Blind to the bigger picture


I recently read a piece in the Atlantic with the promising title, “How to talk about climate change so people will listen.” Although the author – Charles Mann, who wrote the excellent books “1491” and “1493” – characterized some sides of the argument, the piece didn’t live up to its title. With eerie postmodern irony, the comments on the Atlantic’s website perfectly illustrated the polarization Mann decried.

This wrangling over climate change reminds me of the story of the blind men describing an elephant. Each of the six has his hands on a different part of the animal: tail, ear, tusk, flank, leg. And each is correct, in his limited view of reality. The man holding the tail describes a rope. The one touching the leg says it’s a pillar. They all get into a heated argument because not one of them can see the bigger picture.

In the case of the climate change argument, what is the bigger picture?

Whether climate change is real or not, we are laboring under a dangerous misconception: that human beings are exceptional, superior and separate from the rest of nature. Our own economic models “externalize” the natural world, treating air, water, soil, weather and pollination as income rather than capital.

Ronald Wright, whose excellent 2005 “A Short History of Progress” I just reviewed here, raises the same question. He examines how four past civilizations failed or went extinct: all combined brutal social hierarchy with a failure to respect the limits of the local ecosystem upon which their very lives depended. Those were, by today’s standards, relatively small and local. Since our industrial economy is now a global one, its effects are also global.

Whether or not burning fossil fuels is wrecking our climate, eventually we will run out of them and be forced to find other ways to power our civilization. Before that, the more noticeable effects of climate change may begin to plague our generation with greater frequency. Either way, we are blindly repeating the mistakes of prior civilizations. Driven by our cult of progress, we have an irrational faith that technology and human ingenuity can solve any problem. This faith demonstrates a basic lack of understanding that there are limits in every closed system, the earth being an example of just such a system. The only new input into this system is sunlight, and humans have yet to figure out how to convert it as efficiently as plants do into energy and food.

Even if technology can save us, we are still faced with great uncertainty about climate change. “What’s the Worst That Could Happen” is a far more effective approach to decision-making in the face of uncertainty than any of the arguments in Mann’s article. This began as a middle school science teacher’s YouTube video back in 2007. Using a basic four-square decision matrix, he showed that we are better off treating climate change as real and getting down to business, than if we ignore it and it turns out to be real. The consequences of inaction are a far greater risk than the consequences of action, even if climate change turns out to be overblown.

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In other words, uncertainty is a given, so before we can talk about, and agree upon, solutions to problems, we would do well to look honestly at the bigger picture. Who do we think we are? Why are we here? And where are we going? These might seem like odd questions to inject into the already overheated, rhetorically charged climate change debate.

There’s no shortage of people on both sides pointing out how polarized and unproductive the argument is. Maybe that’s because we’re asking the wrong questions and defending positions that rise from the shaky foundation of a mistaken worldview.





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