Monday, May 20, 2013

Training to Generalize

“New Yorkers are rude and pushy!”  “Catholics believe suffering is good for you – no pain meds in their hospitals!”  Sounds like trash talk from ignorant bigots, yet I’ve heard these remarks at my Unitarian Universalist congregation.  However, everyone there has learned not to make rude remarks about Londoners or Jews.  Why are some groups subject to verbal abuse and others not?
The answer lies in a dog training principle. Dogs need to learn a cue in different contexts before they can generalize. After I taught my dog Maggie that the cue “Wait!” meant wait for permission to exit at the back door, I had to teach her “Wait!” meant the same thing at the front door.  Dogs can’t abstract and generalize as well as people, who have language, can.
I’ll still have to teach Maggie not to bolt out the gate, even though she knows to “Wait!” at the front door and the back door.  Also, some members of my congregation need to learn that the cue, “know about a group”  means to wait before making prejudiced comments about that group.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Climate Crisis Movement: Grandson of Eugenics Movement!

A few weeks ago, I woke up early to a mental image of concerned citizens. They were well-dressed, white, and intense as they marched for their cause.  They carried signs, “The science is settled!” “Disaster looms by the end of this century!” “For our great-grandchildren!”  I figured they were marching against the climate crisis.
I turned over for more sleep.  The image wouldn’t go away, but it shifted.  The women’s clothes changed to cloche hats and dropped waistlines; the men wore three piece suits – early 20th century styles.  Maybe the concerned citizens were marching for the eugenics cause.
I gave up on sleep, turned on my computer, and nosed around the Internet. Sure enough, I found historical and ideological links connecting the eugenics and climate crisis movements by way of the conservation and population control movements.  Except for conservation, all these movements are plausible, pessimistic, and people-negative.
As a Unitarian Universalist who affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I’m highly suspicious of anything people-negative.  I’m also suspicious of ideologies that demand sacrifice now to avoid doom in the future.  Whoever said (attributed to Stalin), “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” should have stayed in the kitchen.
Formulated by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, the eugenics movement that began just before the turn of the twentieth century stated that the qualities leading to success or failure in life were inherited.  Therefore the fit should breed and the unfit should not. Eugenics was championed by those representing the elite upper classes such as the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, Margaret Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a nominal Unitarian.
The ideas were plausible enough to be supported by the science of its day and Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities. However, lack of fitness was never really defined.   Often it meant epilepsy or “feeblemindedness”;  sometimes it meant poverty or promiscuity.
Eugenics was pessimistic.  If the “socially inadequate” didn’t quit reproducing themselves, they would outnumber the productive and the human race would decline irreversibly.  Better the elite should produce the future generations.
The eugenics movement was people-negative.  Take the case of Carrie Buck and her family. Carrie’s “feebleminded” mother was institutionalized for being “shiftless” and syphilitic.  Carrie had also been institutionalized for feeblemindedness although it’s probable that she was sent away when she became pregnant after she was raped by a nephew of her foster parents.  Carrie was an avid reader all her life and her daughter was a star pupil until she died of an infection at age nine.  But Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, voting with the Supreme Court majority (Buck v Bell) that allowed Carrie’s sterilization in 1927, said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
All together, more than 60,000 people in the United States were sterilized from 1927 into the 1970s without their consent.  Worse, eugenics “science” became the intellectual justification for the Nazi race theories, hence indirectly responsible for the deaths of nine million people in the Nazi Holocaust.
Besides having spawned the Holocaust, eugenics is now dead in the water for a couple of more reasons. Unnoticed and unexpected, although already going on during the twentieth century, was the Flynn effect, the phenomenon of rising IQ.  Hence, the number of “feebleminded” in the population has decreased.  The Flynn Effect, everybody getting smarter, means the human race has improved without selective breeding.  Too bad for those who suffered and died in the name of the junk science of eugenics.
Also, the circle of empathy has expanded – as President Obama said in his second inaugural –  “from Seneca Falls [women] to Selma [African-Americans] to Stonewall [gays].”  The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, giving all humans full rights. People who used to be labeled feebleminded, unfit, or defective are now considered fully human.
Interestingly, some supporters of the eugenics movement, concerned about overpopulation, initiated the conservation movement.  Preserving scenic natural areas for all to enjoy is neither pessimistic nor people-negative, although in the early 20th century when few could afford travel, the early conservationists may have felt they were creating parks as elite preserves.   Henry Fairfield Osborne (1857-1935) who helped found the Save the Redwoods league in 1918 is a case in point.  In his paper at the Third International Conference of Eugenics in 1932,  Osborne said, “The outstanding generalizations of my world tour range from Over-destruction of natural resources, now actually worldwide; to Over-population beyond the land areas, or the capacity of the natural and scientific resources of the world, with consequent permanent unemployment of the least fitted.”
Although Osborne and some of his contemporaries worried about overpopulation, the population control movement didn’t become a popular cause until about forty years later with the publication of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968.  Ehrlich is plausible, applying the idea of ecological carrying capacity to human populations;  that is, too many people will use up the limited resources of the planet.  He’s pessimistic, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.”  He’s people-negative.  “It is absurd to be preoccupied with the quality of life until and unless the problem of the quantity of life is solved.”
The climate crisis movement is likewise plausible, based on contemporary scientific findings that the planet warmed during the 1980s and 1990s.  The climate crisis movement says too many people (overpopulation again!) have been pouring carbon dioxide that warms the planet into the atmosphere by means of burning carbon-based fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.  This movement is even more pessimistic than the population control movement.  Some examples of impending doom include Al Gore’s predictions of massive sea level rises, droughts, famine, spread of tropical diseases, and species extinction. [An Inconvenient Truth 2006]  And Sir James Lovelock’s prediction, "By the end of this century climate change will reduce the human population to a few breeding pairs surviving near the Arctic." [Revenge of Gaia 2007].   Lovelock has subsequently (2012) admitted he exaggerated, “We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now, [but] the world has not warmed up much since the millennium.”
Although the climate crisis activists claim to be saving the planet for their grandchildren, the climate crisis movement is nevertheless people-negative.  That’s because the cure for the climate crisis is to reduce use of carbon-based fuel with a carbon tax.  “Think about $5-a-gallon gas; consider $500-a-month power bills if you stick with your current electric-baseboard heating.  It sounds rough, financially, on the little guy. But advocates say that if gas were $5 a gallon, for instance, we'd see many fewer SUVs on the road. We'd see much more innovation in how to produce that winter heat on a way-slimmed-down energy budget – more weatherstripping, better insulation and so forth. The basic principle is that the economic pain of a carbon tax would spur all kinds of innovation to conserve fuel.”
Despite the disclaimer that a carbon tax could be structured not to be regressive, it can’t help but be rough on the little guy.  With $500-a-month power bills, who could pay for insulation?   The well-off activists I saw in my vision can afford expensive gasoline but what about a struggling single mother who can’t afford a Prius?  Not to mention developing countries, who need cheap energy to lift themselves out of poverty.
The eugenics movement, the population control movement, and the climate crisis movement, all ideologically and historically linked and based on Malthus’ postulate there never can be enough for everyone, are plausible, but pessimistic and people-negative. The difference between the movements is the eugenics and the population control movements strove to eliminate the poor, whereas if the climate crisis activists succeed in taxing carbon-based fuel, they will create more poor.