Global climate change is not only a physical phenomenon, an object of scientific study, and a catalyst for social change. It is also an "information phenomenon" – or as Walter Truett Anderson likes to call it, a "rumor." He and Don Michael are keenly interested in the way rumors, myths, and belief systems influence matters of governance, and they shed some much needed light on the potential for abuse (or at least distortion) of information about global climate change. Their insights will help us keep our eyes wide open as we face the challenges ahead.
Walter Truett Anderson’s most recent book is To Govern Evolution, a fascinating explanation of humanity’s (mostly unacknowledged) assumption of control over the Earth and its living systems. Donald N. Michael is an Emeritus Professor of Planning and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and a member of the Club of Rome. Guest Editor Bill Prescott spoke with them in San Francisco this past spring.
Bill: Once a year, both of you go to Esalen to participate in a small invitational meeting to discuss issues of governance. What kinds of subjects have you discussed in the past, and how did that lead to your addressing the issue of global climate change?
Don: The persistent question for us has been this: By what kinds of governance processes can humans be reliable to one another? Given that there’s a big thrust for autonomy and a general perception of independence in the face of growing interdependence, how do we organize these two ways of being in the world?
Our group does not start out with the presumption that we know what to do and the trick is to get it done. Our question is, how do we need to understand this? That leads us into questions about language; mythology; the psychodynamics of behavior in the face of power; group process and social change, and our ignorance about these things; and belief systems that are either compatible or incompatible with an interdependent world. How do we think afresh and anew about these matters?
Walt: Two years ago we worked around the theme of "The Noble Lie," as described in Plato’s Republic: Socrates proposes a "noble lie" to provide the guardians of the republic with a sense of unity they might not otherwise have. We looked at the phenomenon of people fabricating reality for political purposes – building myths and telling stories – and we looked at the dynamic of the noble lie and at noble lies past and present.
The myth of Gaia, which people are desperately trying to manufacture and sell in the United States right now, is a classic example of the noble lie. The calculus of the noble lie is, essentially, "If people believe x, then they will do y." In other words, if people are persuaded that such-and-such is true, then they will behave in a way that will produce desirable results.
I believe that this calculus is fallacious on two points. One is that it assumes that it’s possible to persuade everybody of the truth of the myth you want to sell, and two that they will behave in the prescribed manner – which ain’t necessarily so. It’s a very dubious process, but at the same time it’s obviously a large part of what goes on in the world, especially at times when people perceive the need to restructure realities and behavior patterns on a large scale.
Don: There’s an effort on the part of members of Congress and the environmental community to make depletion of the ozone layer and global climate change a new noble lie around which to restructure policy, at least, and civilization, at best, in their own image.
Walt: At last year’s Esalen meeting we talked about the greenhouse effect, and we observed that one of the ways people react to such a rumor – and I think it’s best described that way – is to say "Yippee! Let’s use it!" A friend of mine sent me an interesting paper about socialism that basically said, "We can see that socialism is in big trouble, so let’s use the greenhouse effect issue to save socialism from falling on its ass."
As soon as the issue began to move into big-time press coverage, here came the atomic energy people saying, "It’s time to get back to nuclear power!" And then here came the solar energy people saying, "Let’s crank up solar again and get back to the soft path!" Now, we might be inclined to cheer on some of these positions more than others. But you can’t help noticing that the first thing a lot of people say is, "How can I co-opt this thing and use it for my purposes?"
Don: That kind of dynamic is what we’ve been struggling to understand over these last eight years of meetings at Esalen. We don’t start with preconceptions about how government should be, though it’s clearly got to be different. But what is the context? What circumstances can provide us with guidance for inventing alternative modes of governance that are appropriate to a world that is increasingly complex, increasingly turbulent, and therefore increasingly uncertain? The greenhouse phenomenon is a new source of uncertainty. It’s also a new occasion for people to ride their horse for altruism – as well as for exploitation to operate. Often those two things operate together.
Walt: The cult phenomenon, for example, is a form of exploitation that frequently comes wearing robes of altruism. And there are other human agendas which we simply don’t normally recognize as political – things like the need for power, the desire to get into the act and to be taken seriously. These are tremendous drives for which people will go to great lengths, but they are also sources of corruption just as much as the things that we’re more conventionally inclined to recognize.
Don: So this group at Esalen is a question-asking group. We’re trying to learn how to think about these issues.
Walt: When we came to the greenhouse effect issue this year, we made it clear that we would be talking not about an "event," but an information phenomenon. I described it as a "rumor." Call it whatever you want, but it’s information that comes into the world and enters the public dialogue. As soon as information appears, people make it into stories – that’s the process by which both personal and public cognition operates.
Bill: Are these speculative stories about the future?
Walt: Yes, but also stories about where the greenhouse effect came from, and who caused it – stories that give meaning to information. For example, there seems to be a fairly strong scientific consensus about the build-up of CO2, but a very weak consensus about what that means. There are very imprecise scenarios and many tremendous arguments, ranging all the way from predictions of cooling to warming.
But that in itself is central to the governance issue, because the management of information has become utterly central to our politics and our survival. We’re presented with information that’s incomplete, but it does not seem prudent to wait around until it’s fully complete before we act on it. We probably have to act on the basis of incomplete information. In fact, incomplete information is the only kind there is. That’s what I sometimes call "Anderson’s Iron Law of Information" – all information is incomplete, including this statement.
That confounds our mythic notions about what science and governance ought to be. We think science ought to give us complete information, and governance ought to take that information and do the logical thing on the basis of it. Instead we have this skimpy data that everybody’s running around interpreting in different directions. There are what seem to be some overriding probabilities; but I come from Nevada, and the odds they’re talking about ain’t too hot as odds go.
Still here we are, probably required to bring about global cooperation of an unprecedented scale in a fairly short period of time, on the basis of very incomplete information.
Don: Secondly, we won’t know if the actions we take are right or wrong for a long time to come. Thirdly, those actions have costs as well as benefits. And fourthly, there’s enough information for any particular vested interest – whether it’s the Gaians or the people interested in free markets – to make a case.
Bill: There’s enough information to make everybody’s propagandist very happy.
Don: Right. Add finally that in an increasingly confusing world, there are an awful lot of people who want answers. They’ll glom onto one case or another as a way of finding psychological comfort, even though it’s only a partial picture.
Also, the models of climate change that exist now are global models. But the consequences of climate change are not global, they’re regional – more rain here, less rain there – and regional models are not going to be available for a long time, if ever. So that means we’ll be going on hunches and making tradeoffs on costs and benefits before we know what’s going to happen. And values systems – in terms of saving lives, exports and imports, or what weather is tolerable – are very different across cultures, and even between regions here in the U.S.
So I think it’s safe to say that in terms of governance, this is an unprecedentedly complex and difficult issue. It will make the arms control negotiations look like babies’ play.
Bill: Do you expect a desire for more information on the part of policymakers and the public? Or the suppression of certain information that makes possible a single, coherent myth?
Don: Both. The desire for more information has at least two uses: one is a way of postponing unwanted action – "We have to do another study," as Reagan said about acid rain. The other is more genuine, to help decide among options. Then there’s another group that says, "We can’t wait for more information, we’ve got to act now!"
Walt: There are certainties amidst the uncertainties, because there are processes in motion with such inertia that you know they will continue into the future. One of them is the escalation of information and information-seeking mechanisms, both technological and organizational, aimed specifically toward finding out more about the condition of the biosphere. The "rumor" about the greenhouse effect has geared people up to do all kinds of studies, so you can be sure that we’re going to have a lot more data, and hopefully some more coherent data.
Now, what will people do with it? As I said before, people will assemble stories, because that’s what the brain always does with information. And in many cases, especially if the information looks pretty bad, people will set up denial mechanisms. A lot of people are doing that right now. I know people who say, "The damned environmentalists were trying to sell us this thing, but now there are conflicting stories."
Don: And another one is, "We won’t have to worry about that. Technology will take care of it."
Walt: Whenever you get into a conversation about this kind of issue, people start asking, "What should we do?" The question immediately arises, who is "we?"
Bill: It seems that you’re looking at all these changes and asking a basic question: "What is the world, and what is our relationship with the world?" It’s the kind of question that global climate change will rub in everyone’s faces for the next century or so, to the point that a very different definition of the self and the world emerges.
Walt: Yes. The world culture – or the "world," whatever that is – is just being created in a sense. And it’s obviously being created out of chaos, just as it was the first time around!
Something that is going to happen is unprecedented global cooperation, as well as efforts toward global governance. Some of those efforts will probably fail – some will undoubtedly fail – and hopefully some will succeed. Governance is no longer, as we thought just a decade ago, primarily about peacemaking between East and West, or between different models of global development. The major theme for governance in our time is the management of the biosphere. That new set of conditions is one of the things that can be predicted, if you will, as part of a larger scene that is by definition unpredictable.
Don: One thing you can’t predict is whether the model of global governance that emerges is one that we will enjoy and think of as benign and participatory. My guess is quite the contrary: the management of the biosphere calls for an increasing amount of regulation, and that has implications for jobs, work, lifestyles, mobility and so on. You can’t jump to the conclusion that global governance will fit the millennial aspirations of people who see the greenhouse crisis as leading to a more collaborative, friendlier world. It might and it might not.
Bill: Technology is often implicated as both the root of our environmental problems and as our one hope for salvation. Some people who previously were techno-believers now view it with distrust, while at the same time many environmentalist Luddites have recanted and acknowledged technology’s value. What role do you see for technology in responding to our situation?
Walt: Some of the things that once looked to me like great ideological pivots – like being down on technology, which was part of my life as an environmentalist for some decades – now seem rather stupid, frankly. I see as much hope in technology and in science as I do in myth-making. I find great beauty in a lot of it. Much of what makes me glad to be human is that endless capacity of people to keep diving into more understanding of the cosmos.
When you have a problem, you use the best things in your tool box to deal with it. You don’t look in your tool box and say, "When was that tool invented? Is that a new tool, or a good old-fashioned humanistic tool?" You just use the damn thing, and it may not even be the right choice. I’m not saying we’re simply going to fix up the world with technology. Equally obviously, there is no "we" – outside of isolated patches of northern California – that is going to draw the line at a certain level of technological development. People are going to throw the book at this problem.
Don: But as we throw more technology at these issues, there will be secondary and tertiary effects – which is what the greenhouse effect is, in a sense. We might be able to speculate about them, but we can’t control all of these effects. These unanticipated planetary consequences provide opportunities and problems at a rate and magnitude which makes it impossible for governments, as presently comprised, to keep up. But that’s not going to stop anybody from using technology.
Walt: And that does not mean that you cannot or should not regulate it, nor that you cannot be learning all the time about your tools. The complexity and even the degree of change is not something to become despondent about. It certainly calls for letting go of some older ways of conceptualizing, but we’ve done that before.
Don: What this emphasizes is the importance of learning. We have to learn about what we’re doing in our world, and that means doing things like creating oversight organizations both in and out of government, watching what’s happening, anticipating the outcome, then using that knowledge to make changes much more self-consiously and vigorously than we have before. It also means developing a very different set of criteria for how public figures perform. Instead of acting as if they know the answers and never make mistakes, they’re going to have to acknowledge where the uncertainties lie and where the errors are in what we’ve done.
Bill: Groups like Earth First! and others seem to take a "no more human intervention" stance – no more industrial development or driving automobiles, for instance. They believe we just have to leave nature alone to let it recuperate. Could you both comment on that?
Walt: First, there is no such thing as "nature." Nature is a word that has entirely different meanings for people in different cultures. It doesn’t exist at all in some, and it’s more or less equated with "God" in others. For a long time people in the Western world have tried to push other people around by citing the authority of God or claiming to be spokespersons for God. People are still doing that, but nowadays some people are claiming to be spokespersons for nature, and they all claim superior authority and morality to tell other people what to do.
As far as managing or interfering in biological processes is concerned, we don’t know how not to do that. If we don’t do that, we don’t live. There is not a single Earth First!er in the world who is not participating in the management of ecosystems. You do not create a wilderness area in a world with six billion people except by drawing boundaries, getting political consensus that it’s a wilderness area, and throwing people the hell out of it when they don’t do what you want them to do.
What the issue boils down to is different approaches to the management of ecosystems, different political opinions. And that’s fine with me. The world is full of different ideas about everything. But a management system that doesn’t even know it’s a management system, and that thinks it’s a spokesperson for nature, is in such bad shape to begin with that it’s hardly able to play the game. Of course it will play the game, but there won’t be "non-intervention in nature." There won’t be a bioregional world.
Bill: Especially if global climate change makes the boundaries and contents of bioregions shift every decade or two.
Walt: I ask bioregionalists, "What are you going to do when people are starving to death and moving from one place to another?" They start talking about managing the boundaries. But those concepts of bioregionalism – the purity of ecosystems, the purity of species – have no more inherent moral value than the concept of the purity of races. They are gross attempts to impose an ideological framework on what nature really is – which is everything – and that always leads to gross injustices.
Don: This is one of the preoccupations of our governance group: the reification of terminology and ideas. Terms like "nature" and "animal rights" don’t have an independent existence "out there." Our language, our ideology, or our particular subculture projects them out there. But then they become reified – perceived as independently real – and treated by their advocates as "The Truth." It’s always seemed strange to me, for example, to exclude from "nature" one of the products of nature, a particularly important product of nature, namely us. You could make the argument that what we’re doing is perfectly natural.
Bill: What we’re doing to the planet is what evolution intended?
Don: If you want to assume evolution has an intention.
Walt: There’s a kind of moral narcissism that’s particularly evident, I think, among prosperous and educated people in the Western world. They want to be good people and to be perceived as kindly and non-destroying, and they’re so pampered by culture and the system that they begin to persuade themselves of the ultimate human foolishness – which is that they can exist without causing any discomfort for any other living thing.
That takes a supreme lack of awareness. Your organism is part of a process that manages ecosystems, cuts down forests and fields, and displaces animals from their habitats so that somebody can grow cotton and you can wear it and keep warm. People cut off all of that. They think of themselves as gentle creatures who don’t interfere with nature or anybody – and then they project all power somewhere else.
I urge people to read Rollo May’s book Power and Innocence, in which he talks about the dynamic of pseudo-innocence. People often manipulate and destroy other individuals by denying that they have any power. That same sort of pseudo-innocence is possible in our society, and it is part of the psychological dynamic at the root of the Earth First! movement.
Don: Another part of the problem is that our mode of education has not taught people to perceive systems. We’ve been taught "either/or," simple cause and effect. But this is a long-range, systemic, circular, feedback world. Add that to the denial processes, and you’ve got a population – including people in decision-making positions – that’s incompetent for engaging these issues with the sophistication they require. It’s a very worrisome business.
Walt: But to strike a more optimistic note, societies are capable of shifting gears rather quickly on occasion. The example I often use is World War II, when the United States reconstructed its industrial base and, although this is less frequently pointed out, actually reconstructed its culture in a lot of ways.
Bill: It took on a different persona in relationship to the world.
Don: And there is also the spectacular example of Europe – out of two wars – becoming more and more of a community. It may take that kind of upset to produce rapid change at this late date.
Bill: So responding to global climate change is not only the social equivalent of war, because of the level of cooperation and internal change needed; it’s also the structural equivalent of war, because of the infrastructure required to implement the change. And in order for people to understand it, we have to understand general systems theory and holistic thinking, because any other understanding of it is so inadequate that it won’t work.
Walt: If people don’t grasp that fairly soon, they will be plunged into depths of despair. Despair can be productive to a point, but beyond that it produces tremendous problems both individually and socially.
Bill: I think that’s why people want to build myths – to save themselves from despair. Have you concluded in your group that the process of myth-making about global climate change, while obviously dangerous in part, is morally justifiable in order to build a better world?
Walt: Socrates and his friends sat around and talked about creating a myth. They were pretty smart cookies, but they didn’t manage to do it. People are still sitting around and talking about it. I don’t think anybody can deliberately create a global culture – in a sense we already have one. We’re not going to cook up a Gaia myth and have six billion people in the world say "Gee whiz, I sure do like that myth. I guess I’ll put it on, even though I don’t particularly believe it."
That’s another problem. We don’t kid ourselves about creating myths. We know they’re myths. That’s different from the kinds of belief experiences people had in the past.
Bill: But how common is that? There are people who are terribly invested in these competing new myths.
Walt: Not only has there been a breakdown of belief systems, there has also been a breakdown of belief about beliefs. People have noticed an awful lot of different realities around, and even though only a limited number of people are highly sophisticated about it, we are in fact in the postmodern world. And in that world there is tremendous pluralism, as well as tremendous differences in the beliefs and realities and value systems that people hold.
There is even a pluralism of ways of having beliefs and values. Some people seem to hold them pretty tenaciously, and some people barely seem to hold them at all – as though they were saying, "This is just something I’m wearing today, like a Hawaiian shirt."
In the same way, as Don says, for better or worse we have moved into a world of great complexity – of ecological/governance/economic interactions. And all these things are very much in motion. The situation does not reduce itself to any of the New Age stories about new paradigms and transformations. It’s a lot trickier than that. It’s capable of being understood to some extent, but it doesn’t lend itself to the ready manufacture and universal adoption of something that would fit our definitions of a myth or belief system.
Don: That doesn’t mean there aren’t local groupings who intensely believe what they believe. These different grabs at reality become intensified as people find less and less they can hang onto. You can see process, but not the megatrend or new paradigm that people talk about.
Bill: If you are objective enough to see all of these different trends and complex interactions – and at the same time you understand how serious global climate change is – what path do you take as an individual in the world? What gives you cause for hope?
Walt: For me it starts with working out a code of ethics for myself that involves continually reexamining who I am, what I know, and what I’m prepared to say I don’t know. It also has to do with finding a way of being human that is continually changing – that doesn’t have to be grounded in an ideology or tradition. It has to do with how one thinks of oneself and experiences oneself, and it begins to take on an almost spiritual sense.
I find that the emotional quality of my life, as a parent and long-time environmentalist, is that of an essentially hopeful and optimistic person who’s aware of being on the brink of … I started to say despair, but it’s deeper than that. I remember being on a California beach a few months ago, watching people out on Sunday, doing Sunday things. I felt tears coming up just because it was so lovely and so peaceful, and I so much hope that people can continue doing those things, and I have fears that that may not be the case.
At the same time, especially looking at my son growing up in this world, I have more intangible feelings of great optimism because of the possibility for seizing wisdom and purpose in the midst of this crisis.
Don: I would make one distinction which may be useful for your readers: I am hopeful. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I weren’t hopeful. But I am not optimistic. Optimism is a general purpose way of viewing the world, whereas being hopeful is seeing the world with a recognition of how hard it will be to get from here to there. I hope we can do it, and if I didn’t think it was possible, I wouldn’t be hopeful.
In order for me to be hopeful, I also hope that the appropriate people in the appropriate places can be learners – that means being open, experimental, humble about the answers and the questions, able to be committed but also able to change.
Walt: And I hope people will cultivate themselves and back off from some of those self-righteous environmental ideologies. They are, I think, dangerous both morally and politically.
Bill: I get nervous about it the way people must have been nervous in the Weimar Republic.
Don: As soon as you know the answer, you’re in trouble.