Friday, February 6, 2009

On Climatological and Intellectual Tipping Points

The genesis of this post was a conversation taking place in the comments thread of Tuesday's post that tied together a Hulu Super Bowl commercial and Susan Jacoby's, The Age of American Unreason. I realized, as the conversation progressed, that I may have given the wrong impression of my overall view of Jacoby's thesis. And so, I said this:

I need to be fair here. Though I'm eventually going to take Jacoby to task for a couple of things where she misses the mark in a bad way--namely, e-mail and blogs--I think she's dead on in her indictment of the dumbing down of America and the role of TV, video games, and to a lesser extent, the internet, in that dumbing down. That commercial only appears to be tongue-in-cheek. In reality, it's pretty dead on. Making hyperbolic fun of something that's actually happening as if it's no big deal is a tried and true distraction technique. It doesn't change the fact that it's happening. What it does is try to make you feel silly for worrying about it.
Jacoby's book, flaws on those two counts above aside, is frightening, and, I'm afraid, largely accurate.

Overall, I think Jacoby is mostly right in both her analysis of our current intellectual climate and direction as a nation (although, along with every other weight unfairly hoisted onto the shoulders of our nation's new president, I think many are hoping his election indicates a potential shift in this arena as well) and the route by which we arrived in this pickle. Of course, it's no secret to most who read this blog that I'm also a firm believer that the earth is currently warming, that it is doing so because of human activity, and that if we don't alter course soon, it may be too late.

That said, I was struck by a parallel between these two topics: the concept of the tipping point. (For a good discussion of the concept in a climatological sense, you'll find the Wikipedia entry at the preceding link helpful.) Recent news reports on a just out NOAA study suggest that we may be closer to a climatological tipping point that previously believed, or perhaps, even beyond it. A pdf of the entire NOAA report can be had here, but for now, here is the abstract:
The severity of damaging human-induced climate change depends not only on the magnitude of the change but also on the potential for irreversibility. This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450–600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise. Thermal expansion of the warming ocean provides a conservative lower limit to irreversible global average sea level rise of at least 0.4–1.0 m if 21st century CO2 concentrations exceed 600 ppmv and 0.6–1.9 m for peak CO2 concentrations exceeding ≈1,000 ppmv. Additional contributions from glaciers and ice sheet contributions to future sea level rise are uncertain but may equal or exceed several meters over the next millennium or longer.
Of course, last I'd heard, Rush was busy assuring us all that none of this was our fault and all of it beyond our control. Right. I used to enjoy him before the Oxycontin destroyed the half of his brain that wasn't tied behind his back.

But the phrase has sociological denotations as well, and it's that meaning that I think Jacoby has in mind when she says in her conclusion:
It is possible that nothing will help. The nation's memory and attention span may already have sustained so much damage that they cannot be revived by the best efforts of America's best minds. I too am nibbling at the edges by talking about the need for political leaders who address Americans as thinking adults; for intellectuals willing to step up and bring their knowledge, instead of a lust for power, to the public square; for educators devoted to teaching and learning rather than to the latest fads in pop psychology. None of these suggestions addresses the core problem created by the media--the pacifiers of the mind that permeate our homes, schools, and politics. There is little evidence to indicate that Americans have either the desire or the will to lessen their dependency on the easy satisfactions held out by the video and digital world . . . . (315)
I doubt, though, that it will ever be entirely too late. There will always be intelligent and deeply thoughtful people out there, the question will be how they are valued by society at large. In the time of Thomas Jefferson, we revered them. But in the time of Galileo, we placed them under house arrest. Perhaps this, like all things, is cyclical. Let us hope so. Idiocracy wasn't a movie I enjoyed.

All of the above I wrote more than two days ago now. How apropos then, that in a segment on The Daily Show last night, Lewis Black took some members of Congress to task for their efforts to avail themselves of a not-so-new-any-more medium in the form of YouTube. Idiocracy may be closer than we think.