Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why we can't understand global warming

An interesting excerpt from George's Lakoff "Don't Think of an Elephant!" 2014.

"Every language in the world has in its grammar a way to express direct causation. No language in the world has in its grammar a way to express systemic causation.

What's the difference between direct and systemic causation?

From infanthood on we experience direct, simple causation. We see direct causation all around us: if we push a toy, it topples over; if our mother turns a knob on the oven, flames emerge. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation.

Any application or force to something or someone that produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation: When causation is direct, the world cause is unproblematic. We learn direct causation automatically as children because that's what we experience on a daily basis. Direct causation, and the control over our immediate environment that understanding it allows, is crucial in the life of every child. That's why it shows up in the grammar of every language.

The same is not true for systemic causation. Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases have to be studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.

That's right, no language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth's atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more drought and fires in other places, and yes, more cold and snow in still other places. The world ecology is a system - like the world economy and the human brain.

As a result, we lack a concept that we desperately need. We need to understand and communicate, for instance, about the greatest moral issue of our times - global warming. The ecology is a system operating via system causation. Without an everyday concept of system causation, global warming cannot be properly comprehended. In other words, without the systemic causation frame, the oft-repeated facts about global warming cannot make sense. With only the direct causation frame, the systemic causation facts of global warming are ignored. The old frame stays, and the facts that don't fit cannot be comprehended."

This excerpt by Lakoff provides some fundamental insight of the problems involved in understanding the climate change issue. It is clear that Lakoff understands very well the concept of "system dynamics;" without a dynamic view of complex systems, it is impossible to understand the concept (and the danger) of the problem. 

However, Lakoff's book is not about climate science, but about communication. Its main thesis is that the apparently simple way concepts are presented in the current political debate is only a reflection of a complex tangle of ideas and perceptions that form people's single personalities. Lakoff maintains that Liberals and Conservatives have different worldviews but that, overall, conservatives have been able to "frame" their worldview in simple snippets that turned out to be more effective than the equivalent attempts by liberals. And it is because of this effectiveness that we see the present increasing polarization in the political scene in the US. 

In my opinion, there is a lot of truth in this interpretation which, however, fails to understand the basic reasons for the increasing polarization. These reasons are deeper and complex as well as I discuss in this post


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)