Sunday, December 14, 2014

Skinn(er)ing the Climate Change Cat

So, oil's cheaper this week.  Obviously, for those of you who read my blog last week you'll appreciate that this price drop has nothing to do with an increase of production.  But that doesn't seem to stop the economic consensus charlatans and clairvoyants from continuing to seek a causal link that does not exist to explain what they don't really want to discuss: the additional evidence that economic theory has been weighed in the balance (and in the market) and been found wanting.

In 1971, Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  In it, he attempted to explain human behavior on a general scale having become quite adroit at his autoegoic reinforcement of the premise that human action is the outcome of patterns of positive or negative reinforcement.  Ironically, he couldn't get far into the book before he observed evidence of the failing of his own hypothesis.

"…the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution.  As Darlington has said, 'Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors.  All his progress has been at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee.'"


"… a behavioural technology comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology is lacking, and those who do not find the very possibility ridiculous are more likely to be frightened by it than reassured.  That is how far we are from 'understanding human issues' in the sense which physics and biology understand their fields, and how far we are from preventing the catastrophe toward which the world seems to be inexorably moving."

In his over 200 pages of a critique of 'autonomous man', he reinforces his contempt for a nostalgic view of 'freedom' and 'dignity' in which a sentimental humanity engages in social environments circumscribed with 'beliefs'.  While concluding that man is not merely a "victim or passive observer of what is happening to him," he could not find any meaningful narrative to get us beyond a causal and reinforcement based view of ourselves and our impact on our environment - both of which he described in hopeless terms.

I deeply enjoyed revisiting this text that I first encountered at Goshen College when studying psychology with Professor Duane Kauffmann.  I found it particularly relevant to the confluence of multiple conversations across the week ranging from climate change advocates to energy investors.  Seeing both of these groups despair over the exact same commodity and our addiction thereto, I pondered why neither seemed to have the capacity to escape the fatalistic despondency articulated by Skinner nearly 43 years ago.  On the one hand humanity continues to belch carbon and nitrous oxide into the air with reckless abandon and at the same time, the producers of this noxious cocktail are seeing their fortunes fall.  If behaviorism was a self-respecting theory, certainly we'd recognize that aversion in both camps should engender an altered response.  Yet, neither group evidenced the capacity to act in a rational manner to their abhorrence of abject failure. 

Advocates for climate change appeal to future-aversion with the apocalyptic zeal of a revival preacher warning sinners of the fires of hell - the ultimate existential "global warming".  If we don't stop burning fossil fuels… begins what ends in impassioned expositions of the carnage of a few degrees centigrade.  Ignored are vital topics like alternative uses for the nearly $10 trillion of capital assets involved in supporting the nearly $40 trillion in consumer production which currently is animated by or consumes climate damaging behaviors.  Inadequate or non-existent proposals for how to move countries' economies into a post-fossil fuel environment are barely acknowledged  as though this will sort itself out if only we stop combusting our way to oblivion.  "Saving the future" spends precious little effort on articulating a future that is worth aspiration.

Advocates for energy investment see their interests fully aligned with a current-aversion in which production and distribution of energy serves as a critical component of investment portfolios from equities to commodities to MLPs and credit which are all under direct downward pressure.  Certain that the world won't stop consuming oil, gas, and coal, these investors see the present price shock as a blip on a relentless march of progress in which we drain every drop of crude out of every nook and cranny and dig every chunk of combustible fossil out of every vein on earth we can find.  War, death, fouled air and toxic landfills are the cost of doing business and every pensioner continues to vote with their investments down this inevitability until…?

In Skinner's era, we were going to incinerate ourselves with nuclear weapons.  Today was never going to come because we'd innovated ways to kill ourselves thousands of times over.  A thousand years ago, today was never going to come because the Saracens were prevailing against the holy campaigns launched against them in the Middle East and North Africa.  Two thousand years ago, today was never going to happen because Roman despots were bent on the destruction of everything that didn't like them which was nearly everything.  And my guess is that we'll have the opportunity to reflect - as some remnant of humanity - on today with quite the same nostalgia unless we pull the escape chute on our tired, linear, causal world views. 

The problem with apocalyptic behaviorism is the cat-nine-lives problem.  Whenever we're sure that we're all doomed, we seem to not all be doomed.  Now, don't get me wrong, I am certain that the harm that we're inflicting on ourselves and our planetary home is going to leave a bunch of us in a very bad way.  But that fact hasn't transformed behaviors and, if Skinner had actually been more careful, he might have recognized a deeper reality than the regression cause and effect limits he imposed on humans.  While the individual may very well exhibit incentives and aversions in reproducible manners sufficient to justify casual and careless theoretical frameworks, what is also evident is the dynamism of fields and inertial masses which polarize and animate behaviors even when they defy evolutionary imperatives for survival or reward

We won't address climate change through the promulgation of fear of global warming.  We won't experience accretive investment returns on commodities that are subject to politically sanctioned cabals and cartels.  We won't deploy "alternative energy" if we fail to contemplate alternative appliances. 

We can deploy technologies to address our necessary utilitarian needs without digging or drilling another element from the crust of our earth or exterminating another forest.  By accounting for what we already have in our stewardship and in the stewardship within our network, we've got more than enough.  For that which needs to be produced, we can focus on repurposing what we've already used.  This doesn't require radical change.  Recycled paper isn't glossy white.  But guess what!  Thousands of years of human communication was done on yellows and browns.  And we communicated.  Stop right now.  Think about the things you have two or more of.  Are you using both?  Have you ever used both simultaneously?  Of course not!  I'm still able to wear (so long as you're not entirely offended if you see the upper part of my thigh) the same jeans I purchased 28 years ago on the evening I proposed to my wife.  They may not meet the decency standards for some prudish types out there but they keep my legs from getting shredded when I'm working in the garden.  And when they fall off me at some inopportune time in the future, I've got 5 more slightly more decent pairs to wear. 

This is NOT an anti-consumer mentality.  What it is is a maximum utility model in which we focus on the full utilization of what IS in the system rather than proliferating into a system inferior, sub-maximal utilitarian devices.  And if we really want to change (which I'm pretty sure most of us don't want), we'll commence with ourselves in full, transparent cooperation with those in our ecosystem.  What's got to go is "autonomous" - both for reward and punishment - and from there our covalence can be manifest and thrive.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave