How to Boil a Frog


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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Negotiating With Sharks

Up here in Canada, we’re in the middle of a sort of “dirty tricks” campaign by the federal government that’s so lame that even our right-tilting newspapers have called them out on it. The campaign is ostensibly designed to pre-empt opposition to the Enbridge pipeline, which would carry 550,000 barrels a day of unrefined tar sands crude oil to Kitimat, British Columbia, where it would then be taken by tanker through some of the most dangerous straits in the world on its way to China. The potential downside, aside from twenty more nails in the coffin of catastrophic global warming, would be oil spills in pristine BC waters that would make the Exxon Valdez seem like the aftermath of a Mormon grad night party, as well as innumerable pipeline leaks and spills throughout some of the world’s last great wilderness.

So how do you put lipstick on that zombie pig while it’s munching on the brains of our hapless children? Part 1 was the “Ethical Oil” campaign, arguing that the Middle Eastern countries (the ones that Eastern Canada imports its oil from) are less ethical sources of oil than the tar sands because they’ll kill you for adultery, as opposed to making you the Republican presidential candidate. The other argument has been that “foreigner billionaires” are “hijacking” a home-grown Canadian process – a National Energy Board review that’s hearing from people along the pipeline route – these alleged billionaires being distinct from the foreigner billionaires (Rex Tillerson of Exxon, Richard Kinder of Enron, etc.) who are doing everything they can to expand the tar sands and profit off shipping it to China through these pipelines.

But my point isn’t about the amusement factor of watching Prime Minister Stephen Harper imitate the Richard Nixon playbook circa 1973, although the 40 year time lag between American and Canadian politics does sometimes make watching the news feel like watching a familiar re-run of “Gilligan’s Island.” My concern is that the absurd Kabuki being performed by the Harper government is intended specifically to give the Movement (I won’t call them the Left because species survival is not a left-right issue) something to engage with. “Hey, I recognized their framing! I’ve cleverly countered it with my letter to the editor!” In brief, my concern is that we are being manipulated by high-functioning sociopaths who know exactly what kinds of shiny objects to dangle.

And what are they doing while we’re earnestly engaged in our media counter-offensive? They’re getting set to make shit happen. They’re getting ready to roll over democracy and aboriginal rights and all other human considerations and build those pipelines to China. China, which has developed a sociopathic government by its own mechanisms, is buying into the tar sands like crazy and getting the refineries ready. Steady as she goes. The desires of the people – your desires, as a human being, and a citizen -- are simply irrelevant. Which is kind of icky.

So how do we engage with these sociopaths, if they control most of the world’s wealth and power? It’s tempting to say we’ll fight them on their own terms – climb the corporate ladder ourselves, or marshall a billion micro-donations from every treehugger with a paypal account. But I think that’s an illusion, because a) an equivalent number of non-sociopaths will never rise to that level of power and wealth, given the time-frame of disaster and the remaining available resources for new CEO’s to exploit, and b) even if we did manage to field a team that big, we would never be willing to fight the sociopaths the way they fight, because we're hampered by moral considerations, like fairness, truth and where we get our coffee. So how to fight as ourselves, and win? I think there are two ways.

The first is to use the language of accounting. For sociopaths, it’s comfortable to make everything about money, because they have no internal way to value things. Brilliant economists like Mark Anielski have co-opted the language of money and described non-material things that way: “happiness” becomes human capital; “friendship” becomes social capital; wilderness becomes “natural capital”. The downside, of course, is that the misguided sociopath may set up a leveraged set of friendship derivatives, and you’ll find yourself bundled in with 670 people from Indonesia and sold to an investor in Hamburg. Still, it may be that sociopaths can be trained to extrapolate the “win-win” transaction – which is a sociopathic version of empathy – to incorporate externalities that provide him or her with benefits, like absorbing toxic wastes and making food riots more collegial.

The second and more inspiring weapon at our disposal is simply human emotion, and not least because it’s the wild card that sociopaths don’t think to factor in. In an era of sociopathic oligarchy, projects like these pipelines will only be stopped by us putting ourselves physically in the path of bulldozers – this will be our version of what sociopaths call “changing the facts on the ground”. But again, that can feel icky – it’s sad to think that all our democratic institutions have been reduced to physical resistance. It’s a loss of innocence. But if we are willing to feel that grief, and help others feel it, then we can move on to the fun part – the excitement and laughter and meaning when it’s 100 or 1,000 people in front of that bulldozer. The fun and the friendship are what How to Boil a Frog is all about.

The most useful metaphor that covers both these strategies is the shark, the world’s oldest predator. It didn't stick around for 400 million years by eating everything to extinction. Sharks, though they were top of the food chain and unchallenged in the ocean, nonetheless developed a sense of enough, and came into balance with the defenseless fish around them. Had they not done that, they would’ve gone extinct along with the Canadian Liberal Party. That lesson - sustainable preservation of prey (i.e., customers) - will not be lost on a sociopath. It will not make him or her consider the humanity and happiness of the little fish (meaningless and irrelevant concepts), but it can be used as manipulation within the small realm that he or she understands: the realm of the economy and money.

And for us, the shark metaphor is a reminder not to expect them to have good table manners if we invite them to dinner. We're not negotiating with ourselves. We’re little fish negotiating with sharks for the preservation of our ecosystem, and need to think and speak accordingly for the good of all - including the sharks.

BONUS ROUND: Empathy for sociopaths

It isn’t just sociopaths, by the way. We all set aside either our belief in science, or our consciences, to get through the day.

For instance, if you don't believe that humanity is causing global warming, given the simple workings of a greenhouse, then you have set aside your belief in the Laws of Thermodynamics (which still govern our existence whether we believe in them or not). Here's a back of the napkin calculation, for instance, on the effect of driving:

There are roughly a billion cars in the world, putting out around 1 pound of CO2 per mile. If the average car is driven 12,000 miles per year, that means 12,000 pounds of CO2 more or less - 6 tons. (This is about 1/3 of the average North American's annual output of 20 tons per person). There are about a billion cars in the world, each putting out 6 tons apiece, so that equals 6 billion tons of CO2 per year from driving, about 1/5th of our total CO2-equivalent output of 31 billion tons.

But the earth can only absorb about 11 billion tons annually without warming. So whenever you or I drive a car (and I do have one) we’re participating in the generation of droughts, hurricanes and other extreme weather that brings misery, disease, war and death to billions of people around the world.

So: did you just give up driving, or did you just make an instant unconscious calculation that you are exempt from responsibility for the harm done to those other people, so you can keep doing what you want?

Now you know how a sociopath thinks.