Tag Archives: The New York Review of Books

The (Un-)wisdom of Bill McKibben

If the Gods of Olympus subscribed to the New York Review of Books, they would surely be laughing hard after reading the unwitting ironies peppering Bill McKibben’s “Green Fantasia” review of Thomas L Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America”.

One wonders if Mr. McKibben will find a way to display less hubris, and more wisdom next time around.

I will focus here on what I see as the two most glaring examples: first of all, about Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and, in the words of Mr McKibben, “woke Friedman from his nap”.

At that point, Mr McKibben (who should have known better) implicity concedes Mr Friedman’s point: making a direct connection between Katrina, and human-induced Climate Change.

[Friedman:] “Have we introduced so much CO2 into nature’s operating system that we no longer know where nature stops and we start in shaping today’s weather”. [McKibben:] Well, indeed we have.

But no serious scientist will confirm that Katrina was caused by (anthropogenic) Climate Change. Within the IPCC itself, the question of “attribution” (how to identify the “signature” of Climate Change in the weather of today, rather than the climate in 15 or 20 years’ time) is still open, and no doubt we will hear more about it in the months leading to the December 2009 Copenhagen Conference.

After all, Katrina was a relatively average Category-3 hurricane when it struck the New Orleans area. And even if 2005 saw a record hurricane season, neither that nor the “duds” of 2006 and 2007 can be used as evidence for or against Climate Change.

In truth, Mr McKibben should have forcefully corrected Mr Friedman on Katrina, as it is extremely unwise to try to solve Climate Change, that he defines as the “most severe of our challenges”, starting from incorrect premises. In fact, by propagating the idea that New Orleans was destroyed by Climate Change, Mr McKibben and Mr Friedman help the real culprits “off the hook”, including the extreme lack of organization in the rescue efforts, of which FEMA’s now-legendary incompetence will forever be indicated as the most damning example.

Another point where Mr McKibben will surely regret his words, concerns “the largest story of the year, and indeed the dominant new trendline of our time”. Dire financial straits for the majority of the world’s economies, perhaps? No: “the sharply rising cost of oil”.

Evidently, Mr McKibben submitted the article long before Lehman Brothers went bust alongside the country of Iceland, before it became normal to hear of hundreds of billions of dollars being handled out to avoid a Depression-Mark II; and before the “cost of oil” sharply stumbled back to below $60 a barrel. No fault there.

The real irony is that Mr McKibben comments that Mr Friedman’s book is “out of date even before it’s published”: that is, exactly what McKibben’s article is. Images of motes and beams spring to mind…also, is it true that “we’re [possibly] starting to run out [of oil]”? Well, yes, it is possible. But as the precipituous fall in oil prices has shown, that was not the reason for barrels to be traded at more than $140 just a few weeks ago.

A final consideration on Mr McKibben’s polemic against Mr Friedman’s “optimism”, “the great imperative of the conventional wisdom”: the alternative to which is alas left unexplored.

Is Bill McKibben advocating “pessimism” by any chance? And what kind of pessimism, one asks? Obviously (or not?) McKibben is not the type to elicit apathy and desperation by advocating a frame of mind where everything we do is useless, because too little, and too late. Therefore: if “Global Warming, above all, should give one pause” (emphasis in the original), what is the next action (if there is any) after that pause has finished?

And by the way…the reason for Mr Friedman’s optimism can be found with a simple search in The New York Times archives, in the May 11, 2008 “Mother’s Day” column:

“But every time life knocked [my mother] down, she got up, dusted herself off and kept on marching forward, motivated by the saying that pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists”

And so to you Bill McKibben…what would you rather be? “Usually right”, or able to “[make] great changes”?

Muslims vs the West: History Is Not As We Have Been Told

History is never pure chronicles, rather always an interpretation. And so with double skepticism we should confront all “Arguments from History” that elicit hatred and separation: because they are likely to be unmasked as simplistic manipulations.

Excerpts from Peter Brown’s “The Voice of the Stones“, The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 6 · April 17, 2008 – reviewing G.W. Bowersock’s new book “Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam“, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 146 pp., $22.95 (article on the web for subscribers only):

[…] The second-to-last chapter of Mosaics as History—entitled “Iconoclasms”—shows that [the] descendants [(Jews, Christians, and pagans in the Middle East] were still [commissioning figurative mosaics] after well over a century of Muslim rule. Only in the year 723 did the local Christians find themselves forced to remove some of the figures from the exuberant mosaics in their churches, at the bidding of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid II. They did so with care. As Bowersock shows, this first premonitory tremor of Muslim iconophobia was limited in its extent, and it was Christians themselves who undertook to respond to it.

Far from showing a Muslim fundamentalist state flexing its muscles against religious minorities, the decree of Yazid II arose from a surprising situation. Up to that time, Muslims had often worshiped in Christian churches. They did not like all that they saw there. Some found themselves increasingly disquieted by the exuberant animal and human life that they saw on the pavements. (Put briefly: to attempt to create living beings through art began to awake fears in them that were like those stirred up, in recent years, by experiments in cloning.)

But they did not descend upon the Christians from outside, to inflict random destruction on all Christian images. Rather, the Muslims who advised Yazid II seem to have acted like partners who had already been taken into a firm. They slowly bought out their colleagues and imposed their own policies, by tweaking the image that the company was supposed to project. Eventually (as we all know) the policy of avoiding images would win out. But it only did so (and only to a certain degree) in Muslim circles, and never among the large Christian populations of the Near East, many of whose images have survived (icons, frescoes, mosaics, and all) up to this day.

[…] Altogether, Mosaics as History offers little support to inert stereotypes. Here is no abrupt end of the ancient world, brought about by Arab invaders from the desert. Here are no Christians trembling under the shadow of an intolerant Muslim empire. It is not as we had been told. But then, we are seldom told as much as we should be told about the non-Western shores of the Mediterranean and even less about the complex strands that linked the world of late antiquity to that of early Islam. We need to listen to Bowersock:

Late antiquity and early Islam are full of challenges to old easy dichotomies, such as Orient oder Rom [East or Rome—with nothing in between], that have so long dominated historical interpretation.

[…] Only the sharp tang of scholarship like Bowersock’s, devoted to a seemingly distant past, can clean our eyes, a little, of the itch of modern pseudohistory, of modern stereotypes, and of modern hatreds, so that we can view the present, if not with comfort, then at least with clarity.

Gould (and Lewontin) on Skepticism

Quotes from Richard Lewontin’s “The Triumph of Stephen Jay Gould“, The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 2 · February 14, 2008:

About the necessity of taking scientific findings with a pinch of salt:

What is important about [Gould’s “Measuring Heads: Paul Broca and the Heyday of Craniology“] essay is not that it reveals what we already know to be true about the existence of racism and sexism, but that it shows how any claim that something is “scientifically demonstrated” should be treated with the same skepticism that we invoke when there is any reason to think that the investigator has something to gain, either ideologically or professionally, as we do when financial gain is involved.

About the instinctive abhorrence we should all have against “just-so stories” masquerading lack of predictive powers with retroactive explanations with no basis in reality:

The important point is that it is easy to make up adaptive stories out of one’s imagination for any feature of any organism, but that there are concrete realities of growth and physiology that need to be taken account of before lapsing into unchecked fictions.