Thursday, July 4, 2019

In Praise of Themis

"Few people have the imagination for reality."
~ von Goethe

"Never underestimate the human capacity for denial."
~ moi

1. Consciousness and Denial
In tandem with consciousness, humanity developed a deeply embedded penchant for denial. It's a terrific survival strategy that evolved to help blind us to the pain of animals we hunt and eat, the terror of the victims of wars we wage on our neighbors, the monstrosity of slavery, the injustice of male chauvinism, the senselessness of death, and ultimately the fearsome gaping maw of meaninglessness in the vast unfeeling universe.

Our denial, entrenched in our genes, also enables - even requires - us to believe fantasies, to embrace spirits, to shun truth, to subscribe to the illusion of free will, to follow charlatans, and to pretend our hopes and prayers can shape reality.

Take a recent example. The CNN headline reads: "633 divers collect over 1,500 pounds of trash at a Florida beach -- and set a world record" while further along we learn that "Divers came from as far away as Europe and South America to participate in the event". You have to be through the looking glass to see this as a net win for the environment and yet this, and the current obsession with plastic straws, is the typical myopic depth of understanding of our colossal planetary overshoot.

I thank Alan Cree, who shared this painting, with its implicit allusion to the quote from Democritus “Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well”.  The "laughing philosopher" often expressed ridicule for the follies of humans, which he regarded as mostly an unthinking atomic collection. 

Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind (1896)
~ Jean-Léon Gérôme


Fact: there exists no natural mechanism that will slow the acceleration of anthropogenic global heating in any timeframe useful to life on earth. It is only reasonable to expect that it's going to get hotter and hotter, faster and faster, for at least hundreds of years. Even if anthropogenic emissions cease today or in a decade, heating will still increase at an accelerating rate. Amplifying feedbacks such as albedo and forest die off and methane release from melting permafrost combined with the longevity of CO2 already released assure an uninhabitable climate in the fairly near future.

Once you understand that greenhouse gases will continue to trap energy from the sun as long as they persist, everything else - climate sensitivity and latent ocean warming and inertia in the system - is so much hoohah. The idea that technology yet to be invented will remove CO2 is no better than a religious tenet, and it will never be deployed at a scale that matters given the vast quantities that have already been released (and continue to be released).


Innumerable articles, studies, and books have been published detailing how humanity has run out of time, and again and again the deadline is farcically pushed ahead so we still have decades, or at least, now, a few years, to turn the tide. In one article from 1989, "A senior U.N. environmental official says entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000...He said governments have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control."
In an interview in March this year, meteorologist Nick Humphrey put it succinctly:
"I do not think it is possible to transition to a net-zero carbon emission civilization within a decade. The idea itself is simply absurd because it would require basically returning to a pre-industrial society with none of the benefits which came from building the society provided by fossil fuels. There are some economists and environmentalists who believe you can have “green growth” but such growth leads to further environmental destruction as population and energy demands continue to grow exponentially...there is already much damage in the pipeline."
     "At 500 parts per million of equivalent carbon dioxide concentration, enough greenhouse gases are currently in the atmosphere to ultimately warm the planet 4-5 degrees C/7-9 F above 1700s temperatures, raise the sea level by 220 feet/67 meters (assuming 1 ppm CO2 equivalent = 1 ft sea level rise, based on past longer-term paleoclimate change response), remove significant amounts of soil moisture, leading to the destruction of agriculture. And this is without any other carbon releases or feedbacks. Building more in an attempt to maintain civilized society with high energy consumption makes this all worse."

3. Humans are incapable of change

As convincing as the physical effects documented by science are, it's also and crucially ever more irrefutable that humans are simply not equipped to behave any other way than to grow without voluntary restraint, until we deplete the resources we need to survive, and overwhelm the environment with pollution until it is so toxic that it is poisonous to virtually all forms of life. We are basically an invasive species with no more self restraint than yeast.

This is where even the most dire voices about climate change often err.  It's not libertarianism, or capitalism, or western civilization that has led us to this predicament - rather it is humanity's exponential growth, in numbers and complexity, in technological capability, medical advances, and consumption.  The imperative to grow and consume is primordial and we cannot eliminate that biological trait despite our desire to believe in free will.

Over a year ago Harvard professor James Anderson was quoted in Forbes as saying we have five years to save ourselves. Of obstructionists he said, "I don't understand how these people sit down to dinner with their kids...because they're not stupid people." And this is why chemists and physicists and geologists who study climate shouldn't ignore evolutionary biology and ecology.

Doomers know that more and more precise information will not inspire "action" on the part of politicians or influence public sentiment to vote for politicians who endorse "action".  It's well established that people don't base their actions on intellectual arguments. They base their intellectual arguments on emotions, and emotions are based on the inchoate but overwhelming urge to grow. So even people who are "not stupid" will not be swayed by rationality.  

Most people may never be able to acknowledge this perfectly obvious trend, which has been in existence since we first went into overshoot in our warm cozy niche in the tropics and were forced to migrate outward, and to colonize inhospitable terrain - driving dozens of species of unprepared megafauna to extinction as we expanded, while deforesting swathes of territory with stone axes and fire. We've been destroying ecosystems since we climbed out of trees and first found rocks so useful to throw and smash.

I don't expect the sentimental majority will ever be able to acknowledge this dystopian view of human "progress". Even most self-proclaimed doomers leaven the horror with some form of Woo, generally with spurious references to mythical utopic, egalitarian indigenous hunter-gatherers.

3. Who are the doomers?

Doomers (doomours, doomists) come in various stripes, some devoid of any hope, some clinging to one or another path towards survival or a least a cosmically moral salvation.  A few years ago there was a conversation among some subset of the online array of climate/ecological pessimists/realists about how to label ourselves, and no satisfactory unifying word was found.  Catastrophists, Cassandras, collapsniks, alarmists, ecopocalypsists and other monikers were considered and rejected. Lacking a better designation, I made the DoomForDummies site five years ago, which I discussed on a Collapse Chronicles interview in December.

Of course since then the evidence of imminent disasters on many fronts - the sixth mass extinction, habitat destruction, pollution of myriad types, peak water, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, extreme weather infinitum - has vastly increased, making the trend towards collapse of civilization (at the very least) an outcome more difficult to ignore, and more challenging to pretend that humanity will rectify the damage even assuming that's still possible.  The tragedy is playing out on television and computer screens, which has catapulted the small but growing cadre of doomers from our private corners of the internet into the public light like never before.

4. Apocaloptimists attacking doomers - as worse than deniers 

Overwhelming evidence - that impacts are faster and sooner than predicted, that tipping points have been irrevocably crossed, that amplifying feedbacks are beyond human influence, that global warming is run amuk with no natural mechanisms or magic technology to ameliorate inexorable heating - is leading more people to conclude that civilization (if not our species and most others) is doomed. Right now, there is an increasingly vocal contingent who are vigorously attacking the nebulous doomer community.

Much of the sniping and scapegoating begins with the hostile accusation that doomers, merely by existing, are encouraging inaction. This is patently absurd, since inaction has been and remains the default position ever since humans first noticed that burning fuel has consequences. No contribution by doomers towards defeatism accounts for the ever-increasing Keeling curve that measures CO2 concentrations, or the refusal of governments to meet climate treaty goals.

Still, this parochial view has engendered a more virulent and frequent backlash against those who have borne witness to the inevitability of collapse, and even very prominent Celebrity Climate Scientists and Activists have joined the rampage to bash doomers with numerous epithets and accusations ranging from Nihilism to hedonism to cruelty, bolstered by distortions and lies.

Take one opening salvo from a 2014 blogpost by Michael Tobis, who went to inordinate lengths to disparage an academic refugee who is relatively obscure although well known to the doomosphere, Prof. Emeritus Guy McPherson.

A commenter there noted with pithy acumen:
Apneaman says:
March 14, 2014 Since you first wrote about McPherson, I have been trying to figure out why? Why burn up energy on someone with such a small following? At first I thought it was jealousy or anger at losing followers to him. That's not it. No I think it's frustration. You have spent your entire adult life studying climate change and trying to warn the powers that be and the general population and no one really listened. In fact things have only gotten worse. The world just keeps burning everything it can to make stuff we don't need. De-forestation, soil loss, peak everything, etc, etc, you know it all. Nothings changed and no one listened, nor will they ever. Maybe McPherson and his gang of "dangerous" doomers are a fight you can win. Hell there must be at least 20,000 people listening to him. If you can just stop his message, somehow that will stop the insanity of the other 7 billion mass consumers. Good luck with your new dragon.
A typical attack is an essay by Wen Stephenson, reviewing Volmann's book Carbon Ideologies, in which he sanctimoniously decries the conclusion that it's too late to avert catastrophe and lists all the wonderful accomplishments of climate activism. What he fails to include is that emissions continue to rise, population continues to grow, consumption levels continue to increase...and physics doesn't care how many people turned out for a pipeline protest. He ends with this pusillanimous snark:
"Unfortunately, many of the sort of educated, literate folks Vollmann is writing for don’t seem to understand all this. Or maybe they don’t want to understand. Perhaps they prefer to look away. It’s so much easier to tell oneself the game is up, that nothing can be done, that nothing ever could have been done, so why bother? It’s perversely comforting to wallow in tragic-ironic guilt over one’s carbon complicity, using it as a pathetic excuse."
In The Nation he writes of Bill McKibbon's latest book, " affirms him as among a very few of our most compelling truth-tellers about the climate catastrophe and the ideological forces driving it—most notably, in his account, the hyper-individualist, Ayn Randian libertarianism of the Kochs and free-market true believers."

This blame game is rampant and represents a form of desperate bargaining - if we can point fingers at corporations, or capitalism, or modern consumerism, then maybe there is some solution. But they never get close to advocating substantive action, because they know perfectly well that people would never support the kinds of revolutionary policies that would be required - such as, no flying, ever, for anyone; no long distance shipping; no military; a world population reduction plan; rationing, etc.  This is articulated in "The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse", a satiric but ironically and unintentionally accurate spoof by Ted Nordhaus:
" has become fashionable to call for a World War II style mobilization to fight climate change. But virtually no one will actually call for any of the sorts of activities that the United States undertook during the war mobilization—rationing food and fuels, seizing property, nationalizing factories or industries, or suspending democratic liberties." 
"The vagueness and modesty of the Green New Deal is not proof that progressives and environmentalists are closet socialists. It is, rather, evidence that most climate advocates, though no doubt alarmed, don’t actually see climate change as the immediate and existential threat they suggest it is."
...Or, maybe it's because they know damn well the public will never acquiesce to the extreme sacrifices that would be necessary - and they worship the dogma of technological miracles. Miracles, by definition, don't happen in the real world.

Faith in technology and an endless supply of limited resources underlies hope and is exemplified in the following passage from a NYTimes article titled "Maybe We're Not Doomed After All" based the absurd premise that the abomination of geoengineering will save us, because *it will have to*.
"In the past few years, some commentators have warned that modern society’s faith in technology has led to a mistaken belief that it will save the world. They embrace solutions that encourage widespread behavioral changes, like consuming less, traveling infrequently and adopting a plant-based diet. We’re likely to need both technological and personal transformations. But in the end, it’s technology that will save us, not only because it can but also because it will have to."
5. No fun

Unlike well-funded professional deniers, never mind legions of the willfully ignorant and uninformed, genuine doomers are vanishingly rare creatures.

As pointed out in the Guardian by Dana Nuccitelli, it's rather pointless to revile doomers for the failure of climate policy when we are such a tiny proportion of those who take the threat of climate change seriously, and have virtually no influence anywhere - especially compared to professional deniers funded by multinational corporations.  Most doomers are acutely cognizant of their personal impact on the earth and exercise great efforts to be conscientious, far more so than the average person. It's ludicrous to suggest that doomers are in even the remotest way responsible for political inaction on climate issues, since much of the electorate is voting for fascist exploitative governments quite happily, of their own volition.

An especially pernicious assertion by this "shoot the messenger" crowd is the common claim that doomers are secretly desirous of a catastrophic end for humanity. I doubt there is a single doomer who finds any comfort whatsoever in either the inevitability of extinction or their own individual role in it. Every doomer I've ever interacted with, and there have been many, has agonized and mourned - and some have even gone crazy with grief and guilt and committed suicide. It's not fun being a doomer, which is why there are so few of us.

Many doomers began as former devoted progressives, who fought long and hard before awakening with enormous ambivalence to the sad verity that humanity is not going to change. I personally learned about the tenacity of denial the hard way, first from trying to alert the world to the death of trees (a massacre that seemed perfectly obvious to me over a decade ago but invited unending ridicule) and second, from encountering so many "light" doomers - who will forever remain convinced, no matter how much archeological evidence refutes it, that the noble primitive and peaceful and sustainable indigenous savage was ever really a thing.

This is me, back in the days when I thought there was a chance homo eradicatus would wake up to self-inflicted ecopocalypse and do something to prevent it.

2010, NASA-Zombie Alliance Climate Change Apocalypse Rally
with James Hansen in Washington DC

September, 2011 - Occupy Wall Street

Grist Magazine: Behind the scenes at a big mountaintop-mining protest August 2012

6. The taboo - violating hope

A fundamental reason for the mountains of scorn being heaped upon doomers is the sanctity of hope in human culture. Hope is often sacred even to secularists, who put their faith not in god(s) but just as fervently in technology and human ingenuity. The hopeless doomer is an affront to their beliefs and is usually received with anger, resentment, and insults.  I have been asked with tedious regularity why I don't just kill myself, since I have no hope. When I respond - if I had a diagnosis of terminal cancer, would you expect me to kill myself right away? - that is generally when the conversation ends.

Doomers usually have gone through prolonged periods of political activism, personal carbon foot-print reducing exercises, and then become pariahs, often losing friends and family who decide we are at best deluded and at worst insane or evil.

All such designations seem fodder for mainstream activists and scientists to castigate our loosely coordinated ranks as little better than "death cults".  Unfortunately and inevitably, there IS a contingent of conspiracy theorists who are best ignored.  But it is utterly inaccurate to assail every person who has concluded, following extensive study, observation, and searching, that human civilization is nearing its expiration date as being desirous in some perverse way for a global catastrophe, or of being misanthropic.

~ George Frederic Watts, 1886

from The Paucity of Hope - Wit's End July 2014

The painting at the top of this essay, Hope, was the subject of a lecture where it was described as a "study in contradictions".  That academic talk was attended by the pastor Jeremiah Wright, who in turn used the painting as the focal point for a sermon in 1990, which was attended by a young Illinois State Senator, Barack Obama.  Aspiring to the presidency, he took the title of the sermon as inspiration for a book and the campaign slogan that turned out to be so hollow, "The Audacity of Hope". In his sermon, Wright concluded that "...hope is what saves us." I would submit that Hope, while once a useful trait, is what has condemned us, because we literally cannot see the cliff as we dance off it.  Instead of celebrating the failed audacity of hope, it might be prudent to contemplate, in the time we have left, the paucity of hope - because the most we can realistically hope for, trapped by forgone conclusions, is to vanquish fear...and find the grace of acceptance.

7. Who is Themis

And that brings me to the title of this post, In Praise of Themis. The term "doomer" and its relatives has a pejorative connotation, but until a friend (Malcolm Waugh, thank you!) brought the Greek goddess Themis to my attention, I had never found a better substitute.

Every culture has traditional cautionary tales but the Greeks are particularly splendid, perhaps because their deities embody the same flaws that characterize the humans who invented them. They can be shortsighted, vain, greedy, foolish, venal, lustful, narcissistic, and cruel.

Particularly relevant at this time of fossil fueled overshoot is the account of Prometheus, who enraged Zeus by giving humanity the gift of fire.  Another especially resonant account is that of Pandora's Box from which escaped the peculiarly double-edged sword, that of hope - the promise; the curse. When hope enables denial, it becomes dangerous.

Pandora's Box
Walter Crane

Like any complex legend shrouded in ancient time, the attributes of Themis are myriad and sometimes contradictory, with multiple interpretations of her role.  For my purpose, which is to embrace her prescience, her courage and her wisdom, I rely on these interpretations listed in wiki:

Themis is "...the personification of divine order, fairness, law, natural law, and custom. Her symbols are the Scales of Justice, tools used to remain balanced and pragmatic."

"The ability of the goddess Themis to foresee the future enabled her to become one of the Oracles of Delphi, which in turn led to her establishment as the goddess of divine justice." 

"Some classical representations of Themis showed her holding a sword, believed to represent her ability to cut fact from fiction; to her there was no middle ground."
"In the play Prometheus Bound, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, Themis is the mother of Prometheus, and gave him foreknowledge of what was to come." [of course!]
And also this passage, From Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion  ~ Jane Ellen Harrison (1912).
'The Greek word Themis and the English word Doom are, philology tells us, one and the same; and it is curious to note that their development moves on exactly parallel lines. Doom is the thing set, fixed, settled; it begins in convention, the stress of public opinion; it ends in statutory judgment. Your private doom is your private opinion, but that is weak and ineffective. It is the collective doom, public opinion, that, for man's common convenience, crystallizes into Law. Themis like Doom begins on earth and ends in heaven. On earth we have our Doomsday, which, projected into high heaven, becomes the Crack of Doom, the Last Judgment' (483)."
So I will no longer refer to myself as a doomer, but rather as a Themist - which to me, means struggling for the capacity to endure the unbearable lightness of being, that great paradox of being human, to have the knowledge that we are hurtling towards the Endocene but can do nothing to slow the see our death looming and to realize it cannot be face the soul crushing tragedy of the horrendous truth that our fate is sealed - and like Democritus, still be able to laugh.

Hope in a Prison of Despair
~ Evelyn de Morgan

As the essence of gallows humor, I will end with a special version of I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues by Elton John (lyrics below) as shared by fellow doomer-now-Themist Andrew Beck:

To celebrate Mike Mann's elevation from Chief Climate Whiner to Chief Climate Fucktard, I have composed a ditty in his honour. 
And I guess that's why they call us doomours - El Ton John

don't wish us away
don't look at us like we're forever

Between you and me

I can honestly say

that things can only get doomier

So quit being a troll

dust out the denial inside

And it won't be long before you and me run
up that hockey stick we've denied
And I guess that's why they call it the blues
Time on my hands - I'm on twitter with you
dealing with children
why do we bother?
responding to blunders
but we're not your Mothers
And I guess that's why they call us doomours
Just debunk deniers
And stick to the science
silly Mann,
live for each second, without any bargaining
And throw all your toys out the pram
Learn some respect!
Cry in the night if it helps
But more than ever
learn to simply love Gaia
more than you love tweeting yourself
And I guess that's why they call us doomours
Guy's out of our hands
We spend time outside doom
loving like children
dooming like lovers
the end is yonder,
you've lost your cover -
And I guess that's why they call us doomours

Blog Archive

My Blog List

Search This Blog