Sunday, April 3, 2011

AST and the Climate Change Denier

In a recent post on Greg Jericho's blog, a commenter posed this question: Why are right wing loons so hostile and narrow minded towards the concept of anthropogenic warming? I mean Alan Jones is a very intelligent guy, I don't get it.

There are various answers to this, some of which were canvassed in comments. Eg its just a stick to beat the ALP with. Another good insight was the general difficulty conservatives seem to have with the concept of being part of an environment, not lords over it. Someone then pointed to an article on the ABC's Unleashed website which gets closer to the truth: everything is a moral issue to a conservative which in this case short-circuits any further thought, in essence its a worldview in conflict with reality. It's an almost Buddhist point of view, recognizing that your invented self affects your immediate reaction to reality before your conscious control of your thoughts and emotions.

But let's posit the AST angle here. AST isn't specifically concerned with Judeo-Christian morality (it wouldn't be a balanced theory if it was. Authoritarianism is a cross-cultural disease as well as cross-political philosophy), but we have to recognize that the bulk of deniers are older, white, conservative and generally self-identifying Christians. The prime directive of every authoritarian is "it is (or is not) written." It is not written in the Authoritarian bible to give authority outside the tribe, and the Authoritarian tribe is often anti-scientific. In general it doesn't matter what the scientific theory is, the bigger the potential pain, the less likely the authoritarian is going to accept it. And they're going to refuse to accept it even if the worst predictions are coming true around their ears, that's an authoritarian hallmark. You only have see the example of the Catholic Church, which takes centuries to wake up and smell the coffee; by the time they turn around even non-Catholics find it difficult to believe they've changed their minds.

Borrowing freely from the abovementioned posts, I posit the following Authoritarian anti-AGW schools of thought:

  • Refusal to accept the methodology. This is more or less an attack on scientific method itself, because it is a competing authority: not a terribly original idea since it's been the last-ditch defense of flat-earthers and creationists for over a century. This I see as the core intellectual authoritarian argument vs AGW. Its cleverness is chiefly in exploiting the percieved weaknesses of authority in the scientific community: peer review, data integrity, and always, always language. It matters very much to authoritarians not just what is written but how. It's also a rigorously hypocritical stance: authoritarians care nothing for integrity or the respect of peers or any language that conflicts with their need to control and be controlled.
  • Refusal to accept the concept of man affecting his environment. This is a classic illogical authoritarian position. On the one hand, they'll trumpet man's ascendancy over the earth as given from God, on the other they'll claim how impossibly small and weedy we humans are and how big and practically infinite the earth's resources are instead. Obviously it can't be both. The whole "man is smaller than the earth" argument ironically borrows all sorts of Lifeboat Earth flimflam from popular cosmology, so take a lesson from that, the authoritarian will use
    argument if it fills in the gaps. At the same time, the earth is there chiefly for whatever the hell we want, get out of the way. The most cogent argument in favour of AGW is simple long-term self-interest, but its not an argument to the taste of the economic authoritarians, who rather someone else's money be used to pay for it all. This is the basis of the typically pragmatic authoritarian argument against AGW. It's the most cynical use of conservative culture to feather one's nest in effect. The Protestant work ethic which began as a benign attempt to wed individual morality with the Industrial Revolution is thoroughly debased. These are the people who pay the sock puppets and astroturfers and all those dire Denier blogs.
  • Survival of the fittest/law of the jungle/dark forces vs light. Where would we be without authoritarian paranoia? This is a related issue, the use of fear to control the flock by positing that its a bad place out there. Which God gave man to control. Which apparently he doesn't because Bad Stuff Happens. Given the self-sealing logic of this, authoritarian arguments against AGW ranges from personal politics to full-blown conspiracy theories about cabals of Satan-worshipping Greenies about to destroy civilization. Authoritarians would like you also to believe that this is a contest of ethics: it's nothing of the sort, that's a chimera of the authoritarian worldview. As evidenced from the conspiracy theories, their greatest fear is of being supplanted by a competing authority, not fake communism. But any fear will do if you need to marshall your non-thinking minions. I would typify this as the emotional authoritarian argument against AGW. These are the people who comment on those Denier blogs and try to infest the rest of the media.

The modus operandi is clear. The hallmark authoritarian business of organized astroturfing is in full swing: here in Australia we've had the pathetic spectacle of shock-jock organized marches with embarrassing support from political figures. The pictures from the Canberra march on Grog's blog say it all: the beautiful one next to Tony Abbott encapsulates point 2 & 3 better than anything else you'll read. Getting an authoritarian to see that its just as much in the interests of energy companies to further this rubbish can never work because they've already bought the moral arguments, as paltry as they seem. Add the anti-scientific mindset to the often faulty commonsensical approach to reality and you get stupid angry people who fail to see the irony of using science-based technology to rant at scientists. I appreciate Tim Dean's sentiments but we're dealing with people with an institutionalized mindset who've been told that the science is all wrong. By people who benefit from the very same science.

For me, that is the core weakness in the non-conjoint set of authoritarian and AGW. The Protestant work ethic bolted on to the new world of industrial processes has given way to a cynical exploitation of people's self-image. It's hard to believe that its only been a century and a half and somehow we live in a world where you are your work and labour economics ensure that you'll behave to keep that work. Most of us don't think about the use of power over large groups of people, but its been the central concern of authoritarians since the industrial revolution woke them up to potential mobs in large numbers. When you ponder the mass violence of the 20th century it feels as if for a while the amateurs were in control, but that's a sideshow compared to the economic story.

Our economics is dominated by the cheap and easy and that's understandable human nature. Another facet of human nature is an unwillingness to stretch our time horizon beyond the comfort zone of a lifetime or so. This is a problem of scale, often brilliantly exploited in subtle ways. It's cheap, easy, and noone is going to worry about the long-term problems because we'll be dead with all the money by then. This has been exploited to the extent that people have died in great numbers due to entirely preventable diseases caused by industrial processes known to be harmful. This kind of systematic exploitation is now threatened by a tsunami greater than that which washed over Japan recently. A tsunami that demonstrates the short-term thinking of cheap and easy industrialism. It's a very difficult proposition to accept, and very unlikely to be accepted until both these facets of human nature collide, with catastrophic results for some. And that results for some part is the most cynical part of the authoritarian calculation.

When we talk about unsustainable economics, we're really talking unsustainable for most. The authoritarian appeals to the common delusion that it never happens to you, but you've already accepted that by accepting the authoritarian ideology, so you never see the trick. If you're wondering how people can fall for this kind of thing, remember you're looking with 20/20 hindsight, and more importantly, from outside the flock. We have corporations we can blame instead of the people running them, we have costs of business to point to instead of finding processes that give us useful byproducts too.

Believe it or not, there are industrial processes that are more sustainable, they're just not popular with vested interests. These interests bought into those processes on the promise that they'd be printing money not spending it. They're understandably making vague threats to governments even thinking about regulation, which again is the point of the so-called carbon tax legislation. It's not there to tax the common person (another authoritarian canard. Easier to make you feel guilty about that lightbulb than improve energy sources), its to get the industries off the hook for unsustainable practices and back to printing money. The same industries that need you to pay more for the same thing you paid for yesterday. I'm not just pointing the finger at energy companies, the entire edifice of Western industrialism is infected with the same short-termism spiral. There are no perfect solutions, but the argument that we needn't look is what is unsustainable.

The authoritarian mindset coupled with an anti-AGW agenda is proving most lemming-like.

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