FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

We Can See, But Not Far Enough

Early this year came yet another warning.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a review by 1,360 researchers in 95 nations, concludes that humans have, in the past 50 years, polluted or overexploited some 60 percent of the ecological systems on which life depends, including clean air and fresh water.

If today were April 1, I might write, “At a hastily convened session of the United Nations, world governments endorsed bold new regulations to stop the degradation.”

But we all know better.

Human beings are notable (according to other human beings, mostly anthropology professors) for a sizable brain, for walking upright and for using tools. But when we try to act collectively, we don’t always show the wisdom one might expect of the planet’s primo primate.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond gives examples of societies that have failed largely by ignoring ecological limits.

So why does reason sometimes fail us in our dealings with the environment and make us unable to avoid the avoidable? I put the question to people at the University of Kansas, where I work.

1. Sure we’re smart — but not quite smart enough. Kris Krishtalka, director of the school’s Natural History Museum, says the most distinctive human gift is an ability to collect, analyze and manage information. But as good as we are at forecasting, says Krishtalka, the environment’s sheer complexity makes its behavior hard to predict.

This uncertainty makes decisive action difficult. The environment is so complex that even experts disagree. Environmental scientists, for example, warn of coming crises, while economists say the market will steer us away from our polluting, exploiting ways when costs get too high.

2. We expect slow, not cataclysmic, change, so our alarm bells don’t go off soon enough. The natural world can change more quickly than we think. Between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago, ice ages hit Europe rapidly. At the end of the last ice age, about 11,600 years ago, the average annual temperature increased by 15 degrees in a decade.

“Even though we know the world is dynamic, it seems stable,” says anthropology professor David Frayer. This misperception may delay needed action.

3. Our interests conflict. Sociologist William Staples notes that unmistakable signs of climate change caused by global warming make a move to alternate fuels and mass transit rational. But making this change is difficult when so many American jobs are tied to the auto-petroleum-industrial complex.

4. We think short-term. We get quarterly investment reports and elect politicians for short terms. Biologically, we are made to cope with the tiger roaring in our face — to live in shallow, not deep, time. But the tigers we face now, not just as individuals or as tribes but as a species, eat at us slowly, invisible and stealthy yet potentially much more lethal.

Is there hope that we can make more certain predictions and learn to act on them sensibly?

Krishtalka thinks so. He views computers and the Internet as stages for development of “thinking machines” and, eventually, a “knowledge server for society.” The result could be better modeling and forecasting, allowing us to account for more variables in making predictions, and to think beyond the measure of a human lifespan.

And if the work of these machines is widely recognized as reasonable, perhaps we can resolve the competing interests that bring political paralysis.

Personally, though, I’m afraid — and so is Krishtalka — that we will not wake up until we’re staring an ecological 9/11 right in the eye.

Can we hold in mind complications and nuances, in a world of competing nation states, and still find a will and a way to act for the common good before a crisis? It will be hard. It will require us to think and act globally.

Best we set to work on that before we hear the terrible roar of tigers.

ROGER MARTIN is publications and features editor at the University of Kansas Center for Research. He wrote this for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:
April 26, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
As Trump Berates Iran, His Options are Limited
Daniel Warner
From May 1968 to May 2018: Politics and Student Strikes
Simone Chun – Kevin Martin
Diplomacy in Korea and the Hope It Inspires
George Wuerthner
The Attack on Wilderness From Environmentalists
CJ Hopkins
The League of Assad-Loving Conspiracy Theorists
Richard Schuberth
“MeToo” and the Liberation of Sex
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Sacred Assemblies in Baghdad
Dean Baker
Exonerating Bad Economic Policy for Trump’s Win
Vern Loomis
The 17 Gun Salute
Gary Leupp
What It Means When the U.S. President Conspicuously and Publicly Removes a Speck of Dandruff from the French President’s Lapel
Robby Sherwin
The Hat
April 25, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Selective Outrage
Dan Kovalik
The Empire Turns Its Sights on Nicaragua – Again!
Joseph Essertier
The Abductees of Japan and Korea
Ramzy Baroud
The Ghost of Herut: Einstein on Israel, 70 Years Ago
W. T. Whitney
Imprisoned FARC Leader Faces Extradition: Still No Peace in Colombia
Manuel E. Yepe
Washington’s Attack on Syria Was a Mockery of the World
John White
My Silent Pain for Toronto and the World
Dean Baker
Bad Projections: the Federal Reserve, the IMF and Unemployment
David Schultz
Why Donald Trump Should Not be Allowed to Pardon Michael Cohen, His Friends, or Family Members
Mel Gurtov
Will Abe Shinzo “Make Japan Great Again”?
Binoy Kampmark
Enoch Powell: Blood Speeches and Anniversaries
Frank Scott
Weapons and Walls
April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail