Category Archives: Climate change

Weekly book review: The Swerve

Every so often a book comes along that helps to organize a great deal of what we’ve learned about the world. Such books show us how news events, historical shifts, wars, peace, technological changes, literature all occur and influence each other, showing that what Walter Cronkite used to call “the way it is,” is actually a pretty complicated and interconnected network of ever-shifting things. I took a course in college co-taught by faculty from various departments including history, literature, philosophy, and they taught us how the science, art, and politics of the Elizabethan world all influenced each other. Steven Johnson’s work, particularly his virtual trilogy, The Ghost Map, The Invention of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, (I reviewed the latter book here) is another example of that kind of integrative work that makes one gasp for air in delight.

ImageStephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) is that kind of book. It is beautifully written, erudite, and informative. Most important, it’s very relevant to our own polarized times, when “Christian” fundamentalists seemingly want to wage permanent war against every other kind of fundamentalism and science, in a time when, faced with cataclysmic climate change and other urgent problems,  we are once again witnessing a stupid, time-wasting War of the World Views.

The Swerve is the story of how an Italian scholar and humanist, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, managed to find and get back into circulation a famous ancient book that had disappeared from history, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Greenblatt shows how this long lost book, a philosophical treatise on the physical world and the implications for how one lives, became, after its rediscovery, a key source of ideas that propelled us into the modern world. How, in short, a book you’ve probably never read and never heard of, had a massive effect on not just the world you live in, but on how you view and understand that world — and yourself.

I enjoyed this a lot; started reading it idly in spare moments on my iPhone’s Kindle app, and it soon forced its way past other things I’ve been reading and became the main thing on my mind. The kind of book that you find yourself thinking about when you should be doing other things.

It wasn’t quite balanced the way I expected from the reviews, in that it’s largely a biography of Bracciolini, the guy who managed to find and copy and get Lucretius’s book back into circulation; but I later decided that understanding the intellectual, political and practical world Bracciolini lived in was background I needed, in order to grasp the importance of the book in his world and time. This was blended with a fascinating discussion of the clash between the outlook of Lucretius and the Epicureans, with other established views, both in ancient times (culminating eventually in the suppression and deliberate destruction of such works by the early and already intolerant and violent Church), and during the entire period leading up to and through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and beyond.

Greenblatt’s book shows how the basic scientific concepts of the ancient philosophers led to the ethical and psychological implications of their world view.  For if “the nature of things” or “the way it is,” is that all of reality, including us, is composed of atoms and nothing else; if even our “souls” (or we might say, “minds”) are made up of, and organzied by those ever-moving atoms, then the belief structures, ancient and modern, involving the fear of hell and fantasy gods, has no reality basis, and is both unnecessary, and unnecessarily harmful. In which case, the only sane thing would be to ditch the scary old gods and repressive theologies, and to find ways to appreciate and enjoy our brief time alive. (I personally don’t believe one has to do without a mystical or religious view of reality to accept and learn from such a philosophy, but perhaps I shall indeed order that hot tub!)

Greenblat shows how the blowback by the Church from Lucretius’s ideas helped fuel the fires of the Inquisition, and how the book and its outlook was a challenge both to the Church, the established political powers, and to probably, the dark, fear-based world views of many ordinary people. He finally discusses the importance of the book in helping to launch the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, all the way through (in an astounding ending) the nearly certain reference to Lucretius and his Epicurean philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson (who considered On the Nature of Things to be among his favorite books) declared that a main purpose of a government is to assist its citizens in their “pursuit of Happiness.”  (That was not, and at the time of the writing of the Declaration could not possibly have been a goal listed by a “Christian” Continental Congress, at least not one as fantasized by modern right-wing evangelicals.)

As a psychologist, this book represents the retrieval of an important chunk of my profession’s “intellectual history.” As a human being, it’s simply a wonderful tickle and challenge to one’s outlook if one grew up “churched” and still finds oneself pondering, as the world turns to desert and the darkness looms, about one’s life, what it all might mean, and whether leasing or buying a hot tub makes the most sense. At the very least, hot tub or not, it certainly inspires me to read the original source of all these fireworks, Lucretius’s Nature of Things.

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When the Captains Are Insane

I’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, my first time through the unabridged version (aided, I admit, by audiobooks and the necessity of long drives to work.)

ImageAs the book progressed, I felt myself becoming increasingly alarmed by the insanity of Ahab. It’s as though the famous million chapters of “whaling 101” that so expand the book were designed to cushion the reader from the full terror one experiences on contact with a psychotic level of revenge-seeking. The digressions into whaling culture and history and technique reminded me of the mental habits and hobbies of some children raised in homes with abusive alcoholic fathers, the way bright or sensitive children may try to cope with the murderous craziness of the men and avoid full blown dissociation by becoming devoted readers or obsessive chroniclers and listers of all the items in the family home. The immersion in details like how many salt shakers are in the cupboard, or in writing tweets or blogs or journals about how mom prepares a ham, are designed as a form of psychic relief from the terror the child feels every time he hears the door open and knows by the footstep that it’s him, back again from the bar with a 12 pack under his arm and another in his bloodstream.

As Moby Dick progresses, the sense of foreboding grows, the sense that we may indeed be on a horrible self-destructive voyage. That the insane leader is deliberately propelling the Pequod to a watery doom.

This kind of leadership reminds one a lot of the way the leaders of this country are doing worse than nothing, are in fact actively obstructing the emergency measures that will be needed to prevent the planet we live on from becoming uninhabitable. We are facing a dire worldwide emergency, and yet the members of Congress and the Administration distract themselves and try to distract us with anything they can do to prevent any serious coping with the situation.

I read a chilling piece by David Roberts about the impossibility of predicting the full extent of climate change. Not for the bogus right wing reason usually invoked as a defense of doing nothing but allowing corporations to keep destroying the environment, that “scientists don’t all agree it’s real” lie. (Basically, just a few corporate whores with Ph.D.s go along with the fictions about both the environment and science belched out by the fossil fuel and auto industries.) But rather, it’s not possible for scientists to predict climate change because so much of the eventual horrible outcome will depend on whether we can find in time the political will to take the necessary steps to minimize (not “prevent” — that ship has sailed) catastrophe.

Robert points out that the problem for scientists is that they tend to be rational people. They don’t know how to add the “social science” piece into their models, to predict just how willing the people of the planet will be to take the science seriously. Hence, many of the current predictive models assume that things will be bad, even cataclysmic, but not AS cataclysmic as they will be if we keep doing nothing but to keep on going full bore in our collective efforts to raise the temperature of the planet as much as possible.

Alas, that’s exactly what we will probably do. Because the behavior of our “leaders” in Congress and the Administration, a largely bought and paid for bunch, seem as determined as Ahab to steer our ship, our floating home, directly into the worst possible catastrophe.

In grad school I trained in both clinical and community psychology. In the former, your work generally involves assessing and treating “psychiatric” patients or clients; in the latter, your focus is on helping construct a psychologically healthy community. If I view the climate situation as a problem in community psychology, it would involve issues such as how a community might be brought to face, acknowledge and deal with a public health problem in the face of the inevitable resistance, the people who want to say nothing needs to change, that we’ve been drinking the water from the polluted spring forever and despite the fact our children get sick and die in oddly high numbers, we’re fine. (There will always be people who stick to and defend old, bad ideas until the bitter end.)

On a community basis, one has to deal with the problem of how to know when it’s time to move beyond endless “debates” once it becomes pretty well established that there is, in fact, an emergency, that there is a way to fix it — but it means we have to make changes. This is often a case of government action and changes in laws, combining with public education efforts, advertising, creating new resources for people, and the like.  Getting people to accept the use of seat belts was once such a problem (which, judging from some of my head-injured clients and the whole state of New Hampshire, it still is); learning to treat domestic violence or alcoholism not as inevitable ways of life, fodder for stand-up comedians (when I was a kid, every comedian had their “funny drunk” imitation), was another.  The efforts involved helping people to become aware of and to accept the fact that these are self-destructive ways of thinking and acting and must change.

But reading Moby Dick while watching Congress do nothing but obstruct, watching an administration that seems to want to avoid upsetting voters or contributers or Congress by treating climate change as the major national security emergency that it is, suggests the inadequacy of a simple, logic-based approach to the problem. Because like Ahab, it increasingly seems that we are being led by a group of insane persons. And so the question arises, at what point does the community decide that these people are no longer fit to captain the ship?

And what do we do when we finally accept the fact that our leaders are insane, that our system for selecting leaders is gamed to guarantee that the insane and the corrupt will almost always be those in power, and that they are charting a course to our civilization’s doom?

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