Andrew Revkin and the human beings on the planet

Recently I wrote about a little-known writer Bryan Appleyard and about how blissfully cocksure certain British authors tended to be, when it came to global warming. More recently, medical scientist Paul Nurse tried pulling a sweeping gesture against the whole internet (!), and had to be brought gently back to earth by the interviewer Richard Heffner (reminding him that, that would be like ‘spitting against the wind’).

The other group with similar properties is the New York one. Somehow my utterly prejudiced mind gets the impression that if one were to land up in New York City tomorrow and start interviewing random people from the intelligentsia, one wouldn’t meet a single climate skeptic either. Of course this prejudice is soundly reinforced every now and then by New Yorkers Andrew Revkin and Keith Kloor.

Revkin especially, one feels, lives in a world where the swarming, turgid thumps of his writing, the awkward juvenile turn of phrase, the peculiarly recursive bloggy conventions combine with the metronomic, mindnumbing theme: ‘humans’ are destroying the ‘planet’, to produce the ‘Revkin’ that we know. The outcome usually follows the pattern:

X reacted to my post, and sent his thoughts about Y, which were a good take-off point to Z, while A, B and C chimed in and D picked up the story here which I think is worth highlighting. I met X in college and think he is a great guy. I hung around with Y when we were in Guyana (insert any other country here, like, Seychelles, Madagascar, Haiti, Luxembourg). X, Y, A, B, C, and D and I happen to think that the world will end next Thursday.

And what’s more, Revkin, for some reason seems like a little boy lost in the wilderness of his own anti-apocalyptic wonkery. Smiling, slightly wide- and empty-eyed, as though wanting you the reader, to see how so reasonably well the world folds into his neat little ribbon-packets of enviro-prose. Sure, I am indulging in pop psychology here, but so does Revkin. In fact, Revkin cannot resist from indulging in pop psychology.

Here is a sampling that might help you:

Exhibit A: Now that I’m spending more time in classrooms than the newsroom…

Exhibit B: I hope that he and Nisbet can find a way to move forward constructively.

Exhibit C: But his post prompted a valuable back-and-forth between the two men, who have known each other since college. I encourage you to read that discussion.

Exhibit D: A couple of months ago I attended an art opening at the Marina Gallery in Cold Spring, N.Y., the little river town that counts as our urban center. While milling with the crowd, my ears became attuned to a regular “tap.” I found the source, a work of art consisting of a hammer banging metronome-style on the framed words, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency.” The piece, called “Pending,” was the creation of John Allen, a sculptor who, it turns out, is a neighbor.

Exhibit E: Can we take a “crude look at the whole,” as Murray Gell-Mann recommends for complex problems, and then maximize our capacity to leap?

Exhibit F: I mused with my wife early yesterday morning about how, more and more these days, humans speak with their fingers, silently tapping keys and hitting “send.” (We were side by side in bed with our MacBooks, checking weather and schedules and the like.)

Exhibit G: There’s plenty more on Dot Earth about the value of observing this pale blue dot from orbit.

The core rhetorical structure Revkin’s minor musings flit around like mustachioed capemoths is however a simple one. Revkin has assumed silently the mantle to speak in bland affectation, for all ‘humans’ and the whole ‘planet’. Who gave him the permission? No one knows; he just seems to have taken it up himself. The only conclusion left – it ‘vibes’ well with his megalomaniac clientèle who think of people as just pieces of meat, or chess. Just count the number of posts on his blog with the word ‘human’ and you’ll see what I mean.

The human sea - Revkin's playground

But then, the malaise extends much deeper. In between posts with titles like ‘humans infesting in a warming planet’ and ‘warming in a human-infested planet’, emerge others that give solutions to the sufferings of humankind as well. Look at his latest, where one of his academic contacts Bob Doppelt, gets to characterize human beings as clueless scatterbrains who have to be guided into thinking in the right way for their own good (emphasis mine):

Humans suffer from what psychologists call “bounded rationality.” We just can’t think about everything and are especially bad at projecting the consequences of our actions over time and space or imagining delays in the social and ecological systems we are embedded within.

If we are now in control of the planet, transformative cognitive and cultural changes will be needed in a very short time frame to prevent us from continually making conditions worse all while thinking we are doing good. That’s because humans are mostly skilled at “first-order change” — tweaks and improvements to our existing cognitive, behavioral, social, institutional systems that leave the basic goals, structures — and outcomes — of those systems in tact.

But if we are now charged with sustainably managing the planet, second order changes will be needed. These are transformative shifts in values, beliefs, and thought processes that produce fundamentally different types of behaviors, practices, institutions, technologies and policies. Second order change does happen — but mostly through major crisis — and even then there is no guarantee that the outcomes will be constructive.

So yes, we are now in control of the planet. This means our primary task must be to put massive amounts of resources into figuring out how to manage the process of human change so that second-order change comes about with as little harm as possible.

One would think that we are being guided hand-held, to newer and newer realms of dazzling thought with such new tools of computer keyboards. But that would be utterly wrong – all that is going on here is just a busy packaging of old wine in new bottles. Which is, to find how best to convince literally billions of people what’s best for them, much against their own instincts.

Compare what Revkin’s academic acquaitance Doppelt just said, to what Guillaumme Thomas Raynal said before the French Revolution:

But when you resettle a nation with a past into a new country, the skill of the legislator rests in the policy of permitting the people to retain no injurious opinions and customs which can possibly be cured and corrected. If you desire to prevent these opinions and customs from becoming permanent, you will secure the second generation by a general system of public education for the children

The last passage from Doppelt is particularly chuckle-inducing: the writer is busy rolling up his sleeves, for the momentous task ahead of him. Which is…putting massive resources into figuring out how to ‘manage’ humans and to brainwash them! Yes the ‘transformational’ task is brainwashing,…what else would require ‘massive resources’! While writers  of all stripe today can be forgiven for turning every intellectual exercise into another means for raising funds for one’s own kind (it’s an automatic habit), it is difficult to avoid seeing how such exercises have been well-observed in the past. From Frederic Bastiat’s The Law:

They [present day writers] divide mankind into two parts. People in general — with the exception of the writer himself — from the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!

Bastiat’s observations didn’t stop there. The tendency to consider humanity as though it were a lump of clay, to be moulded, shaped and made in the vision of the legislator, as though humans were bushes and trees to be trimmed and pruned (or plucked out like weeds) by the gardener’s hands, was noted as well:

These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor corps, and other variations.

Why would humans need this guidance and shaping? Just as RAF speaks of ‘bounded rationality’ that supposedly blinds men and leads them astray, so did Bastiat note in his fellowmen viewing mankind:

Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of action in the heart of man — and a principle of discernment in man’s intellect — they have considered these gifts from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty instead of production and exchange.

Bastiat reminded his readers just as gently as Heffner did with Nurse:

 Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves!

Indeed words we can borrow to remind Andrew Revkin and his academic friends, about ‘humans’.


One comment

  1. A K Haart

    “it ‘vibes’ well with his megalomaniac clientèle.”

    Unfortunately I suspect it does, yet it is merely a technique. Many a scribbler could emulate it if they had a mind to.