Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Still obedient 50 years later

In 1963 Stanley Milgram conducted an infamous set of studies on obedience.  Milgram had people who thought they were participating in a learning experiment deliver what they thought were increasing levels of electrical shock to who they thought were fellow participants in the experiment.

Milgram designed a simulated shock generator consisting of a large electronic device with 30 toggle switches labeled with voltage levels starting at 30 volts and increasing by 15-volt intervals up to 450 volts. The learning task involved the learner memorizing connections between lengthy lists of word pairs. The “teacher” would read the list, and then test the learner’s memory for them. The learner was really a confederate, an actor wired up to the fake shock generator and instructed to fail to learn and pretend to experience shock. The basic procedure involved instructing the teacher to give an electric shock each time the learner responded incorrectly, and for each incorrect response, to move up one level of shock on the generator. An authority figure in the guise of an official looking “researcher” in a lab coat was positioned behind a desk in the same room as the teacher, and the learner was positioned out of sight in another room. The learner began to complain and then shout discomfort as the voltage increased and eventually became completely silent after the 300 volt mark. Obedience was measured by how far the teacher would increase the level of shock before refusing to continue. Nobody refused to continue prior to the 300 volt mark (!) and 65% of the participants went the full distance to the 450 volt mark.

In a variety of follow-up studies, Milgram found that the highest level of obedience occurred when the learner and teacher were isolated in different rooms and the learner could not be either seen or heard (93% went to the top of the voltage scale), and when the learner and teacher were in the same room and the teacher was required manually to force the learner’s hand onto a shock plate, the rate of obedience dropped to a mere 30%. He also found that people were far more likely to refuse to obey if they witnessed someone else refuse.

Forty-five years later a psychologist at Santa Clara University conducted a partial replication of Milgram’s study (published in 2009) and found that there has been essentially no change in obedience since Milgram’s time. However—and this is the interesting part—obedience appears now to be unaffected by witnessing someone else refuse to obey. That is, we appear to be just as obedient to authority but less likely to take cues from our fellow slaves.

More proof of the isolating and insulating effects of modern techno-culture?

Friday, March 23, 2012

President Oil-Bama and the Keystone

One leg down. Oil-Bama’s failure to approve the entire pipeline immediately was trivial politics. Like all of his predecessors, the current White House dwelling Muppet has no choice but to move his mouth in sync with the corporate fists jammed up his ass. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Green apathy

A new study showing clear evidence of environmental generational amnesia (see this earlier post), the idea that as the opportunities to experience nature and natural systems decrease from generation to generation, so does concern for the natural world.

It is difficult to care about something that you have no actual experience with.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Deep future

The March 3rd edition of NewScientist includes a special report on “The Deep Future” that celebrates the human species’ bright and enduring prospects. Despite the doomsayers, humans are in no risk of becoming extinct any time soon. A pessimistic view of our situation is just a “passing fad.”     

The mere fact that there are 7 billion of us, for example, means that it will be hard for a pandemic virus or asteroid collision or mega-volcano or ozone-ripping solar flare or hydrocarbon-induced climate catastrophe or massive nuclear meltdown to get us all. Also, the fossil record shows that most species have endured for millions of years, so why not us? Besides, we are the cleverest of all mammals, as evidenced by our astounding technological savvy. Potential future threats—however unlikely—stand very little chance when pitted against our human ingenuity.

Just a couple paragraphs into the editorial introduction and it becomes obvious that there is little or no distinction being made between humans as a biological species and humans as purveyors of techno-industrial civilization. And the thought that humans might continue to exist in the absence of global empire has no traction whatsoever.

The timeline graphic that accompanies the lead article in the report says it all.  The timeline is constructed of 80-year human lifespan ticks, and takes as its starting point a point in time a dozen generations prior to an arrow that reads “10,000 years ago/first agriculture.”

The prior 5 million years were apparently just prolog.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jobs versus the environment: flipping a loaded coin

It looks like Unions are racking their balls trying to straddle both sides of the Keystone pipeline.  Of course it’s not an environmental issue for them—unions have always been about the money.    

It’s not any sort of revelation for me to point out that consumer society reduces everything to an economic value.   Individual lives are important in the exact degree to which the humans living them have the potential to command economic resources.  And critical features of the biosphere can be weighed in terms of simple cost-benefit analyses, where only the benefits that can be easily converted to $USD are considered.   One of the side-effects of this is that whenever environmental policy debates are couched in terms of “jobs,” the environment is guaranteed to lose. 

Consider the simplest case (and insert your favorite ecological concern): exploit versus conserve, measured against potential short-term versus potential long-term benefits (imagine a 2x2 table with Jobs: exploit/conserve on the side and benefits: short-term/long-term across the top, yielding a payoff matrix with 4 cells). 

If the choice is to exploit, the short-term economic benefit is a guaranteed positive and the future benefit is negative because the resource has been used up, although the the true future costs are unknowable and thus un-measurable.  If the choice is conserve, both the short-term and long-term benefits are a neutral zero: zero in the short-term because of the failure to tap a potentially-exploitable resource, and zero in the long-term because the future economic benefits of conservation are not readily calculable.  Also, the very idea of conservation means that we still have tomorrow what we have today, so that the most effective conservation tactics leave us exactly where we are now.  This leaves only one choice with a positive outcome: exploit now.  

Game over.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Redefining protest

The G-8 moves and the protesters plan to stick around for NATO. But the city of Chicago requires that they get a new protest permit, because, apparently, protest permits only allow you to protest one specific event or set of issues at a time.

Protest permit? What a great idea. Tell the pigs where you will be and what your beef is up front so they can know who and how many to expect and how much pepper spray they need to bring along.

How convenient is that?

So, what if I can't get my protest approved?  "I'm sorry, we've already had our quota of animal-rights protests this month, try again next Thursday,"  

What if I want to protest something that is, oh, I don't know, something really unpopular? Or something that city officials think might be too volatile? 

And what if I want to protest the requirement to get a fucking protest permit?

I might be out on a limb here, but it seems to me that when you have to get permission to complain, the game's already over and you lost.