Under What Conditions?

bush_library_oval_office_replicaI do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.

One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.

I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.

So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.

Here they are:

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Five Pieces for January

shepardfaireyUsually, at the end of each month I compile links to stories and pieces I found thought-provoking in some way. But this past month has been an inundation of news, most of it bad, and I’m reluctant to feed into the chaos by recapping it all. Instead, here are five pieces that helped me understand something differently about the state of the world:

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Ignorance Vs Malice

twohead_viaolegshpyrkoI have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.

Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.

But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?

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The Novel and the New

notnow_viaellaOver the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.

If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.

But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.

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The Collective Endeavor

Philae on Comet 67P Churyumov-GerasimenkoWe know very well that science is not truth—indeed, central to science is the idea that we must acknowledge both the subjectivity of human perception and the limits of individual knowledge. So science does not aim to replace those perceptions; it aims instead to refine them. Science strips away the biases of the individual, the biases of the community, the biases of particularity, and the biases of variable conditions. In so doing it aims not for a pure and incontrovertible view of the world, but merely a verifiable view.

Science is thus not truth, merely the lens through which we view truth. Yes, its role is to bring truth as nearly into focus as it may, but greater than that is its role of ensuring that we are all using the same lens. By prescribing the method, science drives us all to view the world with the limits of our collective understanding rather than the limits of our personal understanding.

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The Usefulness of Bad Ideas

lightbulbFor someone who takes a lot of interest in the structures that underlie societies, I have to confess that it took a long time for me to realize that ideas and structures are not distinct. I spent a lot of energy being frustrated by things that, to me, seemed wrong and unconscionable. In many ways I still do, but I’ve also found a better framing to help me understand how bad ideas persist.

Ten years ago, I would have said that bad ideas are a result of greed, corruption, lack of empathy, or intolerance. For example, why do people constantly argue about getting rid of social programs, alias lazy welfare queens? Easy—they’re greedy and unempathetic and don’t care about anyone but themselves and their friends. If they stopped to think for one second about other people, they’d realize that the problems are structures, not people.

I think it took far too long for me to realize the double standard of that statement.

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Ecological Jenga

jenga_viaKellyTeagueOne quality of human societies is that we shape our environment to fit our needs. Sometimes we do this intentionally, such as when we clear land for agriculture or human occupation. Sometimes we do it as a byproduct of our actions, such as greenhouse gas emissions leading to runaway warming of the global climate. In the past, human societies have endured, or collapsed, or adapted, depending on how much their environment could withstand change.

I think this begs the question, how resilient is our global ecosystem? How much can it handle? What are the limits?

Those with a narrower view tend to dismiss environmental concerns as frivolous, uneconomical, or overblown. The earth has always carried on, they sometimes argue, and even if it doesn’t, we can invent technologies to replace and improve on anything an ecosystem can do. Yet I wonder.

Ecosystems around the world have evolved to be both diverse and redundant, with animals and plants and insects and microbes all functioning together to support the system. Most of that diversity and redundancy is structural—the evolution of an ecosystem, like the evolution of any given species, does not tend to generate and maintain traits with no purpose. I don’t mean that an ecosystem is designed with a place for everything and everything in its place, but rather that diversity and redundancy in a natural system are present because regular stress on the system requires them. They are buffers that protect the system from failure.

From the human perspective, redundancy is usually perceived as an abundance of parts—a river full of salmon, a forest full of old growth trees, a sky full of passenger pigeons. This leaves us with the comforting sense that however many we take away, there are more than enough; the system will not falter.

That can be true on a small scale, but global human society does not act on the small scale. We have an economic engine dedicated to mobilizing resources, and it is very good at it. If a resource is found, there is an effectively unending line of people ready to use it and transform it into human economic capital. But that engine is very bad at asking questions of stability; if a resource is abundant, we use it rapidly and heavily without concern for the broader system. That old individual view, that taking a few doesn’t matter, seems to have evolved into the idea that natural systems can be processed and repurposed by humans without consequences.

Unfortunately, the data says otherwise. The declining biodiversity of forests and the strangled flow of major rivers are examples of what happens to natural systems when their natural buffers are carted off for human purposes. Current complex systems science shows us that the natural systems we rely on are being driven to the edge of catastrophic failure. Ecologists and complex system scientists call this “overshoot,” a state in which the key ecological foundations of a system are exploited much faster than they can regenerate.

Put more simply, we are playing ecological Jenga. Globally, systematically, we are stealing away the foundations of critical natural systems to build a human superstructure on top. Yet questions about that same foundation receive more derision than consideration; with a curious bootstrapping logic, we convince ourselves that the titanic edifice of human society is unsinkable.

That ideological position is so much stranger in the face of the evidence. We have known for some time that we are drawing down natural capital much faster than the rate of replenishment. In the U.S., California is a poster child for depletion of water. In Canada, Alberta is scraping off their largest intact natural forest to dig up tar sands. In the tropics, slash-and-burn agriculture is depleting nutrient-rich topsoil that took thousands of years to form.

As we busily remove the redundancy of natural systems that sustain us, the growing specter of climate change looms large. We are carefully pulling bricks from the base of our tower, scarcely noticing the wind of change ruffling our shirtsleeves. Systems evolved redundancy to cope with stressors, and the biggest stressor for an ecosystem is a changing climate.

Some say human ingenuity will avert any catastrophe. I think they’re right that it could, if we would just look honestly at the implications of our choices. If we could bring ourselves to take them seriously. If we could bring ourselves to alter those choices.

But the tower is getting taller, and the wind is getting stronger.

The science shows us that we can’t continue the game into perpetuity. Natural systems will reach points of change; many already are. Many already have. Some have collapsed.

So let’s hear it for human ingenuity, and let’s fix it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that ingenuity isn’t our problem now. We’re plenty ingenious. What we’re not, is honest.