The Cost of Lies

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is who is to blame.

Those are the opening lines of Chernobyl, the much talked about HBO miniseries. Valery Legasov, the chief of the commission investigating the infamous nuclear disaster, utters them before committing suicide. Even after binging all of the first four episodes (the fifth and final one is on Monday, June 3rd), I couldn’t get those initial lines out of my mind.

The current narrative around big tech is a perfect example of the thinking captured in these sentences. We need to find something or someone to blame, and there are plenty of candidates: Facebook and its evils, the monopolies of Google and Amazon, the tyranny of algorithms. Raging against the machine helps get us to get through the day because deep down, we are well aware of our collective inability to do anything. We know that the whole apparatus of law, society, and the concept of civility is nothing but a farce. In the end, we are not in control.

We are living in the golden age of half-truths, where we are less interested in answers and solutions, and more focused on where to lay the blame. “We are struggling with the global war on the truth,” Craig Mazin, the creator and writer of Chernobyl, recently noted in an interview. “And if what we used to think of as the domain of the Soviets, the kind of celebration of lies and press as propaganda, that now we realize is not something that is unique to the Soviet state. It’s within ourselves as well here in the West…We live in a strange world now where scientists are routinely mocked and the truth is questioned at all turns and we are suffering from it.”

Take climate change as an example. Those who have no stake in the planet’s future keep denying the scientific evidence that we are going through a period of disruptive — and pretty likely damaging — transitions. I mean, if the 200 tornadoes over two weeks in the Midwest don’t convince the naysayers, what will? Meanwhile, in the American heartland, the wettest season in years means that farmers stand to lose their livelihoods. Just when we need to use science and technology to deal with the impact of massive changes to our weather and climate, our politicians are reducing funding and turning their backs on science. The sad part is that, in a decade or two, the same so-called leaders choosing this path will leave a dying planet for their grandchildren.

History has shown us that, more than anything, climate change is what destroys civilizations and brings empires down on their knees. Both the Roman Empire and the British Empire came to an end as a result of famine and droughts. Throughout the world, disruptions resulting from environmental changes have led to conflicts and wars — a reality that is becoming bleaker by the day.

Denying the truth isn’t the answer, and neither is turning back on science and technology. But if our leaders and corporations insist on making the wrong choices, it’s not entirely clear what — if anything — we can do about it. Finding someone to blame might be the only recourse, but that isn’t good enough. For me, that is the lasting lesson of Chernobyl.

If you have access to HBO and have not seen the show, I would urge you to find some time to watch this lovely (if not entirely accurate) cinematic reconstruction of one of the deadliest nuclear accidents. If you want a more historically accurate account, check out Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl.

This first appeared on my June 2, 2019, weekly newsletter. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.

A letter from Om

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