The Intentionally Blind Scientist and the Failure of Climate Change Strategies, continued…

The Intentionally Blind Scientist and the Failure of Climate Change Strategies, continued…

Partly it has to do with being bought off by big companies in academia as many at the University of California at Berkeley were with the half billion dollar grant from BP that is busily building an enormous biosciences research building in Berkeley right now. BP’s objective: to learn from termites (and by other means) how to (essentially) melt trees, grasses, corn and other biological products of the soil into road fuel and shift their traditional profits from declining oil deposits from under the soil to exploitation of the planet’s soil itself. BP gets most of the patents and gets to make money on the research conducted by the University. A number of energy professors quit over that not-so-subtle take over while others decided to join the assault on farmlands and the last of the biodiversity areas of the planet like Borneo where oil palm plantations are replacing some of the last of the forests rich in biodiversity to establish monocrops for fuels for cars and other high quantity uses.

In addition, almost everyone, including climate scientists, have been charmed by the snake eyes of gambling in the market place for massive profits, the allure of greed in the derivatives market, or at least high-paid partnership with the Big Boys at any rate. Scientists, especially academic ones, are often friends of the rich and powerful and happy to dine on some larger crumbs from their table. Plus maybe they too can win a Nobel Prize if they get the grant…

In addition, Growth per se is something of a mantra drummed into the public mind as the only way to a healthy economy and if growth doesn’t continue forever we are in deep dreck; so goes the endless refrain. The impossibility of infinite growth in a finite environment is probably ecology’s universal lesson number one, taken from facts, evidence and experience on planet Earth, the only planet we know of that harbors intelligent, if confused, life. The belief that infinite growth in a finite environment is healthy or indeed can happen at all is strictly faith based, faith in something someone said lost in the hazy past, codified in holy scientific or religious or economics texts that are said to reveal highest of all truths. It’s the economists and doctrinaire capitalists fault, both classical and neoclassical (materialist self-serving above all else in a self-regulating market in the former case and all that with an added layer of mystic mathematics that never seems to work out when the bubble comes to crash in the latter case).

The climate change solutions camp has embraced that line, along with the derivative marketplace deal called cap and trade, so some people can make a lot of money and incidentally improve the climate change situation, in theory, probably because they think it’s the only thing to do without looking out of step with the times, despite the immense failure of our ascendant economic theorists in 2008: Greenspan, Summers, Rubin, Graham, Greithner, Paulson… The climate scientists want to be players along with the CEOs who make 400 times as much as the average employees of the largest 500 corporations. (Tax them down to a more reasonable 10 or 20 times, which still leaves them many of the perks of the rich but provides money to solve some or our catastrophic problems.)

But all that is not the same as successfully addressing climate change on its own terms. Why not just figure out what needs to be done to solve the problem and go for that directly? And if you do that you’d have to look at the demand side and city structure as well as the supply side and technologies to deliver energy. Nothing against people making a reasonable profit doing good work, as in any other line of real service, but the idea of profit as the chief design motive of a climate change solution strategy seems fatally flawed to me. It’s got, as they say, the cart before the horse. Steering that is like backing your semitrailer across the country.

So once again cities are invisible in a report by the IPCC and once again the demand side – conservation by a variety of means – is either ignored or, should it appear in the full report, slighted most grievously, so much so it is not even mentioned in the advance information.

Some say part of the problem is that scientists, in this case the experts on climate change and those who make a serious study of its solutions, are so hung up on certainty they dare not even glance outside of their silos, their ivy covered walls, and make judgments that might not be assuredly correct. They even admit they are, and sometimes call themselves “siloed,” a word they seem to have made up themselves for the problem. But, as in the sordid but wonderful adventure recounted in Herbert Wendt’s book In Search of Adam, it is much more dreadful and interesting than that. What’s really going on is that science often locks on to some certainties that are assuredly only a partial truth about our complex and very big world, then falls prey of entering into the realm of faith based beliefs rather than continued questing for the truth through observation, evidence and experience.

There is the famous case of Galileo challenging the Church and being forced under torture to recant when the men of wisdom refused to even look through his telescope to see what was happening with the satellites of Jupiter. He could have introduced them to the step-by-step transition from more visible and familiar sights too, like starting with a small enlargement of the moon and graduating up to magnification powerful enough to see Jupiter’s satellites. But true to consensus reality of the times, the Churchmen refused to look. Soon scientists themselves were playing the same role, intentionally keeping themselves in ignorance to maintain an in-style dogma – often for fear of being killed if they didn’t.

A sinfully brief history of evolution science: progress and prejudice

My points make more sense looking at the way science relating to evolution has evolved.

It starts with the Thales of Miletus and the rest of the Greek “natural philosophers” who simply recognized and endorsed ideas of the changing they thought they saw in nature. However they also theorized about things for which little evidence was yet available. Though they tried to use best tools of the time for evidence – such as simple weights and measures and eyes, ears and memory – Democritus, for example, saying he believed the universe was made of irreducibly small particles he called atoms, also set the stage for mind over matter, you might call it, or philosophy over careful exploration and physical inquiry. The Greek natural philosophers lived way back around 625 to 350 years before Christ. Aristotle, overlapping and shortly later, 384 to 322 BC, in his amazing comprehensiveness seemed to be describing something that looked like a steady state and many thought the wise man to be the last to know everything there was to know in his own time, attaining mythic proportions in science, philosophy, ethics, political theory and practically everything else. When science in Europe was starting its second phase in its long march into the future, the ideas of the Old Testament – that God created all the species and humanity in two days and that Noah saved two of each species from The Flood – were taken as ultimate and dangerous truth: don’t believe it and risk your life in this world and definitely loose as only the grievously tortured do after death. In 1500 Bruno was burned at the stake for looking at the evidence of a more flexible universe and Galileo (1564-1642) saved his life only by recanting, by saying he’d been wrong about his science to those who refused to look through his telescope and who endorsed the literal interpretation of the creation, the flood and the central place of the Earth in the universe.

Interestingly, to Leonardo da Vinci, who kept much of his work from the eyes of the dangerous authorities, wrote in his notebooks approximately 100 years before Galileo’s forced recanting, it seemed obvious the mountains full of fossilized fish stretching from ocean to ocean – rather massive evidence to say the least – had risen with geologic activity of the sort seen in volcanoes and earthquakes. The ever honestly observant and logical Leonardo, as well as exquisitely artistic, believed this would have happened over very long periods of time. Those ossified creatures, slowly turned to stone, had to have lived in the sea in a much earlier era and present day fish must be their descendants.

Sir Walter Raleigh, one hundred years after Leonardo, Admiral for Queen Elizabeth I of England, was jailed for a supposed conspiracy against her successor, King James, (his accuser never testified and hence was never cross examined). While in prison in the early years of the 1600s Raleigh took the time to write an ambitiously titled The History of the World. He speculated – and I’d never heard this story before reading In Search of Adam – there could not possibly be enough room in Noah’s arc to save all the animals of the New World as well as those of the Old, and probably not even a ship large enough for all those in the Old World alone could be built. And, as a far-ranging sailor and admiral, he should know about the amazing diversity of species in foreign lands and the capacity of ships. He was among the earliest to say how reasonable it would be if some animals had gotten to the new world before the Old World flood, had not been effected by it and had produced a variety of off spring leading to the variations on themes and forms seen in the New World that differed from those in the Old World. His head was cut off eventually, but for political reasons, not religious or scientific.

When, almost 150 years after Raleigh, Carolus Linnaeus came on the scene, his system of classification was adopted by virtually the whole scientific world of Europe which took his encyclopedic system of species, genus, families and orders of both plants and animals as the unchanging list from the creation on. Scientists could discover and fill in previously unknown species but no species could appear that were not introduced to the planet on the day of Creation.

Kaspar Friedrich Wolff had some bad luck like Bruno, Galileo and Raleigh, if somewhat less violent. About 1770, Linnaeus’ system was becoming the accepted truth, when the doctoral student from Berlin had the temerity to look through his microscope, somewhat more powerful than past ones it seems or maybe he was an especially talented observer. What he saw was a small round disk attached to the yolk of a just-fertilized egg. Science at that time, under the watchful eye of religion, was convinced life was created whole and hence the full organism should be small in the fertilized egg and grow up all parts getting larger. Being men of science, with virtually no women involved, or allowed for that matter, this strange interpretation that didn’t seem to challenge the biblical story, seemed just the thing to pass muster with both science and religion. In these gentlemen’s official version the sperm carried the whole new organism. The egg, according to this script, like the woman’s body, was simply a receptacle, like a cup or jar that sheltered and aided the organism while it was getting ready to be born. Somehow they didn’t worry much about the Adam’s rib story – no need for a literal interpretation on that account – but they did stick with the almost instant, total and permanent aspects of the Creation.

Kaspar Freidrich Wolff with a contemporary microscope

Wendt’s rendition of the Wolff incident is colorful one, starting with observing the fertilized egg:

“This disk [attached to the yolk] broke down after a short time into four layers. The first subsequently grew into the nervous system, the second into the flesh, the third into the heart and blood vessels, and the fourth into the digestive apparatus. ‘We are not therefore here concerned with the development of organs already formed,’ concluded this remarkable work by a twenty-six-year-old student, ‘but with a series of new formations. All at first appear in quit a simple structure, altogether different from what is formed later. The complete body is only gradually developed through a succession of remarkable transformations.’ ”

Wendt continues saying the young doctoral student’s professors “shook their heads.”

“Wolff had probably been asleep at lectures; otherwise he would have known perfectly well what Spallanzani and other authorities had taught concerning germ formation in the egg. Meier, the lecturer in philosophy, was particularly annoyed. For Meier had told his listeners, including the rebellious Kaspar of Berlin, over and over again, that the body, fully formed in all its parts, was contained within the spermatozoon and penetrated with it into the egg.”

Wendt winds up the story thus: “Wolff could not find a post in any university. No one wanted to have anything to do with him, and he had no choice but to enlist in the army of Frederick the Great.” He returned after the Seven Years War and tried to research and teach outside the university system but the professors harried him out of town. He emigrated to Russia where, Wendt speculates, he most likely continued his work in obscurity that was along the same road Darwin later trod, but whatever came of it was lost to history as in so many ways Wolff  himself was lost in his exile.

Things had changed by the time Darwin came on the scene, to the extent that a powerful phalanx of scientists were most forcefully urging him to finish and publish his work on evolution in the form of his famous book The Origin of Species. Said Wendt about this slice of history: “Nothing like this had ever happened before. All the earlier evolutionists … had been obliged to fight desperately against the opposition of the scientific authorities.”

Perhaps the most dramatic of ironies was the original rigidity of Linnaeus himself, with his absolutely firm idea of immutability of species, exceeded only by that of his followers when he himself changed. When he discovered a flax plant with flowers with five spurs on a petal that used to have only one spur he thought someone was playing a trick on him. But on closer examination it looked convincingly genuine. Could it be a shocking anomaly, a freak, or did it mean nature could change its list of species, contrary to his own conviction that all species were created at once and remained unchanged forever? When it reproduced with five-spurred offspring he went into near collapse. But his subsequent change in thinking was stunning. He wrote, “Life originated at a single initial point from which creation began and gradually spread.” As Wendt said, “This was pure evolutionary theory, fifty years before Lamarck and a hundred years before Darwin.” But did anyone listen? Wendt continues, “He was not mocked, nor applauded. The experts simply ignored his revolutionary statements. They loved and admired the Linnaeus of 1735, the systematizer. They could make neither head nor tail of the skeptic of 1759. The authority of the Classifier of Nature had become so great that no one, not even himself, could challenge it.”

Back to the IPCC report and the need to address city design

And what can we make of this now? The climate scientists and the conscientious concerned who are doing their best to understand the problem and its solutions are as locked into an existing set of dogmas, concepts and firm habits (let’s say that instead of bad habits) that they just can’t make head or tail of what demand side solutions like city design could offer. As the evidence that Linnaeus discovered for the evolution of life was ignored, so the evidence of the immense impacts of cities due to bad design is presently being ignored. This resistance to even looking at promising alternatives – through Galileo’s telescope or Wolff’s microscope – may be a deviation from the scientific method but it is certainly not rare but rather typical in the long history of struggle for healthy change in the development of science itself. When the question of health is so dire it’s a matter of life and death for thousands of species on the planet, one would think the means of scientific breakthrough to the truth of the matter, such a struggle in the past, should be consciously engaged again and promising but presently missing or shunned solutions should be given emergency attention and consideration.

We can assume the title and the first publicly released information from the IPCC on the report give an accurate if abbreviated representation of the contents: “Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.” Again, it is not that there would not be a great deal of useful information there and part of the solution to climate change provided. The problem is that it is all supply side and completely and again after all these years and decades, fails to address the design and layout and hence impacts of the largest creations of our species. This is as big a failure as Leonardo’s contemporaries thinking fossil fish high in the mountains of Italy were deposited there by the great flood – in the rocks, not on them. The massively obvious counts for something. Missing it has all the earmarks of denial in defense of some belief or habit held desperately dear.

So what should the IPCC and climate change activists do to make amends while we still have time or if we still have time to avoid truly catastrophic world consequences? If they are serious about solving energy problems they should look with a severe and honest eye at the demand side as well as the supply side and take note of and give highest priority to the role of cities. As there is a great deal of good in assessing the potentialities of alternative renewable energy sources, so there are many good means to reduce demand in addition to studying the relation of design of the built environment to climate change. Believing in doing all I can that’s practical to help solve this monster problem, I’ll compare what they did study, according the their press release with what they should cover in addition.

The report enumerates and proportionalizes present use of fossil fuels backed up with some nuclear and a smaller amount of hydro and biofuels (wood, ethanol, dung for the poor and organic waste) and less than two percent wind and less than one percent solar. These are all assessed for future impacts and potential with an eye to shifting as rapidly as possible away from fossil fuels.

Behind it all is the assumption hammered into contemporary consciousness that our economies will continue to grow, or in the words of the IPCC’s press release parenthetically affirming the assumption while talking about the political difficulties of moving to better energy sources, “The potential role of renewable energy technologies in meeting the needs of the poor and in powering the sustainable growth of developing and developed economies can trigger sharply polarized views.” It is time to stop using the words “sustainable growth” and start talking about reduction of demand paired with increased quality of life.

The IPCC should amend this report or provide another one as soon as possible to match the renewables supply side study with conservation measures consistent with (rather than contrary to) the built infrastructure getting well organized, such as 1.) thermal conservation in insulation and thermal inertia, which includes co-generation and sharing heating and cooling energy in larger buildings, 2.) transport energy conservation through feet, bikes and transit vs. automobiles, 3.) agricultural conservation moving toward low energy, low meat and high organic strategies and 4.) the panoply of electronic devices conservation, meaning efficiency, from appliances to light bulbs – all good stuff. The design of the built infrastructure of cities, towns and villages, using ecocity principles, design features and tools I’d put in there as number 1.) or number 2.) perhaps after agriculture – we all need to eat perhaps even more crucially than build shelter. Finally we’d need to acknowledge the most basic form of demand, that for food by the total number of people, which is the irreducible demand on the carrying capacity of the planet’s soils and photosynthesis. That might be number 1.) or number 6.) for emphasis.

That makes six items on the demand side to match the six items the IPCC has placed on the supply side. Then their report becomes a full, comprehensive system, a complete guide for energy solutions to climate change problems.

Richard Register is President of nonprofit Ecocity Builders and can be reached at

Richard Register
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