Help! The Polar Bears Have Fallen Down the Well!

By James Turner
November 24, 2008 | Comments: 3

This is an essay about human nature, and the way that the global warming (or global climate change) problem is encountering a "perfect storm" of human shortcomings. It is unabashedly an advocacy piece, and I'm equally unabashed in my support for efforts to reduce global carbon emissions. I drive a hybrid and have since 2003. In addition, I pay to have the carbon footprint of my vehicles offset. I've spent significant resources remediating the heating losses in my fairly ancient (1796) farmhouse. We're currently pricing out solar heating and PV options. So yes, I've drunk the Kool Aid, if you want to look at it that way. The real question is, why isn't everyone taking these measures. As I said, it's an unfortunate conjunction of human foibles. Let's look at them one by one.

The Baby Jessica Syndrome

If you're too young to remember Jessica McClure, she was the 18 month old child who fell down a well in Midland, TX in 1987. Her plight captured national attention, and huge amounts of resources were expended to rescue. Hundreds of people worked for days to save her, and while I can't find exact figures, simple math says that the effort must have costs hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum. It is a characteristic of American culture that we rise quickly to respond to an immediate crisis. Other classic examples are the 9-11 rescue efforts and the entrance of the US into the Second World War in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The corollary to that is as a nation, we are singularly bad at dealing with crises that sneak up on us. Our current financial meltdown is a good example of an accident waiting to happen, that was cheerfully ignored until it went critical. We'd rather get the heart bypass than exercise regularly. Our mantra is "Out of sight, out of mind." This also ties into another aspect of the Baby Jessica Syndrome, we are blind to problems that we can't directly relate to. As mentioned, we'll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to save one child down a well, even if the same money could save thousands elsewhere. The cute baby down a well is more immediate to us than the abstract concept of starving AIDS victims overseas.

And, of course, we're more concerned with the plight of the cute than the mundane. Deforestation has been wiping out species in the rain forests for decades, but people have difficulty getting worked up about tree frogs or ferns. Frankly, many people didn't take global climate change seriously until polar bears started eating each other to survive. Polar Bears are cute and cuddly, at least in popular culture. As Stephen Colbert well knows, they're really dangerous predators, but tell that to anyone fawning over pictures of little polar bear cubs. The point is, no one loves a glacier enough to change their lifestyle if it's melting. It takes the peril of a "nice" species to get us going.

The Mythos of the Ticking Time-bomb

Hollywood loves a ticking time-bomb. Whether it's a real bomb, complete with big LEDs and a beep counting down to zero, or a fiendish poison that will kill the hero's lover in exactly 24 hours, nothing gets the heart pumping like an approaching deadline. We've all seen a scene like this:

Sidekick: Hurry, dammit, she's almost dead!

Hero: I've got the antidote, here!

Sidekick: It's working!

Girl: What... where am I?

Hero: Everything's all right, you're safe.

Girl: Great! Let's have sweaty sex and climb a mountain!

The realistic scenario is not nearly as cinematic:

idekick: Hurry, dammit, she's almost dead!

Hero: I've got the antidote, here!

Sidekick: It's working!

Hero: Why isn't she waking up?

Sidekick: Well, she's got severe liver and kidney damage and will require months in a hospital, since you cut it so close.

Most situations aren't black and white. Global climate change isn't a binary outcome, it will come in varying degrees of awful depending on how quickly and effectively we mitigate our carbon output. But we cling to the cliffhanger concept, if we do the right thing at the last moment, we'll all be saved. This, of course, ignores the fact that large (and planetary is pretty large) systems have momentum. Many researchers now suspect that we're too far down the path to make a full U-turn, any changes we make now are to lessen the severity of the disaster, not prevent it entirely. But because the effects of the climate crisis are still down the road, we imagine that we can turn the planetary thermostat around on a dime if we come up with a last-minute solution.

Denial is a River That Runs Deep in Politics

"All politics is local," said that master of the pork barrel, Tip O'Neil. And just as being a politician is about bringing home the bacon, it's also about making sure that when there's a sacrifice to be made, someone else makes it. The absurdity of politicians arguing that cutting carbon output will cost jobs in their districts would be funny if it wasn't so sad. So, Senator X, you think your constituents will be better off when the corn belt has turned into the dust belt and pandemics caused by the shift of tropical climates are devastating the world? But again, that problem is years down the road, and taking actions that will cost jobs will get you thrown out of office tomorrow.

It is very telling that Al Gore, who has been studying global climate change since his days in the senate, didn't make a big issue of it until he was safely out of office and had no electorate to punish him for laying out the cold facts (or the warm facts, in this case.) It takes real statespersonship to tell your constituents that they need to do something for their own good, even if it will hurt them in the short run. That, or coming from a highly liberal non-energy, non-automotive state.

This happens at an international level too, which leads to the "Why should we change if China won't" farce. This is equivalent to posturing that we might as well fire a few bullets into a cop, since the criminal already shot him twice. You maybe think that removing our carbon output might slow things down, even if China does nothing? But pork barrels come into their full power on the international stage. Taking action to curb carbon output would put us at an economic disadvantage, so goes the argument. Never mind that really innovating on new forms of energy and carbon remediation might make us a world economic leader again. No need for that, the American economy is purring along just fine, right?

There's also the usual "Big Lie" political posturing. If you can't turn climate change to your advantage, deny that it is happening and paint those who work to fix the problem as alarmists, loopy or otherwise untrustworthy. This feeds into America's love of conspiracy theories. In a nation where six percent of the population believes we faked a moon landing, getting people to believe that climate change is actually some huge conspiracy isn't that hard. It must all be part of the plot to get the people with the black helicopters in power, so they can fluoridate our water and make us take vaccines, right?

Buy Now, Pay Later

The last factor leading us down the path to destruction is our unique ability to put off unpleasant decisions. Need a few examples? The national debt is a good one. Fixing social security and medicare is another. On a more personal note, people continue to live in flood plains and earthquake-prone zones, in spite of a near certainty that disaster will strike them in the short, not long, term.

We talk about giving a better world to our children, but we do a lousy job of it, by and large. We're handing our children a country saddled with debt, bleeding jobs overseas, and destroying our environment at a breakneck pace. If we're very lucky, we'll die before climate change bites us in the ass, otherwise we'll get to spend our "golden years" living in the mess we allowed to happen. But our children and grandchildren will certainly reap what we have sown.

Until Central Park is a rice paddy and Florida is wiped off the map by hurricanes, we'll stick our heads in the sands and hope it goes away. It may sound cynical in the extreme to say so, but our current actions do nothing to refute this view of America.

I actually cheered as oil prices climbed, even though I pay a heavy personal cost for it (even heavily insulated, a 200 year old house is not cheap to heat.) Finally, I thought, we might be at the pain point where people took action, if for no other reason than to save their wallets. The economic meltdown has removed that pressure, at least for the moment. Gas is cheap, if you have any money to spend on it. And with funds tight, buying expensive fuel-efficient cars may not be an option. At least people won't be able to afford Hummers either.

A Glimmer of Hope

There is some good news to report. The one thing we're really, really good at is innovation. There's lots of technology on the horizon, from high efficiency solar cells to carbon sequestration schemes, that could radically change our impact on the planet. Many of them have significant side benefits as well, such as removing our dependence on energy from unfriendly governments, or reducing the operating costs for a house or car.

Over the past year, the news editors at O'Reilly have been shifting their focus a bit, adding coverage of green tech, biotech, innovations, economics and other non-computer areas to the existing news coverage. This is part of the mission statement of O'Reilly, which can be paraphrased as a desire to show how technology can be used to make life better for everyone. One of the ways that I, personally, will be contributing to this new effort is to cover advances in clean energy and carbon remediation technologies. We've already started to look at the problem, you can expect more of the same in the future. We may not be able to change human nature, but maybe we can make it irrelevant.


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3 Comments

Phenomenal essay!

I'm happy to see the O'Reilly folks broaden the spectrum of the topics on website. I have a lot of
faith in a technically knowledgeable perspective on the problems we face. And we may be at a point in time where the dissemination and application of this knowledge may enable a brighter future for us all.

Very nice article Mr. Turner.

No one pays attention to the global crisis unless they’re being personally affected by it. Even though most scientists can bring us research findings which show that unless we get active in making a serious change, but instead continue in the same course we’ve paved, we’re going to end up in a horrible situation a few years from now. But because they say “a few years from now” no one pays any attention, well, let’s say about 0.01% of the population does.

It’s great to see your efforts to do something about this situation James. You inspire me in being a part of this critical mass of people who need to bring about positive change in the world. With the same “desire to show how technology can be used to make life better for everyone” (using your words), I’d like to present you with a 5-minute video I’ve put together with others that promotes this active movement of individuals trying to bring about positive world change. Good luck to y/our efforts! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g94iWT2SIwI

If this video inspires you toward bringing about positive change, then please forward it to the friends you’re working with in your efforts. We who made the video left our ordinary day jobs to work only on this video for nearly 3 months (since the time the financial crisis intensified in October). The state of the world is intensifying, and we want people to spread the message that we need to wake up from our sleep.

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