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Flat-earth mentality?

Sins of Hot Air Emission, Omission, Commission and Promission (Part #10)

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In the days immediately preceding the Copenhagen summit, an extraordinary mix of metaphors and imagery seems to have emerged -- triggered by almost religious schism between the climate change believers and the sceptics (reinforced in their convictions by the e-mail scandal). The front page headline in The Guardian highlighted the chorus of condemnation against "flat-earth" climate change sceptics (Damian Carrington and Suzanne Goldenberg, Gordon Brown attacks 'flat-earth' climate change sceptics, The Guardian, 4 December 2009). With only days to go before Copenhagen we mustn't be distracted by the behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics, Brown told the Guardian. We know the science. We know what we must do. We must now act and close the 5bn-tonne gap. That will seal the deal.

Presumably Brown is referring specifically to the science of climate change -- failing thereby to take account of the other sciences that might claim to understand other facets of the challenge. On the other hand he may be referring there to the "science of ignoring", well-known in political circles (cf Unknown Undoing, 2008; The Art of Non-Decision-Making, 1997; Framing the Global Future by Ignoring Alternatives, 2009; Institutionalized Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge, 2008).

On the same occasion, Ed Miliband, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, described the sceptics as "dangerous and deceitful". He declared:

The approach of the climate saboteurs is to misuse data and mislead people. The sceptics are playing politics with science in a dangerous and deceitful manner. There is no easy way out of tackling climate change despite what they would have us believe. The evidence is clear and the time we have to act is short. To abandon this process now would lead to misery and catastrophe for millions.

In the event of failure, it will clearly be convenient for the believers to blame the sceptics for delaying critical decisions by casting doubt over "the science" at a time when momentum is claimed to be gathering towards a historic agreement. This has of course been the pattern in religious discourse down the centuries.

The language of mutual accusation is remarkably reminiscent of religious discourse at the time of any schism. The believers are notable in their self-righteousness with no sense of doubt concerning the merits of their cause. Unfortunately for Gordon Brown, he was equally lacking in doubt with regard to the global financial system prior to the recent crash -- as noted earlier. He might then have also declared: We know the science. Who might he then have accused of having a "flat-earth mentality" in offering his praise for London's invention of "the most modern instruments of finance" -- the very instruments that were to bring it and the western banking system down?

Use of the "flat earth" metaphor in relation to the current global condition has been much confused by the work of Thomas L Friedman (The World Is Flat, 2005). This received the first Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2005. The "business as usual" of the globalization agenda was understood there as intimately associated with a process of "earth flattening" -- a process presumably corresponding to Gordon Brown's thinking. More relevant to climate change, Friedman has followed it with Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution -- And How It Can Renew America (2008).

The metaphor is especially confusing in a context of faith-based governance -- recalling the obsolete mindset of religions in their tardy recognition of the discovery of the global form of the world by science. Its controversial use has been criticized (Irresponsible Dependence on a Flat Earth Mentality-- in response to global governance challenges, 2008; In Quest of Optimism Beyond the Edge, 2008; Memory Challenges at the Edge of the World, 2008). The metaphor is however more interesting in helping to understand the cognitive challenge for believers in relation to emission, omission, commission and promission:

  • emission: A "flat earth" offers the sense that those on it are similarly upright, necessarily right, and that any alternative orientation is necessarily wrong. It is the place of groupthink. There are no bounding horizons and therefore a sense of lack of constraint -- with the implication that those thinking otherwise would necessarily fall off the edge. (Edward de Bono, I Am Right-You Are Wrong: from Rock Logic to Water Logic, 1992). There is little sense of systemic neglect.

  • omission: From a "flat earth" perspective, what is omitted is necessarily "over the horizon" and therefore "out of sight, out of mind" -- perhaps even an "underworld". It is necessarily unmentionable (Global Strategic Implications of the "Unsaid", 2003). There dwell those of alternative orientation, perhaps appropriately to be described as "dangerous and deceitful", and possibly "demonic", for their disagreement with the consensus of the "good". The adherents of the different Abrahamic religions have this perception of each other -- frequently using labels such as "satanic" -- inhabiting as they do quite different parts of a globe whose flatness is an illusion to which they variously subscribe.

  • commission: In this case a joint enterprise is promoted to take its adherents from one place on the "flat earth" to a place of hope -- an imagined promised land. The commission implies comprehensive, unquestioning adherence to the enterprise by the community if it is to be successful. It is an exercise in hope.

  • promission: This is the hopeful articulation of life in a better place. On a "flat earth" it is necessarily distant, perhaps only to be seen as a mirage. As such it is conducive to betrayal. Promises made by hope-mongering leaders on the quest may not be fulfilled. An ultimate battle with unbelievers and sceptics may be necessary to reach it (Spontaneous Initiation of Armageddon: a heartfelt response to systemic negligence, 2004).

In the case of Gordon Brown, there is irony in implicitly appealing for recognition of globality from a flat earth perspective in which everyone is expected to sing from the "same hymn sheet" -- a mode characteristic of his Christian religious conditioning as a "son of the manse". This excludes the possibility of the polyphony of a richer music appropriate to a change of climate (A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic? 2006; All Blacks of Davos vs All Greens of Porto Alegre: reframing global strategic discord through polyphony? 2007). The mode locks thinking into oversimplistic geometry inadequate to requisite complexity of any viable response to global challenges (Metaphorical Geometry in Quest of Globality -- in response to global governance challenges, 2009).

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