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#45 The disaster you plan for
We had a bank holiday in Holland and went camping the last few days. So, we spent the better part of the day eyeing the various weather apps. This is Holland, after all, and rain and cold weather are always an option. Each weather service has a personality. Apple’s weather app too quickly predicts rain — I imagine because it’s an app from California where rain is much scarcer than here. Buienradar (rain radar) offers a balanced view and with unbalanced weather is not my favorite. Instead, we use Weeronline (weather online), which is the most hopeful. Weeronline, at times, is a bit of a Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf of weather forecasts, telling us the sun is shining while it pours.
Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Iraq’s minister of information during the 2003 invasion, has been on my mind. I’m listening to Slow Burn’s fifth season about the road to Iraq. While I remember the main thrust of the story — 9/11, WMDs, Bush — most of the details had been lost on me. Or maybe I never knew. Saeed al-Sahhaf wasn’t the only one telling stories that were far from the truth. Recommended!
The way my head is wired, it is a small step from the hawks scheming to invade Iraq to Niall Ferguson. The connection between my Ferguson neurons and hawk neurons is likely strengthened by the former’s superb biography of the uber hawk Henry Kissinger. I’m awaiting the second part of this biography with an unbecoming eagerness, given that Kissinger likely has to die first.
On the other hand… certainly, I also feel I have to dislike Ferguson because of his politics. I vividly remember screaming at him halfway through The Ascent of Money. ‘Right-wing fool! How could you…’
It is often easy to dismiss the political right – their contemporary defiant anti-intellectualism that prefers Ikea to libraries, their obnoxious idiosyncrasies, their blatant nepotism. It is impossible to dismiss Ferguson. He is of a different right. A right that appeals to a staunch on-the-fence-ist. A right that is superbly intelligent, witty, courageous. Ferguson never fails to make me doubt. I’m drawn to his books and thinking like a moth to a flame.
Hence my enthusiasm when Sean Carroll, of the brilliant Mindscape podcast, recently had a conversation with Ferguson. Two great minds on opposite ends of the political spectrum having a constructive, enjoyable, and respectful dialogue. It’s almost like someone fixed the internet. Again, I recommend listening to it. One of my favorite parts from the episode is when Ferguson discusses the need for counterfactual histories:
“The more you think counterfactually, and this is the real key, I think, about the past, the more you recognize that the future is, it’s not determined, it’s uncertain, you and I stand before multiple plausible futures, and all we can really do at this point is attach some vague probabilities to them, but the more you try and do that systematically, the more you realize how hard it is.
“I spend a lot of my time trying to do that. If I’m getting 66% right, I’m doing really, really well. Just beating the coin toss is good, because this is so difficult to do, even if you’re just narrowly trying to predict where interest rates will be a month from now, it’s really hard. So, doing counterfactual history is a way of reminding yourself that what happened was not bound to happen, it’s just the scenario, it’s the sequence of events that we got, that ex ante it did not have necessarily even the highest probability, sometimes it’s the low probability scenarios that happen. So I think counterfactual thinking is extremely healthy and it should be… It should be kind of much more central to how we educate people, not only to think about big questions like the future of the United States, but also about how to think about their own lives.”
Another thing that stood out to me was his perspective on the climate crisis and the way it fixates our minds at this moment:
“My feeling is more that we need to keep our breadth of vision in recognizing that ultimately we don’t get the disaster we plan for. We almost never do. And if we spend too much time, which I think we risk doing, thinking about one particular set of scenarios, which are the bad scenarios in the IPCC, then I think we’ll be blindsided by something else.
“Ultimately, going back to the earlier point, the generally paranoid society has some kind of contingency for the temporary but perhaps prolonged failure of the electricity grid. And that could happen, not just because of solar flares, it could happen because of a successful Chinese, Russian cyber attack, conceivably. I worry that if we convince ourselves that the key thing for us to do between now and the next 20 years is radically to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and if we do that, we’ll be fine, then we are, I think, engaging in a kind of magical thinking.”
You do not get the disaster you plan for. This is why I’m drawn to Ferguson. The first time he dismisses climate activists, I want to challenge him to a duel (which I will most definitely lose). The second time, I understand him. The third…
The third podcast that stood out to me this week was No Place Like Home, which I heard through the How to Safe a Planet podcast. In it, Sherri Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation tells about her people’s wisdom and perspectives on the climate, biodiversity, and humanity. What especially stood out to me was the prophecy of Giwakwa near the very end of the episode. As described by Mitchell elsewhere:
“In the Wabanaki tradition, Giwakwa, the cannibal giant, lives deep in the forest and only awakens to the Earth mother’s distressed cry. This lets Giwakwa know that humans are consuming faster than she can produce and harming her faster than she can heal. Awakened, Giwakwa plays music on his flute that dances people into frenzied, mindless, faster and faster consumption until they consume themselves off the planet, giving Mother Earth the opportunity to heal and renew. These indigenous extinction stories are active now across the globe.
“The only way to put the cannibal giant back to sleep is for us to wake up fully to the fact that the Earth is being damaged at a rate far greater than she can heal herself, and that there are many species on the verge of extinction. We are one of them. People must be incredibly discerning now. They must get grounded in their center to listen and heed the direction of their inner compass that will guide them in a right direction.”
Googling, I discover Sherri Mitchell is a multi-talented storyteller who also made a documentary about this story. Once over, the podcast episode comes highly recommended!
Lastly, on the topic of podcasts, Tim Harford’s excellent (albeit overly polished) Cautionary Tales concludes the story of Gene Tierney’s daughter with the hopeful message, “Most people aren’t heartless, they’re thoughtless.”
Our camping trip was cut short by rain and cold. But then we got more than could have been expected if we’d based our predictions on Apple’s weather. The one day we lost, somewhat randomly, we spent helping out a stranger setting up her organic farm in the heavy clay soil of the Flevopolder. In the pouring rain, we planted yellow beets and removed dandelions. Everything smells like delicious mud now. You do not get the disaster you plan for.
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