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President's Letter: Science and Reason

This year Science for Peace celebrates its 30th anniversary. We can look back with pride at our history of vibrant, challenging discussions of the many life-and-death threats of these times: nuclear war and expansion of the military; climate change (including its roots in the carbon economy); runaway capitalism; and the enormous human toll from severe poverty, racism, and political oppression.

We cannot diminish the importance of discussion and education. Veteran Science for Peace members John Valleau and Paul Hamel now research and educate about the alarming decline of the university in its essential role as the public place of the free-thinking intellectual in the face of privatization and corporatization. Discussion and education provide the necessary foundation of democracy, for how can there be democracy with an uninformed electorate?

A rather startling instance of the compromised university can be found in the fact that the University of Toronto library system, one of the world’s best, still does not carry James Hansen’s 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. However, the library carries many copies of the speculative (and irresponsible) climate books by James Lovelock and Bjorn Lomborg.

Education is perhaps more crucial now than at any other time in history as we face threats of extinction through the use of nuclear weapons and through climate change. Science for Peace brings together scholars from many fields to challenge and discuss issues, a practice which is a corrective antidote to compartmentalization and simplification.

In this Letter I want to present two ideas from my own field, psychoanalysis.

Freud characteristically aimed to understand the whole picture and so was constantly asking what was missing. Eventually, his clinical observations led him to a conceptual structure of categories (or perspectives or points of view) that can be likened to map projections. Each projection carries different information, and the information from various projections relate to each other in numerous and varied ways. In order to approach a “complete” picture, one would have to have a conceptual understanding of the contributions from all the projections.

Here are examples using a range of points of view.

1. Kyoto Protocol and the Military.

(I use here environmental, political science, sociology, history, psychology, international law perspectives) Al Gore, as vice president, was instrumental in the military receiving an exemption under the Kyoto Protocol. Sara Flounders puts it bluntly: “By every measure, the Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy in general…any talk of climate change which does not include the military is nothing but hot air.” In addition to the enormous amount of jet fuel and bunker fuel that are exempt, emissions not counted are US bases and outsourced military. What are the life cycle emissions from military transport, weapons, manufacturing, disposal and rebuilding? With so much destruction, wouldn’t there be extensive use of steel and cement, the most carbon-intensive products? What are the emission equivalents of destroyed carbon sinks due to defoliation — from U.S. carpet bombing in WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, Cambodia, to the present desertification of Iraq?

The military capitalizes on climate change defined as a security threat with the flawed a-historical assumption that poverty, starvation, and natural disasters inevitably elicit violence from starving hordes. For New Orleans, Haiti, for the 25 to 50 million victims of the Late Victorian Holocaust (Mike Davis), violence came from the state, not the destitute people. The destitute increasingly populate prisons, while there is impunity for the perpetrators on corporate boards, in the military, the government, and weapons labs.

2. Carbon Tax.

Here, we should look at emissions and tax structure. Coinciding with the British Columbia carbon tax, for example, is the expansion of B.C. coal mining. It is taxed at the lowest level in years, is exempt under the B.C. carbon tax and is counted as China’s emissions. A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (C.C.P.A.) study of the B.C. carbon tax found that “the anticipated impact on emissions, according to the budget, is relatively small. They found that the B.C. tax was progressive during the first year and regressive thereafter. “The richest 20% of BC income earners are responsible for almost double the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of those in the lowest income group” (Marc Lee and Toby Sanger: October 2008, “Is B.C.‘s Carbon Tax Fair”, and April 22, 2010 “Richest 20% of BC households have biggest carbon footprint”).

The authors suggest a progressive, graduated tax, with revenues used for public transportation and other public goods. A Globe and Mail article (Dec 8, 2010 “Carbon pricing won’t hurt Alberta and Saskatchewan: C.D. Howe”) seems to suggest that carbon pricing will affect neither emissions nor corporate wealth and power: “Indeed, setting strict climate policies won’t necessarily cut corporate profits or lead to investment capital fleeing capital, the report says, because carbon-pricing policies can be set up to recycle any extra revenue through corporate tax cuts.”

3. Cars vs. Food.

A suppressed World Bank study attributed 70% of food price increase to the diversion of food for bio-fuels. The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. Bio-fuels underlie much land confiscation in Africa and deforestation of the Amazon and Congo basins and much of Indonesia. The car footprint includes massive energy and water to source the materials and manufacture cars and their electronic components. According to Lester Brown, it is far more profitable for farmers to sell water to industry than to use the equivalent amount for farming. Car manufacturing leads to an additional loss of cultivable land as the addition of 12 million cars each year consumes, counting new roads highways, and parking lots, roughly one million hectares of land, enough to feed nine million people if it were all cropland. The United States, with its 214 million cars, has paved 6.3 million kilometres of roads, enough to circle the earth at the equator 157 times (Lester Brown, Plan B p. 49). This loss of farmland will not be remedied by hybrids. Other externalities include war to secure resources (include all the military emissions), outsourcing labour and depressed wages.

The second idea from Freud that I want to mention is more narrowly psychological. Freud observed how people often detach idea from feeling, sometimes to ward off discomfort or tension. I often notice discrepancies and incongruity in reports about the climate emergency as if the emotional quality of emergency itself is not well-integrated with the thinking. For example, in one of his books, so invaluable for their data, Lester Brown writes that 80% of South American glaciers will disappear in the next 15 years. “For countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador which rely on glaciers for water for household and irrigation use, this is not good news.”[my italics] Not good news is a remarkably understated feeling about an emergency and perhaps functions to distort a realistic perception of our dire situation.

Science for Peace continues to grapple feelingly with the whole picture, with reality.

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