(the following is mine and mine alone, and does not in any way reflect opinions or viewpoints of my employer.)
I understand when people get on indignant rants. You see something that is so clear to you, and you just feel like verbally slapping a few people across the cheek to wake them up, so they can see what is so plainly in front of their faces.
However, the Indignant Rant often reveals the boundaries of one’s concern. When I was a reporter, I recall many people who would call and berate me for not giving ________ more time and attention than it was getting. “But you don’t see, if they name Mr. So-and-so to the committee, it will mean the end of civilization as we know it!”
Okay, their lips weren’t foretelling the end of Western Civilization, but their body tics, tremors, and voice inflection certainly did. It was classic fight or flight, and it’s definitely not what our bodies evolved as a proper response to our anguish over the makeup of the school textbook committee.
The Whiffle Life
P.J. O’Rourke – in his classic Parliament of Whores, calls this the “Whiffle Life.”
My friend’s kid lives in a well-padded little universe, a world with no sharp edges or hard surfaces. It’s the Whiffle Ball again. The kid leads a Whiffle Life, and so does my friend and so do I.
The premise is that we’ve dumbed down our existence and taken the risk out of so many things, that we’ve literally knocked evolution for a loop. Some of us (in the modern, industrialized West) live in a world where our mistakes have virtually no consequences for survival. You can screw up often, and the worst that happens is you get a little unpleasantness. Much in the same way that a thrown baseball can hurt, so we replace them with Whiffle Balls instead.
When you live in a Whiffle World, you don’t worry about being eaten by hyenas, you worry about whether pets are spayed and neutered.
When you live in a Whiffle World, you don’t worry about your teeth rotting out, you worry about whether they are white enough.
When you live in a Whiffle World, you don’t worry about having access to safe drinking water, you fret over whether it’s the right flavor or brand.
When you live in a Whiffle World, you watch the thermometer like a hawk because of Global Warming, and doom the planet to extinction.
History in an Icicle
Yes, this is the Indignant Rant that reveals the boundaries of my concern. I happen to think that human beings are wonderful creatures, and we have shown an amazing capacity for creating beauty and hope. I also worry that in trying to preserve our accomplishments, we’re squinting at the tiny and ignoring the very real, big threats to everything we know.
Yes, that is indicative of temperatures increasing. But notice they’ve been going up since the 1830s. You could try to tie this to industrialization, but remember, this is just one sample from one location. What I want to do is change your perspective for a moment. Let’s roll back even further:
It would seem that 1000 years ago, we were warmer than we are now. But that’s not enough of a Big Picture.
Go back a little over 10,000 years, and look at where we were. Ice Age. Pay attention to that little uptick at the end that so many people are getting all frothed about. Watch where it goes when we dial the Wayback Machine to 50,000 years ago:
That tiny little tick mark at the end of that line, which is smaller than each of the commas in this sentence, is the danger? Seriously? Pay attention to the scale at the left of the graph. We’re looking at temperatures 10-25 degress Celsius cooler than what we have now. Human civilization, and agriculture, and iPods could not have emerged before now. And what makes you think we could survive when it does get cold again? Switching to the Vostok core in the Antarctic, we see this:
Where is that 150-year rise at the end, again?
I’m fairly certain, that even if the planet heats up a little more, that we could adapt. People along coastlines move a little inland. Arable farmland actually increases, so we’d be better able to feed the masses.
What worries me is that in concentrating on this tiny epoch of time, we ignore the real threat. It’s clear from the graphs that we live in an epoch that is an anomaly. Yet we pretend as though nothing ever happened before recorded history.
Every time someone shows you one of those pictures of a glacier from 150 years ago, ask them: “And just what is the optimal climate for the Earth?” They can’t tell you. But for some reason, the ArrogantÂ AnointedÂ have decided that the Earth is supposed to be exactly the way it was when their great-grandparents moved to Martha’s Vineyard. Or when their daddy was sworn into the Senate. It is foolish to believe the Earth is not in a constant state of flux.
There are people who believe God created the world 6,000 years ago. I am not one of them, and boy would I be pissed off if a bunch of them started crafting public policy that would wreck the economy, based on their belief that the world ought to be Eden, and Eden started the moment they opened their eyes and started drinking Enfamil.
There used to be astronomers who believed in the Steady-State Theory, that stars and matter must be continually created to fill the void left behind, as galaxies move away from each other. (Doppler red-shift tells us galaxies are all moving away.) Not as many do, because it requires a belief in spontaneous creation of matter.
And here we are today, with environmentalists who cling to the belief that our planet, the way it is today, is the way it has always been and ought to always be. They have absolutely nothing to base that belief upon. And in a way, they deserve even more scorn for that belief than the traditionalists who tout a 6,000 year world history.
I’m all for being a good steward of the environment, but before we wreck the global economy chasing a fantasy about a steady-state Earth, how about putting some research dollars into the threat we know is coming? How does man survive when it gets too cold? Are we going to move out and find new sources of food? Look for hospitable worlds elsewhere? We have the time and the resources to do it, if we don’t starve ourselves to death on granola and pray to Gaia as the ice envelopes us.
Fire From the Sky
Forget about how we’re overdue for an Ice Age for a moment. We know we’ve got at least a thousand years or so to lick that problem.
What about a comet strike? Or a sufficiently large meteorite?
In 1908, a piece of a comet nailed a remote section of Russia. It created an explosion and a mushroom cloud, and wiped out everything for miles around. If we didn’t know any better, it would have been called a nuclear bomb. In fact, it’s a good thing we didn’t know any better, because if it had happened 50 or 60 years later, the world would have been glowing from the remains of retaliatory strikes before anyone bothered to figure out it was a natural occurrence.
But what if the Tunguska comet had been larger?
Make it larger by a factor of 10, and it would have rocked the world. Make it even bigger, and it could wipe out nearly all intelligent life on the planet.
So while we’re dickering with Mars missions and Moon missions and all manner of foolishness, we’re ignoring the very real instant threat to civilization. (And that means all the puppies will die, too. And the Black Eyed Peas.) We’re investing next to nothing in discovering or tracking the large objects that sweep into near-Earth orbits. We’re investing even less in researching technologies that would allow us to alter their orbits, or even explode them remotely where they would pose less of a threat.
I’m talking about something that could strike tomorrow. Or a year from now. That’s the Indignant Rant that keeps me up at night.
The Big Picture
We’ll solve the plastics problem, and theÂ StyrofoamÂ problem, and the nuclear waste problem. We’ll figure out how to leave cleaner and meaner and smarter, because we’re humans and that’s what we’ve done for 10,000 years. Occasionally, in the middle of miles of steps forward, we take one or two back. That’s okay, because we learn from those missteps.
Or at least we do, when we bother to look back with enough perspective.