James Gustav Speth on five decades of US government knowledge of climate change and promotion of the fossil fuel industry, a legal challenge to power from children growing up in the shadow of catastrophe, and his book They Knew: The US Federal Government's Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis from MIT Press.
Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Let’s say there’s a holocaust. No, not a nuclear one, nothing as fancy as all that. A regular selectively genocidal one. And let’s say you’re one of the select genus upon which the laws of genocide are brought to bear. And let’s say you survive past the end of the genocide.
If I gather to memory all I’ve read of the narratives of survivors and what they tell me about what it’s like, one thing I’ve learned is about survivor’s guilt. It’s like the ghosts of everyone you loved, and anyone at all, who died in the genocide, haunting you. The author Primo Levi struggled with it all his post-Auschwitz life. He finally succumbed in 1987, committing suicide, although that interpretation of his fatal fall in a stairwell is certainly debatable.
He also struggled against survivor bias: coming to selective conclusions based only on the survivors’ input, because those who didn’t survive aren’t there to chime in. It’s the feeling that you’re more than lucky. The feeling that in some way you deserve your good fortune because of some merit or virtue within you. The thesis of one of Levi’s books, “The Drowned and the Saved,” is that it was through no quality, but by pure chance, that anyone who was caught up as a victim in the genocide against various categories of humans during the second World War survived beyond the fall of the European Axis regimes. Levi was useful to the Germans because of his knowledge of chemistry, but he attributes his survival to a series of moments when he happened to be in right place at the right time.
Consciously, overtly, on the surface, Levi was willing to indulge in survivor’s guilt and determined to repudiate survivor bias.
I have an interpretation of survivor bias, which Levi himself may have arrived at in his unconscious, as he pitted bias against guilt, and goes like this: “I’m not unique, I’m a normal person, but somehow I’ve survived, whereas others haven’t. If I’m normal, it’s normal to have survived. Therefore, my survival is the norm, even as extraordinary as it might seem.”
That is, my good luck is no better than anyone else’s good luck. And, though I’m aware that there are all kinds of luck, anyone can find themselves blessed with my kind, the good kind.... read more