Warming Climate, Frozen Thinking

I want to raise a ruckus in your head, to get things crackling and popping. My hope is this: As you read these essays, you’ll go new places with your thinking, not necessarily in agreement but in concord, as fellow apes who hold the future of our big-brained species in our prehensile hands.

This book is not an exercise in sweeping linear thought barreling along from premise to conclusion. It’s meandering, but with an end in mind: Knitting together a mosaic of thought that is whole and clear and catalytic.

These essayistic meanders all flow from the same headwaters: The tiny point in time in which we live. Humans have often considered the cataclysms of their time to presage the end of the world. Well, a particular hullabaloo might have ended their world, but not the world. Our time is no different in one way, because we’re simply too puny to end the physical world. After all, the earth has a few billion years left before our sun turns red giant and engulfs our little speck in space.

But what we can do, as scientists have pointed out, is to end the world as homo sapiens and our primate predecessors have known it. Our willy-nilly ways of burning fossil fuels have cast a cloud of carbon over the earth, threatening to turn our blue-green home into a hellish, brutal staging area for never-ending wars over ever-diminishing resources – and with breath-taking speed. That, in my opinion, is saying something.

The powerbrokers of the world seem hellbent on aping the ancient chiefs on Easter Island. You may remember that rival chiefs built bigger and bigger statues to out-phallus each other, which required felling more and more of the island’s forest to transport the giant stones. Their megalomania knew no bounds – until the last tree was chopped down, followed by environmental and cultural collapse.

So on the one hand, there’s the ticking of an environmental time bomb, and on the other, leaders who don’t lead, merely lust for loot and power. So what’s a thoughtful person to do or even think about this horrific situation? These essays are my own answer, and I’d like to share them as you ponder your own response.

Ah, you might say, who are we to pretend that plain citizens have any answers of any kind to anything of national and international import, in our confused and chaotic and cacophonous world? Isn’t that what we have “experts” for?

I’m glad you asked. Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tracked some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts in his 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment.” His finding: The political experts’ predictions were only a little better than random guesses. That held true regardless of each expert’s experience or access to classified information. And you have only to gaze at the recessional wreckage of the American economy in 2008 and beyond to witness the misery inflicted by the ignorance of economic experts.

So what about climate scientists? Are their virtually universal predictions of a warming planet merely more prattle from experts? Hardly. There’s an immense difference between pretending to predict the vacillations of politics and economics, vs. the measurement of air and water temperatures around the globe in comparison to the past.

Climate change – if you regard it as an implacable response from our planet – demands dramatic changes in human comportment. Yes, governments must act, but so must we. We must be awake in the Thoreauvian sense, think about things, then act. In so doing, we’ll have an effect on others, on economies, on governments, on the earth itself.

So what’s a person to do? Well, let’s get on with it, shall we?