Thursday, June 19, 2008

Letter to a Global Warming Skeptic -- A Critique of Charles Krauthammer's Column "Carbon Chastity"

by Jerry Lame

This is a letter I wrote to a dear friend in response to her recommendation of Krauthammer's May 30, 2008 column Carbon Chastity:The First Commandment of the Church of the Environment. I think the letter speaks for itself:

Ever since you told me that you had sent me the Krauthammer article, which I had just then read, and been angered and disgusted by, I've been mulling it over: the article, and what I could say to you about it. It is a depressing prospect, because I don't believe it is possible to persuade you to change your mind, no matter what I say. And that is depressing, because it really seems that evidence and rational argument are virtually futile when it comes to trying to convince people of things. It is not even important that you change your mind. The planet will warm or not warm, no matter what you think. But you are the one who wanted to send that article to me. You wanted to talk or argue about it. I don't know why. But I will give it one last shot. There is the added consideration that, if you, an educated, informed person, can’t be convinced that global warming is real and urgent, then this bodes ill for the prospects that the world as a whole will be willing to respond adequately to what is really a very demanding situation. It means misinformation and disinformation is likely to triumph, at least in the short run, when action might be most effective.

You asked me why I don't have an open mind on the question. I think I have an open mind. That is, I am willing to change it if strong evidence comes in on the other side. But I have made up my mind, on the basis of what I've been able to learn. I read an entire book on the history of the science of climate change, by a professional historian of science, not an environmental activist (The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart, Harvard University Press). I brought that book to a baseball game in Point Loma years ago. You weren't interested in reading it. I've gone to many lectures by renowned scientists whose life work is to study the climate. I've read articles in the journals Science and Nature reporting studies related to climate change. I've read about reports by large groups of scientists, who are experts on the climate, reporting an international consensus that the problem is real and serious and caused by human activity. I sent you an article ( Facing the climate change challenge ) that cited physical evidence that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere is the product of burning fossil fuels. You picked some little point that you thought should have been clearer, and missed the larger point, I think, that there is sound physical evidence that humans have caused a 38% increase in atmospheric CO2. To me, the evidence for human-caused global climate change is overwhelming. My question for you is: why are you in denial?

Some people seem to think that they are entitled, as free people, to believe anything they want, and anyone who tries to convince them to believe something they would find unpleasant, if true, is seeking to control them, is guilty of arrogance, and has a closed mind. This, to me, is a species of shooting the messenger. The point of believing something is to conform your thoughts and actions to what is true. The truth is under no obligation to please us, or to conform to our political ideology. It just is what it is. Of course, we are all entitled to believe whatever we choose. But we are not entitled to demand respect for those beliefs if we are not prepared to justify them with respectable reasons.

Krauthammer does not supply any. His article, instead, is an extended exercise in shooting, stabbing, and then trampling on the messenger:

I'm not a global warming believer. I'm not a global warming denier. I'm a global warming agnostic who believes instinctively that it can't be very good to pump lots of CO2 into the atmosphere, but is equally convinced that those who presume to know exactly where that leads are talking through their hats.
This sets up a straw man. Nobody claims to “know exactly” where an increase in CO2 levels will lead. All predictions of future climate are uncertain to a degree, and this is stated along with the prediction. Just as, when the future course of a hurricane is mapped by a forecaster, there is a widening path of possibilities as you go further and further into the future, and this is not an argument to ignore hurricane warnings, predictions about future climates are also probabilistic. Of course Krauthammer knows this, but pretends that he doesn’t. By “those who presume to know exactly”, he means scientists who are attempting to model the climate on their computers, and are making forecasts on that basis. And he is saying that they are “talking through their hats.”

Now I ask you to consider what it would take for a scientist, or a working-group of scientists, who have completed a study, and are publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal, to be “talking through their hats.” People who talk through their hats are saying things with no basis in fact. They are being sloppy in their thought processes. They are exaggerating for effect. They are bullshitting. (Remember that essay I read part of to you, “On Bullshit”? It's in Harry Frankfurt's The Importance of What We Care About) People like Krauthammer, political pundits, talk through their hats all the time. Bullshitting is their profession, so maybe they should be excused for thinking that everyone is as full of bullshit as they are. But it’s not true.

To really fathom what it would take for Krauthammer’s “talking through their hats” claim to be true, I ask you to go to your local library, and take down a copy of the journal “Science” and one of the journal “Nature”, and read an article in each. It doesn’t matter what the article is about. You don’t have to understand it in detail. But just take a look at what’s involved in publishing a scientific paper. You have to situate the problem in the context of current work in the field, which means you must have mastered that work. You have to decide on methodology, report the methodology in detail, consider and answer possible objections to the methodology. Then you have to carry out the study, report the findings, and carry out statistical tests to see if your conclusions are truly justified by the data, or whether the data could have arisen by chance, or for some other reason. All this is submitted to the journal, which sends your paper out to several referees, who are experts in the field, who evaluate your work. If they find mistakes, or have doubts or objections, these are relayed to you, and you may be asked to revise or expand or redo the study. This happens for every scientific paper published in a reputable journal. Every once in awhile, fraud is discovered, or a mistake slips through, and this is eventually discovered and corrected, because others are trying to build on your work, and if there is a mistake, those follow-up studies won’t turn out as expected. More commonly, an interpretation of the data will be found to be incomplete or inadequate by other scientists, because that is their job. You expect to be attacked. Scientists make their careers by finding better ways of understanding, which involves criticizing and then improving on previous work.

Now undoubtedly, some shoddy work gets published. Maybe you could say some climate scientists have, at some point, talked through their hats. But Krauthammer is talking about a whole field of research, an intensely active field, comprising many hundreds of scientists, in competing groups all over the world, publishing hundreds of papers. He is saying all these people are somehow managing to bullshit their way into scientific journals. Is that credible?

One possibility might be that this is what the brilliant and amusing physicist Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science” (in his commencement address to Cal Tech: Cargo Cult Science – I recommend it), that is, shoddy science or pseudoscience. But most scientists, especially most senior scientists, subscribe to the ethic of scientific integrity that Feynman recommends in that talk, and they are able for the most part to distinguish real from phony science. This is easiest in the hard sciences, like physics and chemistry. And climate science is a hard science. It’s done by physicists and chemists and biologists. In this case, most senior scientists who have paid attention to this issue have decided that the science supporting global human-caused climate change is sound, and that the global warming deniers are the ones doing phony science, to the extent they do any science at all. In each country, senior scientists are selected to be members of their nation’s prestigious academy of science. The academies of all G8 countries, as well as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa recently urged action on global climate change: Joint Science Acadamies' Statement. Here is a brochure that describes the process that the American National Academy of Sciences goes through in preparing such a report: Our Study Process.

I recently read an article I consider to be bad or phony science in, of all places, Skeptic Magazine. The current issue, Volume 14 No. 1 (Skeptic: The Magazine: Current Issue) has a “Cover Story” consisting of two articles, the first denying the evidence for global warming (“A Climate of Belief”) and the second supporting it (“How We Know Global Warming Is Real”). I read up to a certain point in the first article, when a particular graph (Figure 4: Accumulation of Climate Uncertainty…) and the description of how he got it revealed to me that the author had made a basic error. But this is masked by so much technical mumbo-jumbo that someone who has not done mathematical modeling of partially random processes (I did as part of my dissertation) would be likely to be snowed, as I think the editors of this magazine were, but those of a real scientific journal specializing in this area would certainly not be. The result is to vastly overestimate the uncertainty of climate predictions. If people like Krauthammer, non-scientists with a political ax to grind, read trash like this, rather than going to legitimate science sources, where the papers have been vetted by experts, they will be likely to feel justified in confidently claiming that everyone who disagrees with them is talking through their hat. And there is no shortage of this junk, because it is in the economic interest of Big Oil and allied interests to obscure the truth. They follow exactly the same methodology pioneered by the tobacco companies. (This is recounted in Al Gore’s movie, and documented in Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science. He calls it “manufacturing uncertainty.”) Of course, there is also no shortage of sincere crackpots and ignoramuses who are eager to spout their half-baked ideas. Otherwise, how could you account for all the holocaust deniers, creationists, anti-water-flouridationists, flat-earthers, etc.?

Back to Krauthammer:

Predictions of catastrophe depend on models. Models depend on assumptions about complex planetary systems – from ocean currents to cloud formation – that no one fully understands. Which is why the models are inherently flawed and forever changing.
Yes, it is true that no one fully understands the total climate system. Yes the models are changing: they are improving, due both to more complete models and to ever-faster computers. (See figure 6 of the Skeptic paper “How We Know Global Warming Is Real”-- Skeptic: The Magazine: Featured Article, showing the increasing complexity of climate models.)

Krauthammer continues:

The doomsday scenarios posit a cascade of events, each with a certain probability. The multiple improbability of their simultaneous occurrence renders all such predictions entirely speculative.
This is clever. You are being encouraged to imagine: this bad thing has a 10% chance of happening, and this, and this, so 10% times 10% times 10% yields some very small probability of all three happening. So the doomsday scenario must be highly improbable. But think of it the other way. The chances that some other source of CO2 is responsible for the increase may be small but not zero. The chances that greenhouse gases won’t cause a greenhouse effect, as we know they should by simple physics, may also be small but not zero. Multiplying all the improbable ways we could luck out and not screw up the climate by continuing to dump massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere would produce a “multiple improbability of their simultaneous occurrence” which would be entirely wishful thinking.

The best estimate of what is going to happen is the best estimate of the best, most thoroughly tested computer models. That’s the best we can do right now. Anything else is less probable. All the models agree that warming is already happening and is increasing. Yes, the models are incomplete, and the forecasts are uncertain. But if by “entirely speculative” Krauthammer is claiming that they are worthless, and that it would be prudent to ignore them, he has yet to make that case. It would be foolhardy to treat uncertain knowledge as if it were complete ignorance, which is what Krauthammer seems to favor.

Yet on the basis of this speculation, environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation. “The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity,” warns Czech President Vaclav Klaus, “is no longer socialism. It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism.”
My objection to “compliant scientists” is the same as to “talking through their hats.” How is it possible for working scientists to be compliant? It happened in Stalinist Russia, where all scientific organizations were terrorized by a police state, so that criticism of phony science was completely suppressed. (This led to mass starvation due to bad agricultural practices.) But we’re talking about a very vigorous international scientific establishment. For scientists to be compliant would require them to falsify their results, and for this falsification to go undetected by referees and editors, and unrebutted by fiercely competing colleagues. Can you imagine the fame a scientist could garner by showing conclusively that all current climate models are wrong, or even that their current confidence limits are so wildly underestimated that their results are useless? I don’t mean just by saying it –any crackpot or political pundit can do that -- but by actually doing the work to prove it.

Given the unlikelihood of an international conspiracy of compliant scientists, I think that Krauthammer, if he is going to make such an attack on others’ integrity, owes it to us to supply some evidence to support his claim. But instead of evidence, he gives us a quote of someone who is making an even wilder unsubstantiated accusation. Are we supposed to take this accusation seriously because it’s made by a president? By the way, this is Vaclav Klaus, not the human rights hero Vaclav Havel, his predecessor. According to Wikipedia, Klaus is a free market ideologue whose economic policies Vaclav Havel has called “gangster capitalism,” and who seems to have surrounded himself with corrupt cronies.

Do you really agree with Klaus that environmentalism is an “ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology”? Do you think that cleaning up the water and air, and protecting endangered species have threatened freedom and democracy? Do you mourn the loss of your freedom to buy leaded gasoline and to paint your house with lead paint? Is over-fishing to the point of near-extinction just a healthy expression of a free market, and anybody who tries to stop it by regulation the equivalent of a communist, trying to destroy our way of life? That is what Klaus and Krauthammer are implying. Just who is being unscrupulous?

The kinds of problems at issue here cannot be solved by individual exercise of free choice. You don’t have the freedom to go out and buy a cheap hybrid vehicle or an electric car, or to take cheap and convenient public transportation, because the transportation infrastructure that we all depend on has been a collective, society-wide historical project, involving government, industry, consumers and small businesses. The market plays a very important role in this process, but in certain circumstances, without governmental regulation, it can fail us spectacularly, and that is what is happening now. Because, when we pay for gasoline or electricity, we are not paying the true cost; the cost of restoring the environment to the state it was in before we burned all that fossil fuel has not been figured in. And the damage we are doing, especially if we continue in the way we have been, is going to be very great. A market economy can be like a very powerful, extremely efficient locomotive that, with unstoppable inertia, can barrel right over a cliff, if we don’t take the trouble to force it to take into account long term costs. The idea of imposing a carbon tax is a way of doing just that. Other methods will be considered. That is a matter for policy makers and the democratic process, not scientists. But something has to be done. The idea that scientists and environmentalists have colluded to make up this threatening scenario out of whole cloth and then foist it on the world, just for the supposed satisfaction of seeing governments regulate industry – isn’t that what Klaus and Krauthammer are saying? – just seems completely wacky to me. It would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high.

If you doubt the arrogance, you haven't seen that Newsweek cover story that declared the global warming debate over. Consider: If Newton's laws of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming – infinitely more untested, complex and speculative – is a closed issue.
If this argument is valid, then we should consider no question settled enough to act on. Is it arrogant to consider cigarettes harmful? Should we go back to testing nuclear warheads in the atmosphere, because it’s anybody’s guess whether radioactive fallout is harmful? Once again, Krauthammer artfully crafts words to set up straw men, making the ridiculous seem plausible. “Closed issue” sounds like closed mind. It sounds so final, so absolute. But is that really the same thing as the debate being over? I don’t think so. New evidence could come in, that would force us to change our views, but short of that, we have enough evidence to consider the issue settled. That’s true of any number of empirical questions, matters that we now consider accepted wisdom, but we would be foolish to reject new findings if they should undermine that opinion. Likewise we would be foolish to fail to act on our knowledge because we may have to revise it someday.

Here is a letter to the editor of the New York Times about the evolution/creationism “debate”, which is long-since over, from the point of view of science, and for anyone who wants to base his or her world view on evidence rather than “religious fervor”. (It’s amusing that right wing religionists like Krauthammer, when they are attacking science, whose authority they resent, always want to accuse their opponents of being religious, as if to bring them down to their own level! It’s a common tactic of creationists.)

New York Times, June 11, 2008
To the Editor:
Re “The Cons of Creationism” (editorial, June 7):
The debate over science versus creationism is in part fueled by the notion that everybody’s opinions and beliefs are equally valid. While in a democratic society we should be respectful of each other’s opinions and beliefs, this is not how science operates. The scientific method has well-defined rules by which we decide whether a solution to a scientific problem is correct or not. It is not that we believe or have the opinion that a certain solution is correct — we prove it scientifically one way or another. Thus there are right and wrong solutions that may seem unfair, undemocratic and elitist. But this is how science advances and produces the marvelous technological developments that surround us. And this is not a belief. It is a fact.
Ivan K. Schuller
La Jolla, Calif., June 7, 2008
The writer is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.
Krauthammer’s accusation that declaring a debate over is “arrogant” fits with Schuller’s “unfair, undemocratic and elitist.” But everybody’s beliefs are not equally valid. All opinions are not made equal.

But declaring it closed has its rewards. It not only dismisses skeptics as the running dogs of reaction, i.e., of Exxon, Cheney and now Klaus. By fiat, it also hugely re-empowers the intellectual left.

For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class – social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies – arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).

So begins the most distasteful portion of the article. It reminds me of a scene from “The Manchurian Candidate” (the original one with Frank Sinatra) where a Joe McCarthy-like senator, a worthless, manipulated drunk, gets up on the floor of the Senate, waving a paper above his head, and declares “There are exactly 57 Communists in the State Department,” when we’ve just learned, in the previous scene, that the number came from a Heinz ketchup bottle. This is pure McCarthyism mixed with vintage American anti-intellectualism. The evil left-wingers want to control us. They’ve always wanted to control us, for their own nefarious purposes. And not just left-wingers, but anybody who styles himself as knowing more than the average Joe. They all have it in for us good decent hard working Americans who “instinctively” know things, without even trying, and who have better things to do than become experts on things we have firm opinions about. In fact, expertise makes anybody suspect. We can be pretty sure that anybody who pretends to actually know something is talking through his hat, so we can safely ignore any warnings that come from that quarter. We call that being a “skeptic” or an “agnostic”.

What garbage! Krauthammer tells a story about failed communism, generalizes to all intellectuals, and then paints environmentalists, and all scientists whose findings support a human-caused danger to the environment, as members of this nefarious clan, without a shred of evidence. He might as well be waving a blank piece of paper over his head, and shrieking “Commies! They’re all Commies! They’re plotting to take over!” It makes a good story, for people who go in for that sort of thing. But hearing a story that appeals to one should not be a motivation for actually believing it. Really, Marcia, it’s wrong to let this kind of thing appeal to you. It’s beneath you.

Krauthammer goes on to recount the triumph of capitalism over communism, then:

Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but – even better – in the name of Earth itself.

Environmentalists are Gaia's priests, instructing us in her proper service and casting out those who refuse to genuflect. (See Newsweek above.) And having proclaimed the ultimate commandment – carbon chastity – they are preparing the supporting canonical legislation that will tell you how much you can travel, what kind of light you will read by, and at what temperature you may set your bedroom thermostat.

There's no greater social power than the power to ration. And, other than rationing food, there is no greater instrument of social control than rationing energy, the currency of just about everything one does and uses in an advanced society.

Let’s note and then ignore the religious aspersions. I’ve already mentioned that this is an old tactic of creationists and their ilk, to portray a disagreement with the hard facts of science as a religious war, with science, or rather the supposed misusers or usurpers of science, representing a false religion, exercising illegitimate authority.

The underlying argument here, if you can call it that, goes something like this: Communists and socialists wanted to control us by taking away our freedom to make economic decisions individually. Environmentalists are the intellectual heirs of communists and socialists. Their main aim is to usurp control over the economy and society. They claim to do this in the name of the planet. (We know better. We can see that they are really just arrogant and unscrupulous power-seekers.) Scientists have handed them the tool to take control by giving them an excuse to impose carbon rationing, since the scientists claim that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases, among which carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels figures prominently. We must resist this attempt at control by our old enemies. Therefore we must deny the reality of global warming. Therefore global warming is a hoax. Or, if we can’t get away with claiming that global warming is false (since we have no evidence), we can cast doubt on the state of the evidence. Casting doubt requires no evidence, or even a careful analysis of theirs. A vigorous bout of name-calling generally does the trick.

To put the argument more succinctly: if global warming were real, it would require regulation of carbon use. Regulation is politically and morally unacceptable. Therefore global warming is false.

That’s a bad argument. The physics and chemistry of the global human/planetary system are what they are. The numbers are what they are. If we don’t want to accept the consequences of our own actions, we do have the choice to deny and ignore those consequences, up to a point. But the laws of nature are inexorable. They will not be snowed by bullshit. Reality gets its turn.

Krauthammer continues:

So what does the global warming agnostic propose as an alternative? First, more research - untainted and reliable - to determine (a) whether the carbon footprint of man is or is not lost among the massive natural forces (from sunspot activity to ocean currents) that affect climate, and (b) if the human effect is indeed significant, whether the planetary climate system has the homeostatic mechanisms (like the feedback loops in the human body, for example) with which to compensate.

Second, reduce our carbon footprint in the interim by doing the doable, rather than the economically ruinous and socially destructive. The most obvious step is a major move to nuclear power, which to the atmosphere is the cleanest of the clean.

First, he implies here what he has claimed above, that the global climate research up to now has been tainted and unreliable, but he has offered no evidence for that claim, only a story about evil communists and unscrupulous environmentalists and compliant scientists. If you like the story, if it sounds familiar and plausible and comforting, you are supposed to accept it as true, with no proof. I have argued that the story is in fact highly implausible.

Second, he offers questions, sources of doubt: isn’t the human carbon footprint swamped by tremendous natural forces like sunspots and ocean currents? Doesn’t the planet have a way of maintaining its natural balance, like the human body does? This last is actually the semi-mystical Gaia hypothesis which Krauthammer was just ridiculing. But both questions appeal to a certain kind of common sense -- that nature is just too big and too old and wise to be seriously affected by us puny humans -- so they are a natural way to raise doubts about global warming. But both questions are quantitative ones. Instinct isn’t adequate to answer them. The only way to do so is to measure and to model. That’s exactly what climate scientists have been doing – trying to answer these very questions – for more than thirty years. And what they’ve been trying to tell us for the last decade, with increasing urgency, is that the answers are in, and they’re not pretty. Krauthammer, in this article, didn’t cite a single scientific study disputing these conclusions. All he did was cast aspersions, and raise a few vague questions which he made no attempt to actually research the answers to.

Third, he suggests, as action, delay (more research), and half-measures, determined by what he deems to be economically acceptable, without making any effort to put in the balance the possible costs of inadequate action. It’s as if someone on the Titanic were to insist on not being interrupted at dinner, and on being informed of an impending collision with an iceberg, were to say, “That’s impossible. It would be too inconvenient. But if I must, I’ll skip coffee.”

In summary, I think this column was an extremely shoddy and disreputable piece of work, though clever in its own twisted way. I’m extremely sorry you liked it. I hope I’ve been able to convince you to at least reassess that judgment.

One more point, on a different but related issue. Remember how I’ve expressed my dismay to you about the way I feel the Republican Party has poisoned the political atmosphere in this country? This column is a prime example of what I was talking about. Krauthammer addresses questions of fact and policy by the most extreme and groundless vilification of his opponents, accusing them of dishonesty and disloyalty to core American values. He attacks the people, not the issues, turning a scientific and economic policy dispute into a religious war between defenders of freedom and unscrupulous arrogant intellectual leftist would-be despots. One thing that puzzles me is how you could think that this would appeal to me. You evidently didn’t recognize the article for what it is. Did you think this had any chance or purpose of convincing those who disagree with it? It couldn’t possibly do so. It’s aimed at the conservative Republican base, rallying them to a war of good against evil, in which rational argument, based on probabilities not certainties, and the arts of compromise and risk management have no parts to play. The Right is digging in its heels. It’s been forced from its staunch position of denying global warming. Now it claims to be skeptical and agnostic. But it continues to deny the evidence, by insisting it’s tainted, and to ignore the experts, by attacking their motives and integrity, and to oppose any effective action to stem the damage, by not considering the risks.

You said that the Democrats are guilty of the same kind of rhetoric. Well I admit that I am accusing Krauthammer of disreputable behavior. He’s using unscrupulous, McCarthyite tactics. He’s making nasty, groundless attacks on those he disagrees with, instead of respectfully arguing the issues. He’s using deceptive language to make invalid arguments. If he weren’t Jewish, anti-Semitic attacks would feel right at home here. This is vile, I claim. So am I also guilty of vilification? Well there’s the evidence. Read the column.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Deep Future

by Jerry Lame

(I feel this essay is kind of fumbling around a point I haven’t yet quite fully grasped. It may change in the future. Comments are welcome.)

I've been thinking about this recently. I don't think I've seen this thought expressed before, at least not quite in this way, though I wouldn't be surprised if it has been, and it is already, as context/underlying assumption, powerfully shaping many people's values, concerns and actions:

Very briefly, the idea is that, given our current scientific understanding of our place in the history of life – namely that we have, relatively speaking, only just appeared (the earth’s past is deep, ours is not) – that we should regard ourselves as at very near the beginning of an extremely long stay on this planet, of possibly many millions of years. That’s thousands of times longer than recorded history. And this has moral implications. The deep future is a rational, objective prospect which should rival, in our assessments of what is required of us, the role that eternity has formerly played. I would argue that the (dubious) promise of individual eternal life should pale in comparison to the ‘near eternity’, so to speak, of future generations who will inherit this planet from us, though of course the ideas are not mutually exclusive. Mark Twain pointed out that the imagination quickly numbs at the prospect of heavenly hymning to Jehovah. An eternity of these nameless joys is difficult to attach any meaning to. But the prospect of thousands and millions or even billions of years of future biological life on this planet, including human life, though awe-inspiring, is at least somewhat comprehensible, because we know that the past too is deep. The human race is extremely young, civilization new-born. We have a long and valuable life as a species ahead of us. Our choices now will shape that life. Harm we do the planet– say by diminishing the biological diversity it has taken eons to evolve, or by pushing the climate into an entirely new regime – will be paid for by our descendants for eons to come.

I was brought to think of this again while reading reactions by conservatives like Bill Muehlenberg to Charles Krauthammer’s column Carbon Chastity: The First Commandment of the Church of the Environment. (See my critique of Krauthammer's column in my "Letter to a Global Warming Skeptic".) It seems to me that what has happened is that, as people have begun to awaken to the stakes of habitat destruction and climate change, many Christians have tried to put the new situation in a familiar and effective moral context by incorporating insights, that follow from the deep future, into their religion. Others have tried to orient themselves by inventing a new religion, or “spirituality”, of nature worship. All these people, I presume, quite apart from these religious expressions, have perceived the objective situation, and the urgent need for action in order to mitigate the damage to the environment we’re causing, and have tried to express these insights in religious/spiritual terms because this is their traditional way of expressing values, and because they believe, rightly, that religion is an effective motivator of people in this society. However, what they overlook is that differences in religion have historically been extremely divisive. Changing Christianity to respond to the new world view, or inventing new religions to express it, are both bound to elicit conservative religious reaction. Environmentalism, to the extent it is styled a false religion, can be rejected by the religious right on that basis alone, without even considering the factual basis of its claims. That is the thrust of Krauthammer’s column. Of course, the right can call anything it wants a religion in order to discredit it. That is exactly the tactic creationism has taken against evolution.

Perhaps it would be best to avoid giving them ammunition by keeping science-based claims well clear of religion of all sorts. Unfortunately, that is probably not possible. Every religionist anxious to lead people by speaking to them with the authority of God is bound to twist his religion to fit his new vision. With the best of intentions – the hope of a new, more responsive religious vision – they are bound to turn an environmental crisis into a religious war. Perhaps in the long run they will succeed in reforming their religion. But can we afford the delay created by unnecessary religious conflict? Do we really need to turn everything into religion in order to act sensibly and with appropriate fervor?

On the other hand, perhaps there’s no harm done, because the religious right in America is devoted to premillenial dispensationalism, expecting to be raptured away from the earth at any moment. Even if they could recognize the deep future as a purely secular view, they would have to deny it, since Jesus believed the end of the world was at hand, and so do they. Perhaps, if we are lucky, they will be raptured up, and we can get on with preserving the earth.

Of course there are caveats to the idea of a deep human future: 1) assuming we don’t destroy ourselves, 2) assuming we aren’t destroyed by some global natural cataclysm (it’s a good bet; they’re very rare) or divine intervention (ditto) 3) we can expect biological change in our species, but can’t foresee its nature, so when I say “we” I mean our descendants, whom we can consider human in some, perhaps extended, sense.

Some Historical Context

We know about deep time, in the sense of the discovery, first of the ancient history of the earth, second of the ancient history of the universe: the fossil record was gradually understood, the numbers of years into the past that these creatures lived gradually extending from thousands into millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, finally (the very oldest) billions of years. Darwin needing deep time for the slow shaping of species by natural selection. Lord Kelvin denying it to him, by his calculations of the cooling of the earth and burning of the sun. Then the discovery of radioactivity, which has heated the earth, knocking Kelvin's calculations into a cocked hat. Darwin vindicated. The invention of dating by nuclear decay, allowing the direct measurement of the age of fossils, and the age of the earth eventually at 4.54 billion years. The understanding of nuclear fusion, and the physics and life-cycles of stars, the creation of heavy elements in supernovae, and the recycling of the resulting stardust into new planetary systems like ours. The discovery of the universe's expansion, the big bang, and the search for the age of the universe, now estimated at around 14 billion years. The past, we have discovered, is deep. The imagination falters over such vast stretches of time. Nevertheless, this is time in the concrete historical sense, with a fixed number of zeroes, not the fancifully huge numbers that Indian story tellers so delighted in spinning out, their myriads of myriads of ages. There was a beginning, of everything observable, 13,700,000,000 years ago, or thereabouts.

In the other direction, back in the nineteenth century, with the discovery of thermodynamics, people got the idea that the universe, according to the known laws of physics, must be running down, and will eventually, in the far distant future, die a "heat death". (Lord Kelvin again). Big bang cosmology also gives us possible scenarios of cosmic evolution into the far distant future. And of course science fiction has given us many visions of near and far distant possible futures. But the idea I’ve been trying to express, of … our possibly having a deep future, is a matter of a stance we take now toward our responsibility for what is to come. What would it be like to live as if the human future far outweighed its past? How would we proceed? Would it make a difference?

At one time, people lived in a world they thought of as static and eternal. They had creation myths, but these occurred in a kind of mythic time, or they believed in an eternal recurrence. (Mircea Eliade used to talk about this. It's been years since I read him.) Then the Hebrews incorporated their creation myth into their national history, in a supposed historical past connected with their own time by lists of ancestors (all those 'begots'), with the middling ones semi-mythical (legendary) living centuries, and the latest ones of historical memory more realistic, practically merging with current events (those of the writers.) The age of the world became short, though all those lists of generations must have seemed awe inspiring enough. They lived in a much smaller world. The beginning was nearer, the sky was nearer, the stars hung in a firmament barely beyond the sun and moon, wheeling around a flat and stable earth – practically cozy, compared to the modern immensity. The end was nearer too. Prophets foretold an end, not of the world, but of things as they were, a new age, someday, but once again in historical time. Then, in Jesus’ troubled era, a new urgency, expectations of the imminent appearance of the messiah. Jesus himself seems to have believed the end of the world was near. Paul too. (I’m no bible expert. This is what I’ve gathered.)

Some half-baked thoughts on Christianity and the deep future

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how the Christian heightened sense of meaning seems to be parasitic on a delusion of imminent apocalypse? Not on a deep future, but one cut short. In nearly every age, there have been Christians who fervently believed that Jesus was about to return. Dates are predicted. The dates pass. A new date is predicted. They’re waiting now. They are certain. They never learn. Why? Because preaching fear and hope of immediate violent change transfixes people, recruits followers? Perhaps. Probably also because many believe that, even if the expectation is illusory, if we live as if the world could end at any moment, this will motivate people to live rightly, to obey the religion, in order to be ready. It’s a stand-in for death, which may also strike at any moment.

But this makes Christianity singularly unsuited to guide a race endowed with a deep future. No church that was in touch with our historical circumstances could oppose artificial birth control while accepting modern medicine and hygiene, thus dooming the population to double, then double again, until only starvation or environmental catastrophe, or some other self-produced calamity limits what we are unwilling to limit by exercise of our reason, our science, our capacity for foresight, and our concern for future generations. It only makes sense if you don’t expect to need this planet long, or you feel comfortable blaming the evil results of your teaching on the devil.

But the entire Christian story is wrong. Humanity didn’t fall from a state of perfection a few short millennia ago. We arose from lower forms of life over vast stretches of time. Natural evils – death, disease, storms and earthquakes – cannot be blamed on us. Death is not the wages of sin. But the future of the planet is our responsibility. It will not be miraculously transformed into Eden. We will not be beamed up before having to face any mess we are foolish enough to make of it. If we don’t blow it, and possibly even if we do, we are here for the duration. “The end is near” is not what we need to hear. The end is very very very far off. Fix your eyes on that, and act accordingly.

Well, I seem to have picked a fight with conservative Christianity, which I just scolded New Age environmentalists and liberal Christians for doing. So I should at least emphasize that you don’t have to buy into my anti-religious rhetoric to accept the facts about the history of life on earth, our place in it, and the human role in climate change and stresses on the environment. Those facts didn’t come out of a religious or an anti-religious point of view. They came out of scientific investigation. If you need to reconcile your religion to the facts before you can accept them and deal with them, then I say, go to it. Or if you need to compartmentalize, with a religion of personal salvation on the one hand, and earth stewardship on the other, that’s ok with me too. The important thing is to deal with the current crisis, and to give up on denial.

I’m riding two hobby horses here. I think the world would be better if we took care of it, and if God and Jesus went the way of Zeus and Hera. Both issues are important to me. I’ve tried to describe some ways that anti-environmentalism may be related to conservative Christianity. But one thing I would definitely deny is that environmentalism is a fundamentally religious point of view. It may be in conflict with certain versions of certain religions, but that’s a different thing. If science discovers that the moon is made of rocks, that may conflict with a religion of moon worship. But that’s not because science was anti-moonist. It’s because, if two disciplines claim to be about the truth, and seek it by their own methods, and their claims conflict, one must be in error.

The deep future not a religion

My comparison of the deep future with the Christian promise of eternal life may bring to mind some ideas expressed by Carl Becker in his famous attack on the Enlightenment in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Becker claimed that, in the late eighteenth century,

“…the doctrine of progress, of perfectibility, became an essential article of faith in the new religion of humanity…. [T]he utopian dream of perfection, that necessary compensation for the limitations and frustrations of the present state, having been long identified with the golden age or the Garden of Eden or life eternal in the Heavenly City of God, and then by the sophisticated transferred to remote or imagined lands (the moon or Atlantis or Nowhere...), was at last projected into the life of man on earth and identified with the desired and hoped-for regeneration of society.” (p.139)

Posterity, Becker claimed, was looked to for the equivalent of religious vindication, “reverently addressed as a divinity, and invoked in the accents of prayer.” (p. 142)

But none of this is implied by the idea of the deep future. I am not invoking perfectibility, or even progress. I am not seeking vindication from posterity, or subordinating the values of our lives to theirs. What I am saying is that, if we try to take a large perspective, and view the situation objectively, the future of humanity, although we can barely foresee its nature, is real and is likely to be long and to depend on the health and wealth of this planet, so that, out of a sense of fairness, if nothing else, we should consider the interests of the real people who will populate that real future when we make decisions today.

Frankly, it shocks me that some on the religious (and not so religious) right do not seem to comprehend the seriousness of the values being invoked by those concerned with the future of the earth. They mock them, as some kind of weird idolatry. I don't pretend to understand the source of this blindness. Is it really religion? That shouldn't surprise me, but it does.