Leave Afghanistan

Medford, Mass.

As a supporter of MoveOn, I was sorry to read in the March 16 “Noted” that MoveOn is not opposing the invasion of Afghanistan. If antiwar Nation readers want an effective voice that is organizing against all our immoral wars, they should explore the Friends Committee on National Legislation (fcnl.org), which has lobbied for peace and justice since 1943.


It’s Global, It’s Green, It’s Good

Albany, Calif.

Congrats to Mark Hertsgaard. His “A Global Green Deal” [March 16] kept me in suspense, but just as I was becoming convinced that he, too, was going to wimp out, there it was: “As a moral and practical matter, the rich will have to help pay for this shift; otherwise it will not happen.”

Please note that this coming December in Copenhagen, we will see the most important climate meeting since the 1997 conference in Kyoto. And the “Who pays?” question is squarely at the center of the Copenhagen agenda. Here’s the elevator version: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the master treaty that structures the global climate negotiations, says that nations must act “in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions.” We signed the UNFCCC, and we ratified these words, and given that they’re among the most important in the history of international law, maybe we should take a squint at them and imagine what they might actually mean. Everyone else is!

Executive director, EcoEquity

Larkspur, Calif.

I was disappointed that Mark Hertsgaard could write so forcefully about the need for a green “revolution” yet be so naïve as to think “a global green deal” is the answer. Like Thomas Friedman, he seems to have the “challenge is opportunity” mindset that innovation and market opportunities can rescue the climate. It is not the climate that needs to be rescued but humankind. (The planet and its abundance of adaptive microbes will get along quite nicely without us, thank you.)

Talk of human civilization “surviving global climate change” is essentially meaningless. As Slavoj Zizek points out in In Defense of Lost Causes, “We are dealing with what, in Rumsfeldian epistemology, one would call the ‘unknown unknowns': we not only do not know where the tipping point is, we do not even know exactly what we do not know.” He describes how Jean-Pierre Dupuy would confront the coming ecological catastrophe: “We should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourself into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities: we have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny–and then, against the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.”

One “counterfactual possibility” is slowing, or stopping, global population growth. To do this, drastic change would be required. Hertsgaard has called this a “code-red emergency.” Though painful and wrenching, the changes needed are so urgent, Zizek argues, they may have to come through “egalitarian terror.” The alternative: if we don’t act as though our future is doomed now and the irreversible “tipping point” is reached, a terror of a very different kind awaits.


Hertsgaard Replies

San Francisco

I’d like to hear more from Tom Athanasiou. He and I agree that “Who pays?” is the make-or-break question for the Copenhagen negotiations and indeed for the larger imperative of humanity reducing its greenhouse gas emissions enough to (perhaps) avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We also agree that rich nations will have to pay for at least part of what poor nations do to cut emissions. But the hard part is structuring a deal that will attract wide enough support to get governments to agree and implement it. Many have made proposals, including Athanasiou’s group, EcoEquity. I’d welcome a longer explanation from him about how to move this idea from the stage of laudable principle–the rich, who caused the problem, should pay the poor, who didn’t–into hard-nosed practice. Whatever schema is chosen, the key to making it happen will be the same, I suspect, as for the global green deal: intense, sustained pressure from mobilized citizens here and abroad. Those wishing to help should contact the Climate Action Network (climatenetwork.org).

As for James O’Callahan: if he thinks talking about human civilization surviving climate change “is essentially meaningless,” why does he bother to complain? His critique is long on pseudo-learned double talk but amounts to a counsel of nihilistic despair. As the father of a 3-year-old daughter, I find that mindset less than useless. Assume we’re doomed and we are. Dare instead to hope and push and work, and we might, with luck, save ourselves and the planet we all, including the microbes, depend on. I know which side I’m on, and the end of O’Callahan’s letter reveals his. Although overconsumption by the rich minority does far more environmental damage than the excessive numbers of the poor, O’Callahan urges a course of population control and “egalitarian terror.” Something tells me he isn’t volunteering himself or his upscale neighbors as the first victims.


Brain-in-Vat Speaks to Brain-in-Vat

Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

I agree with Alva Noë [“Back Talk,” March 16] that we do not yet have an explanation of life. I also agree that facile interpretations of MRI and PET brain scans (they are real, not “so-called”) that conflate metabolic changes with thought processes should be viewed with caution and skepticism. However, I disagree strongly that “consciousness doesn’t happen inside us.” One doesn’t need to summon up Descartes or be a philosopher or a neuroscientist to know this. Consciousness can be extinguished rapidly by a chemical that targets the brain (anesthesia) or severe trauma to the brain (a boxer’s knockout punch) or diseases that affect only the brain (strokes or encephalitis).

It is true that full development of human consciousness requires continuing interaction with the environment, but at the most fundamental level, we are, indeed, “brains in vats.” This is disconcerting to many although it doesn’t change my awe and, indeed, reverence for life, consciousness and the universe. The dangers of regarding the mind as “something that is achieved…[by a] sort of larger dynamic of interaction” is that this view can be used by some as a rationale to deny humane treatment of those with severe brain injuries or disease, or to change practical moral precepts and action in ways that look to their effects on the “larger dynamic,” if not the afterlife, to the detriment of down-to-earth realities.


Noë Replies

Berkeley, Calif.

I wrote Out of Our Heads not to deny the importance of the brain to human flourishing but rather to enable us to understand how what goes on in our heads supports our conscious lives. Neural processes are necessary for consciousness, as Dr. Sissman rightly insists. But that doesn’t mean they are sufficient.

Dr. Sissman worries that due acknowledgment of the ways our conscious lives depend on our engagement with the world around us might justify the withholding of humane treatment from patients with brain injury. It would certainly justify no such thing, no more so than the idea that we are brains-in-vats would justify neglect for the quality of the environments in which we raise our children. We don’t need to pretend that we are brains-in-vats to secure our moral commitments to others.


Different Strokes Department

Tarpon Springs, Fla.

I consider myself an intelligent, educated person; I even taught freshman composition and an introduction to poetry course in college. So I dutifully read the poem “Dust in a Word” [Feb. 23]. Over and over. Trying to figure out what it meant and what I was missing. In desperation I e-mailed the poem to my daughter, who has a master’s in English, and asked her to enlighten me. Her analysis was brilliant: “It’s clearly about stickbugs who consume their mates, or housework and the plight of the stay-at-home dad, or bunnies.”


Clarification: Indirect Impact

In Eyal Press’s March 30 “The Perfect Storm,” Human Rights Watch is listed as a group that “had lost money through investment funds Madoff controlled.” HRW had no money in Madoff funds; because of the scandal, it lost a $600,000 annual grant from the JEHT Foundation.