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:

November 20, 2018
John Davis
Geographies of Violence in Southern California
Anthony Pahnke
Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it
Maximilian Werner
Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation
Masturah Alatas
Undercutting Female Circumcision
Jack Rasmus
Global Oil Price Deflation 2018 and Beyond
Geoff Dutton
Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow
Binoy Kampmark
Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange
Rev. William Alberts
America Fiddles While California Burns
Forrest Hylton, Aaron Tauss and Juan Felipe Duque Agudelo
Remaking the Common Good: the Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia
Patrick Cockburn
What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?
Clark T. Scott
Our Most Stalwart Company
Tom H. Hastings
Look to the Right for Corruption
Edward Hunt
With Nearly 400,000 Dead in South Sudan, Will the US Finally Change Its Policy?
Thomas Knapp
Hypocrisy Alert: Republicans Agreed with Ocasio-Cortez Until About One Minute Ago
November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” Given Their Record in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail