The Basics of Bill McKibben’s, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”

Bill McKibben in 2016

In my last post, I discussed some of the key themes in Jared Diamond’s new book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis.  Today I’d like to do the same for Bill McKibben new book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

McKibbon worries, among other things, that: 1) the world’s oceans will warm sufficiently in the next 100 years to stop oxygen production and undermine the food chain resulting in mass human starvation; 2) melting permafrost will release microbes and viruses; 3) melting ice sheets melt will trigger earthquakes; 4) the added weight of seawater will bend the Earth’s crust; 5) rising carbon dioxide levels will affect human cognitive ability;  and more. Science provides evidence for all of these worries.

Consider just the food supply; we all need to eat after all. The grains which supply most of the world’s calories—rice, corn, wheat—are all under stress from heat and drought. As the planet warms the pressure on these basic crops will intensify. And, needless to say, food shortages are connected to chaos and violence. Moreover, even if food remains plentiful, transportation of that food is also susceptible to threats from climate change, like flooding and drought. Furthermore, there are concerns about the nutritional value of crops grown in high carbon dioxide environments. And while bees die, pests are thriving on our hotter planet. (McKibbon backs up all these claims with scientific evidence.)

Consider too that rising ocean levels will lead to an unimaginable refugee crisis as various areas of earth become uninhabitable. The median estimate, from the International Organization for Migration, is that we may see two hundred million climate refugees by 2050. And, in the not too distant future, New York, Boston, and Miami will feel the effects of climate change too. Moreover, a team of economists predicted a 12 percent risk that global warming could reduce global economic output by 50 percent by 2100. So the climate crisis will eventually affect us all.

I will reflect on our catastrophic global problems in my next post.

The Basics of Jared Diamond’s, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis”.

Jared diamond.jpg

Jared Diamond

[This post continues the discussion from the previous one.]

In the Intelligencer interviewed Jared Diamond about his new book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. Diamond’s book, “addresses itself to a world very obviously in crisis, and tries to lift some lessons for what to do about it from the distant past.”

[For the uninitiated, Diamond’s works include: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991), a work of evolutionary psychology; Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), which offered a three-word explanation for how the West rose to the status of global empire; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition (2005), a series of case studies about how environmental challenge led ancient civilizations to fall into disarray; The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (2012), which asked what we can learn from traditional societies; and now Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), where he highlights what we can learn from societies that have faced upheaval but still endured.]

While Diamond tries to show us a path through our current crisis he is not pollyannish. In answer to the question “How likely do you think that … the whole network of civilization would collapse?” Diamond replies:

I would estimate the chances are about 49 percent that the world as we know it will collapse by about 2050. I’ll be dead by then but my kids will be, what? Sixty-three years old in 2050. So this is a subject of much practical interest to me. At the rate we’re going now, resources that are essential for complex societies are being managed unsustainably. Fisheries around the world, most fisheries are being managed unsustainably, and they’re getting depleted. Farms around the world, most farms are being managed unsustainably. Soil, topsoil around the world. Fresh water around the world is being managed unsustainably. With all these things, at the rate we’re going now, we can carry on with our present unsustainable use for a few decades, and by around 2050 we won’t be able to continue it any longer. Which means that by 2050 either we’ve figured out a sustainable course, or it’ll be too late.

As for a sustainable course through our current crisis, Diamond states that we must: 1) acknowledge the crisis; 2) accept responsibility for the crisis; and 3) deal with the crisis through a combination of individual, corporate, and governmental action.

Now there are many threats to humanity but Diamond doesn’t believe in ranking them. It’s like a marriage in which you have to get many things right for a successful marriage—money, children, sex, in-laws, etc. So we can’t prioritize:

We have to avoid a nuclear holocaust. If we have a nuclear holocaust, we’re finished, even if we solve climate change. We have to solve climate change because if we don’t solve climate change but we deal with a nuclear holocaust, we’re finished. If we solve climate change and don’t have a nuclear holocaust but we continue with unsustainable resource use, we’re finished. And if we deal with the nuclear problem and climate change and sustainable use, but we maintain or increase inequality around the world, we’re finished. So, we can’t prioritize … We got to solve all four of those problems.

A particular problem for the United States in this regard is its misguided belief in its own exceptionalism. This precludes it learning from other countries how to better deal with, for example, health care, education, or climate change. Yet Diamond states unequivocally that “the idea that the United States is exceptional … is nonsense.” Diamond concludes that while it will take international cooperation to solve our most pressing problems he is unsure of whether or not we’ll succeed.

I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post.

Are We Heading Toward Environmental Catastrophe?

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg

The fire on the Deepwater Horizon.

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the end of the world. No, not the “Jesus is coming back” end of the world—which is obviously nonsense—but the end of human life brought about human activity. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, “an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” (Wikipedia)

Let me begin with a brief summary of a recent article on this topic. In a Washington Post op-ed, “Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the coming catastrophe,” the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker notes that

A new United Nations report projecting the extinction of one-eighth of all animal and plant species should rattle the cages of any remaining skeptics regarding climate change and the central role humans have played in Earth’s accelerating destruction … 
Finding out that 1 million species face extinction without radical corrective changes in human behavior is akin to finding out you have a fatal disease. One day you have a thousand problems; the next, you have just one. Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the catastrophic potential posed by climate change and the decimating effects of careless consumerism around the globe.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse — generally considered to be conquest, war, famine and death — weren’t far off the mark. Today, we might revise the New Testament version to include plastics, emissions, deforestation and Homo sapiens.

Describing the UN report, which was the result of a three-year study by hundreds of scientists from around the world, Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as chair of the panel, wrote in a statement that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” As Parker highlights:

The report makes the essential connection to human wellness, as opposed to merely caring about the horrors endured by sea creatures dying with their stomachs packed with plastic or Arctic animals starving to death as the ground melts beneath their feet. If something hurts economies and schoolchildren, we eventually get around to paying attention. 

(A recently reviewed a book which goes into existential crisis. And I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post.)

Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

In my last post on outgrowing my childhood religious beliefs, I said this:

Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.

This claim elicited the following slightly edited comment from Professor Darrell Arnold.  

This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. (Professor Arnold is right about this.)

Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. Yet because the evidence is quite straightforward, they generate consensus once someone has learned the methods of research in these areas and how correctly examine the evidence.

Then there are the metaphysical beliefs such as those you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics.) When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence.

But what is apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe in God, the father almighty, that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and (a lot of) rationalization. It’s both frightening and fascinating that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct.

As evidence for such far-fetched beliefs, people often appeal to “inner experience” as evidence. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would be adequate for forming a belief in miracles, the resurrection of the dead or that some god is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Clearly, as Hume pointed out, there is always a more plausible account for a miracle than that the miracle actually happened. And it’s easy to argue that finite beings can’t experience the infinite. 

Yet there is no argument or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify their beliefs. They believe because they want to and the evidence presented for these beliefs is disingenuous—usually, it is based on religious experience. Those who have had such experiences then accept, normally whole cloth, the group of beliefs that their particular religion are supposed to believe. The religious experience, of course, doesn’t justify those beliefs.

One of the most interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee their unquestioning acceptance. Another is the certainty many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence for their views.

Those in religious institutions, of course, have material interests in maintaining those institutions. But much of the rationale behind the dogmatist’s effort to ensure they never doubt is the deep insecurity of the dogmatists themselves. When the reasons for belief are so poor, believers take comfort knowing that others remain convinced of the ideas.

In any case, fear and intimidation are cornerstones of religious education. In standard Christian and Muslim traditions, children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs, and that they should never question tradition and the authority of their religious institutions. So not only must believers engage in difficult mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions must work hard to try to ensure that believer never begin to doubt. 

To reiterate, some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief.

The paradox is that the more difficult religious ideas are often held with the greatest certainty. But believing in them requires continual effort which raises questions about what existential and social functions such ideas play. Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them? And why do institutions work so diligently to try to ensure that believers don’t dare question them?

Outgrowing Religion

The above provides an allegory for throwing off religious crutches.

My last post reviewed Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn’s book describes his severe Southern Baptist upbringing, the doubts about religion that subsequently set in, the long torturous process of losing his religion, and how a college philosophy course helped him find meaning in life without the gods.

Naturally, this led me to recall escaping my own religious indoctrination. For those interested, here briefly is that story.

I was born in 1955 to a very Catholic family—I was baptized, received communion and confirmation, went to confession, was an altar boy, etc. (Talking about this is bizarre. Not only because those actions themselves were bizarre but because ordinarily I never think about them.) I went to St. Ann’s Catholic school in St. Louis, from first thru eighth grade. I was aware there were some Protestant people in the neighborhood, but I assumed there was something different about (or maybe wrong with) them. And I only played with the Catholic boys.

In addition to going to Catholic school every day, I accompanied my father to our church every evening, as he spent most of his free time on the church grounds. The parish had a large auditorium which was used for weddings and dances and an athletic field with a concession stand. My dad was basically in charge of all activities related to the auditorium and concession stand; he had an unpaid part-time job. There were books to keep, soda, candy, snacks and liquor to be ordered and served—yes, they had a liquor license. Going with him every evening, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the church, so I grew up sort of “extra Catholic.” And my father would be in a Catholic hall of fame if there were one.

The rest of my family was and is very Catholic too. My mother was devoted to the church till the end of her life and died in a Catholic retirement home. My oldest brother studied almost 8 years for the priesthood and though he wasn’t ordained he is still an ultra-conservative, practicing Catholic. My sister worked her entire adult life primarily for the church and her husband is a deacon. Their son, my nephew, is the chancellor of a diocese. And my other brother finds his only comfort from believing he will be reunited with lost loved ones in heaven. I came from a really Catholic family.

After grade school, I attended and graduated from a private Catholic high school. I really didn’t doubt religion much until right after high school. As I put it in my biography:

… it was the summer before college that marked the true beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I now realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was as if a dam had broken within me, exposing the parochialism of my youthful indoctrination. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

Then during

My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s criticism of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked.

Although it was traumatic for my parents, severing the cord of religious indoctrination was, for me, quick, painless, and liberating. It all happened in a few weeks. After that, I was done with Catholicism and have never for a moment reconsidered.

In fact, it’s not even a matter of reconsidering. Rather, some ideas become self-evident and others just aren’t available to you after being sufficiently educated. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun, and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two. Heliocentrism and evolutionary theory just follow from knowing how the world works, whereas the other notions are self-evidently absurd.

From the outside, religious beliefs are just, well, weird. To watch people eat a little wafer at a church—which I’ve done exactly twice in the last 30 years, both times at my parent’s funerals—is like entering the twilight zone. From the outside, you just wonder “what are they doing?” Once you have seen it from the outside … you never want to go back inside. After escaping the cult, you don’t want to rejoin. If only believers could see their beliefs from the outside, like they see the religions they don’t belong too.

At this point, I’m so removed from the beliefs of my childhood that they never come to the surface unless I make a conscious effort. It is like trying to remember believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. You can sort of do it, but not really.

However, I would add a caveat. For some, the comfort of the religious drug may be worth it. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it provides that much comfort to some persons, who am I to try to take it away from them? But for those capable of breaking the bonds of their childhood indoctrination, I can say that a lot of things won’t change after you discard religion. You’ll still be able to live, love, work, and care for your children, just without the burden of believing in imaginary gods. And you’ll be less likely to want to impose your views on others—a defining characteristic of most religions.

As for me, I’m so glad I long ago left all that behind. I one of those who wants to know not just believe. And I long for the day when reason and science will finally banish ignorance and superstition forever. I do think that religion as we know it will go extinct, especially if humans evolve into posthumans. And if we don’t evolve, we’ll probably go extinct anyway. As for those worried about the meaning of life after losing their religious beliefs, I have addressed the topic in some detail here.

(Disclaimer, I received my Ph.D. from a Catholic Jesuit School. Here’s why. I had to attend graduate school in St. Louis but by the time I was ready to apply to my preferred school, Washington University, their deadline had passed. I then accepted a fellowship to St. Louis University intending to switch schools. However, a number of coincidences prevented me from doing so and, at some point, it was quicker to finish where I had started. But though my choice of schools embarrasses me, I did receive an excellent, non-religious education in St. Louis University’s philosophy department for which I am grateful.)

Well, that’s my story. It almost 50 years ago since I lost my childhood crutches. I’m glad I did. I now dwell, not in what Carl Sagan called the demon-haunted world of religion, but in one lit by science and reason. As Heinrich Heine said:

In the Dark Ages people found their surest guide in religion—just as a blind man is the best guide on a pitch-black night. He knows the way better than the seeing. But it is folly to use the blind old man as a guide after day-break.