Monday, June 11, 2012

Our suicidal tendencies

One of the great problems of dystopian science fiction is that its societies can seem so implausibly self-destrutive.  It's hard to show an overall devolution of human welfare in a society where technological potential has increased, unless the people using fictional technologies are also treating each other worse than people do today.  But the results often just seem silly: oppressive governments inflicting misery just because.

Think about something like Fahrenheit 451.  Ray Bradbury paints a pretty bleak picture, and sure, the imagery is evocative, but did you ever stop and think about why the novel's firemen burn books?  Censorship happens in the real world, of course--but don't censors usually specifically target ideas they don't like?  There's no real implication of conventional political repression in the book; just pointless violence against bookowners, never mind their sympathies.  It's like if Time Warner Cable took over the world.  And at the end of the book (spoiler alert, I guess?) millions of people pointlessly die in a nuclear war that, ultimately, doesn't seem to benefit society's gatekeepers so much as the book-reading rebels hiding out in the woods.

Science fiction is replete with this sort of self-destructive behavior on the part of ill-intentioned governments and corporations, and it mostly rings false.

But maybe it rings a little more false than it should.  Sometimes, it turns out, inexplicable forces--social forces? psychological forces?--can drive even real-life society to act implausibly suicidal as well.  Coming down through the tubes today is one very small example of this very bad behavior:
Virginia’s Hampton Roads region is at high risk for flooding, and lawmakers and officials in the state are trying to plan for the sea-level rise expected as a result of climate change. But they’re running into a problem: some Republicans refuse to accept the terms “sea level rise” or “climate change.”
The BBC reports how state Senator Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and state Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican, worked together this year to get a bill passed that provides $50,000 for a “comprehensive study of the economic impact of coastal flooding on Virginia and to investigate ways to adapt.” The bill’s original draft contained the term “relative sea level rise,” but the version that eventually passed used the term “recurrent flooding” instead, at Stolle’s suggestion. “Other folks can go argue about sea-level rise and global warming,” Stolle told the BBC. “What matters is people’s homes are getting destroyed, and that’s what we want to focus on. To think that we are going to stop climate change is absolute hubris. The climate is going to change whether we’re here or not.”
Stolle went further in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot. He told the newspaper that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term.”
Fortunately, it doesn't seem the change will affect the substantive outcome of the study.  But changes like this do certainly, as they accumulate, substantively affect efforts to mitigate climate change.  It's hard to fight back against a crisis that no one believes exists or won't name out loud.  And it's not like there's no history of  the results of climate studies getting buried by political forces, too.

What strikes me most, though, is the sheer pointlessness of the Republican opposition to climate science. The blame, of course, doesn't totally fall on the GOP--Democrats have diligently avoided the topic, too.  But Democrats at least face the risk of driving votes towards the opposition.  If the Republican party decided, in a concerted way, to start worrying about climate change, disaffected voters would have nowhere to go.  And public opinion, which is as informed by party views as much as anything else, would probably shift in favor of more proactive measures.  Everyone wins: after all, if sea levels rise and weather patterns change, Republican children will suffer, too.

Instead, we get stuff like this: unnecessary, self-defeating measures that would be hard to believe if it showed up in a piece of fiction.

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