Saturday, March 12, 2011

It was the worst of times, it was the most challenging of times

I think of myself as an optimistic sort. But it's hard to be upbeat and optimistic just now, while laying claim to realism. The post-earthquake tsunami off the coast of Japan smashed lives, towns and much more. It is remarkably inspiring to see how focused the Japanese people and institutions have been in response with orderly queues and patience. But it also suggests how vulnerable we are and how insecurely we live in a natural world that is not specifically designed for perpetual human flourishing. We have to adapt and respond responsibly to the world and its dangers as we come to know them. Some dangers we have a hand in manufacturing for ourselves. We like to live on the coast, and so developers have made it attractive to do so. But in some places it is dangerous. With little long-term perspective we gamble big time with lives and investment. Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason for this - it has been adaptive in the past.

Evolution has given us an adaptability to many environmental dynamics. But not on the scale of geologic events and not of the scale that we may now be able to precipitate ourselves. In crises like earthquakes and tsunamis we are faced with difficult immediate choices – Do we flee the building, do we run to a car and head for higher ground by a main road, which may be jammed, or do we walk there immediately? On foot, we can't travel very far, but what if a tsunami hits before we made it to our vehicle? We might get far enough by foot while the extra time to get to a car may be critical. We just don't know what is reality in the face of some crises. It is easy to feel helpless.

So human decision making is not always up to the challenges of immediate crises, but there is another type of crises to consider. We may not be up to the challenge of slowly developing crises that we ourselves are causing. We seem to have lots of gambles going now as much goes wrong in the natural, political,financial and international spheres. Lurking in the back of consciousness is the idea that we have these long-term gambles going along with a mega gamble on climate change.

Tsunamis arrive within minutes and but climate change could put us in hot water that is just as deadly and much longer lasting. I heard a vivid image of such a hot world described by Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's magazine's environmental correspondent. The ideas were from his new book "Hot: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth" by (see for a review). Using a variety of experts Hertsgaard envisions how day-to-day life might change, for what he calls Generation Hot, in the next 5, 10, and 50 years. For Generation Hot, the brutal summer of 2010 was part of the new normal for their future.

In Hot he describes a Chicago with the climate like Houston's. There is crop damage to prairie and California due to drought and snow pack melt off. Such things as extraordinary heat, rains, drought and flooding that occurred in the summer of 2010 are projections from the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization and they fit the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections of “more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.” We face a series of crises and the tsunami floods we see today in Japan may be emulated by stronger tropical storms of the next 50 years.

But listening to Hertsgaard the situation is not yet like the helplessness caused by the tsunami. His "pictures" of what to expect, includes creative precautions and that's what we need in the face of a challenging reality. We may be able to understand the situation enough to meet what he calls the“double imperative” of the climate fight. “We have to live through global warming,” he writes, “even as we halt and reverse it.” One part are initial priorities that experts call “mitigations” like deep emissions cuts . The other is to do everything we can to prepare for the inevitable effects of the climate change currently "baked in". Hertsgaard leverages the thinking of people like King County executive Ron Sims (who now is the deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). Sims has worked on the redesign needed to adapt to climate change in urban areas like Seattle, Washington. In the light of recent catastrophes there are cautions to consider. In Hertsgaard we hear a motivating message mixing concern with cautious hope. Something to consider as we face the immediate crises.

As a youth I read quite a bit of science fiction which is often upbeat about human possibilities. But one hard SF writer Larry Niven added notes of caution for our future. Taking an alien perspective (Trinocs) of human psychology, Niven's fictional character comments that "humans are insufficiently suspicious" of possible threats. From an alien perspective we seem much to anxious and ready to gamble with our survival in situations where we have no idea of the odds. The Trinoc wonders how we "have survived up till now(from A Hole in Space). Maybe by luck, but now we have to be doubly wise.

See also for his critique of climate deniers).

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