Friday, May 13, 2011

Unreasonable Doubt

Global climate change is perhaps the most visible consequence of humanity's disruption of the Earth's natural systems, and is therefore at the center of the worldwide debate over how much – if at all – we should accommodate each other and the rest of the biosphere in our pursuit of personal happiness.

In a way, it's like a criminal trial, where the most economically successful people are accused of causing suffering and death on a planetary scale, disproportionately felt by the least economically successful people and other species that are even more powerless to defend themselves, along with future generations of everyone and everything. As in a trial, there is an underlying truth, whose discovery is a critical part of a process to determine whether or not the defendants should have their behavior restricted. The ultimate test of whether the trial is successful is what happens later: who and what may be harmed as a result, and how much.

It doesn't help the plaintiffs' case that the “prosecutor” and “judge” are both being paid by the defense, and that the jury is stacked with defendants and people who are sympathetic to the defendants. To further ensure a verdict of innocence or a hung jury, the standard of “reasonable doubt” has been distorted by the judge to mean “any doubt,” which is unavoidable in even the most favorable of situations.

Undaunted because they know that if they lose, everyone dies, the plaintiffs have gone forward with their case. Until recently, the bulk of their evidence has been circumstantial, but the defendants have become so brazen and powerful, and the damage so great, that even the “any doubt” test is rapidly becoming possible to pass. This has led the defense to move preemptively to disqualify the new evidence while conducting a misinformation campaign aimed at confusing a growing number of jurors who are daring to think for themselves. The prosecutor has objected to this behavior, but there is no assurance that the objection won't be overruled.

To understand this dynamic, it is important to recognize that the “defendants” face their own form of existential threat if they “lose.” This comes from their identity with the power they have gained in the process of seeking more happiness than anyone else. To cede any of that power, or to change their values so that they view its acquisition as wrong, would be to diminish their self-worth – and in their minds, suffer direct injury to themselves. It is also easier to change perceptions than reality.

Obviously, I side with the “plaintiffs” in this “case,” even though I am technically one of the “defendants.” If my analogy has any validity, it points to an important psychological requirement for success in limiting (if not outright stopping) the harm we are doing to ourselves and our relatives in the web of life on Earth. That is, we must all learn to redefine our self-worth in terms of our being part of others, instead of how much we are apart from others. We also need to be supportive of each other as we experience the inevitable pain of acknowledging our role in causing pain; this is the essence of forgiveness as a part of the process of both healing ourselves and healing those we have harmed. In the trial analogy, the penalty to be paid by the defense is to share the lives of the plaintiffs in a joint effort to make us all better through the application of mutual strength rather than personal strength.

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