Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Saturday, October 15, 2011

I believe it because it is absurd



Climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber is threatened with a noose while giving a lecture. (link to the video).  Are scientists our new enemies, the target of a new crusade? 


At the beginning of the third century A.D., Tertullianus, champion of Christianity against Paganism, gave us a startling revelation of the breakdown between the old and the new cultural vision. He wrote something that we remember today as, "Credo quia absurdum" that is, "I believe it because it is absurd." These are not exactly Tertullian's words, but this sentence nicely summarizes his thought. Tertullian was using absurdity as a weapon against the old paradigm. He was an apostate, a revolutionary, a subversive.

Rethinking about those ancient times, it is impressive to note how similar they are to the paradigm breakdown of our times which is often expressed in terms of what we call "conspiracy theories". Up to no long ago, the breakdown against the old cultural vision was expressed in complex and structured ideological forms: communism or socialism for instance. But what we are seeing now is nothing structured or complex. It is simply  the denial of everything that could give the impression of being "scientifically demonstrated". From chemtrails to climategate, we see the spreading of an attitude based on the concept that "if it is science, then it is a hoax." If Tertullian were alive today, his search for the creative absurdity would be expresses,  perhaps, maintaining that the planes flying above us are spreading terrible poisons over the atmosphere or that the idea of that human produced CO2 is warming the planet is an elaborate hoax designed to frighten us.

It is weird; sure. But for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist. That is true also for conspiracy theories, now and in old times. At the time of Tertullian, the material prosperity of Rome and of the Romans was often seen as the result of the favor of the Pagan Gods. When this prosperity disappeared, it was a shock: the old Gods didn't favor Rome any more. The result was a movement of ideas that saw the ancient gods as "evil," just as those people who kept worshiping them. We remember the story of the pagan philosopher, Hypatia, killed and dismembered by an angry mob. That happened a couple of centuries after Tertullian, when the break between the new and the old paradigm was not any more the domain of isolated subversives; it had become a wave of rage - a true tsunami.

Today, we find symptoms of exactly this kind of breakdown; of a tsunami of rage mounting in our society. Think of our prosperity: we tend to attribute it not to Pagan Gods but to our technological prowess. We worship the ability of scientists to create new and better machinery. We tell each other that any and every problem can be solved by scientists inventing a clever way out. Not enough oil? Let's drill deeper, invent better biofuels, create nuclear fusion in a bottle. Not enough food? Let's invent new fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, new pesticides. Pollution? Let's have new and better filters for car exhausts and incinerator smokestacks. Cancer? Soon we'll have the magic pill that cures it.

But now something different is happening, something unheard before. The scientists are telling us that there are no quick fixes for problems such as resource depletion and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That the more we grow, the more the problem gets serious. That we risk wiping out humankind from the planet by doing exactly the same things that we have been so proud of being able to do, so far. That we need to change our ways before it is too late.

It is the complete breakdown of the old paradigm. For most of us, it is totally disorienting to hear that we did everything wrong, and to hear it told by very people, the scientists, who had shown us how to do what we have been doing. That can only be seen as a betrayal and there is no wonder that the rage mounts against those treacherous, unfaithful, evil scientists. Such stories as the "Climategate" are signs of this rage. It is a terrible rage, something that cannot be explained except by the loss of a common frame of thought. It is a society that is losing the master-pupil relation. That is, losing wisdom, sapience, auctoritas.

When people lose wisdom, the easiest way out appears to them to find an enemy, Our new enemies seem to be the scientists. We haven't seen yet climatologists being lynched by angry mobs, as it happened to Hypatia long ago - but we seem to be getting close to something like that.  The rage of those people whom we call "conspiracy theorists" is still at the formless stage of denial of everything, but it may well develop in forms that we might describe as some sort of a new crusade where, this time, the enemies are the scientists. It would not be the first time that scientists become the target of political movements, from the times of McCarthyism in the US to the "Cultural Revolution" in China. Those movements eventually subsided, but maybe we haven't seen the anti-science rage appearing in full force, yet.

The transformation of the Roman Society from paganism to Christianity took centuries and involved all sorts of violent struggles until it settled into a new paradigm and a new sapience. A thousand years after Tertullian, the world saw that flowering of thought that we call scholastic philosophy; which involved rediscovering the old sapience and merging it with the new. We are seeing today the start of a new cycle and, in time, we will have to rediscover a new sapience and a new auctoritas. What we see today obscurely, as in a mirror, then we'll see face to face.

(thanks to Ludovico Pernazza for pointing out a mistake in this text; now corrected)

10 comments:

  1. Very insightful article, as usual Ugo.

    The pagan Gods of Rome didn't have direct practical impacts. If a province rejected the gods, hypothetically, but the supporters outside the province didn't realise then it wouldn't make much of a difference. Our 'faith' in Science does have direct impacts. People should be more critical but they should also realise that the modern world depends on knowledge and the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge. There are always more problems to be solved, perhaps even life threatening. You can try a brute force approach (minimal knowledge, maximum expenditure of resources) or you can understand the problem and use subtlety (maximum knowledge, minimum use of resources). We can't do the former any more. As Lord Rutherford, the physicist, is reputed to have said: "We haven't got the money so we will have to think." These days not only don't we have the money, we likely wont have the energy or a lot of other hard resources.

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  2. Maybe the rage is about something else. Most climate scientists claim it is both possible and relatively painless to reduce CO2 emissions. All it will take is political will. As per Timothy Garrett this is untrue. Any meaningful CO2 reduction with require a proportional reduction in wealth. And given the design of global financial system, this wealth reduction will be amplified by the same leverage we used to achieve our current illusory status. I suspect the masses sense this truth and are angry at the climate scientists for not coming clean on the true nature of our predicament. We not only need the truth, we need the whole truth.

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  3. Rob, you are right, but it is a no-win situation. I think people sense the truth, but they don't want to hear it and they have this negative reaction whatever scientists say. Call them catastrophists or too optimistic, things don't change so much

    The only way for a scientist to become a hero for the public is to promise a solution that won't work. From hydrogen to the recent case of the "E-Cat", people making exaggerated claims seem to be always able to find enthusiastic followers.

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  4. Ah.... about people becoming aggressive, I found this interesting comment in a discussion about the "e-Cat" It is directed at those who doubt about the device and the writer claims that they should be killed for their "religious beliefs" (intended as being "high priests of established institutions").


    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/10/nyteknik-information-on-rossi-energy.html#comment-330237358

    All this parading around donning the colors of "science" by the high priests of established institutions, is essentially painting a big bullseye on their chests, saying: "Shoot me please!" This is especially ill-advised given the fact that not _all_ of the young men returning from the middle east, where they have killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, are so disabled by brain concussions and emotional trauma that they want to commit suicide. I mean if you want to do the job right -- you should make sure are _all_ of the military personnel you tried to exterminate in service of your religious beliefs, are unable to think straight enough to pull a trigger. It only takes one, well trained, sniper or suicide bomber.

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  5. Dear Ugo, some people view peakoilers as "conspiracy theorists". As you can see, you can be both shooter and shooted. It's not easy to swim in the sea. ;-)

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  6. Ugo
    I too enjoy your posts, but this is an especially memorable and important insight on your part.

    I was not too puzzled by the industrialized parts of the world not doing much about reducing reliance on fossil fuels because of the threat of climate change, but I was and still am alarmed by the more organized attack on climate science. Some clever tricks: "Because you can not tell us for absolute sure that the changes we see are because heating is already happening, it is obvious that you do not know enough. You are by implication likely wrong in the longer term." I know persons with PhDs in science from Oxford who support this view or have a more sophisticated 'take' on 'natural variation' and 'feedback' such as variation in water vapor and cloud cover. (One of these friends completed a successful career in the oil industry. He has in his case 'got' Peak Oil', though, and 'believes' in nuclear power, ).

    We still have a large proportion of people, elites and followers, who still believe in 'technology'. I can still hear Tony Blair's last words regarding the rapidly declining UK NG supplies from within the North Sea; firstly just one word: "Norway", then on being further pursued by the questioner; "Technology". No need to bring in 'science', though Blair had previously referred to climate; "If what scientists tell us is true ...", other than more generally, a bit of hand waving towards such as 'large hadron colliders' or 'magical' IT tools - GPS systems in our cars for example. No contradiction it seems in their eyes; there is just technological progress on the one hand and 'inadequate scientists' or 'hoaxers' on the other?
    Or we 'blame' the increasing numbers of poor people (only 1.4 billion of the 7 billion in the world actually significantly use much fossil fuel?) as an obvious 'real threat'?

    best
    phil

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  7. Dear Ugo Bardi,

    I just posted (in haste) an information about our group on your blog in Italian.

    I appologize for inconvenience.

    I hope you will excuse me and will research the pmaterial at www.condition.org

    Yes you are right about the predicament of scientist who sees that general public is going crazier and crazier in the desire to see "all problems go away"

    I hope when you read the material at www.condition.org you will see that this situation is neither bad nor good and upcoming "population bottleneck event" (in the words of George Mobus) is merely a selection event.

    As much as we may not like the rebalancing whereby only the top of the aristocratization structure continues into steady-state trully sustainable socio-economic system of the not so distant future (100 - 500 - 1000 years from now) it is inevitable and is outside of our control

    What is well within our control is how our individual efforts are alighed with the subspeciation of homo sapiens into homo cogitans who will govern itself not thru primitive democracy and capitalism but thru dirigiste heurism - a fully "sapient" government towards which the current socio-economic system is evolving.

    It is extremly important that the seed group of scientists who understand dirigiste heurism is formed sooner rather than later.

    The count is in the days and months since the sooner the group forms the sooner institutionalization engine can begin working on it and the more of the uncorrupted resource/environment will be available to homo cogitans.

    It may very well be that if we form a group within the next 5 to 10 years as opposed to next 20 to 50 years the difference in sustainable population may be expressed in millions instead of thousands. (Jack Alpert of www.skil.org recently calculated that the planet can sustain only 38 millions at north american life-style-and-quality - an overshoot of a factor 200)

    Looking forward to hearing from you,

    Respectfully
    alex todorov
    for dh group

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  8. "I too enjoy your posts, but this is an especially memorable and important insight on your part."

    I'll second that. I particularly liked the analogy with the Pagan Gods during the Roman empire.

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  9. Alex, thanks for your comment. I have seen your site; it is clear that we are moving in a direction that is taking us towards something utterly different than the past. What exactly this destination will be is impossible to say; the only thing certain is that we are moving there after having carefully blindfolded ourselves. So, thanks for the attention to my site; I hope we'll keep in contact.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)