Last week I listed three articles that prompted me to shift my focus from the ongoing 2016 presidential campaigns to the more abstract aspects of politicizing the Anthropocene, but I did not have time to speak about the articles in depth.
First, let’s define politics. I have a broad choice of dictionary definitions. I chose one that is not cyclical, meaning that it doesn’t include the term politics within the definition. I also avoided definitions that focused on getting a position in government because that would imply that those who already have positions in government are no longer engaging in politics. Here is what I came up with, from the Collins Dictionary:
Politics: “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power.”
Now let’s get back to some key paragraphs of those three articles I mentioned.
- David Brooks’ “The Danger of a Single Story”:
In 2009 the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a fabulous TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” It was about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative: when Africans, for example, are treated solely as pitiable poor, starving victims with flies on their faces.
Her point was that each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity.
American politics has always been prone to single storyism — candidates reducing complex issues to simple fables. This year the problem is acute because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the giants of Single Storyism. They reduce pretty much all issues to the same single story: the alien invader story.
- Eduardo Porter’s “Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change”:
That may sound like a strange question, particularly to readers of The New York Times. Today conservatives are the ones decidedly blocking any effort by the United States to curb its emissions of greenhouse gases.
And yet even as progressive environmentalists wring their hands at the G.O.P.’s climate change denial, there are biases on the left that stray just as far from the scientific consensus.
“The left is turning anti-science,” Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape who as a venture capitalist has become one of the most prominent thinkers of Silicon Valley, told me not long ago.
He was reflecting broadly about science and technology. His concerns ranged from liberals’ fear of genetically modified organisms to their mistrust of technology’s displacement of workers in some industries. “San Francisco is an interesting case,” he noted. “The left has become reactionary.”
Still, liberal biases may be most dangerous in the context of climate change, the most significant scientific and technological challenge of our time. For starters, they stand against the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases: nuclear power.
It is the G.O.P. that is closer to the scientific consensus. According to a separate Pew poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 65 percent of scientists want more nuclear power too.
- Frank Bruni’s “No way to Elect a President”:
With Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s victories in New York, we’re one furious contest closer to the end of this spectacle. But we’ve known for a while now where we’re headed, and it isn’t anyplace good.
American voters are displeased with the candidates they’ve been given. They’re disengaged from the process that winnows the field.
And that process disregards the political center, erodes common ground and leaves us with a government that can’t build the necessary consensus for, let alone implement, sensible action in regard to taxes, to infrastructure, to immigration, to guns, to just about anything.
Make America great again? We need to start by making it functional.
Regardless of how our time officially becomes known – be it Anthropocene or some other name, humanity is in control here. There are 7.3 billion people on Earth, with an ever-increasing GDP per person, and impressively efficient methods of global communication. If we want to implement sustainable development within the next 100 years, global coordination is imperative. Related governance in any part of this system requires careful consideration within the global context.
As I understand it, that’s the point that David Brooks is trying to make and I fully agree. I also agree with Brooks’ depiction of both Sanders and Trump as single-issue candidates, although the single issue is much better defined in Sanders’ campaign than within Trump’s.
The real point is that governing has reached a greater complexity than ever before. Governing bodies must consider global issues as well as local. They must set and implement policies that balance society’s safety and that of our physical environment. Such a feat necessitates considering multiple stories, setting priorities, and being aware of long-term consequences. It requires that scientists be involved in governance as well as that politicians be scientifically literate. For that, we need some major changes in our educational system to promote that sort of bilingualism.
As to Eduardo Porter’s piece, Porter does not restrict himself to climate change. He quotes Marc Andreessen, who generally complains that the left is turning anti-science – not only with regards to climate change, but also issues such as genetic engineering and efforts to increase productivity with robotic tools. Porter cites data from the Pew Research Center on scientific opinions of these issues.
Pew Research has extensive information about attitudes to these issues. In fact, I use it as a resource for the graduate course on Physics and Society that I am teaching. However, science is not settled through polls. Nor, aside from certain exceptions, is government policy. The same reasoning applies to both cases – not everybody starts from the same knowledge base on any of these issues, so not everybody is entitled to the same voice on these issues. This is not a call to reinstitute voting restrictions through literacy tests. For the most part, we vote, not on policies themselves but rather on the people that will introduce and implement these policies. We don’t necessarily have to be literate about the individual policies but we have to be well versed in examining the people that we vote for in terms of the values that they hold in setting and enforcing these policies.
Conservatives are well known for blocking effective efforts to mitigate the climate change brought about by the use of fossil fuels as our main source of energy, but Porter claims liberals have their own biases on this issue. He brings up the example of the left’s broad opposition to the use of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in spite of the fact that it is a carbon-free energy source.
Anybody who remembers the Fukushima nuclear disaster or the Chernobyl disaster (now “celebrating” its 30 years anniversary), however, should not be surprised at the fierce resistance that many have – be they liberals or conservatives, scientists or politicians – to relying on nuclear energy in its present form to be one of our main future energy sources. A broader concern – again, for scientists and nonscientists alike – is the technological proximity between peaceful nuclear energy application and its militarization in the form of bombs. Once again, we must keep in mind multiple stories and how we decide on priorities.
Meanwhile, Frank Bruni’s apparent disgust with the current cycle of the presidential election is based on his perception that everybody is running away from the political center to occupy the fringes on the left and right. We need the “center” to make it a functional government. Well, in a binary system the center is empty unless we have a significant overlap between the two choices. To me, the argument that Hillary Clinton does not represent a central position needs some explanation, unless we are using her gender here – claiming that asking us to vote for a woman as our next president is an extreme position. Here the gender attribute is binary as well – the center is empty (there are no transgender or genderqueer candidates).
I will delve more into the Pew Research trove of data on science and society soon, but will meanwhile keep my eyes out for and my blog open to unanticipated events.