I’m sure most of my readers have heard at least a little of the hullaballoo surrounding the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. It’s been entertaining to watch, not least because so many politicians in the United States who like to use Vatican pronouncements as window dressing for their own agendas have been left scrambling for cover now that the wind from Rome is blowing out of a noticeably different quarter.
Take Rick Santorum, a loudly Catholic Republican who used to be in the US Senate and now spends his time entertaining a variety of faux-conservative venues with his signature flavor of hate speech. Santorum loves to denounce fellow Catholics who disagree with Vatican edicts as “cafeteria Catholics,” and announced a while back that John F. Kennedy’s famous defense of the separation of church and state made him sick to his stomach. In the wake of Laudato Si, care to guess who’s elbowing his way to the head of the cafeteria line? Yes, that would be Santorum, who’s been insisting since the encyclical came out that the Pope is wrong and American Catholics shouldn’t be obliged to listen to him.
What makes all the yelling about Laudato Si a source of wry amusement to me is that it’s not actually a radical document at all. It’s a statement of plain common sense. It should have been obvious all along that treating the air as a gaseous sewer was a really dumb idea, and in particular, that dumping billions upon billions of tons of infrared-reflecting gases into the atmosphere would change its capacity for heat retention in unwelcome ways. It should have been just as obvious that all the other ways we maltreat the only habitable planet we’ve got were guaranteed to end just as badly. That this wasn’t obvious—that huge numbers of people find it impossible to realize that you can only wet your bed so many times before you have to sleep in a damp spot—deserves much more attention than it’s received so far.
It’s really a curious blindness, when you think about it. Since our distant ancestors climbed unsteadily down from the trees of late Pliocene Africa, the capacity to anticipate threats and do something about them has been central to the success of our species. A rustle in the grass might indicate the approach of a leopard, a series of unusually dry seasons might turn the local water hole into undrinkable mud: those of our ancestors who paid attention to such things, and took constructive action in response to them, were more likely to survive and leave offspring than those who shrugged and went on with business as usual. That’s why traditional societies around the world are hedged about with a dizzying assortment of taboos and customs meant to guard against every conceivable source of danger.
Somehow, though, we got from that to our present situation, where substantial majorities across the world’s industrial nations seem unable to notice that something bad can actually happen to them, where thoughtstoppers of the “I’m sure they’ll think of something” variety take the place of thinking about the future, and where, when something bad does happen to someone, the immediate response is to find some way to blame the victim for what happened, so that everyone else can continue to believe that the same thing can’t happen to them. A world where Laudato Si is controversial, not to mention necessary, is a world that’s become dangerously detached from the most basic requirements of collective survival.
For quite some time now, I’ve been wondering just what lies behind the bizarre paralogic with which most people these days turn blank and uncomprehending eyes on their onrushing fate. The process of writing last week’s blog post on the astonishing stupidity of US foreign policy, though, seems to have helped me push through to clarity on the subject. I may be wrong, but I think I’ve figured it out.
Let’s begin with the issue at the center of last week’s post, the really remarkable cluelessness with which US policy toward Russia and China has convinced both nations they have nothing to gain from cooperating with a US-led global order, and are better off allying with each other and opposing the US instead. US politicians and diplomats made that happen, and the way they did it was set out in detail in a recent and thoughtful article by Paul R. Pillar in the online edition of The National Interest.
Pillar’s article pointed out that the United States has evolved a uniquely counterproductive notion of how negotiation works. Elsewhere on the planet, people understand that when you negotiate, you’re seeking a compromise where you get whatever you most need out of the situation, while the other side gets enough of its own agenda met to be willing to cooperate. To the US, by contrast, negotiation means that the other side complies with US demands, and that’s the end of it. The idea that other countries might have their own interests, and might expect to receive some substantive benefit in exchange for cooperation with the US, has apparently never entered the heads of official Washington—and the absence of that idea has resulted in the cascading failures of US foreign policy in recent years.
It’s only fair to point out that the United States isn’t the only practitioner of this kind of self-defeating behavior. A first-rate example has been unfolding in Europe in recent months—yes, that would be the ongoing non-negotiations between the Greek government and the so-called troika, the coalition of unelected bureaucrats who are trying to force Greece to keep pursuing a failed economic policy at all costs. The attitude of the troika is simple: the only outcome they’re willing to accept is capitulation on the part of the Greek government, and they’re not willing to give anything in return. Every time the Greek government has tried to point out to the troika that negotiation usually involves some degree of give and take, the bureaucrats simply give them a blank look and reiterate their previous demands.
That attitude has had drastic political consequences. It’s already convinced Greeks to elect a radical leftist government in place of the compliant centrists who ruled the country in the recent past. If the leftists fold, the neofascist Golden Dawn party is waiting in the wings. The problem with the troika’s stance is simple: the policies they’re insisting that Greece must accept have never—not once in the history of market economies—produced anything but mass impoverishment and national bankruptcy. The Greeks, among many other people, know this; they know that Greece will not return to prosperity until it defaults on its foreign debts the way Russia did in 1998, and scores of other countries have done as well.
If the troika won’t settle for a negotiated debt-relief program, and the current Greek government won’t default, the Greeks will elect someone else who will, no matter who that someone else happens to be; it’s that, after all, or continue along a course that’s already caused the Greek economy to lose a quarter of its precrisis GDP, and shows no sign of stopping anywhere this side of failed-state status. That this could quite easily hand Greece over to a fascist despot is just one of the potential problems with the troika’s strategy. It’s astonishing that so few people in Europe seem to be able to remember what happened the last time an international political establishment committed itself to the preservation of a failed economic orthodoxy no matter what; those of my readers who don’t know what I’m talking about may want to pick up any good book on the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars.
Let’s step back from specifics, though, and notice the thinking that underlies the dysfunctional behavior in Washington and Brussels alike. In both cases, the people who think they’re in charge have lost track of the fact that Russia, China, and Greece have needs, concerns, and interests of their own, and aren’t simply dolls that the US or EU can pose at will. These other nations can, perhaps, be bullied by threats over the short term, but that’s a strategy with a short shelf life. Successful diplomacy depends on giving the other guy reasons to want to cooperate with you, while demanding cooperation at gunpoint guarantees that the other guy is going to look for ways to shoot back.
The same sort of thinking in a different context underlies the brutal stupidity of American drone attacks in the Middle East. Some wag in the media pointed out a while back that the US went to war against an enemy 5,000 strong, we’ve killed 10,000 of them, and now there are only 20,000 left. That’s a good summary of the situation; the US drone campaign has been a total failure by every objective measure, having worked out consistently to the benefit of the Muslim extremist groups against which it’s aimed, and yet nobody in official Washington seems capable of noticing this fact.
It’s hard to miss the conclusion, in fact, that the Obama administration thinks that in pursuing its drone-strike program, it’s playing some kind of video game, which the United States can win if it can rack up enough points. Notice the way that every report that a drone has taken out some al-Qaeda leader gets hailed in the media: hey, we nailed a commander, doesn’t that boost our score by five hundred? In the real world, meanwhile the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by US drone strikes has become a core factor convincing Muslims around the world that the United States is just as evil as the jihadis claim, and thus sending young men by the thousands to join the jihadi ranks. Has anyone in the Obama administration caught on to this straightforward arithmetic of failure? Surely you jest.
For that matter, I wonder how many of my readers recall the much-ballyhooed “surge” in Afghanistan several years back. The “surge” was discussed at great length in the US media before it was enacted on Afghan soil; talking heads of every persuasion babbled learnedly about how many troops would be sent, how long they’d stay, and so on. It apparently never occurred to anybody in the Pentagon or the White House that the Taliban could visit websites and read newspapers, and get a pretty good idea of what the US forces in Afghanistan were about to do. That’s exactly what happened, too; the Taliban simply hunkered down for the duration, and popped back up the moment the extra troops went home.
Both these examples of US military failure are driven by the same problem discussed earlier in the context of diplomacy: an inability to recognize that the other side will reliably respond to US actions in ways that further its own agenda, rather than playing along with the US. More broadly, it’s the same failure of thought that leads so many people to assume that the biosphere is somehow obligated to give us all the resources we want and take all the abuse we choose to dump on it, without ever responding in ways that might inconvenience us.
We can sum up all these forms of acquired stupidity in a single sentence: most people these days seem to have lost the ability to grasp that the other side can learn.
The entire concept of learning has been so poisoned by certain bad habits of contemporary thought that it’s probably necessary to pause here. Learning, in particular, isn’t the same thing as rote imitation. If you memorize a set of phrases in a foreign language, for example, that doesn’t mean you’ve learned that language. To learn the language means to grasp the underlying structure, so that you can come up with your own phrases and say whatever you want, not just what you’ve been taught to say.
In the same way, if you memorize a set of disconnected factoids about history, you haven’t learned history. This is something of a loaded topic right now in the US, because recent “reforms” in the American public school system have replaced learning with rote memorization of disconnected factoids that are then regurgitated for multiple choice tests. This way of handling education penalizes those children who figure out how to learn, since they might well come up with answers that differ from the ones the test expects. That’s one of many ways that US education these days actively discourages learning—but that’s a subject for another post.
To learn is to grasp the underlying structure of a given subject of knowledge, so that the learner can come up with original responses to it. That’s what Russia and China did; they grasped the underlying structure of US diplomacy, figured out that they had nothing to gain by cooperating with that structure, and came up with a creative response, which was to ally against the United States. That’s what Greece is doing, too. Bit by bit, the Greeks seem to be figuring out the underlying structure of troika policy, which amounts to the systematic looting of southern Europe for the benefit of Germany and a few of its allies, and are trying to come up with a response that doesn’t simply amount to unilateral submission.
That’s also what the jihadis and the Taliban are doing in the face of US military activity. If life hands you lemons, as the saying goes, make lemonade; if the US hands you drone strikes that routinely slaughter noncombatants, you can make very successful propaganda out of it—and if the US hands you a surge, you roll your eyes, hole up in your mountain fastnesses, and wait for the Americans to get bored or distracted, knowing that this won’t take long. That’s how learning works, but that’s something that US planners seem congenitally unable to take into account.
The same analysis, interestingly enough, makes just as much sense when applied to nonhuman nature. As Ervin Laszlo pointed out a long time ago in Introduction to Systems Philosophy, any sufficiently complex system behaves in ways that approximate intelligence. Consider the way that bacteria respond to antibiotics. Individually, bacteria are as dumb as politicians, but their behavior on the species level shows an eerie similarity to learning; faced with antibiotics, a species of bacteria “tries out” different biochemical approaches until it finds one that sidesteps the antibiotic. In the same way, insects and weeds “try out” different responses to pesticides and herbicides until they find whatever allows them to munch on crops or flourish in the fields no matter how much poison the farmer sprays on them.
We can even apply the same logic to the environmental crisis as a whole. Complex systems tend to seek equilibrium, and will respond to anything that pushes them away from equilibrium by pushing back the other way. Any field biologist can show you plenty of examples: if conditions allow more rabbits to be born in a season, for instance, the population of hawks and foxes rises accordingly, reducing the rabbit surplus to a level the ecosystem can support. As humanity has put increasing pressure on the biosphere, the biosphere has begun to push back with increasing force, in an increasing number of ways; is it too much to think of this as a kind of learning, in which the biosphere “tries out” different ways to balance out the abusive behavior of humanity, until it finds one or more that work?
Now of course it’s long been a commonplace of modern thought that natural systems can’t possibly learn. The notion that nature is static, timeless, and unresponsive, a passive stage on which human beings alone play active roles, is welded into modern thought, unshaken even by the realities of biological evolution or the rising tide of evidence that natural systems are in fact quite able to adapt their way around human meddling. There’s a long and complex history to the notion of passive nature, but that’s a subject for another day; what interests me just now is that since 1990 or so, the governing classes of the United States, and some other Western nations as well, have applied the same frankly delusional logic to everything in the world other than themselves.
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” neoconservative guru Karl Rove is credited as saying to reporter Ron Suskind. “We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” That seems to be the thinking that governs the US government these days, on both sides of the supposed partisan divide. Obama says we’re in a recovery, and if the economy fails to act accordingly, why, rooms full of industrious flacks churn out elaborately fudged statistics to erase that unwelcome reality. That history’s self-proclaimed actors might turn out to be just one more set of flotsam awash on history’s vast tides has never entered their darkest dream.
Let’s step back from specifics again, though. What’s the source of this bizarre paralogic—the delusion that leads politicians to think that they create reality, and that everyone and everything else can only fill the roles they’ve been assigned by history’s actors? I think I know. I think it comes from a simple but remarkably powerful fact, which is that the people in question, along with most people in the privileged classes of the industrial world, spend most of their time, from childhood on, dealing with machines.
We can define a machine as a subset of the universe that’s been deprived of the capacity to learn. The whole point of building a machine is that it does what you want, when you want it, and nothing else. Flip the switch on, and it turns on and goes through whatever rigidly defined set of behaviors it’s been designed to do; flip the switch off, and it stops. It may be fitted with controls, so you can manipulate its behavior in various tightly limited ways; nowadays, especially when computer technology is involved, the set of behaviors assigned to it may be complex enough that an outside observer may be fooled into thinking that there’s learning going on. There’s no inner life behind the facade, though. It can’t learn, and to the extent that it pretends to learn, what happens is the product of the sort of rote memorization described above as the antithesis of learning.
A machine that learned would be capable of making its own decisions and coming up with a creative response to your actions—and that’s the opposite of what machines are meant to do, because that response might well involve frustrating your intentions so the machine can get what it wants instead. That’s why the trope of machines going to war against human beings has so large a presence in popular culture: it’s exactly because we expect machines not to act like people, not to pursue their own needs and interests, that the thought of machines acting the way we do gets so reliable a frisson of horror.
The habit of thought that treats the rest of the cosmos as a collection of machines, existing only to fulfill whatever purpose they might be assigned by their operators, is another matter entirely. Its origins can be traced back to the dawning of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, when a handful of thinkers first began to suggest that the universe might not be a vast organism—as everybody in the western world had presupposed for millennia before then—but might instead be a vast machine. It’s indicative that one immediate and popular response to this idea was to insist that other living things were simply “meat machines” who didn’t actually suffer pain under the vivisector’s knife, but had been designed by God to imitate sounds of pain in order to inspire feelings of pity in human beings.
The delusion of control—the conviction, apparently immune to correction by mere facts, that the world is a machine incapable of doing anything but the things we want it to do—pervades contemporary life in the world’s industrial societies. People in those societies spend so much more time dealing with machines than they do interacting with other people and other living things without a machine interface getting in the way, that it’s no wonder that this delusion is so widespread. As long as it retains its grip, though, we can expect the industrial world, and especially its privileged classes, to stumble onward from one preventable disaster to another. That’s the inner secret of the delusion of control, after all: those who insist on seeing the world in mechanical terms end up behaving mechanically themselves. Those who deny all other things the ability to learn lose the ability to learn from their own mistakes, and lurch robotically onward along a trajectory that leads straight to the scrapheap of the future.