Humanity’s marbles

In humanity’s efforts to fight climate change, we’re not just playing for all the marbles — we are playing for every marble factory and shop that ever was or will be, every piece of art and writing which has ever concerned or alluded to marbles, every historical record about marbles which has ever been generated or read, and every mind with an understanding of what marbles are and mean.

Political parties with a planet-wrecking policy on the issue (allowing any new fossil fuel development) are unelectable regardless of the rest of their platforms, economic conditions, or the limitations of their opponents. Being OK with destroying the future for today’s young people makes them morally unworthy to govern. It would be the greatest betrayal that has taken place from one group of generations to their successors, to destroy the uncomprehended and irreplaceable richness of the living Earth humanity inherited all because some dirty industries and the governments and banks they control want to hold us back from abolishing and abandoning fossil fuel energy.

Roberts on system justification and climate action

John Jost: I do think I have to say I’ve come to the view that it’s much easier to govern from the right in a system justifying, conservative manner because you can always frame your opposition as a threat. (31:37)

David Roberts: My larger pessimism has to do with… it just seems like globally we’re heading into a time… just look at climate change, right? Climate change is going to create more disruption, more migrations, more uncertainty, and threat! Which are gonna have the effect of making it more difficult to think clearly about how to solve climate change in a just way. (33:00)

John Jost in interview with David Roberts (12:53)

Jost on the social cost of activism

I think the risks of alienation are really high, in a social sense, if you’re a relentless critic or revolutionary. You can find quite a bit more support within your family, and your neighbours, and the community at large if you’re a supporter of the over-arching social systems rather than a relentless critic of them.

John Jost in interview with David Roberts (12:53)

Limits of ChatGPT

With the world discussing AI that writes, a recent post from Bret Devereaux at A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry offers a useful corrective, both about how present-day large language models like GPT-3 and ChatGPT are far less intelligent and capable than naive users assume, and how they pose less of a challenge than feared to writing.

I would say the key point to take away is remembering that these systems are just a blender that mixes and matches words based on probability. They cannot understand the simplest thing, and so their output will never be authoritative or credible without manual human checking. As mix-and-matchers they can also never be original — only capable of emulating what is common in what they have already seen.

Reading my dissertation, step by step

Step #1: Learn a bit of the context and background to climate change politics

I know throwing a whole PhD thesis at someone gives them a lot to handle, especially if it is written in an unfamiliar academic style. Nonetheless, I took pains all through my PhD process to come up with a product which would be comprehensible and meaningful to the community of climate activists.

Several posts down the line, we will come to the “meta question” which motivates the chapter about the ethics of what ought to be done. As someone new to the document and/or climate change policy, I would start by looking at what I considered important explanatory text but which my committee directed I should remove from an over-long document:

Structural Barriers to Avoiding Catastrophic Climate Change

Basically, why is solving climate change a hard problem? We have governments that do an OK-to-decent job at most things, so why are they uniquely bad at caring for the climate long-term when its integrity is damaged by the use of fossil fuels? This first document explores that question in detail, and elaborates upon why old solutions aren’t working for this problem.

After a PhD

I am not depressed, but I definitely feel a lot of what this video from Andy Stapleton discusses:

I have certainly experienced the odd stutter-step ending of the program, which never brings a single day or moment when you are really done. There is such a moment, but it is mundane, private, and undramatic — probably the last time you make a formatting correction for the unknown administrator who reviews your dissertation for conformity to writing standards like which page numbers in the front matter are Roman numerals. That creates an odd sense of the thing being unfinished, even when there is nothing left to do.

The points about needing to prove yourself in the job market after finishing, as well as anxiety about whether a PhD was necessary, are also familiar from my recent thinking.

I wouldn’t say the video provides any useful and non-obvious advice, but reading within the broad category of writing by current and recent PhD students actually has immense psychological value by demonstrating the reality of shared experience and shared struggle, engaging about all the things we didn’t known when we began and (even more juicily and importantly) all the things your university will lie to you about to keep their business model going. A post by Bret Devereaux is a fine example of the genre, and was discussed here before.

Alicia Garza on activist power-building

“[Alicia] Garza [“a longtime community organizer in Oakland and a major figure within the Black Lives Matter movement” (p. 57)] celebrated that the progressive movement had grown more strident, more self-confident in its demands, more determined to hold leaders accountable. But she wondered if, in the bargain, the movement had acquired a narrowness that kept it smaller than it had to be. She wanted an expansionary progressivism that followed the example of Power [People Organized to Win Employment Rights, a San Francisco activist organization] fighting gentrification in San Francisco: being unflinchingly radical and, at the same time, making space for the non-radical.

“Because crisis is here now, and because we haven’t done the work we’ve needed to do over the last thirty years to actually build a left in this country that is viable, even as we pursue that, we are going to have to figure out who else we can work with in order to get a little bit closer to what we’re trying to do,” she told me. “That doesn’t mean we abandon the project of building the left, and in fact it actually brings into focus how necessary it is. But in the meantime, we can’t just continue to be small.” She often repeated a line picked up from a fellow activist about how the left needs to stop trying to be the god of small things.

“We have to be a lot more selective about who can’t come,” Garza said. “You would think, listening to certain people, that every-fucking-body in this country is on some organized left. It’s just deeply not fucking true. We are so small in relationship to the breadth of where 300-plus million people are politically. We need to understand that in a deep way.”

With that assertion, Garza distinguished herself from a certain strain of her fellow progressives who argue that their policies would be overwhelmingly popular and readily received among those who would obviously benefit from them, but for the corporate media thwarting them and the powerful lobbies blocking their policy proposals, along with the legislators they buy. Garza saw it differently. The ideas in many cases had both a powerful-enemies problem and, partly because of the exertions of those enemies and partly because of primordial realities of American political culture, a lay-public-opinion problem.

For Garza, this was a hard-earned lesson going all the way back to Bayview. It was true that powerful developers and their allies in the city’s power structure wanted to gentrify the area as precipitously as possible. And one could casually assume that the regular people in the area wanted to resist what was being done. But Garza and her colleagues realized that they had both a special-interests problem and a popularity problem. Many of the residents, particularly older Black people who deplored the area’s descent into drugs and violence, were open to the promises of those heralding change. It wasn’t enough to push back against the powerful. You have to be hard on yourself about just how popular your ideas were, assume they were less rather than more popular, and work like hell to make them popular.

In her memoir, she writes that too many of her political allies seem to enjoy the cozy homogeneity of their ranks, instead of viewing that as a problem of smallness. They believe

that finding a group of people who think like you and being loud about your ideas is somehow building power… And while I feel most comfortable around people who think like me and share my experiences, the longer I’m in the practice of building a movement, the more I realize that movement building isn’t about finding your tribe—it’s about growing your tribe across difference to focus on a common set of goals.

“There’s a purism that can come with social justice work,” Garza told me in one of our conversations, “and that purism, unfortunately or fortunately maybe, is actually pretty detrimental to getting things done.” But it was also complicated, she hastened to add. There were bridges too far. You probably don’t want to end up in a partnership with Jared Kushner just because you favor prison reform. When it comes to coalitions, she said, “you do have to assess at any given moment the amount of risk you are willing to take and the potential impacts of those risks. And if the impacts of those risks are not just about being scared about what people are going to say about you, because you’re making unconventional relationships, but actually that you are enabling a really nefarious and dangerous set of values and principles and people, then you need to say no to those things.[“]

“For me, this isn’t about catering to the middle,” she said. “And it’s also not about beating up on the left. It’s just a longing that I have for us to be more effective and to actually want to win, really want to win. And be willing to do what we need to in order to get there. And so much of what I think is missing is a smark assessment of the landscape that we’re operating in.”

Giridharadas, Anand. The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy. Knopf, 2022. p. 68-70 (italics in original)


Persuasion and climate change politics

My PhD dissertation (which I am making the final pre-publication revisions on) is entitled: Persuasion Strategies: Canadian Campus Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns and the Development of Activists, 2012–20.

The title has several connections to the subject matter. and the other eNGOs who proliferated the divestment movement sought to persuade student activists to run campaigns with particular objectives; they did this in part to help persuade politicians and the public that the fossil fuel industry has become an enemy to humanity. Individual divestment campaigns tried to persuade their target administrations to divest, while also persuading students to join the group and consider their political messages. Activists were also heavily involved in trying to persuade one another to adopt particular views on what caused climate change and how to solve it. Finally, the title emphasizes how the task in divestment was persuading universities and other investors to act, not “forcing” them as some activists aspired to or claimed.

On this subject of persuasion, I listened to an episode of CBC’s Front Burner podcast “Can persuasion bridge the political divide?” with Anand Giridharadas. Giridharadas makes some very clever points that relate to the arguments of Kathy Hayhoe and others about how to win political support for climate change adaptation. I ordered Giridharadas’ book, and will hopefully be able to have some engaging discussions about it with friends who are working to develop and implement effective activist strategies.