Ignorance Is Not Bliss


Of many similar columns about the recent spate of bad news coming from extreme weather events, I found this one by Timothy Egan highly evocative.

Nature makes a mockery of our vanity. We live in flood and fire zones, nurture stately oaks and take shade under pines holding the best air of the Rocky Mountains. We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips… Summer is barely two weeks old and two-thirds of the country is in the grip of a severe drought. More crops will die. More forests will burn. More power brokers will become familiar with the consequences of a derecho. It sounds biblical, but smart scientists have been predicting this very cycle.

I retreat to the Maine Coast every summer to escape all this sturm und drang. But I cannot escape from signs like this even far away from the scorched parts of the US. I cannot remember a summer with such extremes. Burning days followed by a week more like late autumn than mid-summer. Fierce thunderstorms accompany the hot and humid days. I was fishing a few days ago and had to hightail it back to the dock when a thunderstorm seemed to come out of nowhere. The ocean went from almost mirror-like to a roaring sea with two-foot swells. This has certainly happened before, but never with the apparent frequency I observe.

Egan has much more data at his hands, and writes further

… 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in June throughout the United States, following a winter and spring that were the warmest ever recorded. Numbers are like box scores… So it went the first 10 days of summer, another extraordinary chapter in a weather year of living dangerously. At one point, 113 million Americans were under an extreme heat advisory. It was 109 degrees in Nashville, 104 in Washington, D.C., and much of the West was aflame.

The kicker was his conclusion.

But at a time when warnings of violence are too often attached to the weather forecast, the unpleasantness may not be so easy to wish away. At the least, we should get used to intimacy with a ferocious new face of nature… If recent history is a guide, it will all be soon forgotten and dismissed. Amnesia, in regard to unpleasant science, is the guiding principle for a political party that has an even chance of winning everything that matters this year.

Nature has always had a ferocious side. The human species has usually respected that. Early humans moved into caves to escape the rigors of living outdoors. Spiritual practices arose, in large part, to appease the forces and mysterious beings thought to be the cause of these untoward events. As we moved toward modernity, science began to point to the causes of natural phenomena and the mystery abated. Wonderful forms of technology appeared that allowed us to protect ourselves better and better. Weather forecasting permitted us to plan our days to avoid having our parades rained on. My wife is an inveterate tennis player and never misses watching all four Grand Slam events. The British Open, at Wimbledon, has been plagued with rain all the way through its two weeks, forcing numerous delays and rescheduling. A few years ago, a moveable roof was installed in the Center Court so that a few matches could be played no matter what the weather was. We are clearly still using technology to offset the exigencies posed by nature.

But no technology works effectively against these extreme events. Neither does the ostrich posture that seems to be taken by more and more people every day. Anthony Lieserowitz, a Yale researcher, recently reported on the latest results of a continuing survey they carry out measuring US attitudes about global warming. The latest results are stunning and ominous.

The most striking result is the increase in the proportion of Americans who express strong doubt or rejection of the reality of global warming through their free associations. In 2003, only 7% of Americans provided “naysayer” images (e.g., “hoax,” or “no such thing”) when asked what thought or image first came to mind when they heard the term “global warming.”  By 2010, however, 23% of Americans provided “naysayer” images. Over the same time, alarmist imagery (e.g., “death of the planet”) slightly increased. Both types of images became charged with more negative feelings over time.

The full paper from which this summary comes can be found at this link. The shamans of the past who comforted their tribes when nature threatened them are being replaced by a new kind, the geo-engineers and adaptationists. They issue soothing messages based on new, untried technologies that are predicted to reverse or slow down the rise of greenhouse gases and the accompanying (but not connected (!)) extreme events and the harms associated with it. Economists give a different kind of message based on the dominance of growing GDP as the most important thing to tend to. They argue that the cost of any program to reduce the emission of the culprit would cut down the rate of growth, and it would be more “economical” to wait and clean-up the damage. I doubt if anyone losing a home to the fires burning in Colorado would agree.

As you know, my primary theme in this blog and in all of my work is sustainability-as-flourishing. There is no possibility that it will come so long as we ignore the realities of the world we inhabit. Sustainability, in this sense, demands attention to the causes of its mirror image, unsustainability, and a positive program to remove those causes. It is serious enough to put 23% of US citizens heads in the sand, but it is worse to practice ignorance as an ideology. And seems to be what is happening in the US. The science may be imprecise, not likely given the quality of the research being done, but this means only that we recognize the imprecision in taking the needed steps to combat the effects that are bringing misery to so many. It does not mean that we can ignore what science generates as a matter of ideological principal. Although I am a sometime critic of technology because it can and does impact flourishing negatively, I also respect the benefits it has brought to our species. Those who ignore climate and other science also ignore its role in generating all that wonderful (and not so wonderful) technology while, at the same time, wanting more of it. The non-believers are, in effect, calling for new shamans to guide our society. It all smacks of wanting to take us back before the Enlightenment, maybe even to the days of cave dwelling. I am very concerned about the state of the world today, but that is not the direction I am certain we must go.