Don’t shoot the scientific messenger

(October 9, 2018)

Since ancient times, shooting the messenger has been a favourite way to deal with the arrival of bad news.

Of course, it doesn’t change the news — and it makes it hard to recruit the next messenger.

While I agree with Scott Forbes’ defence of science (“Why does science get no respect?” Sept. 29), his dismissal of the “secular prophets” such as David Suzuki involves shooting the messenger, not dealing with the news they bring.

Granted, trying to figure out the difference between “real” and “fake” science is as fraught with difficulties these days as figuring out the difference between “real” and “fake” news. On any issue, there are experts on at least three sides, some of whom are funded to promote confusion.

But while the “prophets of doom” grab bold headlines, there are many smaller headlines generated by those intent on maximizing the “profits of doom” for themselves.

Plan for retirement! Freedom 55! Ads featuring laughing seniors, usually white and always wealthy, sitting by the pool or cruising the oceans in luxury. All this creates a picture of a “don’t worry, be happy” future that disrespects the findings of science much more than jokes about nerds. Their fantasy will become our nightmare.

An alarmist is someone who yells, “Fire!” before his own barn actually starts to burn. The numbers tell us we are in trouble — the fires of a warming planet are on the way. What’s in dispute is exactly when the flames will arrive.

Compare this to medicine — after all the tests and examinations are done, one of the hardest things for any doctor is delivering a terminal diagnosis. Even harder is answering the inevitable question, “How long do I have?”

If a doctor tells a patient they have six months to live and they survive for a year or two, no one dismisses doctors (and medicine in general) as a waste of time. Nor do people ridicule that doctor as a “prophet of doom” if the patient happens to live another 20 or 30 years.

You get my point. Our biosphere’s diagnosis is terminal because of how humans have chosen to live in the Anthropocene. The fact that the final act is taking longer than predicted is good news for those of us who still have hope for ourselves and for our children. It means we still have time to do something, rather than just watch the world burn and choke.

This is what science tells us — what is going on, and why. If the timeline of scientific climate prognosis is inaccurate, that’s because the systems it tries to interpret are too complex for easy answers, and the data we have to work with is inadequate and incomplete.

In the same way, a doctor can tell you how big the tumour is and how fast it is growing or spreading, but it’s much harder to know when the body’s systems will fail. That depends on the patient’s determination and a host of other things that vary from person to person; the outcome, however, will still be the same.

To be fair, if we can’t accurately predict the weather on the Prairies — even a day ahead — why would any “real” science even try to predict global conditions 20 years out?

Scientists try, for the same reason the doctor tries to give an answer — because we ask them to tell us how much longer we have.

It’s our problem, therefore, not theirs. The headlines are bold, because we are not listening to common sense any more than we are heeding “real” science. We are trying to avoid doing anything that requires changing our lifestyle, waiting for someone to tell us things will magically improve. We will listen to the fake science as readily as we believe the fake news, if it means we can keep golfing.

David Suzuki recently described his work to me as a failure; other environmentalists have expressed the same sentiment about their work. For despite all of their warnings, the laws and regulations they have inspired, as well as promoting recycling and whatever else they have done, we are increasing our speed toward a future in which no sane person wants to live.

I’m not a scientist — I am one of those “artsies” who just as often gets dismissed by scientists, as happens in reverse. I do study science and technology — their history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and whatever else is needed to understand the whole picture of what “real” science presents. It’s never only “just the facts,” but also what they mean.

After all, sustainability is not a scientific or technological issue. It is a social and cultural problem, requiring practical answers from all of us, if we want to avoid the catastrophes that otherwise certainly lie ahead.

We need to listen carefully to what the messengers of science are saying — and not shoot them.

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Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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Carbon tax isn’t perfect, but it’s something

(August 15, 2018)

We are in the midst of a global heat wave that makes predictions of a warmer planet by 2050 seem painfully absurd.

If you still have a climate change denier in your house, invite them to lie down outside and catch some rays — and then fry an egg on their forehead.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSA woman cools off in the fountain on Memorial Boulevard on Sunday, when the temperature hit 37C in Winnipeg.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSA woman cools off in the fountain on Memorial Boulevard on Sunday, when the temperature hit 37C in Winnipeg.
Unfortunately, things will get worse before they have a chance of getting better. We need to prepare for living in a world where extreme heat events are the norm, not just the latest headline — and not down the road in 2050, when most forecasts predict, but perhaps as early as next summer.

What this unusual weather reveals is our inability to predict just how fast the extreme weather events of a climate-changing world could crash the ecological systems on which we depend.

With summer heat waves and forest fires from the Arctic all the way down to the equator, the past four months have been a nightmare in many places. And when we mercifully shift into winter, the southern hemisphere can expect to experience its own dry, fiery nightmare.

That’s not just the climate that future generations will have to manage. It is our future, too, coming at us faster and faster, just around the bend ahead on the highway to ecological disaster.

Yet to the politicians driving the bus, this is alarmist nonsense. Can’t be true, so it isn’t true. Don’t want it to happen, so it won’t. Turn up the A/C and have another cold one.

Worst of all, because they can’t figure out how to solve the problem, they do nothing at all. It is easier to get re-elected if you promise a chicken in every cooking pot, even though you know doing nothing means there will be no chicken and no pot — just a lot of fire, and more people getting cooked instead.

As you roast this summer, think of how your federal government uses your tax dollars to invest in pipelines and further subsidize the fossil fuel industry — literally turning up the heat, instead of investing in solar energy. Diesel oil may be in short supply, thanks to global politics and our reliance on a single refinery in Alberta, but there is lots of sun for everyone, if we would only use it.

As for that minimal federal carbon tax, forget the prime ministerial rhetoric that introduced it. Concerns about ensuring Canadian companies remain competitive in a global market seems to mean it will be watered down even further, to the delight of rogue elements among the provincial premiers.

Pessimists can be forgiven for questioning whether it is worth the effort to have a carbon tax at all. Given other options, I still think a carbon tax is a good way to free up money toward mitigating the blistering effects of the climate changes that are almost here.

The $25-per-tonne carbon tax is peanuts, however — a nickel a litre, when gas prices go up and down by a dime every weekend. The argument has been made many times that unless that carbon tax is increased to $300 per tonne, consumer behaviour is unlikely to be changed by it.

What the carbon tax money would do, instead, is to fund alternatives for individual citizens, so they can choose on their own to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It is hard to take a bus if there isn’t one, or take light rail if it hasn’t been built. Want to drive an electric vehicle, powered by Manitoba’s hydro? Buy it on your own time. Switch to electric heat? If you can pay for it yourself, go ahead. Solar panels? If you want.

And so on. As the temperature rises, the Pallister government continues to be breathtakingly ineffectual on the greenhouse gas file. They have managed to exempt from their carbon tax most of the emissions from the largest point sources. They have ignored flurries of consultations and advice from many Manitobans and intend to return the tax collected on fuel to emitters in ways that avoid funding any alternative choices. The “made in Manitoba” climate plan has produced little more than press conference emissions.

Unfortunately, it is the same elsewhere.

As the political games continue, global temperatures go up.

The Chinese proverb that “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” needs to be rewritten for a climate-changing world:

Whether you think it will make a difference or not, it is better to blow out one candle than to curse the fire.

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