Sunday, October 20, 2019

Considering The Nature Of Truth

                                                                                              written 13 October 2019
                                                                                          published 20 October 2019

            Deep examination shows we can "know" only two absolute truths: "I am" and "something seems to be happening".   Rather than be at peace with this awareness, we elaborate with descriptive stories.  "I am" quickly shifts to "who am I?", with answers rooted in past memories, which are only partial recollections at best.  "Something is happening" becomes a quest to understand "what is happening", requiring description of my current context, framed by further memories, limited by language and social structures. We move from clear awareness to elaborate stories the moment we begin to think about it all.
            The philosopher Kant argued that we can never know objective truth, because our entire experience is filtered through physiological limitations and psychological perspectives framed by cultural interpretations.  Everyone lives in a bubble of their own personal "truth", which is always relative and incomplete.  However, no one lives alone: no self is absolute, but always lives within a larger context.  Even the most socially isolated hermit needs physical sustenance from the organic world. Those of us who live within a social structure have to negotiate even more complex interactions.  How can we transcend our personal "truth" bubble to effectively engage the larger world? 
            What has evolved over time is a two-pronged approach: living within a group with agreed upon social structures for general support, and trial and error for further development.
            Social structures have organized communities of individuals for millions of years, long before humans arrived on the scene.  While the forms vary, their endurance comes from constantly weeding out individuals who don't accept the form.  This can range from shaming or expulsion from the group to actual extermination. In this manner, the relative "truth" of each society member is kept in resonance with the larger group, for mutual advantage.  The history of life, as well as the history of humanity, is an evolution of how social forms deal with divergence within their group and how they engage with groups with different structures. 
            Trial and error can inform individuals or groups as they encounter the larger world.  There is a bumper sticker which says: "Reality is what you stub your toe on".  This points to the fact that, independent of what we believe, we inhabit an effective reality with consequences.  If the structure of our society, or the nature of our personal "truth", is in conflict with this reality, the unexpected happens, even to the point of death. Trial and error is a way to investigate this reality.  When we experience a conflict between our "truth" and reality, like stubbing our toe, we have the opportunity to modify our "truth" before we repeat the encounter.  This can be difficult, since it requires changing our beliefs and social structures, which have psychological inertia and external consequences.  An alternative response is to deny the reality of the "stubbed toe" feedback, blame something or someone else, and proceed as if nothing important happened.  This is very popular in the short run because it requires less effort than real change, but the vulnerability persists since the choice is for continued fantasy over education by reality.  In a rapidly changing world, choosing denial becomes more perilous.  
            This denial is in action today around the issue of climate change.  The "stubbed toe" feedback is becoming more obvious every year, with increasing consequences, but climate denial is tied to religious, economic, political, and social structures which have worked relatively well for a powerful few.  That structural denial has persisted over half a century now, so simple responses are no longer possible, leaving only radical solutions, if any, which creates even more resistance.  Because the conflict is between fantasy and reality, the outcome is inevitable.
            A companion denial is the rise of fake news, with roots in the advertising industry that arose after WW2, presenting fantasy as fact for economic and political gain.  While propaganda and spin are as old as empires, the rise of mass media and technology have brought sight and sound into every home around the globe, making the fantasies harder to distinguish.  The insanity of our current leadership's "truth" bubble has created another Middle East war and global economic chaos, while ignoring issues that threaten our survival as a species.  Again, the outcome is inevitable.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Malignant Narcissist

                                                                                              written 6 October 2019
                                                                                        published 13 October 2019
            A healthy sense of self is important.  A Buddhist friend once told me: "you need enough ego to avoid stepping in front of a speeding bus".  But a healthy person knows "self" is in relationship with the larger world, and awareness of the needs of others leads to compassion.  There is no such thing as an absolute, autonomous self. This simple truth is as close as your next breath, which is the most immediate need for self-survival.  Yet the oxygen we require is freely given to us, released by plants and algae within the last six months.  We are dependent on the massively interconnected web of a living planet.
            Narcissism, an inflated sense of self-importance, is a psychological response to childhood trauma.  Symptoms include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others' feelings, inability to handle criticism, and a sense of entitlement.  As the narcissistic disorder becomes more extreme, there is less awareness, concern, or compassion for others.  The malignant end-stage expresses as megalomania and sociopathy, where the entire world is viewed as a simple extension of the individual.  
            I first encountered the term "malignant narcissist" as a description of Hitler.  At the end of WW2, when it was clear that Germany had lost, Hitler took this as a personal loss.  He was planning to die and imagined the entire German population should die as well.  He ordered his troops to destroy all critical public works like sewer and water plants, dams and roadways.  Fortunately, most Germans were not that insane, figured there would be life after the war, and refused to follow those orders.
            The second time I encountered the term "malignant narcissist" was shortly after President Trump was elected.  Trump's father taught him there were only two kinds of people, killers and losers, so Trump learned to attack any opposition in his path toward domination. Since his goals are always correct in his own mind, there are no moral, ethical, or legal limitations on his tactics.  His actions in office continue this psychological style.  
            From his announcement speech, he has been attacking, unfettered by factual reality.  The truth is whatever he believes at the moment, by virtue of his belief in it. This is part of the charismatic charm of the sociopath: their absolute, unwavering confidence.  
            Convinced of his "stable genius", he never acknowledges mistakes, blames others, and has no tolerance for contradiction.  With no regard for the workings of government, he did no planning for a transition team when he took office.  Almost three years later, many essential positions are still vacant, or filled with temporary appointees.  Rather than select people with competence and knowledge, he surrounds himself with "yes men" who won't challenge him.  It has taken awhile to find enough totally compliant people, which has resulted in the highest turnover in the cabinet of any president.  The requirement is absolute loyalty to Trump, without regard to the laws or needs of the country.  This insanity makes sense to Trump, because he believes that he, and only he, IS the country.
            Such malignancy at the top means America is no longer a trustworthy ally, and has lost status in the world.  The country is more radically polarized.  The environment is being sold off to the highest bidder, while the rest of the world is awakening to the climate crisis.  The very wealthy pay less taxes, while deficits soar, and we pay higher cost because of the ineffectual tariff war.  Consequently, the global economy is slowing, the stock market has stalled for almost two years, economic uncertainty is increasing, and recession worries are growing.  Trump has embraced dictators and helped destabilize Europe and the Middle East.
            The revelation that Trump blackmailed another country to interfere in the next election, by getting dirt on his political opponent, has precipitated impeachment proceedings.  He supplied proof of his misdeeds, bragged about it, and doubled down by publically inviting several other nations to interfere as well.  This is consistent with his belief that if he does it, it is legal, backed up by his hand-picked Attorney General. 
            It is now time for Republicans leaders to decide.  Are they going to support the Constitution they swore to defend, or allow this corrupt malignancy to define their party and destroy this country? 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Climate Emergency

                                                                                              written 29 September 2019
                                                                                                published 6 October 2019
            Risk assessment considers both the magnitude of consequences and the likelihood of occurrence.  For example, a large asteroid impact is relatively rare, but the consequences can be devastating.  An asteroid just 6 miles in diameter hit the Earth 65 million years ago, releasing energy equivalent to 100 million megatons of TNT, driving 75% of all life to extinction.  In 2029, an asteroid 370 meters in diameter will come within 20,000 miles of Earth, a very near miss.  This size impacts Earth about once every 80,000 years, releasing the energy equivalence of 1,200 megatons of TNT, 200 times the largest hydrogen bomb blast. Because of the severity of impact consequence, despite the rarity of the event, billions of dollars are spent every year to monitor the skies for incoming objects.  If a large one on an intersection course is detected, plans have been made to respond, requiring years of preparation and investment of tens of billions of dollars.  
            Abrupt climate change has similar life extinction consequences, and should be treated with the same concern.  While this destruction unfolds over a longer time frame than an asteroid impact, the odds are much shorter, estimated at 1 in 5 over the next century.  We have had warnings for over 50 years, and evidence of increasing change is in the news every week.  While some people think this is a hoax, or a slow moving problem to worry about in the future, the climate is a massive, complex, highly fed back, non-linear system, which has tipping points resulting in abrupt, irreversible changes.
            For many years Arctic sea floor methane has been identified as one of the tipping points.  The Arctic is warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the planet, and summer ice covers less of the Arctic Ocean each year.  Multi-year ice, thicker and more resistant to melting, is disappearing. The ice-free ocean is dark, absorbing heat which melts ice faster.  The Arctic is a very shallow sea, with almost 2,000 gigatons of frozen methane in the sea floor sediments.  At some point, heating resulting from decreased Arctic ice will raise sea floor temperatures enough to release seafloor methane, heating the Arctic more, releasing more methane, in a runaway scenario.  Over the short run, methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and a sudden release of 50 gigatons would cause a 1°C temperature rise within months.  
             In the last 30 years humans have burned half of all the fossil fuels ever extracted. Roughly half the resulting carbon dioxide has remained in the atmosphere, a quarter has been taken up by plants, and the remaining quarter has been absorbed in the ocean, where is changes to carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity 1,000 times faster than previous geologic rates.  A recent MIT report described a mechanism of an ocean acidification tipping point, derived from geologic records. 
            Increased ocean acidity makes it difficult for organisms to form calcium carbonate shells.  Normally, when these animals die, the weight of the shells causes them to drop to the ocean floor, sequestering carbon in the process.  Without this shell driven carbon flux to the ocean floor, acidity at the surface rises, increasing the lethality of the water and reducing the capacity for the water to absorb more carbon dioxide.  Eventually increased acidity crashes the ocean ecosystem, source of food and oxygen, increases atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and traps more heat.
            Once we pass extinction tipping points, it is too late.  The longer we delay action, the shorter the odds of avoiding this fate.  Climate deniers have wasted so much time that any effective effort will now require massive and sustained investment, like the economic mobilization during WW2.  To preserve our species, a declaration of a climate emergency is necessary to galvanize sufficient economic resources.  In California alone, 24 counties or cities have already passed such a declaration. For more information go to:
            Increasingly erratic weather events, and recent climate strikes mobilized by students, are shifting public opinion.  Younger people have less commitment to the status quo and are more likely to live with the unfolding disasters.  Despite Republican and corporate attempts to denigrate them, we should be inspired by their youthful passion and recognize we are fighting for our lives.