Wednesday, October 26, 2016

People, Who Live in a Glass Houses

In the previous entry, “In a Glass Dome,” we considered the problem of accepting the simpler scientific explanation for something when that acceptance requires a change in world view. Perhaps global warming as a result of human activity is such an explanation. It may not seem as momentous as accepting that the earth moves around the sun, but it is akin to it.

God by Terry GilliamPhoto: Cinema 5/EMI Films (BBC America)
Those who believe that the natural world was created for us by a benevolent God (well, once we disobeyed, he became a bit less benevolent, but it was still our world) those believers, may have a hard time accepting that we can screw the place up and disrupt the divine order of things. For such believers, making that claim overestimates our power; besides, because divine intervention to destroy or restore the world is always possible, thinking that we can control what happens is an act of pride. However, if we see ourselves as just part of the natural world, not its overlord but the cleverest of its animals, we realize that we can die out, perhaps the victims of our own cleverness because nothing guarantees that our species will survive to the end of the world with trumpets and angels and all. So in order to accept global warming as a serious problem, we need first to accept that we are not the special creatures of an all powerful being who will do what is best for us.

The opposite of the humility-based argument is the hubris-based argument, expressed by those confident that humans’ godlike ingenuity can increase the capacity of the world regardless of what happens. They point to how the Green Revolution, resulting from an array of agricultural innovations that replaced traditional farming methods, radically increased the world-wide crop yield. The increase in food after World War II was almost miraculous, and some places where starvation was endemic were eventually able to produce surpluses. Those who feel that the potential for innovation is unlimited are not intimidated by the warming of the earth. 

Of course the Catch-22 of that position is that since we have not been innovative enough to to reduce the rate at which the earth is warming as a result of our other innovations, why do we think we can solve the problems resulting from global warming when we could not deal with its causes? Even the Green Revolution, with its heavy reliance on chemicals, fossil fuel, mono-culture, and massive irrigation, is itself becoming a problem as the cheap food it has been able to yield has wiped out more resilient, low-impact, local agricultural practices. Now the climate disruptions created by global warming--the shifts in seasonal patterns, droughts and floods, and violent weather events—are putting stress on industrial agricultural practices that helped produce the warming. It is a gamble to go on in an unsustainable manner depending on some unspecified, future breakthrough to save us, to think of the earth as an infinitely open system.

In 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding argued we should treat earth as a closed system and understand that we need to be as careful of what we are doing as we would be on a spaceship. Buckminister Fuller warned in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968) that fossil fuel is a finite resource developed over millions of years, a resource we should treat as temporary, something we should use to develop renewable sources of energy. NASA’s Big Blue Marble composite photograph taken by Apollo 17 in 1975 shows the globe of earth as a whole surrounded by the blackness of space. Though we can travel over the continuous surface of the earth and never reach an edge, this image shows that sharp border between the earth and the blackness surrounding it: our earth is a small finite spot in a huge hostile universe. 

In 1988 when James Hanson of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before the US Congress about global warming, some Americans began to take notice. People of my generation grew up with the fear of a nuclear apocalypse and were used to the idea that people could make the earth unlivable. However, the Mutually Assured Destruction approach to world peace (appropriate acronym, MAD) involved devices whose sole purpose was to destroy, so all we needed to do was not turn them on. But global warming is different because it is a byproduct of living well, the dark side of progress. In order to stop the destruction we must do more than not turn things on; we must turn things off, and to do that we must change the way we live at a fundamental level.

Just as Galileo’s observations and analysis cemented Copernicus’s heliocentric explanation in place, the subsequent work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forced us to accept that our actions are affecting the earth’s viability for humans. Global warming reminds us that in deciding what to do, we must not ask only “Can we do it?” but we must also ask “Should we do it?” The first is a scientific question; the second uses scientifically derived information, but it is an ethical question. We must rediscover that the universe does not revolve around us humans, that the earth was not made for us, but that we have evolved and thrived in the earth’s environment, and if that environment changes too much, our species will die out.

Once again accepting scientific results disrupts comforting religious and humanistic world views. To extend the survival of our species, we must accept the possibility of its death.

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