Are we programmed to fail the global warming challenge? Is this how we reach the end of the road?
If, as the science community increasingly warns us, our rapacious appetite for a hydro-carbon based economy and society is an existential threat to our civilization then surely we would want solutions, right? And if those solutions entailed decarbonizing our economy and our society, then that's what we'd want, right?
Human nature suggests that people aren't inclined to give up anything they do like for something they don't like until they feel the sting of the lash. We're not born to sacrifice. We amass and consume and hoard, that's instinctive, but we're not so good at denying ourself too many things. We're even less inclined to deny ourselves stuff when we perceive the benefit of our sacrifice goes mainly to others, especially people who may not even exist just yet. And there's the rub.
The people who stand as the first victims of global warming have a lot of common characteristics - common among themselves but not common with us. They're mainly (by our standards anyway) poor, relatively powerless and they have the misfortune to live in places that are particularly vulnerable to early onset climate change. They also tend to be people who have contributed the least to atmospheric carbon emissions. I suppose you could say they're the cleanest people - poor and powerless and oh so vulnerable but nonetheless clean.
We, on the other hand, aren't clean. We are responsible for the lion's share of the atmospheric carbon emissions that are already beginning to beset the poor, powerless and vulnerable. While we may not be clean, we have the consolation prize of being rich and powerful and far less vulnerable than those annoyingly clean people. We're also relatively immune from the ravages of early onset climate change.
What that means is that Mother Nature's ultimate dirty trick is to have us be last to feel the sting of the global warming lash. That greatly increases the odds that we, the very nations that have to give up our carbon-fueled ways, will face the most disincentives to do just that. Oh I'm sure we will reach the point where we will do it but will that be in time? Recent developments don't give much cause for optimism. Between the Denialists and the Intransigents there results in a great inertia that first must be overcome. Added to that is the measure of soft support for global warming initiatives even among those who say they get it. There's a critical gap between "getting it" and being willing to accept the sacrifices necessary to make a difference.
A fascinating series "On Becoming Human" aired recently on PBS. It described how modern humans have evolved over the past 2 million years, from simple to skilled predators. We became adept at using tools to wipe out other large animals and other human species, and have now developed the technology to exploit the environment intensively.
But at the same time we have also developed an awareness of our own mortality. One would think this awareness would make us stop short of degrading the environment to the point that we destroy ourselves.
Do we continue on our merry way, ignoring the plight of millions of humans and other species being affected by climate change, or do we realize that we are next?
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