Monday, May 03, 2010

Paul Krugman sees in the Gulf of Mexico oil-rig disaster the possibility of a teachable environmental moment


UPDATE below: I still don't have that Rachel Maddow "reality" clip, but I do have a transcript of the "money" part

"The catastrophe in the gulf offers an opportunity, a chance to recapture some of the spirit of the original Earth Day. And if that happens, some good may yet come of this ecological nightmare."
-- Paul Krugman, in his NYT column today, "Drilling, Disaster, Denial"

by Ken

Somewhere buried in the DWT archives is a post I started many eons ago which was to have been built around a clip from The Rachel Maddow Show in which a guest, an aeronautical expert, offered an impromptu Mr. Science-type demonstration of how blowing across a tissue (or something like that), which you would expect to make the tissue drop, in fact made it rise. It is, of course, the basis for flight.

(As you can see, I'm a little fuzzy on the exact details. But then, if airplanes depended on my understanding of how they get off the ground in order to perform the feat, that would ground more planes than even the meanest and most inopportunely located volcano.)

What attracted me to that clip -- which I'll take a stab at digging out -- is its simple demonstration that what we casually take for granted as our commonsensical, irrefutable intuition is frequently just plain wrong. I've always thought it was a basic human compulsion: first, in our effort to make sense of the world around us, to develop from earliest infancy our powers of observation, to take in as much as we can of that world; and second, as we begin to discover that our perceptions are frequently inadequate, misleading, or downright wrong, to figure out how to strike through to real reality.

Maybe I'm wrong, and this really isn't an innate human need. But from my long observation of the way we humans develop, it strikes me rather that that curiosity is indeed inborn but that our social institutions, with their craving for easily controllable and manipulable orthodoxy, do everything in their power to deaden the curiosity. Looking around the mind-deadened wasteland that is 21st-century America, land of the Teabaggers, I can't help thinking that we didn't get to this state by accident.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter how we got here. We're stuck in a situation where an entire end of our political spectrum is committed to the death to stamping out reality. It has taken its cue instead from the deadly mindset of the patron saint of the Far Right, Ronald Reagan, who won the love of America by assuring Americans that imbecility and bigotry are their birthright, and indeed that the only criterion they need to apply in forming a mental image of the reality of the world around them is what makes them feel good. Reality, in the diseased and corrupt Reagan mindset, is whatever you think it is, or should be.

Unfortunately, as Karl Rove and the other message manipulators of the Far Right understood early on, messages tailored to the "if it feels good" school of reality are much easier to sell to the general public than messages built on careful perception and testing of reality. Which is one reason why the reality-based community has lost control of so many discussion threads crucial to our society.

Among them, as Paul Krugman points out in his more than usually indispensable column today, "Drilling, Disaster, Denial," is the urgency of action to reverse the massive human assault on the environment.
Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared "dead," its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities -- especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles -- were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog.

It wasn't that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and America began making headway against its most visible environmental problems. Air quality improved: smog alerts in Los Angeles, which used to have more than 100 a year, have become rare. Rivers stopped burning, and some became swimmable again. And Lake Erie has come back to life, in part thanks to a ban on laundry detergents containing phosphates.

Yet there was a downside to this success story.

For one thing, as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, "Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years."

This decline in concern would be fine if visible pollution were all that mattered -- but it isn't, of course. In particular, greenhouse gases pose a greater threat than smog or burning rivers ever did. But it's hard to get the public focused on a form of pollution that's invisible, and whose effects unfold over decades rather than days.

Nor was a loss of public interest the only negative consequence of the decline in visible pollution. As the photogenic crises of the 1960s and 1970s faded from memory, conservatives began pushing back against environmental regulation.

Much of the pushback took the form of demands that environmental restrictions be weakened. But there was also an attempt to construct a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists -- "eco-Nazis," according to Rush Limbaugh -- or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans. (I'm sorry to say that the long effort to block construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod -- which may finally be over thanks to the Obama administration -- played right into that caricature.)

And let's admit it: by and large, the anti-environmentalists have been winning the argument, at least as far as public opinion is concerned.

Krugman thinks that the latest environmental disaster, the oil-rig blowout, could have a silver lining. It could provide a smugly slumbering public with a "teachable moment."
For the most part, anti-environmentalists have been silent about the catastrophe. True, Mr. Limbaugh — arguably the Republican Party’s de facto leader — promptly suggested that environmentalists might have blown up the rig to head off further offshore drilling. But that remark probably reflected desperation: Mr. Limbaugh knows that his narrative has just taken a big hit.

For the gulf blowout is a pointed reminder that the environment won’t take care of itself, that unless carefully watched and regulated, modern technology and industry can all too easily inflict horrific damage on the planet.

Will America take heed? It depends a lot on leadership. In particular, President Obama needs to seize the moment; he needs to take on the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil, an amount that will hardly affect our dependence on imports, is a terrible bargain.

It’s true that Mr. Obama isn’t as well positioned to make this a teachable moment as he should be: just a month ago he announced a plan to open much of the Atlantic coast to oil exploration, a move that shocked many of his supporters and makes it hard for him to claim the moral high ground now.

But he needs to get beyond that. The catastrophe in the gulf offers an opportunity, a chance to recapture some of the spirit of the original Earth Day. And if that happens, some good may yet come of this ecological nightmare.

Notice how suddenly the Drill, Baby, Drill Chorale has shut the hell up? Personally, I'd like to see video of all those morons, liars, and thugs plastered all over the air of their home territories, but maybe that's just me being petty. Still, I really do think that at some point there has to be some price to pay for the Far Right's crusade of all lies, all the time.

At any rate, we've got an opening here to reach a public that for too long has been beyond our reach.


I've just returned from an excursion into the dusty DWT archives in search of that Rachel Maddow clip. I found the draft of the post in question, but the clip link doesn't seem to work. However, at the time I either found or made a transcript of the "money" portion. While I continue looking for the clip itself, here's the transcript:
At 4:56 Rachel introduces an interview with Ira Furman, former deputy director and spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. Now this is back when investigators were still accepting eyewitness accounts of the plane having "nosedived," which we now know was apparently not the case.

At 5:47, Mr. Furman begins explaining how ice on an airplane wing interferes with the plane's ability to fly:
FURMAN: The problem with ice on a wing is that ice creates a certain amount of turbulence on the flow of that air over that wing, and the plane does not have the same lift it had just moments before.

RACHEL: So in aerodynamic principles, you need to have an even air flow over the top of the wing in order to give the whole aircraft the lift that it needs to stay in the air, and anything that disrupts that, even in a small way, can bring the plane down.

FURMAN: Exactly right. It's amazing that we're talking about . . . people don't realize, lift is flow over the wing. There's a song about "wind beneath your wings," but that's not the way it works in aviation. The lift is the sucking up of it.
Now this is the part that interests me. We're at 6:42 now:
6:42 I've never done this before live. [takes a strip of what looks like a tissue] but this demonstrates it. I'm going to blow over the top, and you would expect that that would blow this down, but in fact it will lift it. So that's how planes fly, that lift.

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At 2:16 PM, Anonymous mediabob said...

I had to look through the dusty files as you to find this post by Fred Clark at Slacktivist with a coincidental feeling as yours. And it gets down to what you're saying: some people won't look past their convenience point to gain a better understanding.

At 7:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hey, Bob, I'm just catching up with your comment, and you're right, this fellow is talking about exactly what I've been talking about for some time now, and approaching from an interestingly different direction.

"Selfishness and chauvinism make you stupid. Really, really stupid. Tea-party stupid.

"But such stupidity is a choice that can, at any time, be unchosen."

If you can get past the phrase "epistemic closure," I definitely recommend this post.



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