Climate for Change, June 22
Sheltering in place
During the global Covid-19 crisis many states have been advising or requiring their citizens to ‘shelter in place’. This means – stay at home except when it is essential for you to leave it to get food or health care (or provide food or health care). Some states have closed their borders to all but their own nationals returning home, and some essential immigrant workers.
The environmental impact of so many people staying at home has been largely positive. Greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and associated air pollution dropped dramatically once people stopped going out for work, school, shopping or social events. Wildlife has flourished close to urban centres, and even in them, and it has been quiet enough in cities to hear the birds singing. There has been a mighty turn towards producing more food at home, for those with private or public garden space to do it. Also towards preparing food at home, for those with adequate kitchens.
All of the above has also been good for human health, as has taking regular exercise in the home neighbourhood rather than driving to gyms or distant parks. So it is sad to see the rush back to the ‘old normal’ (which some people now call the ‘old crazy’). Pollution levels are starting to rise in places where motorised transport is back in use for daily life, junk food chains are back in business, and stress levels on humans and nature are rising.
Does it have to be this way? If governments can ask (nay, require) people to shelter in place during one kind of crisis, why can’t they do it for the much bigger crisis – the climate crisis – which is also sweeping the world? Such sheltering would not have to be anything like as extreme as pandemic sheltering. Leaving the house daily for hours at a time would be quite acceptable. What would not be acceptable – and this is what is driving the climate crisis – would be using fossil fuels to push human consumption and mobility beyond planetary limits. The essentials – food, housing, clothing, health care – would be produced within the limits of each and every bio-region to provide them without harming the climate, biodiversity, water quality and the other limits to growth.
Some reasons why governments might not be keen to adopt such a policy – and are indeed pushing their feet down on the gas pedal instead of on the brake (to coin what I hope will soon become a very old-fashioned metaphor) – are explored below.
Sheltering knowledge in place
For those who grew up with easy access to digital means of finding and storing information (which is a majority of those born in a well-off country from the 1980s onwards) it is probably hard to imagine what it was like before such access, let alone imagine that it will not and can not continue to grow at the rate it is currently growing. It is also hard for such people to know that there was time before providing ‘information’ was elevated above storing and accessing knowledge as the main purpose of libraries and librarians. The writing was already on the screen in the 1980s when Theodore Roszak wrote the first edition of his discerning and prescient book The Cult of Information, and it has only got worse since.
Past civilisations lost the knowledge stored in their libraries when they were invaded by hostile forces, who literally burned the libraries down. The enemy knew full well what it wanted to achieve by this, which was to destroy one way of recording and understanding the world, and replace it with another. An Other which might include illiteracy. These days the attack on stored knowledge is far more insidious, and can come from within the state which formerly protected it. This is currently the case in New Zealand, where last year the management of the National Library informed the minister in charge that over half a million books which were published outside New Zealand, and have been the major part of the library’s store of knowledge, are now all redundant to national requirements and have got to go – and she signed off on this plan.
It is claimed by management that these books (most of them from the twentieth century, and some from the nineteenth) can and will be available digitally, should anyone ever wish to consult them. This is not true now, and never will be true. Even if it were desirable, which it is not. In key bullet points below I cover the ways in which real books have always been and will always be economically and environmentally superior to digitised books.
A time of global crisis (viral and climatic) is the worst possible time ever to stop sheltering the nation’s books in place. Certainly not all of them will be worth keeping, but what stays and what goes should be decided by those capable of assessing their quality as knowledge and art, not by managers whose only interest is in so-called information. When these crises have reached their peak – and neither has done so yet – it will be obvious that what we can have protected now is all we can and will have in the future. Read on for why that should be books, not digital devices.
The economic superiority of real books
A printed book is a one-off cost and if made of quality materials and stored correctly will last for centuries and require no further expenditure. A digital book currently requires regular upgrading of storage and retrieval technologies to remain readable, which is an ongoing expense.
A printed book can be read without needing to purchase any technologies for reading it, or having to buy reading software, or having to pay for access to readable versions on line. A digital book requires someone to do at least two of the above.
Under the current American copyright law, new editions of mid-late twentieth century books are not being published in any form, including digital. They will not be eligible to be published digitally until copyright expires, so the original print edition(s) of these books will be the only ones in existence for decades to come. (See The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish, Rebecca J. Rosen
July 30, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/the-hole-in-our-collective-memory-how-copyright-made-mid-century-books-vanish/278209/)
When copyright expires, who makes the decisions on which books to digitise? And are their decisions more likely to be influenced by commercial or cultural considerations?
The environmental superiority of real books
The production of printed books is far more environmentally-friendly than that of digital books. The paper and inks printed books are made from can be and in many cases are currently produced sustainably, from properly managed forests, from other plants, and by recycling. In contrast, the computers, tablets, e-readers and smart phones required to read digitised books are made largely from non-renewable mineral resources, most of which are mined and processed in extremely destructive, toxic and energy-intensive ways.
The energy required to make printed books and store them correctly is insignificant compared to the energy required to store and retrieve digital books in and from data centres. By 2025 the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for around 3 percent of the total worldwide carbon emissions (more than global aviation) while by 2040 storing digital data is set to create 14 percent of the world’s emissions – around the same proportion currently being emitted by the whole of the USA in 2020. (Why data centres are the new frontier in the fight against climate change, Charlotte Trueman, 10 August 2019 https://www.computerworld.com/article/3431148/why-data-centres-are-the-new-frontier-in-the-fight-against-climate-change.html)
Printed books require no exterior energy source to be retrieved from a shelf and read. Digital books require exterior energy sources for retrieval and reading.
Printed books can therefore be produced and used without having a negative impact on the climate, whereas replacing them with digital books will further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
The disposal of printed books is also much more environmentally friendly. When a printed book reaches its use-by date it can be recycled, or burned or composted at home, and thus not enter the waste stream. Digital or e-waste, on the other hand, currently amounts to
c. 50 million tonnes globally per year — an amount greater in weight than all of the commercial airliners ever made — of which only about 20% is formally recycled. (See https://unu.edu/news/news/world-ewaste-statistics.html)
A place for telling the truth
Libraries have traditionally been places where sources of ‘truth’, or ‘facts’ are found, published in books written by experts on the subjects covered, from Animals to Zoology and everything in between. Depending on the library, the books can be at the lay person’s level (public libraries), or be very specialised (university and other higher education libraries).
In his 2017 book for lay people The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Tom Nichols sets out the recent history of the systematic discrediting of reputable scientists and others with expert knowledge by powerful (and extremely well-financed) right wing ‘influence mills’. This is now well-documented by others with regard to climate science, and other areas of bona fide environmental research and expertise. Further, since the rise of unregulated and irresponsible social media in the past decade there has been a concomitant rise in vicious personal attacks on experts, and on the spread of dangerous alternatives to real expertise, of which the President of the USA claiming that hydroxychloroquine prevents or cures infection by the Covid-19 virus is but one of the most spectacular and egregious.
It is easy for a well-educated person to identify and call out such blatant nonsense, but just how good are the educated at sussing out and rejecting more subtle forms of untruth? Not necessarily very good, as Paul Hoffman, a former editor of science magazine Discover, found after a number of his April Fools Day articles in the 1990s were accepted and shared as true by readers. (Read about it at Why Are Smart People Some of the Most Gullible People Around?) He even fell for one in another magazine himself. But at least he did himself no harm that way. This was not the case for Stephen Greenspan, a professor of educational psychology who was swindled out of his savings by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Greenspan went on to write a book (Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It) on the subject.
The problem – when it becomes one – starts with something which people of all levels of education and intellectual ability share – being part of a group and going along with group norms and beliefs. Most of the time this is a very ordinary and sensible thing to do, especially for children still learning about what can do harm and what can be helpful. But when it comes to the intricacies of the physical nature of the world, and the functioning of humans and their societies, group intuition or consensus is often worse than useless.
Nor does it seem helpful (to those who just want to know what is true) that scientific experts seem to keep changing their minds, and revising former ‘truths’. Or that scientists are just as subject to ‘group think’ as anyone else, and have a dark history of decrying and even persecuting some of those who propose new theories of reality which are at odds with the dominant paradigm. Or that the mainstream media are just as likely as social media to give platforms to idiots who lay claim to knowledge or expertise which they do not have. I am very glad that the New Zealand government listened to the scientists who said to lock down the country to reduce Covid-19 cases and deaths, rather than the one who got media coverage saying that Covid-19 was no worse than seasonal flu and NZ should take the relaxed approach Sweden was taking.
In this case, the outlier scientist was being influenced by a different kind of group think than his peers. A libertarian politicial and economic group think, rather than a virus science group think. Which brings me to the place of the truth about climate change in societies which have been dominated by neoliberal politicial and economic group think for several decades now. According to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, in an interview with Scientists for Global Responsibility, senior climate scientists are now exhibiting “an emerging preference for spinning an appealing but increasingly misleading yarn about what is needed to meet our various climate commitments.”
Anderson thinks that “… many of those who should know better have even begun to believe their own delusionary tales. The enthusiastic and almost unquestioning support by many academics for the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC UK) ‘net zero’ report, or ‘not zero’ as I prefer to call it, exemplifies how we’re prepared to forgo analysis and integrity to maintain politically-palatable fairy-tales of delivering on Paris.”
In private, however, some of these same scientists have been telling Anderson for years that
“… there’s no hope of staying below 2 degrees centigrade, that we’re heading to three or four degrees.” What Anderson finds most disturbing, is that “… many of those who previously had told me, away from any microphones, that 2°C was not viable, are now coming out in support of meeting 1.5°C. Worse still, they repeatedly point to idealised technical solutions, yet often with little understanding of either the technologies or their practical delivery, let alone the timelines for making wholesale shifts in technologies and associated infrastructures.”
He goes on to say that “Typically it is more senior academics and others who hold these conflicting public and private positions. Whilst such deception is often very well meant, it nevertheless reflects a deep arrogance. They are basically saying, I’m a sufficiently clever person, that I can judge what is politically or not viable, and therefore by massaging my assumptions I can provide politically appropriate conclusions. Such arrogance is widespread.”
This analysis tallies perfectly with what the stage magicians referred to in Hoffman’s article say about the fallibility of scientists, viz: “Magicians often say scientists make the best audience because they think they’re too smart and observant not to trust what they see with their own eyes. Ricky Jay, the sleight-of-hand master, told 60 Minutes that “the ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners….They often have an ego with them that says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’ No one is easier to fool.”
So when the Extinction Rebellion movement makes one of its three core demands on governments to ‘tell the truth’ (about climate change), what chance is there that this could possibly happen? Would it not be a better strategy for XR and other climate action groups to concentrate on making sure that the truth is told by every other means possible, since governments captured by neoliberal group think and advised by self-censoring scientists are never going to do it. Such activist organisations also need to start working in and with their neighbourhoods to do what needs to be done – which no government currently in power is ever likely to do for the climate crisis, as some governments have done for the coronavirus crisis – and that is to shelter in place.
To shelter or not to shelter a statue in place? Who decides?
In recent weeks statues of wealthy and powerful men around the world have been coming to grief. Some have been forcibly removed by people protesting against racism and exploitation, while others have been taken down by local authorities and removed to a safe place until their fate is determined. Some have been or are being protected by strong coverings and/or police guards. In London, bands of football hooligans and other far-right yobboes have gathered to ‘protect’ them.
(If statues could think, they could be thinking “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”)
In a recent post (Toppling the statues. What about the real blights on our landscape?) on the Public Good website, Jan Rivers says that the old money and the powerful institutions the men represented in the statues are still with us and are “not going anywhere no matter the fate of the statues.”
She continues “… we are exorcising the memory of an older set of imperialists at the very same time that the newer set of the white male establishment – Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, Graeme Hart, Larry Page, George Soros … and their ilk (who are not/not yet memorialised in stone in our parks and squares) are buying our present and implementing policies and norms that are by no means part of the popular will.”
These guys probably won’t get statues, but in 2016 San Francisco’s oldest and largest public hospital was renamed Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital after Zuckerberg and his wife made a $75 million donation to cover 7% of the cost of a new acute care building. Contemporary ‘philanthro-capitalism’ has been quite well-documented in several books and numerous articles and naming rights seem to be the ‘new statues’ when it comes to memorialising the current top dogs among the global filthy rich. But it is still possible that statues will be created by subsequent generations of influential business people (as was the case with the Colston statue in Bristol, UK and Hamilton in Hamilton, NZ) unless democratic control of public spaces and places at the local level is exercised more vigorously than it has been up until now.
This is the take-home message in the Otago University study of statue attacks in New Zealand over the past century. It turns out to have been going on for that long, with statues of military men and colonialists being especially unpopular, while sporting heroes are left alone. The reasons are obvious. There is community consensus around the value of commemorating sports heroes; there is no such consensus around men with military, political and economic power which they abuse(d). Any government (local or national) which is thinking about commemorating such a person with a statue or naming rights needs to think again, and consult widely with the community to find out who really deserves to be memorialised in this way.