Fact Free Science is Not a Thing – A MAHB Dialogue with Filmmaker, Educator Monty Hempel

Geoffrey Holland | September 26, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

A bee and beetle both eating from a flower

Geoffrey Holland – Science denial has been a particularly troublesome issue when it comes to building the public consensus needed for meaningful action against climate change.  Who benefits from and who is ultimately responsible for the skepticism about peer reviewed science?

Monty Hempel – Ironically, the publicly perceived success of science, over many decades, made it a natural target for so-called “knowledge saboteurs.” The usual suspects were an odd coalition of fossil fuel industry hardliners, contrarians who were inclined to distrust “know-it-all” scientists, and, in the later stages, tea party activists who regarded science as a tool of elite liberals and progressives. But ultimate responsibility, in my view, may lie with a group of scientists who allowed their ideological bias to justify their misuse of science. I’m talking principally about the prominent nuclear physicists from the Marshall Institute, during the Reagan administration, who attempted to discredit climate scientists as unwitting agents of “watermelon politics” – green on the outside; red on the inside. Sharing responsibility with those scientists were corporate funders, like the Koch brothers, and their hired guns. As scholars such as Naomi Oreski and Riley Dunlap have convincingly shown, science can be an easy target if you’re willing to employ well paid PR “hit men” like Marc Morano, armed with the stalling tactics of Big Tobacco’s smoking campaign and well-funded echo chambers to disrupt public communication of science.

While the fossil fuel industry has been the direct beneficiary of denialism, I don’t think it orchestrated the denial campaign as forcefully as many right-wing ideologues, who viewed action on climate issues as a threat to economic growth and capitalism, itself. If you read Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, you’ll also leave a special place in Hell for John Sununu.

GH – We live in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and a globalized social media. Too often these days, the ‘truth’ is obscured by the slick presentation of ‘alternate facts’.  Is there a remedy to the corporate media’s loose relationship with the truth?

MH – Alternate facts have been employed by a wide spectrum of politicians, news media people, and corporate leaders throughout our history, but what’s different now is that we have a president who has intentionally created a climate of license to lie, thereby amplifying the practice to levels seldom, if ever, seen in this country. The news cycle drives a great deal of hype and overcoverage, but I would not equate most media coverage with the calculated lies coming from the White House.

A more interesting phenomena for me is the idea of culturally-driven doubt and ignorance that creates a receptive audience for alternate facts and outright lies. Known as “Agnotology,” the study of deception as part of cultural identity reveals that the “license to lie” only thrives when the liar has the uncritical acceptance of groups whose trust among themselves doesn’t depend on public honesty or truth. They’ll accept almost any public lie that advances their core agenda, since they don’t trust the competing and diverse aims of society, in general. Those of us who grew up thinking that honesty is the glue on which trust is built will have a hard time understanding the continuing support of Trump’s base, for that reason. 

GH – As we move through the early part of the 21st century, humanity faces an unprecedented array of existential threats.  What are the threats that concern you the most?

MH – I think we spend too much time compartmentalizing threats. Clearly, climate disruption is an existential threat. So is a nuclear arms race. But what about the biodiversity crisis? Certainly it’s an existential threat for many animals and plants, but what about for people? Well, it depends on your time frame. In my view, it’s much better to focus on the planetary life-support system and to recognize that anything that weakens it is an existential threat to people, sooner or later. Hence the biggest threat we face is the collection of values, behaviors, and positive feedback loops that comprise the Anthropocene. Everything Homo dominatus does to manipulate Earth’s biogeochemical cycles, energy flows, and natural resources is a “nail in our coffin,” not because all the actions are deadly in themselves, but because they spring from a mindset that ultimately endangers our life-support system through some combination of greed, arrogance, power, and species-level narcissism. If somehow we were able to employ the Anthropocene’s best technology to prevent further climate warming instantly (a 0º C guardrail), we would probably still be on the road to oblivion. Why? Because we are unwilling to look at the fateful relationships between human domination, environmental degradation, economic concentration, and the rise of self-reinforcing cultural belief systems. And we seem unable to overcome our trained incapacity (Veblen) to appreciate how and why our lack of empathy and fear of interdependence imperil our long-term survival as a species – one that might otherwise be evolving toward something noble, call it Homo humanus.

GH – The threats we face are mostly caused by human overreach. What should we humans be doing that we are not already doing to address these threats?

MH – We need to become more self-aware of the hubris that is baked into human enterprise. The ancient Greeks understood this “overreach” tendency as human overconfidence about accomplishing tasks reserved for the gods. We should probably view it as the tendency to underestimate the environmental risks of our actions and the corollary tendency to overestimate the benefits of “taming” nature for our own wealth and development. We also need to shift the burden of proof over actions that may irreversibly harm our environment (a version of the “precautionary principle”). The burden should be on those who introduce a new risk; not on government regulators or environmentalists who seek court injunctions to stop a potential threat. Finally, we need to create more space for non-human standing in our courts and formal decision processes. The endangered species act is a good example of how that can be done, but increasingly we need an endangered ecosystem act to protect things like coral reef communities and temperate grasslands. 

In answer to your question about what new strategy should be tried, I’ll reserve the right to be impractical. I wonder if we should try public shaming on a much more extensive and long-lasting basis. I’m only half serious, but maybe there should be a national museum in Washington D.C. that serves as a “Hall of Shame” in perpetuity for all those leaders who have clearly worked long and hard against the public interest. It would require a jury composed of towering figures of integrity, across the political spectrum, who would be tasked with looking out for the interests of future generations. Among my candidates for shaming would be people like James Inhofe, Mitch McConnell, Scott Pruitt and, of course, Trump on the Republican side, and perhaps George Wallace, Andrew Johnson, Huey Long, and some more recent Democrats that probably deserve censure but, when compared with Trump, seem relatively benign. Maybe it should include corporate bandits like Martin Shkreli and powerful families like the Sacklers of Purdue Pharma infamy. The point would be to document a record of ruthless exploitation and obstruction or pattern of corruption, fraud and sabotage of public interest goals, with the record preserved for the enduring embarrassment of the shamed one’s descendants and friends. Using public service for private gain, increasing inequality, or denying human rights ought to be called out! And those who disgrace their public office or private leadership position should know that their legacy will be on display for many decades.

GH – You have spent your adult years as an educator. What are some important principles about our Earth’s environment that every person should understand and should embrace?

MH – I’m a big believer in the importance of integrative systems thinking and problem-solving, where science-based knowledge is combined with learning about emotional intelligence (e.g., expanding empathy and recognition of interdependence). I start with Earth systems, especially ecosystems, and ask students to try looking at their world as an interactive system-of-systems made up of food webs, water cycles, energy flows, carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles and the processes of photosynthesis and respiration. Then I ask them to think about which human activities have a significant impact in changing those earth systems, and why. In order to operate at such broad levels of understanding, they need to learn about emergent properties, negative and positive feedback loops, and the limits to growth on a finite planet. Where it really gets interesting is in probing how world views and cultural identity patterns influence what humans use to rationalize, deny, or ignore the destructive changes they cause. At that point, I’m ready to introduce the concept of deep time and ask whether the Anthropocene really matters in the grand scheme of the universe. Since I’m convinced that it does, a lot of my teaching returns to the concepts of emotional intelligence and shifting baselines. If I’m feeling especially bold or irresponsible, I’ll reveal my ignorance about neuroscience and launch into a discussion of Ian McGilchrist’s THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY to advance the thesis that modern humanity’s overreliance on left-brain processing lies at the root of our collective failure to think ecologically about the challenges we face as a species.

GH – Some describe the internet as the closest thing that exists to a nervous system linking all of humanity. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so, how can we assure that the net is used in ways that serve the best interests of people and planet, and how do we prevent the net from being used for destructive purposes?

MH – The behavior of the internet is increasingly becoming a reflection of the incentive structures we have built in the name of corporate capitalism and geopolitics. In the long term, I worry that the internet will be further captured by economic interests just as surely as government regulators tend to end up on the payrolls of the industry they once regulated. While I can imagine an internet harnessed for genuine human progress and dignity, I think it is likely that there will always be a “dark web” shadow that undermines that progress. When joined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, the internet may expand beyond anything that humans can truly comprehend and control. Hence I am not confident that either people or planet will ultimately gain “net” benefits from the development of the internet. In fact, based on the screen time my grandchildren devote to the internet, I’m already wondering if the benefits of the internet have been wildly overstated and if the opportunity costs it imposes on human relationships with Nature and with other human beings are unacceptably high.

GH – You are a very skilled and creative video artist in service to nature and the biosphere. What is it about video that makes it so appealing to you as a platform for planetary advocacy?

MH – Partly it is the difference between fact and feeling. Video brings a visceral dimension to learning. It shows you the whale and the incoming harpoon in a context that conventional science teaching cannot compete with. Moreover, it doesn’t sanitize the act with detached observations in journals and lab reports. Digital video offers a low cost way to visualize complex information. For today’s visual learners, who comprise a large share of all students, it is more effective than most textbooks, provided the filmmaker understands the difference between science-based advocacy and eye-gripping entertainment. As I mentioned earlier, good environmental documentaries combine integrated knowledge with emotional intelligence. Science can provide the factual knowledge needed to understand environmental challenges, but it is emotional intelligence that can turn that understanding into effective action. Video storytelling has the power to move viewers beyond education and armchair advocacy to personal action and collective mobilization. Using that platform, however, requires a higher level of personal responsibility than ordinary classroom teaching, because the strategic use of evocative images and music can tilt the learning process with almost hypnotic power. On the other hand, I’ve always liked sociologist George Homan’s observation that to ‘overcome the inertia of the human intellect, it is sometimes more important that a statement be interesting than it be true!’

GH – If someone gave you US$40 million, with the understanding that you must use it to make a feature movie that will inspire people to be responsible planetary citizens, what kind of story would you tell?

MH – My answer is that I’m already making that movie as a ten-part video series entitled EXPLORING THE ANTHROPOCENE. $40 million, which is about 300 times my hoped for budget, would certainly change the quality, advertising, and distribution of the series, but not the concept or basic approach. The Anthropocene serves as a powerful framework for understanding how one species, ours, is fast becoming a global force of nature. The series is intended to be a video “wake-up call” that examines the fragility of all life in an era of global human supremacy. The format is that of a video masterclass that emphasizes visually arresting stories about the accelerating pace of ecological collapse. The class is for grasping the big picture of global change; not for burrowing into textbooks or listening to talking heads. It is aimed at young people and life-long learners everywhere who need a different kind of classroom in which to learn, one that prizes interdisciplinary learning and combines scientific knowledge with a deep dive into emotional intelligence.

We live in a time of accelerating ecological peril, dangerous inequality, and open displays of moral vandalism by people ranging from the president of the United States to present-day robber barons and media moguls. Today’s students need an exit strategy from this morass — one that values integrity and provides new interpretations of Progress, Development, and Sustainability. The goal is to help them discover what life is and can be in the Age of Humans (Homo dominatus), and why, where, and how our technologically-amplified influence on Earth’s biogeochemical systems imperils our own future. 

The core of the story I’m telling is that society has sleepwalked into an era in which human supremacy threatens our own happiness and prosperity. We have become overly-dependent on technology and under-dependent on community, trying to live beyond the “end of nature” with no authentic purpose to guide us. The solutions to global disruption are within reach, but the search for profit frequently blocks our political will to seize them.

Time is short; change that sustains is slow!

My series represents an effort to reconcile the scientific bad news with the spirit of hope needed to reverse the global patterns of domination that have led our civilization simultaneously to ever greater power and ever greater vulnerability. Grasping that paradox, and what to do about it, is an aim worthy of attention by educators and filmmakers, everywhere.

GH – How can humans better embody the responsibility we have for restoring and protecting wild, underdeveloped areas of land and oceans as part of any sustainable, life-affirming vision for the future? 

MH – Start by recognizing how fast they are disappearing! I would go so far as arguing that humanity’s collective sanity depends on encounters with non-human nature; with wildness and wild creatures. Our imaginations, creativity, identity formation, and capacity for empathy are all enhanced by spending time in places, and with creatures, that are NOT the products of human thought. We need the freedom to experience wild lands and seas that are NOT inventions of human design or control. Encounters with nonhuman lives and systems are necessary ingredients, in my view, for becoming whole human beings. That’s one way we might better manage our tendency toward hubris and species-level narcissism. Another way is to give much more consideration to the interests of future generations. Sustainability needs to be omnipresent in our planning and policy. For me, the magic link with sustainability is the concept of community. Sustainable communities are green, prosperous, fair, and inspirational. Too many people stop with “green” when they define sustainability, and very few people seem to acknowledge the importance of inspiration in taking the concept to its full potential. Prosperity and social justice both have important roles in sustainability. But so does a strong sense of community and a serious regard for the welfare of future generations of both human and nonhuman life.

GH – How important is it for the world’s peoples to embrace their common humanity and see themselves as planetary citizens, as part of the process of shaping a sustainable future? How do you think we can do this?

MH – My hope is for adoption of a “glocal” world view – one that recognizes that it is no longer reasonable to study change at the local level without a deep awareness of global influences and their interactions with local systems. Climate disruption, changes in the world ocean, global wildlife loss, and loss of forests and topsoil all indicate a need for planetary citizenship, but it’s very hard to think glocally if the major policy and regulatory authority is lodged at the national level, and to a lesser extent state or provincial level. I don’t see nationalism as the enemy, just as an overindulged way of governing. Environmental governance requires more emphasis on glocal thinking, and greater flows of power to both local and global institutions.

The world is in the midst of a series of wrenching dislocations: widespread culture wars, trade wars, and a growing number of what might be called “resource wars.” But the most dangerous dislocation is largely invisible. Some call it a cyber war, but it is much more than that, partly because it also helps drive the culture, trade and resource wars. It involves the power of digital technology to accelerate our lives beyond the speed limits of human wisdom. It further disrupts our fundamental relationship with nature; inflames our prejudices and polarizes people; fast-forwards lifestyles in ways that confuse our minds and undermine our core values; and perhaps worst of all, it amplifies self-serving political and economic campaigns to manipulate, distort, and hide the truth, at a time when societal consensus on standards of truth is desperately needed.

I have no “silver bullets” to resolve these challenges. Slowing down, rediscovering the importance of the natural environment in our lives, and insisting on a standard of honesty and truth in our private and public conduct are all prerequisites for becoming effective planetary citizens. For genuine reformers and change agents, the starting point of learning how to create a better world is to grapple with painful lessons about the world we have now. What we have now, arguably, is the Anthropocene. So the question is what kind of society would make leaving the Anthropocene worthwhile for us and sustainable for those who will follow?

Monty Hempel is the Hedco Chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Redlands. He is also the founder of the non-profit advocacy group, Blue Planet United. He is currently developing a ten-part video series titled Exploring the Anthropocene.

Geoffrey Holland is a Portland, Oregon based writer/producer, and principal author of The Hydrogen Age, Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2007.

The MAHB Dialogues are a monthly Q&A blog series focused on the need to embrace our common planetary citizenship. Each of these Q&As will feature a distinguished author, scientist, or leader offering perspective on how to take care of the only planetary home we have.

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