Climate Change and Clean Energy: The Paradox of Bias

Are these words distraction
To the words you wanna hear? – U2, 1983

Here… read this: Your brain on climate change: why the threat produces apathy, not action.

Greg Harman reports that human brains are not wired to react to the non-immediate threat of climate change. This is hardly news, but a fascinating parallel to the way we make decisions about our lives – mostly to satisfy short-term gains and instant gratification. Who could blame us? What with the growing income inequality in Westernized nations and the desire to ease our loneliness by distracting ourselves with incessant smartphone usage. Do the floodwater, fire, unbreathable air, toxic water, food scarcity, overpopulation, and civil unrest problems resulting from human-caused global warming – now, and in the future – elicit an immediate concern from most of the general public? The answer is no. But that sentiment is starting to shift. As it should.

Much has happened since July’s EPA clean power plan hearings: over 400,000 people showed up to the People’s Climate March in New York, the planet had its hottest October ever, a record 35,000 walruses congregated ashore in Alaska because of melting sea ice, the smallest electorate since 1942 elected the worst climate denier (James Inhofe) in national politics to head the Senate Committee on Environment, Obama secretly struck a deal with China to lower carbon emissions, approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline is in serious danger of passing in the House and the Senate, science textbooks are now clarifying climate change is real and caused by humans, and Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was finally indicted for his role in a horrific coal mine disaster in 2010.

What about that middle thing? The elections. Since the midterms we’ve heard a lot about climate deniers and science skeptics being elected to uphold their so-called mandate (it’s not a mandate if only 32% of voters showed up). Flat-Earther Inhofe may want to cut funding to clean energy programs and continue his crusade against facts, but what we have here is an opportunity (one previously unavailable because of Democratic leadership) for the crazy to be unleashed. Americans will be better exposed to individuals who want to pass legislation that’s completely out of touch with progress. Still, amazingly, it remains up to us – the ones with little financial clout – to vote for the right individuals to affect change. Harman’s report in The Guardian likens voting to religion rather than shopping. But we still have too few choices in politics and too many in commerce. How can humans select to agree with something other than their default biased view, especially when the opposing view is based on scientific facts? That’s a paradox.

In Deborah K. Heikes’ “The Bias Paradox: Why It’s Not Just for Feminists Anymore” (2004), she writes “The bias paradox emerges out of a tension between objectivism and relativism. If one rejects a certain the conception objectivity as absolute impartiality and value-neutrality (i.e., if all views are biased), how, then, can one hold that some epistemic perspectives are better than others?”

…because the internet!! Well, that’s the short of it. The bias paradox has been around since the dawn of human interaction, took hold with the rise of Greek scholars, flourished with the printing press, then the 24-hour cable news cycle, but has now taken on a whole new dimension. In an online arena where everyone has a voice, a validated [in their own mind] opinion, and method to derail someone’s reputation (or self-derail thanks to lack of self control on Twitter or other channels), how can we be trusted to make decisions and come to agreements if we’re all interminably shackled to our biases. Biases that are based on how and where we grew up, our faith – or lack thereof, life’s experiences, knowledge, and – this one’s important – level of intelligence.

There’s also the news sharing economy. With the exception of The New York Times and other respected outlets holding on for dear life, a lot of journalism in the digital sharing sphere measures success by the amount of clicks on its content – and not whether or not the story is 100% factual. When a story breaks, your news feed is littered with top ten lists from dozens of Facebook pages generating inane content to garner clicks and advertising revenue, relying heavily on the way we tailor our news feeds – these choices stemming from our preexisting biases. The endless amount of choices from where we source our news – fan sites, news organizations, friends, family – serves the parade for our bias. How can I be trusted to make a decision if the news feed I’ve customized (which includes the act of hiding updates from right-winged crazies) is completely different from another intelligent, well-informed, and opinionated colleague? My hope is they’ll share some content with me that adheres to my biased specifications!

When Irish band U2 forcefully “gifted” their new album, Songs Of Innocence, to over 500 million iTunes account holders in September, there was a media embellished backlash. Bono was forced to apologize (albeit, in his own way) and reexamine the way the band handles their marketing and public relations efforts in the future. These guys aren’t spring chickens, but they refuse to go out as a wrinkly greatest hits outfit like The Rolling Stones. As a longtime fan passionate about their music and causes – and one who reads and watches interviews over the span of their 38 year existence – I’ve come to memorize the rhetoric Bono uses when representing his band. Some language he used repeatedly to honor their Apple partnership and its marketing blitz is that it was a “punk rock thing to do.” Music journalists mocked him after that statement, but with a little research one will uncover that he used it as far back as 1997 (see: PopMart).

I’m biased because I’m a U2 fan. My reaction to U2’s campaign was never going to be negative. It was a measured, thoughtful analyses of why they did it. The backlash occurred from those who knee-jerk react (as we tend to do a lot of on social media), those who don’t follow dozens of U2 news sources, and those who may be too young to even know what U2 is. I viewed this campaign partially as activism. U2 is active in numerous human rights causes and tries to educate their audience about some of the world’s most unjust atrocities. Bono’s efforts with (RED) and ONE got the United States’ most conservative presidential administration in history to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the starving and sick of African nations. Part of the process made antiviral drugs readily available and offered AIDS and birth control education, the latter being pivotal in learning to talk openly about overpopulation – the root cause of global warming. U2’s new album gift to the entire world perhaps informed some unbeknownst iTunes patrons about urgent causes like these.

I refer to the photograph above, taken from the U2 and Greenpeace “Stop Sellafield” campaign in 1992 – when they tried to close Sellafield, a nuclear reprocessing site on the Irish Sea that is both toxic and dangerous to people and the environment. My biased and informed opinion is that I think of U2 as musicians, then activists, but I can’t expect haters to know – or care – about the band’s good intentions when it comes to the rage from having their iTunes collection invaded.

So how do we communicate the emergency of climate change, its relation to fossil fuels, and promote the positive outlook for renewable energy innovation, adoption, and transition? Bono is an activist, but also vibes as a politician where he’s able to mingle with some of the most close-minded individuals in power. But not everyone listens to him, or someone like him. How are living, breathing, intelligent adults – people who stare in the face the effects of climate change, now more than ever – apathetic and inactive when finding solutions (like voting for the right candidates)? How do we communicate this to younger generations who will need to find the solutions?

With education. A small step such as the textbook publisher Pearson now allowing accurate climate science in their books opens the doors to laying the groundwork for not only the recognition of the planet’s woes and the problems global warming poses for people, but also for energy literacy. Better journalism, digital and mobile marketing, public relations, and progressive use of social media channels go a long way in helping to increase the number of purveyors sharing information about the bright promise of a clean energy economy, rapid job growth in the renewable energy industry (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, etc.), and more nonpartisan, agreeable solutions and resolutions on climate action.

U2 Sellafield image: © Anton Corbijn, 1992.

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My Gig at the EPA: Support for Clean Power {+ video}

I never thought good people
Would ever, ever fail.
And let this wonderful world
Be like a prison jail. – James Brown, 1969

Three glassy-eyed reps from the EPA listened all day to supporters and opponents of the newly proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions considerably in order to tackle the most important public health issue of our time. The room was filled with those eager to be heard. I didn’t prepare a written testimony, so I planned on touching on a few points I jotted down in my iPad in order to fill the required five minute time limit. I was emotionally and factually prepared, as I’ve been following these issues since the age of 15.

Given the subpar sound system and disengaged panel (not even a “hello”), I was forced to reckon with the idea that somehow the Clean Power Plan isn’t important enough. But it is… it’s the most important thing. What we eat, how we consume, how we procreate, and how we treat each other are all connected to our relation to the natural world. The farther we drift from our connection with nature, the closer we get to GAME OVER. It’s a hope that the Clean Power Plan is one pivotal step we need to take in order to save us from ourselves.

How are we communicating the importance of global warming? How are Millennials getting informed that there is the scary possibility of life without breathable air, fresh drinking water, affordable food, or even jobs? Shouldn’t energy literacy be a part of every school’s curriculum? Energy is what drives everything. The hope here is that Millennials are the change makers: the first generation genuinely interested in responding to the emergency of fixing the world and its broken systems. They don’t care about cars, status, or ownership of stuff. What kind of messages are we communicating online – and in person – to inspire the generation that is left with the difficult task of repairing everything we’ve destroyed?

In the few hours I spent at the hearing, I heard a few old white guys opposed to the Clean Power Plan talk about shutting down plants, whine that its emission standards are “too much, too soon,” and dance around the real issue: LESS MONEY IN THEIR POCKETS. What they fail to grasp (or care about?) is that global warming is happening now. And we need to do something about it now.

We can prosper. The clean energy industry is called an “industry” for a reason. It exists not only to serve the greater good of the planet, humans, and animals, but to also create jobs and income. Oil, coal, and gas companies exist to make huge profits while ravaging the land and its species, causing death and destruction. Let’s transition to clean, safe, and renewable energy now. Right. Now.

Here’s the video of my testimony at the EPA Clean Power Plan Public Hearing (Denver, 7/29/14):

This post was also published here:

Fossil Fuel Divestment: A Pathway to Caring About Climate Change

There’s the progress we have found.
A way to talk around the problem.
Building towered foresight, isn’t anything at all.
Buy the sky and sell the sky and bleed the sky and tell the sky. – R.E.M., 1986

According to numerous scientific reports issued this week, the major glaciers
that are part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet have officially become destabilized.
This will result in the slow, but eventual, high rising of sea levels in which many coastal cities (if not all) will have to be abandoned. Now, for the general public, this isn’t even news. If anything, it’s more doom-and-gloom, why-should-I-care-NOW reporting about an issue so huge, so overwhelming, that the average Joe and Jane couldn’t even fathom tackling it (or caring about it). That issue is climate change, of course, and for humans to continue to progress or exist, we should at least try and care about it.

If you’re like me, you saw the Ice Sheet news come through dozens of social media posts from numerous organizations promoting a more sustainable planet, like The Climate Reality Project, the filmmakers of Chasing Ice, Greenpeace, Mother Jones, and Because we live in a time when we choose what news we want to know about (and/or believe?), the reinforcement of our beliefs and things we’re passionate about from our chosen news deliverers fuels our anger, joy, sadness, and so on. But try inspiring a friend to change his eating habits based on factual data that eating meat or dairy is more harmful to the planet than most other foods. That human-fueled agriculture and industry are accelerating human-caused climate change. That these things are part of the reason there’s a hole in the ozone layer – which hovers over the aforementioned melting Antarctic Ice Sheet. What if this friend lives 2000 miles from the nearest rising sea? Well, then, communicating urgency can be a major feat.

When I write for the promotion of human progress, I don’t mean multiplication. One surefire way to alienate a large portion of Western society is to tell people they need to slow down with the procreation. Right now it seems perfectly acceptable to have two children, one to replace you and your significant other. Anything more than that is taxing the planet. More people equals more consumption and less room. More consumption equals more environmental havoc. So, human progress means a better informed human or one that is more connected to the natural world, so as to care more about the only planet we are able to inhabit. It’s difficult to get humans to change their habits and alter their lifestyles, but what if we generate an emotional connection to Earth with something that has become the leading lifeline for thriving in a consuming economy: money.‘s Fossil Free campaign is a brilliant harbinger for getting us off fossil fuels. It is a worldwide movement for city and state governments, colleges, religious institutions, and even individuals, to divest their financial interests from fossil fuel industries. This path to divestment includes fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds. The campaign urges organizations to stop promoting the exploration for new hydrocarbons (including natural gas via fracking, which we know causes big problems), the halting of lobbying for oil companies in Washington, and keeping current reserves in the ground forever. So far, schools like Stanford University and cities including Boulder, San Francisco, Dunedin, Providence, and Seattle are committed to divestment. Imagine: entire cities removing money from fossil fuels. Our money. Your money.

The Fossil Free Divestment movement isn’t a marketing ploy to get people to care about climate change. It’s more of a communication tool and educational method for a better informed public; and a pathway to a worldwide shift. It’s connectional intelligence. When our money is tied to industries that poison fresh drinking water, create toxic air, unfairly alter elections, and crumble economies, then the most logical and reasonable action is to remove that invested money from those industries. Our economic system was never designed to coexist with the natural world; only for it to thrive on the consumption of resources and manufacturing of goods. Well, those nonrenewable resources are being depleted (not to mention being dirty and harmful). And we are already seeing how many cities hold up to the natural world’s floods and fires (they don’t). I’m divesting. Emotionally, physically, and monetarily. Care to join me?

This post was also published here:

Hearing with My Eyes (or: How I Learned to Love Closed Captioning)

Listen to your words they’ll tell you what to do,
Listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you. – U2, 1997

I’m Twin Peaks dork. The groundbreaking television show turned me on to the brilliance of its creator, David Lynch. I was open to experimentation in all aspects of art as a teenager in the early nineties and didn’t realize I was starving for stuff like Twin Peaks, the films of the Coen Brothers, the writing of William Gibson, U2’s “ironic” phase, or even the music of Phish. That era paved a way for artists to screw with the mainstream and I was their worthy consumer.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the feature film prequel, was released at the end of August in 1992, a year after the TV series ran its course. I went to opening night with some fellow fanatics. The first act was inaudible to me. Actors Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Isaak, Kyle MacLachlan, and Miguel Ferrer all appeared, trading lines nearly silent to my ear. Louder characters played by David Lynch, David Bowie, and Harry Dean Stanton reacted to things the softer-spoken actors said, making my following of the storyline a complete train wreck. This was David Lynch’s style, you see, and it wasn’t just the fault of the movie theater’s sound system. Lynch subdues and manipulates the sound in a lot of his films – especially Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire – juxtaposing with the more insane, demented, and intense moments so they have more ferocious counterbalance effects.

I was devastated. This kind of pop culture event, trivial to many, was actually very important to me. I really wanted to see – and hear – that movie. When DVDs started gaining popularity around 1997 it was another five year wait, to 2002, for the Fire Walk With Me DVD to be released. Most first edition DVDs had SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) options. The captioning on television was mediocre at best, and often marred by delays. And David Lynch’s films seldom aired, even on cable. I bought the DVD when it came out and basked in its captioned heaven. Closed captioned television and films are the only way I can watch anything. With the invention of the DVD, I was able to revisit countless old films and TV shows, with the SDH option turned on – picking up on dialogue and story development that I might have missed. Lynch struck again in 2001 with Mulholland Drive, a film littered with ambient noise drowning out the dialogue. But this time I could acquire the DVD release only a few months later.

Partially deaf jazz fusion drummer, Kenwood Dennard, guested with Phish in Worcester last month. I admire his work with Herbie Hancock and Brand X, so I was thrilled when I heard he shared the stage with my favorite band. He wrote a piece a number of years ago about his deafness and the disability putting large amounts of stress and limitations on his work with more rigid, composed styles of music. Throughout his struggles working in these fields, he described the way he rehearsed as “hearing with my eyes.” In other words, he finds it easier in his playing with other musicians to look for visual cues, rather than audio. He succeeds more by rehearsing with video footage, rather than with sheet music or the recorded works of the music he needs to memorize. As a fellow musician and hearing impaired person I find this exciting, fascinating, inspiring, and excruciating. Luckily for Dennard, he’s an amazing drummer who has a logged history on some incredible projects. His reputation is no match for his near deafness.

The “hearing with my eyes” concept applies to most of what I do in life. For you readers with hearing loss, you know as well as I do that Kenwood Dennard’s situation is applicable in just about any social scenario: business, school, work, sports, being creative, and relationships. A hearing impaired person’s brain works to first locate a visual cue, a gut reaction, before anything else.

My love affair with closed captioning continues. We’re not talking rocket surgery here, but its very simple technology has made me appreciate not only a film or television show itself, but the art of scriptwriting, speechwriting, and, most of all, language. If I could have closed captions and subtitles for every instance in my daily life, I would. And like I noted in a previous blog post, my strength in listening has also improved. The visual cues on the screen mesh with the subtitles, physically making me look up and down, forcing me to listen more intently. Just because everything is written for me on the screen, doesn’t mean my listening is diminished, it’s actually strengthened and more purposeful. This whole process gives me an even better command of the English language, leading into an improved understanding and grasp of text in other forms – like books. I can finally explain to you what happens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I appreciate closed captioning. I appreciate the method of hearing with my eyes, not just while watching TV, a Blu-ray, or going to the movies (when theaters have SDH assisted devices, I use them!). Like Kenwood Dennard, I developed more of an appreciation for communication, listening, and language using alternative methods of assistance – improving my relationships with people and the art they create.

Kenwood Dennard:

Hearing Loss: Listening to You

Listening to you, I get the music.
Gazing at you, I get the heat.
Following you, I climb the mountain.
I get excitement at your feet. – The Who, 1969

An old friend flew to Boulder a few months ago for a visit. We hadn’t seen each other in a year and we looked forward to spending some time together. Part of the visit included a road trip to Taos and that’s when previous tensions in our relationship began to rear their ugly heads.

Mr. FurleyWe have a storied history of petty arguments and fallings-out. I didn’t hear something he said about some plans once we got to our destination, this caused an issue, and he lashed out the next day: “Sometimes you just don’t listen, Josh!” I blew up, we argued, I told him off, and we eventually went our separate ways. We’ve since patched things up.

So how can this be? A friend, former roommate, and bandmate of 20 years, a person with whom I’ve had several conversations about my hearing impairment, doesn’t seem to get it? And as it turns out, his mother was blinded as a young girl and overcame enormous obstacles to lead a fulfilling life. He should get it. It’s something I’m used to and accept. I have an invisible disability. All I ask is that when I try to explain the condition, people will listen. Just as I have been listening – intently – for decades.

Growing up hearing impaired turns you into a liar. Not a deceitful, opportunistic, loathsome person, but an unintentional fibber. The brain functions on overdrive when it misses auditory cues. Like a search engine, but at a much slower pace, the brain searches for what it might have missed; whether it’s a teacher teaching, dialogue in a movie, or someone sitting across the table in a restaurant trying to engage with you. A person with hearing loss will typically undergo a knee-jerk reaction and cover the impairment by pretending to fully hear what was said. Many times they will also fill in the blanks with a random number of words he/she thought they missed. These are reactions that are sometimes uncontrollable and will eventually backfire. There can be a series of misunderstandings, backtracking, and just plain miscommunication (or, missed communication) that would feel right at home on an episode of Three’s Company. Someone like me can eventually reverse these behaviors by being more open and transparent about the hearing loss and trusting the acceptance and understanding of others.

How do you explain specific brain activity caused by hearing loss and missed auditory cues to someone who hasn’t experienced it? That’s the challenge with most impairments and disabilities, I suppose. Unfortunately, the concept of impaired communication with your fellow human can be downright exhausting. My intelligence doesn’t make up for the fact that even in the best possible environmental circumstances for me hearing someone else, the brain still needs to search-optimize the content I’m thinking before it spews out of my mouth. Not only does hearing loss cause this entanglement of “what-was-that?” and “excuse-me?,” but it also forces a breakdown in searching the language and formulating the sentences and statements before they’re actually used verbally. If it takes a while for me to explain something in person, the above scenario is generally the case.

The positive, motivating, and joyous thing about experiencing all of these things is that it has made me an amazing listener. It’s exhausting at times, with my hearing loss, but I consider myself to be an affable, courteous, and thoughtful person. I suppose these are some personality traits that arise out of really listening to others. As a kid, the act of listening was made with a conscious effort out of necessity and it’s reaped its rewards as time has progressed. I’m a nice adult who’s passionate about the well-being of our planet, animals, and cares about others. Did all of that come out of just being an intent listener? Maybe.

The most important thing you can do is listen. We’re surrounded by people drowning in their smartphones, but they also have internal battles. I was sometimes perceived as an aloof and shy kid, but that wasn’t accurate – I just didn’t hear things and chose to isolate myself because struggling to keep up – to listen – was tiring. I wanted nothing more than to be able to engage with others on a “normal” level. Then I experienced what it’s like to listen. To really listen to someone’s stories, their passions, their pain. It’s bonding. It’s exhausting. It’s amazing. It’s worth it. Especially if you hear all of it.

Living with Hearing Loss

That he not busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan, 1965

I was diagnosed with moderate/severe hearing loss in both ears at the age of five. A hearing loss, or impairment, is a different kind of disability than deafness. While being deaf comes with its own culture and language, hearing loss is a largely invisible disability that can cause mental, psychological, learning, and overall health problems. While I do have problems with volume, there are certain frequencies I hear better than others. And the environment in which I’m listening to someone, or something, plays a huge role in my hearing success. Thankfully for me, my hearing hasn’t worsened too much in the 33 years since my first audiology test, but it most likely will when I hit my fifties or sixties.

alligator 2My parents are neurotic New Yorkers, so the diagnosis set off a worry bomb in the Valentine household. Still, they became advocates for me. Aggressive ones. More often than not, their advocacy worked, but sometimes it backfired. It was selfish anyway: instead of advocating for hearing loss as a cause, they just wanted my teachers, camp counselors, friends, friends’ parents, everybody, to know not to give me a hard time. Hey – great for me, right? Well I’m not so sure I wanted all that attention.

When I was put into a New Jersey private school in the fifth grade in 1985, hearing aids were still large and highly visible devices jutting out of your ears. I wanted none of that. I never wore them. As they got smaller around sophomore or junior year, I still refused to wear them. Call it vanity. And I was a self-conscious, chubby high schooler surrounded by rich kids and underpaid teachers. I didn’t need anything else to validate any of my weaknesses.

My parents told the entire school. The deans, the teachers, the coaches, and the headmaster. By 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act allowed for people like me to take “un-timed” tests. Yup – I could sit there all day and take a 45 minute test. Mrs. Stout, my sophomore year English teacher, wasn’t thrilled with the idea.

Stout taught the bible that year. She loved Jesus. She came from an Indiana farm and was probably a little bitter from the plethora of attention deficient, overprivileged kids in my class. I was a quiet and thorough student (never late, hardly absent, always did the work), but I think she still considered me just another spoiled brat.

The final exams at the end of each term were distributed in the gymnasium to the entire student body. We had about 60-90 minutes to complete the exam. I thought I was all set – UNtimed, baby! Not in Stout’s mind. She approached my desk, partially noticing that I was about three quarters of the way through, and said in her midwestern drawl, “okay, sir, your time is up.”

I politely reminded her that my test was to be un-timed. It was embarrassing for me to broach the subject, but I stood up for myself. She grabbed the test. I grabbed back. “But, Mrs. Stout, it’s un…” – the exam ripped in half. I wound up getting a C or something, which may or may not have contributed to my dad calling the dean and exclaiming to him, “that Stout is a major bitch!” He was my advocate, my dad.

Living with hearing loss has made me a profoundly focused listener, but that’s not limited to face-to-face conversations. Over 50 million Americans suffer from impaired hearing and many are in denial or simply unaware of it. I’ll keep advocating for myself and others to raise more awareness for this invisible disability.