Tuesday, April 24, 2007

commenting on the weather

In American culture, commenting on the weather is basically meaningless conversation. It's not about the content--it's about the motivation: phatic communication, in which the only purpose is to demonstrate a willingness to talk, a openness to communication, a desire to be friendly and polite. It could be about anything, and because of that, it's really not about anything at all. Hence, the weather. Locally, it's been, "thank God it's finally spring!" as the initiation for every casual conversation. (Except in CRW, where it's "when the hell will they turn on the AC?")

Of course this is all very normal. In fact, it's the only instance I can think of in which American culture and Chinese culture completely coincide, the phatic function of commenting on the weather.

But why? Why is it that talk of the weather is always actually talk of something else? Why isn't commenting on the weather really about the weather? I suspect that it's because we're fish-in-the-water, so to speak, in our open air ocean, swimming along oblivious to that which envelops us, sustains us, comfortably and unfailingly and unobtrusively.

This is my conjecture about why (some) people don't believe in global warming. Like fish in the water, it's hard to think about how the elements that sustain our lives could somehow go wrong, fail us, not be there for us, because they always have been there and we've never had to think about them before. Weather is supposed to be the backdrop for real life, and backdrops are supposed to be unnoticed. So now, we've got smart people who've spent years studying something minutely and in detail that most of us only comment on in order to get some small talk going, telling us that we've got to stop taking some things for granted; and we don't want to listen because it means recognizing that security is an illusion and the future is not guaranteed.

A couple nights ago, I had a horrible dream about the end of the world. The world was drowning because the ice caps had melted and no one had ever done anything about global warming. We all knew about it. As we were all drowning, floating past one another and losing each other in the huge Noah's flood sans Noah, we all shouted mournfully to each other, "global warming..." It sounds silly, but I woke up shaken, because Clare was in this dream, and in the dream, we were all going to die. There was nowhere safe. Now, I know that I had this dream because I read Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain. Not "typical" SF (that is to say, not futuristic), but written with the same clarity and coherence of the Mars trilogy and with the same brisk and effective characterization. What's frightening about the novel is that it's not apocalyptic. Robinson sets the novel in an ever-shifting present and it reads like it's describing tomorrow--a future so present that it's in fact now. And it's about the daily grind: the lab work of scientists hard at work on biotech because that's what gets funded, the reality of daily political compromises, the inevitable failure of well-intentioned people to persuade others that they're right. And at the end of the novel, a storm hits DC with devestating impact reminiscent of Katrina...and Robinson published in 2004. Reading Forty Signs a couple days after reading Feminarian's posts on New Orleans, the prophetic quality of Robinson's scenario struck me with the kind of sick force that only gets worked out in a nightmare, because we can't bear to realize the precariousness of existence directly.

I think this is particularly hard for Christians because our belief in a loving, benevolent, providential God somehow translates into an inability to acknowledge that life is precarious. That through human effort it can become more so--or less so. God functions as a guarantee that these things that are too huge and horrible to contemplate or imagine just won't happen. God is good, and he is the Guarantor against Global Warming. Well, that's just crap. Look around. Shit happens all the time.

So, the point is, we have to stop giving in to the impulse to bury our heads in the sand like some kind of chicken ostrich (for those of you who haven't read it, that's an allusion to a particularly charming mixed metaphor from the novel), simply because it's more comfy not to pay any attention to all the really smart people who's spent years trying to determine if there's really a problem. They're telling us that there is. It's not a conspiracy. Why would we even suspect that it was? What would be the point? When people studying rivers in the NE and people studying penguin populations in Antarctica come to a convergence of conclusions with regard to climate shift, it's not because they've been exchanging emails containing collegial hints at how to hoax the public. Give me a break. You get in an airplane and let some anonymous pilot take your life into his hands, and you trust him; why don't you extend the same epistemic courtesy to these people?

Objections I've heard that sound plausible--sure, we've only been keeping records for a fraction of the time that we need to study in order to detect "for sure" patterns of climate change. Well, too bad Mr. Australopithicus had survival on his mind and didn't bother with commenting on the weather for posterity. But my point about epistemic humility holds here. Why would I--an expert in one small corner of academia--take it on myself to judge the interpretation of data in a field unfamiliar to me? Why wouldn't I instead trust people who've spent years training themselves to do just that? I couldn't even interpret my own ultrasound, for crying out loud!

All right, this started out a really reasonable post with a faint promise of becoming a nicely structured essay and devolved into sheer ranting. It must be the heat. But trust me, that's not really a comment on the weather.


hermitgreg said...

agreed on the last paragraph, but do save the idea for after you read Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, which, though I haven't read it (yet), sounds like the right apocalyptic novel to write about in concert.

JTB said...

spoken like a true editor.

JTB said...

Also the fact that a week ago on Monday PTS classes were cancelled due to flooding may have contributed to my watery nightmare.

Scott said...

Outstanding. A little screed every now and then is a good thing.

Jeff said...

Followed Scott's link to your site. I like it. I'll be back!

Perhaps the global warming issue isn't as open and shut a case as you may think. See http://www.heartland.org/archives/studies/ieguide.htm#1

I am undecided on the issue, but that article presents some info that tells me that characterization of doubters as "chicken ostriches" is unfair. There are legit reasons to believe that global warming is caused by humans. But there are also legit reasons to DOUBT it.

Lets not base our conclusions on what the popular media feeds us. All of the major players in the debate have $$incentives$$ to promoting their version. We have to weed through all of that.

JTB said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the visit. It's always nice to get the occasional affirmation that readers really do exist.

I'm not sure that it really matters what the ultimate or proximate causes are, other than the pragmatic matter of determining what the most appropriate responses are. Even if it turns out that what we're in is some kind of "natural" climatic cycle, it remains observably true that something different is happening--for instance, some species are losing their habitats (polar bears, penguins), and that specific changes in bodies of water are occurring. If we take it that it is a morally responsible thing to do to preserve our species and therefore by extension other species--or heck, not even morally responsible but simply prudential--then it doesn't take assigning a human cause to the matter to make it imperative for us to take action. Determining causes is a pragmatic step in helping to determine what we ought to be doing. And while, given my epistemological views, I don't think that a certain amount of healthy skepticism is out of bounds on anything, I also find that the issue of making sound judgments between competing claims is a difficult matter when one is a layperson with regard to areas as complicated as these. I understand that politicians use issues like global warming and abortion and gay marriage and poverty and national security as a means toward creating power ($$$) for themselves. And I also understand that scientific studies must be funded, and that this issue complicates any conception of science as "pure" and objective. However, it doesn't seem to me that global warming is a real moneymaker of an issue right now. Abortion, gay marriage, national security: those are the issues being wielded by those in power at the moment. Global warming's not cool. And so it seems to me that I'm not necessarily being so unbearably naive to take as trustworthy the testimony of people still bothering to make the claim that there's a problem. What's in it for them? Who's even listening? And sure, Al Gore's made some mileage out of it. But who is he? Is he making any effective decisions nowadays? Is he in charge? Nope.

I guess what I'm assuming, and you're not, is that the real major players making the claims are scientists doing their best to make sense of the data they're getting, in good conscience--rather than politicians, whose interest in data is always spin. I would call this a sort of virtuous epistemic humility rather than a willful naivete.