Human (Anti) Nature

Why do we ignore scientists’ warnings of ecological disaster?
June 1, 2014

On the front page of one its issues last fall, Maclean’s displayed the visage of Canada’s pre-eminent environmentalist, David Suzuki. It bannered in large capital letters a quote attributed to Suzuki that “ENVIRONMENTALISM HAS FAILED,” with a subhead claiming, “David Suzuki loses faith in the cause of his lifetime.”

Both statements were distortions of fact, as the more balanced article inside confirmed. Suzuki did say, in one of his blogs a few years ago, that “environmentalism has failed,” but in the comments that followed he clearly meant that it has failed so far. So have other global reform efforts, such as the anti-poverty and anti-war movements, but their proponents haven’t given up in despair and neither has Suzuki or other environmentalists.

Jonathan Gatehouse, author of the Maclean’s article, lauded Suzuki for his enduring optimism that nature, “if given the chance, will be more forgiving than we deserve.” For his part, Suzuki tells the reporter, “My concern now is to get the message out, to get people to understand how serious this [global warming crisis] is.”

Millions of people have been galvanized by the warning signs, creating environmental organizations and green parties all over the world. But their governments, which alone have the power to stop and reverse the planet’s despoliation, have steadfastly remained indifferent. Oh, they have voiced concerns. At global summit meetings on climate and the environment in Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto and elsewhere, they have solemnly promised to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, only to renege as soon as they returned home. Nor have they suffered politically for such broken pledges, either continuing to win elections or being replaced by parties that are just as environmentally insensitive.

And it’s not just environmental activists who continue to be disdained. The warnings of the world’s most renowned climatologists, ecologists and other experts have also been brushed aside by political rulers everywhere. One of the first agencies to raise the alarm was the Club of Rome, which published its seminal study The Limits of Growth in 1972. It was predictably savaged by the corporate climate change deniers and their political hacks, who have been doing their best to discredit all similar scientific research ever since. Even the dire warning to humanity in 1992 from nearly 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Prize winners, was ignored – and not just by governments, but also by the mainstream media.

“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” the scientists warned 22 years ago. “Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

This warning from climate experts has since been followed by many others, including grim annual reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the most recent national climate change assessment report in the United States, which for the first time unequivocally declared that “climate change poses a clear and present danger to every area of the U.S.”

This blunt warning has prompted U.S. President Obama, belatedly, to take the climate crisis seriously. But he faces a tough sell in persuading the public that it’s essential to curb greenhouse gases to avert worsening floods, droughts and violent storms. He can of course unilaterally block the Keystone XL pipeline but will need broader congressional support for serious legislative and policy measures. His Republican foes in Congress (and even some Democrats) are unlikely to cooperate, and can safely oppose needed reforms without risking a political backlash. A recent Gallup poll found that most Americans still rank global warming very low on their list of priorities, putting jobs, the economy and other more immediate issues at the forefront of their concerns.

This is a natural tendency everywhere. People with pressing personal financial, family, health and other problems are going to be preoccupied with them to the exclusion of more long-term threats. Even if worried by growing weather outbursts, their fears are allayed when told by even the most worried climatologists that a complete environmental collapse is not expected for another 50 or 100 years.

By then, however, it will be far too late for preventive measures, whose implementation should have been started long ago. The 1,700 global scientists warned in 1992 that waiting any longer than another 20 years (2012) would make the slide to extinction irreversible. “The Earth is finite,” they reminded us. “Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of Earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.”

Well, these ruinous economic practices have not only been continued but drastically intensified. We keep befouling our planetary home, slowly but steadily making it uninhabitable.

Is there some lemming-like death wish buried deep in our genetic makeup? Are we, as a species, collectively insane?

As individuals, few of us knowingly want to doom our species to extinction. As individuals, we don’t want our children and their children to live (or die) in a global cesspool. As individuals, we profess to be very concerned by the contamination of our air, water and soil. As individuals, we recycle our rubbish, we join and support Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation. We sign petitions imploring our political leaders to give environmental issues a much higher priority.

As a species, however, it’s a different story. We continue to support an economic system driven by unlimited resource extraction and consumption. We tolerate an unfair distribution of income that dooms billions of people to poverty and squalor. We buy and drive motor vehicles that poison the atmosphere. We dump raw sewage into lakes and rivers. We clear-cut forests and exterminate other life forms. Ultimately (and perhaps sooner than we think), all these odious practices will combine to destroy our so-called civilization.

It’s interesting to compare humankind as a species with other creatures that Nature experimented with over the eons. Ants, beetles, bees and termites are among the most successful, having stayed around for countless millennia. They’ve survived, not just because they’ve adapted so well to their environment, but because their most basic instinct is to put the welfare of the collective—the ant-hill or the hive or the nest—ahead of individual well-being. An individual ant may lack intelligence, as we define it, but the ant colony is arguably a model of enlightened self-interest.

Among the larger animals, Nature’s most durable creations were the dinosaurs. They were the dominant life form on the planet for many millions of years, and probably still would be if a gigantic meteorite hadn’t slammed into Earth and caused calamitous climate change that wiped them out. They certainly didn’t self-destruct, as we humans seem intent on doing; they lived in harmony with nature and did nothing to contaminate their environment.

It may well be that Nature’s mistake in experimenting with humans was to make us superficially intelligent as individuals in the short term, but monumentally stupid as a species in the long term. There’s much to be said for individualism, of course; none of us would prefer the conformity of the beehive or anthill. But when individualism is embedded in the prevailing economic ideology, as it has been with capitalism, then we get into deep trouble.

We have ceded all decision-making power to those who benefit most fromthe most reckless and ruthless individualism. The world’s affluent minority of multi-millionaires, stock-holders, bankers, money traders, investors and CEOs now run the global economy. They are motivated solely by the accumulation of wealth and power that their prodigious capital assets bestow on them. They are committed to the unlimited production and consumption of non-essential junk and the unlimited affluence and power this insane economic system confers on them.

And of course their vast wealth and power gives them control over all governments and almost all political parties. These purchased or intimidated political lackeys can now be counted on to cater to the narrow interests of the privileged elite, and even to bail them out with other people’s tax dollars when their excesses of greed trigger economic meltdowns.

Consider what a government committed to the broader public interest would have to do to curb climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. It would have to impose a steep carbon tax on polluting industries. It would have to phase out the extraction of tar sands oil and fracked gas. It would have to launch a massive conversion of energy from fossil fuels to solar, wind and other renewable sources. But these steps would massively reduce the profits of the oil companies, the automakers, the plastics manufacturers and the many other Big Oil dependent industries. Can you seriously imagine that any current government would dare antagonize such powerful business giants – and generous political campaign contributors?

In the short term, such irresponsible economic and political folly can be sustained because its ultimate catastrophic results are shrouded from short-term-thinking individuals. In his stark and frightening 2006 book The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler outlines a detailed narrative of what somber fate lies ahead for the human race if it keeps wallowing in waste, economic madness and political ineptitude. It’s not a pretty picture.

The book’s title is an apt one. For most people, an emergency is something that occurs unexpectedly and so calls for a prompt response. Because global warming is worsening at such a leisurely pace, it doesn’t register as an “emergency” for the average person, even though it definitely is the most deadly threat the human species has ever faced.

It brings to mind the allegory of the frog in the pot. Dropped into a pot full of hot water, the frog will quickly jump out. But according to the story, if the frog is placed in a pot of lukewarm water that is very slowly heated, it is eventually boiled.

Today we are that frog. Our climate is being heated but so slowly that our instinct for self-preservation is not being activated. And, unlike the frog, we wouldn’t be able to save ourselves by jumping out anyway because our “pot” is our world, and we’d have nowhere to jump to if it becomes uninhabitable. Some imaginative science fiction fans dream about building spaceships to take a few selected survivors to another planet. Even if that were possible, it’s not something the vast majority of humans could count on.

What we do have left to count on are the dedicated environmental activists like David Suzuki. They keep trying, despite all the setbacks, to arouse and mobilize enough sane people to overcome the economic and political lunacy that afflicts our political and corporate leaders and their supine followers.

These valiant environmental champions should have the support of everyone who still believes that humankind deserves a second chance.

Ed Finn is editor emeritus of the CCPA Monitor.

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