the environment:
        https://books.google.ca/books?id=DQONBgAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PT9#v=onepage&q&f=false

        And thirdly – saving the best for last – I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, which seeks to unravel some of the dangers inherent in the folly of Consilience – the notion that science will eventually “explain away” all questions and therefore relegate us to a condition of the absolute tyranny of scientific reductionism. Definitely worth a contemplative read, especially in this era of “faster than expected, worse than thought”.

        https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/wendell-berry/life-is-a-miracle/

        A good place to get a taste of Berry’s encompassing philosophy on science is in this interview from CBC radio that was part of a several-part series entitled “How To Think About Science”.
        https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/how-to-think-about-science-part-8-1.465005

        Much to consider…so little time! Cheers!

      • What a well-considered response to my response!
        Yes, it does matter whether you are right, half-right, etc., because while you are only one individual, so is everybody else, and you do influence the collective consciousness and behavior of the whole. Working through your ideas, as you are doing, is important work.
        To answer your question, I do not think the distinction between the two arms of science is precaution/exploitation, but rather reductionist/holistic. Not all reductionists are incautious by temperament, but they are ill-equipped too anticipate the kinds of things that so often go wrong. The reductionist approach is very good at answering some kinds of questions, but useless for others, and I suspect committed reductionists tend to dismiss those other questions as unimportant. When all you have is a hammer, you ignore everything but nails. Unfortunately, one of the things reductionists cannot explain is life, since life is an emergent property of some types of complex systems. The problem with giving to much authority to people whose philosophic approach predisposes them to ignore life is obvious.
        The public perception of what science is at best incomplete. There are various reasons, and it may be unavoidable. Part of the discrepancy is that it is out of date, being focused on reductionism–which is still alive and well, but systems-based approaches have been gaining ground for decades, in part due to the rise of computers that make rigorous study of complex systems possible.
        You are right that science is not really objective–and that many scientists pretend that it is. Objectivism is the ideal, at least in some contexts, but it is a mistake to think the ideal can be attained. Some scientists know that and take steps to acknowledge their own perspectives and biases. All these things vary from one discipline to another, too. Remember that as destructive as science can be, Rachel Carson was a scientist. Jane Goodall is a scientist. Science gives us tools to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it. Remember, too, that many animals were driven to extinction by non-scientists working before the scientific/ industrial revolution. Destruction does not require science, but effective caution does.
        I’d like to write more but will have to delay. I have things to do. I will check out your book recommendations, especially Wendell Berry, whom I have not read enough.

      • I was reading further in Charles’ book–it’s one of the ones I recommended–and I found a sentence that reminded me of our conversational thread:
        “Complexity-based approaches, rather than promoting reckless misuse of resources, instead invoke the precautionary principle in which much greater care is required in undertaking actions in the face of uncertainty.”

      • Thanks Caroliine,
        For some reason the last two times I logged on to your site my antivirus software flashed alarms saying that the site was “fraudulent” and “do I wish to continue?” Strange. So until I figure out what the problem is, if you want to continue this thread just PM me with the address I think I included when commenting originally.
        thanks.
        Brian

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