The Erewhonians say that we are drawn through life backwards; or again, that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor. Time walks beside us and flings back shutters as we advance; but the light thus given often dazzles us, and deepens the darkness which is in front. We can see but little at a time, and heed that little far less than our apprehension of what we shall see next; ever peering curiously through the glare of the present into the gloom of the future, we presage the leading lines of that which is before us, by faintly reflected lights from dull mirrors that are behind, and stumble on as we may till the trap-door opens beneath us and we are gone. (Samuel Butler, Erewhon, 1910)
B.W. Powe of York University, poet, writer, and teacher, closes his latest book The Charge in the Global Membrane, with a question: “What do you see coming?” We correspond from time to time. I wrote to him last evening, as follows:
Your question is a vexed one to my mind, because I believe we can never see anything coming except in the very narrow and immediate visual sense, or through Samuel Butler’s mirrors looking backward, and pretty darkly at that. I was trained to be deeply suspicious of linear extrapolation in complex situations, and to watch carefully for tidal oscillations that may appear for the moment to be flowing rivers. I am not sure how to reconcile that caution with your observations about the Charged Global Membrane. I have no doubt that what you describe is happening, and that if reactions so far persist the consequences could be dire. But will they persist, or will adjustments occur when people become accustomed, and if so what kind?
Of course, your question is not “What is coming?” but “What do you see coming?”
In other words, I don’t see anything coming, because some intensive training in my younger days and a working lifetime of practice have conditioned me not to look. The closest I come is to examine carefully the available data, and to extend them forward using some kind of formula to see what might come, and to attach a reasonable set of probabilities to their coming. Because what I “see” by this method is always a plural set of possibilities. On no occasion do I use linear extrapolation from the present or the recent past. What is happening is not necessarily what is going to happen, and so I stoutly maintain. This makes me unwelcome company sometimes when the dire predictions are being passed around the conversational circle.
This does not mean that I live in a Pollyanna world where dire predictions are summarily drummed out of the room. Let’s look at climate change, for example. When we take into account the masses of first-rate data we have of past global climate patterns and the sophistication of the models used for projections, we must believe that a global catastrophe is possible. If we attach any significant probability to that outcome,—and we should!—then what decision theorists call the “expected value” of the outcome is the global cost of the catastrophe multiplied by its probability. Since the cost, in human terms, of this outcome is so huge as to approach the infinite, then the expected value (cost) of the outcome is the same. Faced with that kind of possibility, then we had better act, even though there may be some probability attached to a miraculous reaction of planet or humans that mitigates the effect.
Since a climate catastrophe, even a mild one, is certainly an issue for Social Justice, then any reluctance to act, or effective resistance, contributes to the Unsolved Riddle that we are trying to understand here. In fact, if we look at it that way, we may even find that the reluctance and resistance are grounded in just that realm, for example, in the quite legitimate fear of lost livelihoods. We must deal with them accordingly. I am not going to do that today, although I promise we will in this metaphorical collective I have created for the purpose. We will deal with climate change as we will deal with global population growth, inequality of opportunity and prosperity, pluralism, tribalism, individualism and collectualism, precarious livelihoods, our relationship with Nature, democracy, consumerism, culturism, education, and any other issues of like importance.
In order to set the stage for that process I have drafted Stephen Leacock’s ghost, Olde Stephen, from his former setting in what I am now calling the Stalking Blog, updated Mondays, and sent the Yottapede, along with Mnemochiron, the feminequine centaur, over there in exchange. This is, after all, now the Talking Blog. Olde Stephen will be a lot happier here than burrowing around in the Charged Ooze disguised as a star-nosed mole. We will charge this blog with verbosity, his natural element, at least it was when he was alive.
All verbosity will be suspended, however, for until the week after next, due to other commitments. Our newly aligned saga will resume on Wednesday, June 19th.
Thank you for reading, and for your patience. The preliminaries are completed; we will get down to brass tacks very soon.