Sunday, March 13, 2011

Because We're Here: The Spiritualist, the Global Warming Truther and Least Astonishment

"We come into the world and take our chances.
Fate is just the weight of circumstances.
That's the way that Lady Luck dances,
Roll the bones. Roll the bones.
Why are we here? Because we're here,
Roll the bones, roll the bones.
Why does it happen? Because it happens,
Roll the bones, roll the bones . . ."
--Peart and Rush, Roll the Bones

This morning, opening my Facebook and E-mail accounts for the first time in a week, I saw two posts whose headlines posited a reason for the earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan on Friday, March 11.

The first came to me through Facebook, and was a You-Tube video of a spiritualist warning people that a change in the earth's axis would cause "mega-quakes" and that people ought to prepare by moving away from all major faults. In this video the perpetrator of pseudo-science very skillfully mixed a small snippet of fact gotten backwards--earthquakes can change the earth's axis of mass to a very small degree-- with quite a few scientific sounding terms in order to develop a plausible-sounding prediction that was hailed by the person posting it as proof that because the earthquake occurred after the "prediction" was made, then the explanation given by the spiritualist must be correct and altogether right. It is the end of the world as we know it.

The second came to me through an e-mail link to a website blog called Grist. The title of the article is: How is Climate Change Connected to Tsunamis? The gist of the grist article claim is that climate change causes ice to melt, which causes isostatic rebound of the earth's surface, which can cause earthquakes, and thus that we might expect to see more tsunamis due to global climate change. This is also pseudo-science in broad strokes. And like the first, it is using speculation about a small fact--the disappearance of continental glaciers does create a measurable isostatic rebound that goes on for quite some time (in a geological time frame)--to posit a cause for a natural disaster. When all you have is a hammer, so the saying goes, everything becomes a nail.

Both explanations are being used to promote the author's respective agendas, and neither has much to do with science. And both are also a form of whistling in the dark. I have said before that human beings tend to operate by the Principle of Least Astonishment. That is, we expect that all of the events, accidents and chance meetings of history with natural processes that brought us to the moment of our advent upon the earth are now finished, and that now that we are here we can reasonably expect the conditions of the earth itself to remain unchanged and unchanging because it is now, as it was and ever will be, the world as we expect it to be, without end, forever.

Human beings, fundamentally conservative creatures that we are, generally do not like astonishment. We survive great shifts in human and earth history by stubbornly insisting that the earth should not move beneath our feet, and that the waters should not transgress the shoreline by more than the routine workings of the tide. The Principle of Least Astonishment is a psychological defense that allows the vast majority of us to survive our encounters with Deep Time long enough to get about the business of passing on our genes and supporting our offspring in a relatively normal fashion. A few of us recognize that we are riders on the storm, and fewer still want to confront nature. They are the ones who go forth chasing tornadoes, running Class V rapids, and flying into hurricanes with shit-eating grins on their faces, because they feel truly alive when confronting the power of nature. It takes all kinds . . .

And generally, when faced with the enormity of a natural disaster, there are those who want to establish a cause and assign blame. This is another psychological defense. It is a way of throwing salt over the shoulder and spitting into the fire in order to make sure that such a disaster could "never happen to me." This masks the fear that it could by assigning blame to the victims as a class, and positing a solution that relies on the virtue of a belief that is supposed to protect one from the same fate.

The spiritualist and the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) truther who wrote the items I found today have both convinced themselves that they know the cause of the earthquake and the tsunami, and they both have assigned the blame to human activity. The spiritualist believes that our spiritual darkness has created bad energy that has knocked the earth from its rotational axis--never mind that it was the earthquake that changed the figure axis of the earth by a mere 1.8 micro-second--and that we can expect terrible punishment for our sins in the form of terrible earthquakes to come. The AGW truther believes that our environmental sins in the form of large carbon footprints are to blame. Both believe with an absolute and religious fervor that if only humanity could become enlightened (the spiritualist) or reduce its carbon footprint (the AGW truther) by implementing a specific grand plan to attain perfection, then such disasters could be averted and the innocence of Eden restored upon the earth.

As a rather ordinary scientist, I have no program that can match such grand schemes and great plans. I have only the rather bare and plain assurance that natural disasters are likely to keep occurring at rather regular intervals of Deep Time that are unpredictable in the course of Human Time. We know that earthquakes will take place on active faults, and that when the fault typology is such that energy can build for long periods of time, those earthquakes will be spectacular. And that they will occur entirely without human causation or consent. The human suffering due to these disasters can be mitigated by our understanding of the natural processes involved, and by application of our technology and resources to warn people out of the way of an impending disaster and to protect them as best we can when that warning is insufficient.

We can mitigate and manage natural disasters. We can prepare and plan to ride the storms and survive, faces to the welcoming sunshine that follows. But we cannot put an end to them. They are as much a part of the nature of our dynamic planet as is our own existence. And there is always the chance that we, as individuals, will roll an unlucky sequence of circumstances. In that case, nothing we could have foreseen, nothing we could have done will change the facts. Any person is vulnerable to the accidents and exigencies of nature. That is the consequence of being alive.

In the novel Hawaii, one of the main characters, Dr. Whipple, is confronted with the death of one of the Hawaiian royalty, the Ali Nui, whose bones must be hidden according to custom or their will come a terrible consequence, the whistling wind. The bones are hidden, but the whistling wind came anyway, sinking the ships in the harbor at Lanai. The Hawaiians fall of their faces, sure that the spirits of the Ali Nui sent the wind. A puritanical missionary raises his arms in an aweful curse, saying that the Christian God had sunk the ships as punishment for the immorality of the sailors, drunkards and fornicators, all. But Dr. Whipple says quietly: I don't think the Ali Nui sent the wind, and I don't think that God sank the ships."

I don't think the spirits caused the earthquake, and I don't think global warming caused the tsunami. And making major changes to our ways in order to propitiate either the spirits or the climate will not prevent future natural disasters. Further, such actions taken rashly and out of a sense of misplaced blame and guilt could very well cause all too predictable harm to many millions of people.

The Spiritualist and the AGW Truther are both speaking and acting out of a kind of faith that refuses to recognize the uncertainty inherent in the nature of reality. Their tendency to resort to the reasons they have endlessly rehearsed is a defense against the realization that they, too, are vulnerable to that uncertainty. This is the Principle of Least Astonishment in action. It is understandable but it is an evasion nonetheless.

But much worse than that, both believe at some level in the myth that human beings are not a part of nature, but are instead the evil outside cause of the destruction of nature. This is a kind of thanatosis, a death wish, projected upon all of humanity, which in such a formulation is not quite real to them because they are thinking of humanity as a vast collective rather than a collection of individuals. It is a faith every bit as dangerous as that of the Inquisition or the Supreme Soviet. In the name of humanity, then, they would condemn many individuals to surely suffer due to their solution to the messiness of life on a dynamic planet.

Faith as cold as ice; Why are little ones born only to suffer,
for the want of immunity or a bowl of rice?
Who would place that price
On the heads of the innocent children,
if there's some immortal power to control the dice?
We come into the world and take our chances.
Fate is just the weight of circumstances . . .
Roll the bones. . .

I would rather brave the weight of circumstances, and take my chances on natural disasters, knowing that I can mitigate and plan for them, but not control them--knowing that I can die, that I will die from living eventually; I would rather that than I would place my fate in the hands of those whose fear leads them to thanatosis and the knowing destruction of human lives in the name of "humanity." I refuse to worship at the altar of a faith that lays the price of uncertainty on the heads of the innocent. That is idolatry pure and simple.

So bring on TOTO, the paddle and the airplane. It's time to put a shit-eating grin on my face and experience Most Astonishment at the amazing power and beauty of what is. And maybe learn something new about Creation. Because I'm here . . .

Jack -- relax.
Get busy with the facts.
No zodiacs or almanacs,
No maniacs in polyester slacks.
Just the facts.
Gonna kick some gluteus max.
Its a parallax -- you dig?
You move around.
The small gets big. It's a rig.
Its action -- reaction --
Random interaction.
So who's afraid
Of a little abstraction?
Cant get no satisfaction
From the facts?
You better run, homeboy --
A fact's a fact
From Nome to Rome, boy.

Whats the deal? Spin the wheel.

If the dice are hot: Take a shot.
Play your cards. Show us what you got.
What you're holdin'.
If the cards are cold,
Don't go foldin'.
Lady luck is golden;
She favors the bold. It's cold.
Stop throwing stones --
The night has a thousand saxophones.
So get out there and rock.
Roll the bones.
Get busy!

--Peart, Rush: Roll the Bones Rap

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