To Imagine and Understand

In reading lately, my main interest has been on the distant past of ancient civilizations. But circuitous curiosity has led me to other views about where we are heading into the future. The two, of course, are related—how we perceive the past determines what kind of future we can conceive. Putting that aside for the moment, let me focus on the latter.

One book that has held my attention the past few days is Hive Mind by Garett Jones. It’s part of the IQ zeitgeist or rather a response to it, an attempt to bring in a larger context. He discusses the Flynn effect, although interestingly he doesn’t mention the moral Flynn effect. That is an unfortunate omission, as it directly relates to the book’s topic.

Steven Pinker first explored the moral Flynn effect. I’d highly recommend reading Jones’ book along with Pinker’s, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It isn’t a matter of entirely agreeing with either author. What is important is that a necessary discussion is finally being had and these two represent innovative attempts at framing the issue for greater insight and understanding.

A major point that Pinker makes is about the increase of abstract thinking. An aspect of that is the rise in the ability to think in larger and more inclusive moral categories. And also the corollaries of perspective-taking and perspective-shifting, sympathy and empathy, theory of mind, etc. The following is one example of that below in terms of the novel, the kind of thing that some would label as “fluff.” Pinker writes (Kindle Locations 13125-13143):

It would be surprising if fictional experiences didn’t have similar effects to real ones, because people often blur the two in their memories. 65 And a few experiments do suggest that fiction can expand sympathy. One of Batson’s radio-show experiments included an interview with a heroin addict who the students had been told was either a real person or an actor. 66 The listeners who were asked to take his point of view became more sympathetic to heroin addicts in general, even when the speaker was fictitious (though the increase was greater when they thought he was real). And in the hands of a skilled narrator, a fictitious victim can elicit even more sympathy than a real one. In his book The Moral Laboratory, the literary scholar Jèmeljan Hakemulder reports experiments in which participants read similar facts about the plight of Algerian women through the eyes of the protagonist in Malike Mokkeddem’s novel The Displaced or from Jan Goodwin’s nonfiction exposé Price of Honor. 67 The participants who read the novel became more sympathetic to Algerian women than those who read the true-life account; they were less likely, for example, to blow off the women’s predicament as a part of their cultural and religious heritage. These experiments give us some reason to believe that the chronology of the Humanitarian Revolution, in which popular novels preceded historical reform, may not have been entirely coincidental: exercises in perspective-taking do help to expand people’s circle of sympathy.

The science of empathy has shown that sympathy can promote genuine altruism, and that it can be extended to new classes of people when a beholder takes the perspective of a member of that class, even a fictitious one. The research gives teeth to the speculation that humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering. And as such, the cognitive process of perspective-taking and the emotion of sympathy must figure in the explanation for many historical reductions in violence. They include institutionalized violence such as cruel punishments, slavery, and frivolous executions; the everyday abuse of vulnerable populations such as women, children, homosexuals, racial minorities, and animals; and the waging of wars, conquests, and ethnic cleansings with a callousness to their human costs.”

What we imagine matters. What matters even more is what we are capable of imagining. The society we are born into either helps to develop or stunt our imaginations, both individually and collectively.

There is a complicated relationship between imagination and reality. For us to know and understand a fact, for us to grasp the relevance of data, we must imaginatively enter into a world of possible meanings and implications. That is a core part even of the scientific method. A hypothesis has to be imagined before it can be articulated and tested, either to be proven or disproven.

However, sometimes a hypothesis is also a prediction, sometimes even a dire prediction. Still, the person presenting a prediction doesn’t necessarily want to be proven right—some hypotheses are best left untested.

As I was thinking about this, I came across something else from yet another book, a collection of essays edited by Richard Grusin, The Nonhuman Turn. It is from the essay in chapter 6: “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis; or, The Temporality of Networks” by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Kindle Locations 3401-3419):

“To exhaust exhaustion we must also deal with— and emphasize— the precariousness of programs and their predictions. That is, if they are to help us save the future— to help us fight the exhaustion of planetary reserves, and so on— they can do so only if we use the gap between their future predictions and the future not to dismiss them, but rather to frame their predictions as calls for responsibility. That is, “trusting” a program does not mean letting it decide the future or even framing its future predictions as simply true, but instead acknowledging the impossibility of knowing its truth in advance while nonetheless responding to it. This is perhaps made most clear through the example of global climate models, which attempt to convince people that something they can’t yet experience, something simulated, is true. (This difficulty is amplified by the fact that we experience weather, not climate— like capital, climate, which is itself the product of modern computation, is hard to grasp.) Trusted models of global mean temperature by organizations such as Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) “chart” changes in mean temperature from 1970 to 2100.61 Although the older temperatures are based on historical data, and thus verifiable, the future temperatures are not. This suturing of the difference between past and future is not, however, the oddest thing about these models and their relation to the future, although it is certainly the basis from which they are most often attacked. The weirdest and most important thing about their temporality is their hopefully effective deferral of the future: these predictive models are produced so that if they are persuasive and thus convince us to cut back on our carbon emissions, then what they predict will not come about. Their predictions will not be true or verifiable. This relationship is necessary because by the time we know whether their predictions are true or not, it will be too late. (This is perhaps why the George W. Bush administration supported global climate change research: by investigating the problem, building better models, they bought more time for polluters.) I stress this temporality not because I’m a climate change denier— the fact that carbon monoxide raises temperature has been known for more than a century— but because, by engaging this temporality in terms of responsibility, we can best respond to critics who focus on the fallibility of algorithms and data, as if the gap between the future and future predictions was reason for dismissal rather than hope.

In imagining what we fear, it opens up to the potential of imagining the alternatives, specifically that of catastrophe prevented or dystopia avoided. The dire prediction can goad people into action and maybe inspire them toward another direction, hope rather than dismissal.

Take the example of the Club of Rome report, The Limits of Growth. It was published in 1972, a couple years after the first celebration of Earth Day. There were many responses to it, including dismissal while others took it seriously.

The doubters claimed it was disproven because it never came true.

First, it apparently is unclear how many of the doubters read the report, as the predictions extended far into the coming century. The Rational Wiki states that, “It is often quote mined to make it appear as if it predicted total societal collapse by the end of the 20th century. Limits to Growth, in fact, offered various scenarios and a 2008 study has shown that the core predictions in its business-as-usual, or “standard run,” scenario trends have held true.[5]” As Matthew R. Simmons wrote (Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?):

“After reading The Limits to Growth, I was amazed. Nowhere in the book was there any mention about running out of anything by 2000. Instead, the book’s concern was entirely focused on what the world might look like 100 years later. There was not one sentence or even a single word written about an oil shortage, or limit to any specific resource, by the year 2000.

At the Guardian, Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander quoted the conclusion of The Limits to Growth:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

And then they noted that, “So far, there’s little to indicate they got that wrong.” Considering the report was published in 1972, that next hundred years goes further into the future than I’m likely to personally experience, although the generations immediately following my own surely will.

Second, even if they actually had developed a model that showed under continuing existent trends there was one possible scenario of the world ending by 2000, the survival of civilization into the 21st century wouldn’t prove they were wrong. It could simply mean the the conditions changed and so the trends shifted. Anyway, it wasn’t as if they were making predictions as dire as imminent societal collapse. The report was pointing to various trends and mathematically modeled scenarios: If this, then what? Or if that, then what else? It was informed speculation, a rather modest act of imagination well within the bounds of rational argument and factual evidence.

The reason the Club of Rome report was on my mind is because my father mentioned it to me. He leans toward denialism or at least, as a mainstream conservative, a profoundly ideological mistrust and wariness. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the crazy ’60s and ’70s, both of my parents were caught up in the mood of the times. The culture wars had yet to define all of reality and they were going through a liberal phase of their young adulthoods.

The first Earth Day happened when my mother was 25 years old and my father was 27 years old. It was a year before they had their first child, my oldest brother. And that first child was a year before the Club of Rome report. My father told me that the report depressed him, considering the proposed population growth and resource shortages. They had two more kids after the first (in 1973 and 1975), and I was the last. They decided to stop at three, despite wanting a larger family. They thought it would have been irresponsible to have more children on a planet that quickly was becoming overpopulated and overburdened, and even three was pushing it from their perspective.

So, the Club of Rome report changed their behavior. I imagine it changed many people’s behaviors. It is interesting that my father now sees that report as having been proven wrong. Wasn’t it’s purpose to alter choices made and hence to alter the results caused and costs incurred? Apparently, that is precisely what it did.

The early dire predictions might have changed the behavior, directly and indirectly, of possibly hundreds of millions of people around the world. Not to mention changing the behaviors of many in positions of power and influence, both inside and outside of government. Those effected, such as through wide-scale environmental regulations, would include the most (if not all) of the planet’s population, not to mention the biosphere itself and every ecosystem within it.

All of the major environmental policies came after the Club of Rome report. Take one example, that of air pollution regulation. It was in the 1970s that the United States the Clean Air Act. That severely limited the lead allowed in gasoline. It has since been credited for the largest drop in violent crime, and it should be noted that decreasing lead toxicity is also directly correlated with increasing average IQ, a boost to the Flynn effect and hence the moral Flynn effect. This pattern has been seen in countries all across the world, following their own regulations—although lead in gasoline only began to be restricted in sub-Saharan Africa less than a decade ago, 2006. Still, it isn’t even just about lead toxicity, as all pollution taken in combination leads to many externalized costs on the human level (and that is with environmental regulations in place):

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.”

That probably doesn’t even include ecosystem destruction, natural resource depletion, climate change disasters, and other environmental effects (increase of floods, droughts, desertification, poisonous algae blooms, malaria, etc).

Imagine that the Club of Rome report had never been written and never convinced the major governments to have taken any regulatory actions—if: pollution and environmental destruction had grown far worse than it is now, climate change and severe weather patterns had worsened, violent crime rates had shot further up, and the Flynn effect for rising average IQ had stalled. And imagine that multiplied across the entire earth’s population, a population growing exponentially faster (maybe already having reached 15 billion, instead of a century from now).

Yet that isn’t what happened. The Club of Rome report had a large impact, both on personal behavior and public policy. As a complex network of causal links and contributing factors, the collective effect (cumulative and exponential) magnified down the line might have massively altered the course of development, societally and environmentally. This might have helped to prevent or forestall negative consequences and challenging events. If the global population had grown even faster and environmental regulations had not been enacted in the major industrial countries, no one knows what might have resulted.

This obvious success of environmentalist ‘alarmists’ goes right over the head of the critics, i.e., denialists. The most famous of the Club of Rome critics, Bjorn Lomborg, lambasted the report a few years ago:

“Even in the developed world, outdoor air pollution is still the biggest environmental killer (at least 250,000 dead each year), although environmental regulation has reduced the death toll dramatically over the past half century. Indoor air pollution in the developed world kills almost nobody. Whereas the Club of Rome imagined an idyllic past with no pollution and happy farmers and a future world choked by fumes and poisons from industrialization run amok, the reality is quite different. Over the last century, pollution has neither spiraled out of control nor gotten more deadly, and the risk of death from air pollution is predicted to continue to drop (see Figure 4).

“Who Cares?

“So the Limits to Growth project got its three main drivers spectacularly wrong and the other two modestly wrong. The world is not running out of resources, not running out of food, and not gagging on pollution, and the world’s population and industrial output are rising sustainably. So what? Why should anyone care now? Because the project’s analysis sunk deep into popular and elite consciousness and helps shape the way people think about a host of important policy issues today.”

Such willful ignorance is mind-boggling. It is a total lack of both comprehension and imagination. He can’t envision the possible futures of that moment in 1972. It is beyond him to consider what would have happened if we had continued on the path we were on with no decreases of pollution, resource depletion, population growth, etc. He treats the report as if it were a mere academic paper or, worse, a melodramatic fiction. It was always intended to influence people and yet Lomborg acts as if the world was predetermined to end up where we now are, as if our choices and policies are meaningless or inevitable, and as if moral concern and moral imagination have no power to inspire new possibilities.

Lomborg continues his skewering of those misguided ‘alarmists’:

“In the developed world, the push to eliminate pesticides has ignored their immense benefits. Going completely organic would increase the cost of agricultural production in the United States by more than $100 billion annually. Since organic farming is at least 16 percent less efficient, maintaining the same output would require devoting an additional 50 million acres to farmland — an area larger than the state of California. And since eating fruits and vegetables helps reduce cancer, and since organic farming would lead to higher prices and thus lower consumption, a shift to purely organic farming would cause tens of thousands of additional cancer deaths.

“Paying more than $100 billion, massively increasing the amount of the country’s farmland, and killing tens of thousands of people seems a poor return for avoiding the dozens of American deaths due to pesticides annually. Yet this is how the Limits to Growth project and similar efforts have taught the world to think, making people worry imprudently about marginal issues while ignoring sensible actions for addressing major ones.”

It doesn’t occur to him to consider the costs. Besides the environmental destruction to ecosystems and species, our over-reliance on chemicals is itself a contributing factor to the high cancer rates. Plus, the use of chemicals for farming has allowed less nutritious foods to be produced, as these new farming methods are destructive to the soil. On top of that, I wouldn’t dismiss the impact on species. Consider the honey bee with global populations decimated by pesticides. Our entire way of life is dependent on the honey bee. His entire argument falls apart at this point.

The old Chinese curse is to tell someone, May you live in interesting times. Presumably, that is a curse directed at younger and healthier people who will outlive the one uttering it. Maybe the times we live in are less ‘interesting’ than they otherwise would have been.

That is the thing about predictions. If enough people or simply the right people are paying attention, it can entirely alter the prediction. When making dire predictions, usually it is hoped that people will be motivated to take actions to prevent the prediction. So, the best dire prediction is the one that falsifies itself. But by its nature such a prevented prediction can never get credit for what it accomplished.

It is the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I guess we could call it a self-denying prophecy.

That is the power of the moral imagination. But imagination is always at play, even when its power is misunderstood and misapplied.

In responding to denialists, Rex Weyler wrote:

“New York Times economist Peter Passel attacked the Limits book by conjuring false claims that all the study’s simulations “invariably end in collapse” and that the book predicted depletion of critical resources by 1990. The book, however, made no such predictions, and on the contrary, offered sound suggestions to avoid collapse. These facts did not deter the denialists.

“There are no great limits to growth,” U.S. president Ronald Reagan declared in 1985, “when men and women are free to follow their dreams … because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.

“This inspiring Reaganism serves as the official corporate rebuff to any talk of environmental limits. Lomborg claimed: “Smartness will outweigh the extra resource use.” Dreams. Imagination. Smartness. Humans, the theory went, are just too clever to be restricted by biophysical limits.”

Imagination, instead helping us to understand reality, can disconnect us from the world around us. It can even disconnect us from our own humanity. The ruling elite in particular can come to believe, through technology and brute power, that they have become as if gods. They don’t bow down to reality. They create their own reality:

“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.””

This goes back to Garett’s view in Hive Mind. In the ruling elite worldview, it is all about a self-empowered meritocracy. They assume they are the best minds, men of vision and action. Indeed, the ruling elite on average are high IQ and well educated. But as Garett argues, individuals can only be as good as the society they are part of.

Imagination has the potential to not only connect us to larger realities, larger webs of causes and greater visions. Beyond that, it allows us to connect to the world around us and the earth upon which we all live. Imagination is an immense power—we should be careful how it is used and for what purpose.

We need to remind ourselves that our world is built upon millennia of societal progress and millions of years of evolution. In doing so, we need to reimagine our place, as members of both human and nonhuman communities. We aren’t the center of Creation, no matter how smart we think we are.