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.