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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Working Backwards

George Monbiot asks the one question that crosses all lines of sociology, psychology, politics, and science, subsequently gets distorted completely by the media, but no one has seriously come to grips with:
Why are we transfixed by terrorism, yet relaxed about the collapse of the conditions which make our lives possible?
Monbiot gives it a good thinking over:
Another reason is that there is a well-funded industry whose purpose is to reassure us, and it is granted constant access to the media. We flatter its practitioners with the label "sceptics". If this is what they were, they would be welcome. Scepticism (the Latin word means "inquiring" or "reflective") is the means by which science advances. Without it we would still be rubbing sticks together. But most of those we call sceptics are nothing of the kind. They are PR people, the loyalists of Exxon Mobil (by whom most of them are paid), who have been commissioned to begin with a conclusion and then devise arguments to justify it.
I don't recall if teachers actively taught this technique in school, but we all learned how to "work backwards" to solve problems. Even though this technique produces good result for finishing homework problems, technological breakthroughs or any other real-world issues rarely get solved this way. It usually takes some sort of epiphany to solve a complex problem -- but as the majority of the people spend most of their time "working backwards" to get slightly ahead of their fellow man, we will never make much progress.
  • Taxes: Work backwards from the goal of avoiding having to pay anything at all
  • Las Vegas: Work backwards from a desired outcome to calculate probabilistic odds so that "the house always wins"
  • Sales: Based on commission and a desired income, work your way backwards until you can sucker the required number of marks (also works for the stock market).
  • Terrorism: Tabulate an enemies list and check off the vanquished one by one.
These schemes all have ulterior motives. But people normally don't see the ulterior motives of others unless somebody rubs their face in it. Monbiot points this out quite clearly:
Their presence on outlets such as the BBC's Today programme might be less objectionable if, every time AIDS was discussed, someone was asked to argue that it is not caused by HIV, or, every time a rocket goes into orbit, the Flat Earth Society was invited to explain that it could not possibly have happened. As it is, our most respected media outlets give Exxon Mobil what it has paid for: they create the impression that a significant scientific debate exists when it does not.
Obviously, this pattern would also help for wacko theorists that still populate our media (think ABC's Peter Jennings special on UFOs that aired recently). For example, if we all agree to teach Intelligent Design in schools at the objection of the biologists, should UFOs be taught in physics, and Atlantis covered in Earth Science?

For the last century or so, our energy situation didn't require much by the way of working backwards. In fact, few people really cared or worried about future possibilities. For example, when did anyone ever see a geologist paired up with an analyst on the long-running Wall Street Week television show? As Monbiot writes:
The cure to all ills is endless growth. Yet endless growth, in a finite world, is impossible. Pull this rug from under the dominant economic theories, and the whole system of thought collapses.
Monbiot gets it. We can't "work backwards" from certain outcomes. The global warming trajectory has no bounds and if we do see bounds, it will likely hit some physical "rail" that we won't like. Likewise, the end outcome of fossil fuel use is ... (drum roll) ... no more fossil fuel. That's the only logical conclusion that Monbiot can make and that will override any other conclusion that the industry tries to derive through clever PR. How do we "work backwards" from there? Answer: We can't. The best we can do is perhaps conserve our way there (wherever "there" is); all the while remembering to ignore the furious objection of Ponzi scheme artists everywhere.

Because to figure out where one lies in a pyramid scheme, just determine the number of links in the chain, and work your way backwards. Unfortunately, with respect to oil, the next generation will likely form the last link in that chain.

Fellow England-based journalist Greg Palast found evidence about the true ulterior motive for the Iraq conquest here. He writes:
New plans, obtained from the State Department by Newsnight and Harper's Magazine under the US Freedom of Information Act, called for creation of a state-owned oil company favoured by the US oil industry. It was completed in January 2004 under the guidance of Amy Jaffe of the James Baker Institute in Texas.
Not surprisingly, Amy Jaffe happened to also play a previous role as one of the PR people that Monbiot describes. As I posted previously, she has laid much of the groundwork in formulating the whole Ponzi scheme by first reassuring us against the possibility of dire oil depletion scenarios. In other words, repeating the mantra equivalent to "just relax, people":
But Amy Jaffe, who studies energy matters at Rice University's Baker Institute here in Houston, dismisses such talk.

"These people are acting irresponsibly, in my opinion, scaring people," she said. "They said a few years ago that Russia would peak, and now we know the amount of resources there is much greater than we previously imagined."

So she has laid out a clearly effective PR policy: plot perceptions in the foreground, then plan in the background, and wait for the plundering to begin. That was the intended objective pay-off.

Summary: I think we just discovered a verifiable paid-off oil-industry hack. (And all we had to do was work our way backwards)


Professor Blogger Big Gav said...

Hey WHT - great post - I'd read almost all the stuff you linked to but hadn't really put it together - wish I'd read your earlier post on Ms Jaffee before I saw her quoted in Greg Palast's latest effort.

Just out of interest, do many americans (even internationalist, well educated ones) read the likes of George Monbiot and Greg Palast ? Certainly almost no one in Australia would know who they are (I'm not sure I would if I hadn't lived in England on and off for 8 years).

And my US experiences would have led me to believe that no one there (even in the Bay Area or New York) would ever spend their time watching the BBC or reading The Guardian...

4:16 AM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

The Guardian's Gary Younge was on AAR's Laura Flanders show yesterday saying that the Guardian has a higher readership in the US than in England.

BTW, several people called in to the radio show to comment on Peak Oil.

6:15 AM  
Professor Blogger Big Gav said...

Thats an interesting stat - I wonder if they publish their online readership figures (I'm assuming the US readers are via the website rather than the hard copy Guardian International Weekly) - quite encouraging really.

3:50 AM  

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