Friday, April 12, 2013

Not following the script -- a Carbon Based original

    Comforting stories have an outsized influence on how we think and behave, especially tales about good eventually triumphing over evil.  No matter how terrible our current circumstances, the story cues us to the ending, so we can keep our hopes up.

    In one such fable, the powerful grow stronger and extract more from their victims.  The suffering of the weak grows more onerous.  But after a fight, the good people win.  In more adult scenarios, something happens to at least ease the pain. 

    An empire conquers and plunders as long as it can, finally collapsing from its own corruption and popular resistance. Not that the redress is guaranteed, since it can come far too late, or not at all. Rome falls, a belated punishment for crushing the Jewish Revolt in the early years of the Common Era and destroying Herod's temple.  On the other hand, Rome collapse was tragic if you side with the Romans.  The legend can serve any political persuasion, depending on who is editing the story.

    In a monarchy, the king or the nobles might attempt to relieve the injustices under some circumstances.  In movies, they do, at least. King Richard returns from the Crusades and kicks out the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Meanwhile, back in the Middle East, the Arabs were no doubt glad to see an invader pack up and leave.

    In a democracy, supposedly, measures exist to address wrongs more methodically, so the bad guys cannot gain too much of a lead. That's one practical advantage to democracies -- the system has a method for easing wrongs.  Mister Smith goes to Washington, shames the evil Senators and sets things right, for some.   Along the way, we tend to skip over the events that don't fit, such as the ethnic cleansing of native Americans, or the "barbarous years" recently documented by Bernard Bailyn.

    Most outlooks can find their founding myths somewhere in America's past. Political clashes sharpen during the colonial era, with a whopping release once independence arrives.   Conflict deepens over slavery, but the Civil War "solves" the problem, though not really.  Open racism renews itself in the era of racist reaction that followed, culminating in the advances of the Civil Rights era. 

    In a more recent left-leaning examples of the tale, cold war repression tightens, broken by a chaotic burst of freedom of sorts in the 1960s. In the 1980s, conservatives did their utmost to undo the gains in equality and fairness. Reagan and subsequent administrations tortured Latin America in the '80s, yet now the US has far less ability to impose its will.  Longtime US ally Rios-Montt is on trial for genocide in Guatemala.  That's a heartening outcome.

    At times, the yarns we tell ourselves seem more fictitious than others. In an oligarchy such as we have in the United States today, the wealthy have spent decades overriding the formal mechanisms to secure the people's interests.  The rich can game the rules so that they don't have to give anything up.  Too big to fail banks still control their financial regulators, halting all attempts to loosen their destructive grip.  A reactionary Supreme Court patrols for any cases that might allow some change.  Obama has shelved all plans to punish US leaders for crimes in Iraq.  The pressure keeps building.

    The pressure builds in the natural world, too.  We keep emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which raises temperatures and brings down a host of other effects on global ecosystems.  We have been experiencing worsening impacts over past years, some due to climate change, far more due to bad choices about land use and location. Wildfires are hotter and more widespread, droughts tend to get worse, and sea level rise threatens to slowly devastate coastal cities around the world.  Chances are, these conditions will get worse.

    The plot we favor demands that heroes and heroines appear to lead us to the actions we have to take.  Or that the tide of public opinion turns.  Or that a technical breakthrough comes along that solves the tangle of problems involving energy production and transmission.

    Unfortunately, none of those happy outcomes are at hand.  Despite international mitigation efforts, our emissions have gone up -- the best that can be claimed is that the rate of increase has slowed down in some countries.  The various schemes that currently exist to cut emissions aren't working. They require far more collective will than we've been able to muster.

    In the United States, the legislators (especially senators) in thrall to large emitters have stalled every meaningful effort to cut emissions, or to adapt to climate change.  The pattern is part of a larger dysfunction in US politics, and we feel the bite most keenly when we have to address major long-term problems.  

    The scientists who labor to explain what's actually happening in the climate are vilified, perhaps because they disrupt the chronicle than many people want to believe, that we have it under control, it's not so bad, etc.  The desire for a reassuring story is eroding our ability to address the issues in a realistic way.

    Psychologically, when the tale doesn't progress along the expected path, we think, oh, this story is longer than I thought.  The conclusion is further off. Or maybe we're in a different story altogether, a narrative that isn't so shapely and satisfying, a grinding, relentless tale where everyone loses.  One thing is certain. Nature ignores the script.

Frontispiece of Joseph Jacobs' Celtic Fairy Tales, via John D. Batten. Public domain

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