Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dirty Pool: A Response to Guy McPherson

Dean Farago, Australian permaculturalist and natural building wizard, posted a link to a long essay by Nicole Foss to both the Friends of the C-Realm and the [Redacted] groups on Facebook. Nicole’s essay, which is a response to a book and an essay by David Holmgren, involves a lot of summation and initial preparatory work before she gets down to presenting her own arguments. Her essay comes in at around 8,000 words, and I know that many more people will start reading it than will finish it.

In response, Guy McPherson lifted ten words from that 8,000 word essay and presented them in a comment on Trends Research Reloaded as if they stood as a fair encapsulation of the position Nicole was attempting to articulate. Those ten words, along with Guy’s pejorative preamble were:

I'd be hard pressed to find a stupider statement than this: "the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.”

Guy then followed up with an Orwell quote which provided the poetic language he marshalled to accuse Nicole of acting as an apologist for the status quo and as a well-paid shill who articulates the needs of the powerful in exchange for fat speaker’s fees. He wrote:

I'd be hard pressed to find a stupider statement than this: "the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it." In other words, channeling Orwell, "truth is treason in an empire of lies." At least in this case, Foss apparently prefers the empire of lies.

Dean rightly identified this as a dirty pool, and Guy objected that those words actually appear in Nicole’s essay and that he therefore committed no act of intellectual dishonesty in presenting them as he did. As if one cannot mislead or misrepresent by cutting and pasting text. Think of all the dishonesty perpetrated in print media with cropped photos and misleading captions.
Professor Guy McPherson
As I said, Nicole’s essay is very long, and the set of people who will read through to the end will be a small subset of the people who start to read it. I would hate to think of anyone reading Guy’s remarks and then going about their business thinking that they now “knew” something about Nicole's message or the content of her essay. It is my intention to provide here a summation of the relevant portions of David Holmgren’s writings and Nicole's response to them needed to put her statement in context. My hope is to present all of this information and to achieve a reasonable balance between completeness and concision.

Rather than starting at the beginning, let’s first turn our attention to the crime scene. Notice first that Guy has not even quoted an entire sentence.  We know this because a sentence begins with a capitalized first word. Nicole’s full sentence reads:

In other words, the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.

We can see why Guy did not cut and paste the entire sentence. Those first three words tell us that what follows is not meant to stand alone. To remove that deliberate qualifier and present the rest of the sentence as if it were meant to represent Nicole’s position without some additional context is an act of attempted deception.

That full sentence comes at the end of a paragraph which appears in bold type. That paragraph itself appears after of several pages of preparatory spade work. That full, bold type paragraph reads:

The difference is that both financial crisis and peak oil are far more personal and immediate than climate change, and so are far bigger motivators of behavioral change. For this reason, addressing arguments in these terms is far more likely to be effective. In other words, the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.

The first three words of this paragraph again communicate that even the full paragraph is not meant to stand alone, but at least we now have a little bit of context for Nicole’s remark. She’s talking about effective ways to communicate with people to motivate adaptive lifestyle and behavioral change.

Nicole Foss
I could continue to expand outward from here with this cut and paste methodology, revealing more of Nicole’s intent in the process, but that would defeat my aim of reasonable brevity. So, from here, I will summarize in my own words with the full knowledge that I will be leaving a lot of Nicole’s points unrepresented and that I may also, inadvertently, misrepresent some of what she and David Holmgren had intended to communicate. Still, if you read to the end of my synopsis, you will actually know something about the open conversation between David Holmgren and Nicole Foss, whereas for readers who accept Guy McPherson’s characterization, total ignorance would be a step in the right direction.

In his book, Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change, David Holmgren reasons that the petroleum-fueled explosion of techno-industrial culture in the 20th century will be followed in the 21st century either by a techno-explosion, techno-stability, energy decline, or total collapse. Most of the book is devoted to detailing four potential trajectories for energy decline.

Should the effects of climate change prove mild and fossil energy reserves deplete relatively slowly,
then we will have to opportunity to create what David calls a Green Tech future. He describes this potential future scenario as a “distributed powerdown” in which resources flow to a variety of adaptive responses and we achieve a soft landing at low-energy living arrangements. This is the most benign of the four scenarios and the one that most people who acknowledge the serious implications of peak oil and climate change are hoping for.

Should peak oil come on quickly but the effects of climate change remain fairly mild, then we get what David calls the Earth Steward scenario. This is the now familiar peak oil collapse scenario that I first encountered in the writings of James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Albert K. Bates and others in the early days of the C-Realm Podcast. I think most readers of this blog will be familiar with this scenario, and so I won’t describe it further, other than to say that David describes it as a “bottom-up rebuild.”

If fossil fuel reserves decline precipitously and the effects of climate change are severe, this leads to
what David calls the Lifeboats scenario. In this scenario, which David describes as “civilization triage,” most survivors are focused on creating some sort of oasis, strategic hamlet or other lifeboat situation for themselves, but a few people will be devoting whatever resources they can spare to preserving some technology and culture for future societies. There will be no difference in the experience of most people between the Lifeboats energy decline scenario and total systemic collapse of industrial civilization. The difference being that some of the accumulated scientific knowledge and cultural wealth of the current global civilization will be preserved so that the civilization that eventually arises from the ashes of our own will not be starting completely from scratch as they would in the case of total collapse.

Should the effects of climate change be severe but peak oil come on slowly, then we get what David calls the Brown Tech future which he describes as “top-down constriction.” In this scenario, national governments and corporations centralize political power at the national level and continue to maintain the status quo by utilizing increasingly low-grade fossil fuel resources like tar sands, brown coal, shale oil and the like, all of which would increase greehouse gas emissions (GGEs) over those emitted by a techno-industrial civilization powered by light, sweet crude oil and methane (so-called “natural gas”). Essentially this amounts to an official policy of “extend and pretend” by keeping the industrial system running at the cost of ever-increasing harm to the climate.

For people who are more focused on civil liberties and human rights than on energy issues, the primary agenda of the Brown Tech future will appear to be the securing of the privileges of the powerful against uprisings from the growing ranks of the dispossessed. This will manifest itself as a continued push in the direction of a high-tech security and surveillance state. The phrase “police state” will join “usury” as something that can never be spoken aloud in mainstream discourse lest it highlight the fact that a practice which civil society once condemned has become the order of the day.

In the Brown Tech future, the use of biofuels will take agricultural land away from food production, thus increasing hunger and the resulting social tensions. In wealthy countries, consumer-led growth will either falter or be deliberately squashed from above so that limited resources can be redirected to providing the basic necessities for the majority and continued luxurious living for the elites. It will be an era of resource wars and jarring population contraction in poorer countries. This situation can endure for decades before finally slipping into the Lifeboats scenario.

It bears repeating that the large scale, resource-intensive responses to climate chaos in the Brown Tech future will see a larger and more rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions than in any of the other three energy descent scenarios. In the Green Tech future, we reduce GGEs as we transition to cleaner technologies and adapt to a lower-energy lifestyle. In the Lifeboats and Earth Steward future scenarios, which will be indistinguishable from total collapse for a great many people, increasing GGEs over current levels will be beyond human capability.

Roughly half a decade after he detailed these four potential energy descent scenarios, David Holmgren published a new essay entitled Crash On Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future, in which he writes:

...I remember thinking that [with regard to peak oil] a second great depression might be the best outcome we could hope for. The pain and suffering that has happened since 2007 (from the more limited “great recession”) is more a result of the ability of the existing power structures to maintain control and enforce harsh circumstances by handing the empty bag to the public, than any fundamental lack of resources to provide all with basic needs.

In his essay, David credits Nicole Foss for her influence on the evolution of his thinking. He also credits her for helping to advance a permacultural agenda by “convincing people that they should get out of debt, downsize, and radically reduce consumption and put their savings into concrete assets that build local capacity, as rapidly as possible.”

David notes that during the 20th Century expansion of industrial civilization, economic activity at the household and community level was sacrificed on the altar of growing the formal economy. Now that the formal economy is contracting and beginning to falter, living arrangements that build economic resilience at the household and community level can provide a cushion against the human suffering that would accompany the catastrophic failure of the formal economy. Even so, “the elites of the resurgent resource nationalism and command economies of the Brown Tech world” cannot embrace action that fosters local resilience because such action would undermine their ability to consolidate power and maintain existing hierarchies of control.

Looking back over the last third of the 20th Century, David notes that the “positive environmentalism” of 1970s did not result in top-down mandates or the societal changes necessary to safeguard the integrity of the biosphere. The industrial monster of the Brown Tech future will be even more destructive than the industrial system which adapted to and neutralized the emerging ecological consciousness of the 1970s, and, as such, it must be stopped.

David points out that the same actions that promote resilience at the level of individual families and local communities are also actions that draw vital resources from the rapacious power structures of the Brown Tech world, and that convincing enough people to withdraw their investments and support from the growth-dependent industrial system might just hasten the inevitable collapse of that system. The sooner it falls, the better our chances of retaining a habitable planet.

David realizes that explicitly advancing permaculture and relocalization efforts as a means of bringing down a dysfunctional and unreformable system might result in permaculturists, eco activists and transition-minded folk being demonized in the mainstream discourse “as crazy people, a doomsday cult or even terrorists.” Still, he thinks the arrival of the Brown Tech future with its accompanying acceleration of environmental destruction may justify such a shift in rhetoric and intent.

In her response Nicole summarized David’s thinking and writing to date, much as I have in this essay, and then argued that switching the stated motivation for living the permaculture lifestyle from a positive vision of building local resilience and explicitly linking it to the desire to bring down the industrial system in the service of a larger environmental agenda would be a mistake.

Permaculture has a very positive image as a solution to the need for perpetual growth, and this might be put at risk if it became associated with any deliberate attempt to cause system failure. (...) Much better, in my opinion, to continue the good work with the declared, and entirely defensible, goals of building greater local resilience and security of supply while preserving and regenerating the natural world. While almost any form of advance preparation for a major crisis of civilization would have the side-effect of weakening an existing system that increasingly requires total buy-in, there is a difference between side-effect and stated goal.

Notice that David and Nicole are advocating the same course of action. They differ on what rationale to present in order to motivate people to divest themselves from the disempowering and dysfunctional system of Brown Tech control, but they both advocate withdrawing support for and engagement with the over-developed, larger-than-human scale systems of techno-industrial civilization and re-investing those energies and resources at the level of the family and the local community. The discussion here is how to frame the situation for the increasing number of people who are starting to realize that the industrial system will not make good on the promises and commitments it made to its subjects in the midst of its expansion.

Now we are approaching the comment that Guy found so stupid and objectionable. If we are looking to re-direct the course of civilization and avoid the a course of action that simultaneously sacrifices social justice and accelerates climate chaos, why not talk about climate change? Nicole offers the following:

I do not focus on climate change in my own work, partly because top-down policies vary between useless and counter-productive, and partly because, in my opinion, the science is far more complex and less predictable than commonly thought, and finally because success in generating a genuine fear of climate change is likely to produce human responses that achieve far more harm than good.

Specifically, the harms that would likely proceed from a deliberately induced fear of climate chaos include:

1) Carbon trading systems - Carbon credit trading programs would likely fuel an new boom and bust cycle which would further enrich speculators, bankers and other parasites while doing nothing to reduce global carbon emissions.

2) Massive infrastructure investment in adaptation - If the accepted wisdom is that mitigation is impossible and adaptation necessary, then resources which could have built bottom-up resilience would be squandered on over-built, top-down boondoggles.

3) Geo-engineering - Deliberate attempts to change the composition of the atmosphere to counteract the effects of increased carbon are almost sure to have unintended consequences. The cure could well be worse than the disease.

4) Eco-fascism - Fascists capitalize on fear and insecurity, and they’re not picky about the pretext they use to exert control over people’s lives. Fear of climate catastrophe can serve their purposes just as easily as paranoid fantasies about The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

5) A mood of collective self-flagellation - Misanthropic environmentalists and doomsday cultists see every aspect of human civilization as corrupt and unworthy of preservation. If this attitude proliferates, and if people started to act on it by, say, blowing up dams or engaging in other destructive acts that would, rightly, be denounced as acts of terrorism, then all ideas held by any environmentalists, no matter how peaceful, could be demonized and thus removed from consideration in mainstream discourse.

Another reason Nicole gives for not focusing on environmental issues in her work is that environmental concerns are more difficult for people to relate to in terms of their own well-being. Unlike bank runs or $20/gallon gasoline, the scale and time frame of climate change are too far outside the scope of most people’s concerns. It’s too abstract and remote for people to connect to their own lives.

Since economic collapse will lower carbon emissions far more dramatically than any top-down, outsized, public policy attempt is likely to do, and because re-localizing as a means of preparing for collapse will contribute to and hasten that collapse, it makes more sense to encourage people to protect their own well-being and that of their families and local communities than it does to try to motivate them with fear of global climate change. If the above is true, then, in the context of motivating people to respond adaptively to our shared predicament, the best thing to say to them about climate change in order to get people to take constructive steps to mitigate it is nothing.

Guy McPherson may disagree with this line of reasoning, but the sophistry he employs in deliberately misrepresenting Nicole’s position and impugning her character suggests a motivation other than a principled dedication to speaking unpopular truths to unreceptive audiences. I won’t speculate in public as to what his underlying motivations might be. I don’t make a habit of cultivating public feuds with people who are working to promote some aspect of collapse consciousness. That’s not my style.

Guy McPherson has accused Nicole Foss and John Michael Greer of proceeding from self-interested and disingenuous motivations. These are two people whose work informs my own thinking and who I think bring much-needed sobriety and depth to the evolving conversation about the converging crises of energy descent, climate disruption, and the self-immolation of global corporate capitalism. Given that Guy has employed blatant sophistry in an attempt to diminish their reputations, I suggest a change of focus. Guy should turn his gaze much closer to home in his search for unacknowledged motivations.


Albert Bates said...

Wow, what a long discussion this is turning into. I agree with your points and raised many of the same ones with reference to Nicole and Guy in my own essay: http://peaksurfer.blogspot.mx/2014/01/charting-collapseniks.html. To get around the word overload, I attempted some charts. See what you think.

gail zawacki said...

Nicole Foss is being disingenuous. She is presenting the same rather boringly standard denier talking points that have been emplyed for decades by professional hired lobbyists for fossil fuel industries, although in their case, the financial motivation is clear while in hers, the self-serving obfuscation of clearly demonstrated dangers from amplifying feedbacks excuses her flying around the world presenting permaculture "solutions" - the climate is so complicated, no one can make predictions...the models are flawed...these are givens but stupid. It's like saying, I am going to drink a big cup of koolaid laced with arsenic, but since I can't predict precisely the second I will die an agonizing death, no discussion of the inevitability of my death should take place.

Stoneleigh said...

Someone got out of bed on the wrong side this morning...

Perhaps you should actually read my article with an open mind. I work in the field of nuanced complexity, not simplistic certainty. I also believe in respectful communication centred on the issues in order to build knowledge and understanding. Ill-informed ad hominems serve no one.

Stoneleigh said...

Okay, so this is what Guy McPherson said about me:

"Everything certainly is clearer than it was a year ago. Foss's annual prediction of oil priced at less than $10 per barrel has proven incorrect, again. Climate scientists have caught up with me in concluding near-term human extinction.

And if we're going to pick nits, I don't charge $500 to speak to a full hall: Rather, I charge nothing. I've been teaching and doing regenerative permaculture work far longer than Foss. And if we're going to compare credentials, I have a PhD minor in economics.

Foss is taking a classic, first-world approach to the issue of collapse: save yourself, ignore the living planet, and be sure to secure your financial situation. As we drive another 200 species to extinction today, she'll be encouraging people to buy silver with their extra fiat currency.

I doubt you even know why I'm disgusted."

I'm somewhat tempted to be rude, but there's not a lot of point in stooping to his level. I will comment that a PhD minor in economics is a nice received wisdom stamp of approval, but meaningless where the received wisdom is fatally flawed. I have plenty of qualifications, but I see no need to parade them. I value the knowledge and experience I gained outside of academia far more than that gained within in any case.

I remember when he came on to Jay Hanson's peak oil list for a discussion. He insisted that everyone read a long list of his posts beforehand, as qualification to express an opinion. I am curious why others are not extended the same courtesy?

Quite a few times I have seen McPherson makes extremely uninformed and highly pejorative comments about my work, while clearly having no familiarity with it, and more recently he has gone on to make highly personal remarks. He calls my work ignorant and stupid, he calls me a liar, he accuses me of malpractice, of complete environmental ignorance, of complete ignorance on the subject of peak oil (in a previous exchange), and according to him I am money-obsessed and entirely self-serving (from his blog post a couple of years ago).

I am criticized for needing to earn a living, even though I earn less than I would flipping burgers at McDonald's for a living. I ask only for what can reasonably be crowd-funded, so as not to burden anyone unduly. For the record, I ask for a small fraction of what most speakers do, and I generally fund my own travel expenses out of that. No one is ever turned away from one of my lectures on cost grounds. Perhaps McPherson has some other means of putting food on the table so that he can distribute utter despair for free?

All of this venom is directed at someone he has never met and whose work he has but the most superficial perception of. I find it perplexing. Perhaps it's a reflection of ego combined with insecurity? Perhaps a projection of personal pain on to a larger stage? What I would say is that this kind of over-reaction to what should be a civilized intellectual debate is not covering him in glory or making him look like rational human being. Shame really. I have always sought allies, not enemies, particularly among those who work in the same field. Apparently others take a different approach.

Meow Bay said...

Wow, what a load of whining crap. Must be me, but in my eyes McPherson's words there are rather soft and reasonable, considering the stakes we're dealing with.

Stoneleigh said...

LOL, meow indeed ;) The groupies are out in force I see...

deepian said...

Those of us who follow Nicole's work in detail can easily tell that McPherson is not doing the same.

I would suggest that the best way to deal with Mr McPherson is simply to ignore him completely.

That is the usual recommended method for dealing with trolls.

James R. Martin said...

McPherson has a long history of what I might like to call "journalistic recklessness" -- the most recent one being an article in Transition Voice magazine, in which a sloppy article in New Scientist is referenced sloppily, leading McPherson to say "In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among the most conservative scientific organizations on Earth, issued a report concluding that global warming is irreversible without geo-engineering."

While the actual IPCC report *may* (?) provide some basis of an argument that such a statement is implicit in the report, that's as far as it goes. Nowhere does the IPCC report say such a thing.

And how very strange it would be if the IPCC actually did say such a thing while also proposing a "carbon budget" which roughly allows a (near) doubling of historic anthropogenic CO2 emissions!

Alex Smith said...

Listen to both David Holmgren and Nicole Foss address these very issues in the new Radio Ecoshock Show.

I first interview David about "Crash on Demand" - and then Nicole about her reply.

I have a lot of respect for both of them. I don't agree we should not speak about climate change, but to call Nicole unqualified, or a climate denier or "stupid" is really, really far off the mark.

Both Foss and Holmgren are deep thinkers who see how badly humanity has failed to deal with pollution, with climate change, extinction of species and much more.

Listen for yourself: download the program here:


abundantdescent said...

I'd like to read, in full, all of the comments being commented upon in this post, but can't seem to find Guy McPherson's. The link provided leads only to his main webpage, which was no help. Anyone who could provide a direct link would earn my gratitude. - Myrn

Seegar Mason said...

I stopped reading Guy MacPherson's blog awhile ago for the same reason that I stopped being a Doomer: it does nothing other than foster despair. In the challenges that face us, we need to have our heads on straight and be centered emotionally. Doomerism puts you into a mindset where neither of those things are possible, and hinders you from doing the things that you CAN do.

Is it too late to stop climate change? YES, we can be certain of that. Is it too late for the survival of humanity? That is something that of which we can be much less certain, despite the ideological rhetoric of folks like Guy. The people who survive the collapse, if any, will NOT be intellectuals. They will be people who know how to work with their hands and didn't know that they weren't supposed to survive.