The Heartland Institute’s War on Science, Michael Mann’s “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars,” and E.O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”

So I’ve been sick the last week with a travel bug, which I suspected I caught in a St. Louis restaurant via an infected cook, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in last year’s bird flu epidemic movie Contagion, but I’m alive enough to be disgusted at the stupidity of the Heartland Institute’s Unabomber billboard attacking climate change scientists (and ordinary people like myself, who actually know enough to take the issue seriously). A description of the brouhaha can be found in the NY Times here. If you read the Heartland Institute’s actual explanation of the removal of the billboard and the defense of the idea, they refer to the issue of Climategate, which Michael Mann dissects completely and illustrates the insidiousness of climate change skeptics (the well-funded kind, at least) in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (2012), which I read recently and found to be an impressive, eye-opening book.

Essentially what has developed now, in the 21st century, is an out-and-out war on science and intellect, centered in the United States. That most of it is funded by hazy fossil-fuel corporate entities only underscores the insidiousness of it: Rich and powerful interests are successfully foisting the nonsense of climate change skeptics into the mainstream media, over and over again. Unfortunately, to keep with that war metaphor, I think they’re actually winning. Why? As long as they can buy off Congress and keep our government from making any tangible progress on the various things we could do, they’re winning. As long as they can make this pseudo-science and pseudo-open-mindedness (I am, for instance, a skeptic on all kinds of issues, and agree that the role of rational skeptics is a valid one) part of the argument, they’re winning. But I don’t think we should despair. Fight back. Read the scientists, read the best books available. Understand the issue. The best books on the issue—like Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers (2001)—are rational, thoughtful, and not obsessed with doomsday scenarios, as films like The Day After Tomorrow can make them seem, via the pop culture power of mainstream movies.

Since I’ve been sick this week I’ve also been racing through E.O. Wilson’s great new book on evolutionary biology, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012). One of the many things he’s doing in the book is tracing the role of groups in evolution, how groups are central to the rise of human behavior, and how groups naturally compete against each other, and see themselves in opposition to each other. The climate change issue has created many groups, no doubt, but quite obviously those of the scientists trying to warn the world of the possible consequences and the drastic, damaging change that could take place with a hot planet, and the right-wing, conservative Know-Nothings who recognize this as a barrier to making money. Wilson also mentions, now and then, extinction events, usually brought about by climate change, that have occurred in the past, and are now occurring. One of his last books, The Future of Life (2003), described the ongoing extinctions occurring now, and how they will affect our future. He makes the point that humans have been lucky at many moments in history, lucky that our evolutionary lineage did not perish altogether, particularly at a famous point 70,000 years ago. Is that a grain of hope? I don’t know. Let’s hope our luck continues.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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