By Matt Owens October 11, 2013
As I recently discussed, systems like our climate exhibit multiple stable states (aka ones that show hysteresis). And in fact, there are multiple stable states of subsystems within our climate, even including each and every one of us. Individuals clearly influence the people they interact with, and this influence ripples outwards to more people, although the impact diminishes over distance. If a few people exert large amounts of influence, or if lots of people each exert small amounts of influence, then the collective whole moves from one stable state to a new one. These can be large movements and big changes, but they don't have to be. Idealists, reformers, inventors, and adopters of new technology have in the course of human history moved entire societies great distances - and even the world. Sometimes these movements have fallen apart during the move, and the survivors either regrouped under the familiar previous state, or something entirely different emerged.
As for our concern with climate change, we are in what seems like a tough spot (perhaps a sand trap, aka bunker, of sorts) with so few people taking productive action. Appearances can be deceiving, but still, it looks like there aren't enough of us who can make big enough waves to influence enough change to move society towards accepting the task of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy ASAP. If that's the case, it may be better to plan how to survive or - if we conclude even that's not possible - to make other arrangements.
But let's take a look under the hood - what's been going on here? Can we tune ourselves up and make bigger waves, recruit more people and have a large enough influence? To examine this, we're going to need a manual of some kind... not the owner's manual that comes in the glove box - no, we need the kind real mechanics use, or maybe an even better one... Enter: Plato.
Actually, enter Plato's Allegory of the Cave. This allegory can help guide us in understanding what's causing the delay. It can help us see the obstacles and make a prognosis. But we need to engage with both the allegory and our situation simultaneously. So here's our state:
We are individuals, occasionally organized into mostly small group, and we have been concerned about climate change for some time. Some of us have been concerned for 10 to 20 years, or maybe even longer. We've tried to do some things - those things that seemed reasonable. Mostly, our efforts have been individual ones. For instance, many of us have sought to gain insight into what type of actions to take by reading and generally trying to learn more.
Some of us have tried expressing our concerns through conversations, public protests, changes in our personal behavior, letters to the editor, our spending habits, voting habits, and so on. We've actually tried quite a lot.
In essence and at best, these actions have been aimed at changing the minds of others. We want our community to see what we see: the imminent danger, the ability to act now and deflect the danger, and the economic and health benefits of action - and even benefits that are intrinsic to renewable energy itself.
Now, Plato's Allegory of the Cave (where Socrates is the main character) is a blueprint of worldview and status quo, two central components that we suspect are implicated in slow progress on climate. Here is an excellent excerpt from Wikipedia that sets the stage:
In Plato's fictional dialogue, Socrates begins by describing a scenario in which what people take to be real would in fact be an illusion. He asks Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their legs (but not arms) held in place, but their necks are also fixed, so they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads "including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials". The prisoners cannot see the raised walkway or the people walking, but they watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.
Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to be real things and the echoes to be real sounds created by the shadows, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever, whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.
Socrates then supposes that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.
"Suppose further," Socrates says, "that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn't he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn't the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn't he be distressed and unable to see 'even one of the things now said to be true' because he was blinded by the light?"
After some time on the surface, however, the freed prisoner would acclimate. He would see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the Sun. He would understand that the Sun is the "source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause [In other words, the "invisible" light] of all those things he and his companions had been seeing."
Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. "Wouldn't he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn't he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn't he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn't it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn't they kill him?"
The prisoners, ignorant of the world behind them would see the freed man with his corrupted eyes and be afraid of anything but what they already know.
This journey up and into the light of day for the prisoner is more extreme, fortunately, than our situation requires. We are trying to get other people to see a light of sorts, though, and it will mean a change to the status quo.
But it doesn't mean a radical transformation is required. We don't all have to start living like dirty hippies (just the cool kids get to do that). Sure, you'll have to “refuel” your car twice as often at the new battery exchange stations, but the refueling process won't take as long. And yes, you'll have to give up those 300 mile round trip excursions you've been taking into the entirely civilization-free Arctic tundra with your SUV. ...oh wait, you've hardly driven for more than a mile off a paved road in your entire life! And actually, if you really do want to go bouncing through muddy ruts for 300 miles, and if there are more than a few of you (there are), then some motivated person will, I'm sure, set up a battery exchange station with solar power and a big Google Maps ad (even if you leave civilization, we all know you're not leaving your smart phone behind) to help you find it.
Now let's get back to civilization:
What Plato is describing, is a consequence of a fundamentally required trait of consciousness. Even animals have it. And it is necessary, otherwise a person becomes insane with distraction. It is a worldview. A worldview allows us to efficiently categorize things in our world according to their importance and relation to us as individuals. This worldview includes a code for how we should interact with things in our world, and a definition of ourselves. At the most mundane, this enables us to ignore simple things, like the walls and paintings in our home almost every single day, and in doing so we can efficiently walk down the hall. It also enables us to have no emotional reaction to the walls as we walk past. And this categorization applies to just about everything, not just physical objects. Most of all perhaps, it applies to things we don't even realize exist. Of course, any categorized thing can be dynamically categorized too, so for instance we can ignore the walls when they look the same as usual, but then pay attention when sunlight is pouring through (i.e. the house is collapsing). And we can lump things and categories together into larger categories, to even more efficiently get through our day.
Without a worldview, we would pay attention to everything around us, and we'd seem stark raving mad, like lost infants infinitely amused or frightened by the slightest objects. Just a short walk would be filled with distraction. So we need a bit of hypnotic focus to get done the adult things we need to. But we also need some mechanism to recognize and deal with novelty and anomalies, otherwise we'd walk off a lot more cliffs (e.g. Wile Coyote). This all gets included into our worldview. What is within the bounds of normal? And when the bounds are exceeded, what happens then? (Usually, that's when you kick the weird house guest out.)
With respect to global warming, we have several obvious problems under this worldview hood.
First, status quo has set in like rigor mortis. There has been no climate action, so no action is expected, and so the status quo is maintained. Fortunately, this can be broken - if there is action, and if it is sustained, then there will be a new status quo.
Second, individual worldviews on global warming have set too. That said, this can be changed, too. But how long will it take? And what will it take?
To address this second issue, the people who are not taking action at all, but who are concerned, are probably stuck in that state because of other preexisting worldviews they have, like those regarding their role in making decisions of any type for society, or, who or what is responsible for taking action on issues like global warming. And that last view is obviously further complicated by the fact that there is no clear precedent for this global issue. Is it the role of the UN, grassroots groups, think tanks, industry, voters, etc.?
And then, we can even bring in many other complicating worldview issues, such as religious views. We can keep going with more and more tangles.
All these issues and more combine to create one massively tangled mess of worldviews. Unlike the simplified Cave, modern society is diverse and large. We all share (for the most part) certain fundamental worldviews. But then on top of that foundation rests a tower of more views that are increasingly diverse the farther up they are. In fact, part of our fundamental worldview that we share says it's okay for others to have different worldviews above that foundational level. This is generally called something like “respect for the opinions of others.”
But “opinions” are a special category of worldview - they are at the top of the pile of our individual worldviews, and they are most accessible to our conscious mind, and most influence-prone, and most easily changed. In part because of our complex tangle of worldviews (within a single individual and within groups of individuals), our opinions have evolved to enable contradiction and circumvention of our own worldviews, and thus to enable practical and important action by individuals and groups of individuals.
So, if I were your mechanic, I definitely would recommend that worldviews, especially as exemplified in modern American society, are not worth trying to "fix." In fact, they are downright dangerous to try and tamper with. Besides, the most effective way to change worldviews generally requires abduction and forced imprisonment, something we can't afford - at least not with our current TV advertising budget... although that captive audience is increasingly liberated by social media distractions. But we might be able to make something work here anyway through opinions.
Fortunately, the nature of worldviews is such that sane people rarely hold specific worldview concepts like, "Fossil fuels are better than solar and wind energy." Those concepts fall into the category of opinions.
So if we are careful, and if we understand the difference between worldviews and opinions, we can start to make a bigger difference in the opinions of those around us. And this in turn can enable practical action that does not trample on worldviews. We can persuade people that we can add renewable energy immediately - to quickly improve our economic state, improve our community's health, and build infrastructure that will have lasting worth and return a reliable and constant yield. And it just so happens that all this will reduce (towards zero) our greenhouse gas emissions. We can then begin planning to talk about how to preserve and expand public nature reserves and public parks in a way that has similar positive impacts. Who in this world would choose more debt, worse health, and a decaying economy that depends on increasingly expensive fossil fuels?
When we attack worldviews, we'd better be ready to drag people to the surface kicking and screaming. In other words: abduction. Not for most of us, I'm sure. So instead, I propose we focus on opinions. This is not to be confused with pushing for incremental change. And opinions can spread. In fact, they can spread fairly quickly. But of course, you probably have your own views.
There is no guaranteed outcome of all this. There are multiple possible outcomes. The fossil fuel interests could have their way, make their money, and we could pay. Or, we who know what's true, could do what we can with what we have to encourage the people towards a renewable energy future ASAP. I hear donuts are good for this sort of thing.
Either way, in our sojourns on the surface, we've uncovered some alarming signs that the cave is on the verge of collapse. Many people we care about are still mesmerized below...