Taking the Long View

(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.

I want you to look at this graph by J. Storrs Hall. It’s taken from a Greenland ice core:

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?

Cultural Arrogance

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 Arrogant Anointed 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 the Styrofoam 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.

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  1. This is a great post! Very well said. I often think about how spoiled people are these days in relation to people 75 years ago, or even throughout most of human history. Not even the wealthiest kings had air conditioning, central heat, automobiles, television, cell phones, etc. Now even the “poor” in America usually enjoy most of these things.

  2. Yeah, that’s my assessment as well: global warming isn’t a problem; asteroid strikes are a MUCH MUCH greater probability with a proven track record of megadeaths.
    Global warming is the biggest inhibitor of real environmentalism.

  3. I so dislike the Wiffle lives people lead. I think what makes America, well, America is our competitive nature, our research, our questioning of the status quo and government, and so on. When did we all decide to be lemmings…and, egads, fair?!  We need to take it on the shoulder when we screw up, learn from it and get stronger. Hell, I’ve been laid off four times in 10 years. Life isn’t fair. Get over it.

    This is the same crowd that votes for four valedictorians because that’s fair (even though only ONE really had a 4.0 for four years). And the same crew that has decided that no one loses at sports and everyone gets a certificate. Trying pulling that one with professional sports…

    As for global warming, I never bought into that hype. Oh, yeah… I also dump my recycling with my normal trash — every day. (Shudder the thought!) Why? Because that’s what the trash company does (they have machines that pick out cans you know). I think being ‘green’ is overhyped too. Here’s a thought: Let’s focused more on living responsibly to begin with. ;-)

    Geez now you have me on a rant… thanks Ike.

  4. Ike,
    Nice overview on the manipulation of data and the bigger picture.
    I always summer it up this way … Is being more environmentally aware a good idea? Sure. Do we need to save the planet? Either we will or it will do fine without us.

    • Rich, I’m right with you. Let’s be environmentally-conscious for its own sake, but let’s not gaze at our navels and pretend this planet sat here for 4-billion years just like it is today.

      It almost makes me wonder if there wasn’t intelligent life here before, during another warm spell between ice ages… and that life was just as arrogant and short-sighted as we are today…

  5. Awesome post, all very pertinent LONG view perspectives that are SORELY lacking in today’s debates.
    I especially like this bit: “You can screw up often, and the worst that happens is you get a little unpleasantness … ”
    You buy hard-earned competence when you feel the consequences of failure first hand, something not enough of us in the Western world have needed to worry about.
    Well said.

  6. emtropy aka physician says:
  7. Though it may not sound like much, a global temperature rise of 6 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 degrees Celsius) is huge in climate terms. For example, the sea level rise it produced would flood coastal cities around the world.

    Earth climate has varied significantly over geological ages. The question of an “optimal temperature” makes no sense without a clear optimality criterion. Over geological time spans, ecosystems adapt to climate variations. But global climate variations during the development of human civilization (i.e., the past 12,000 years) have been remarkably small.

    Human civilization is highly adapted to the current stable climate. Agricultural production depends on the proper combination of soil, climate, methods, and seeds. Most large cities are located on the coast, and any significant change in sea level would strongly affect them. Migration of humans and ecosystems is limited by political borders and exisiting land use. In short, the main problem is not the absolute temperature, but the massive and unprecedentedly fast change in climate, and the second order-effects to human societies.


    • Jeremy, in a way, you are making my point.

      Your perspective on this has everything to do with maintaining the status quo, and how it will affect the near term.

      Long term, spending trillions of dollars trying to slow a change – where at best, we will have a negligible impact – is folly. When compared to the many other threats we face, making a few people move away from the present coasts is a pretty minor deal.

      The fragility of the environment and the climate is in serious question. We’re made to believe that we’re sitting on a delicate balance on the point of a pin, and we’re just one bad nudge or lean away from tipping forever. Long term, I am far more worried about how we’ll cope with a 10-degree Celsius drop within a 250-year time span, which is the ticking time bomb of the next ice age. Or to die from a comet, knowing that had we not frittered trillions of dollars to “slow the warming” by 2 weeks per century instead of investing in research and global defense.

  8. I am interested in the short term effects as they relate to human civilization over the past 10,000 years.

    Your graphs, from one greenland ice core, are consistent with other ice core, sediment core and pollen distributions. They all show a remarkably consistent range of temperatures over the last 10,000 years.

    Our concern about “the tick” is not just that it is an increase. But, it is the rate that the increase is occurring coupled with a human caused spike in CO2 levels that is cause for alarm. http://www.brighton73.freeserve.co.uk/gw/paleo/20000yrfig.htm

    Coastal flooding is just the most obvious result climate change. Other results include increases in tropical cyclone intensity, frequency of heatwaves, crop failure, forest fires, and drought. These are all effects of a 5 degree increase in temperature or less.

    I am not debating fragility of the environment or climate. To take your example it would be worth it to shift some of our resources to diverting an impending asteroid collision not because of the overall effect on the environment, ecosystems adapt over thousands of years, but because human lives are at stake now.

    • One of the interesting elements of the graph you highlight from the Vostok core is along the issue of causality. We might be looking at one of three things:

      - Coincidence
      - Correlation
      - Causality.

      Of those, causality is the most difficult to prove, particularly when you look at the record from 12K-10K years ago. It is very clear according to that graph that the warming occurred prior to the increase in CO2 levels. If indeed there is a natural process whereby already-occurring warming leads to a rise in CO2, then the models that count on a high-positive feedback effect from higher CO2 concentrations have over-calculated the effects.

      I agree that humanity has prospered under a relatively stable period of Earth’s recent climate history. I differ with you, though, on the idea that we ought to be spending vast resources trying to change a dynamic that is bigger than any of us — when we could allocate other resources to help people affected by the symptoms.

      Spending trillions of dollars to slow down the rate of warming by only two weeks every hundred years is not that big an impact — and I would submit that the science is indeed not settled about what the climate would have been had CO2 never risen.

      Now… if you want to make the case against carbon based on ocean acidification, I am listening.

      But I will — to my dying breath — vehemently reject ANYONE who believes it is okay to lie about science “because it’s in our best interests.” There is no place in science for scare tactics, and there is no place in science for ends justifying means. If the threat is from acid oceans, then don’t cram a bunch of unproven doomsday scenarios down my throat and frighten schoolchildren for the sake of an agenda.

      And those who are truly interested in science for its own sake ought to be going into schools, and telling the doomsday prophets to shut up. Particularly those who don’t care one whit about science, but are interested in puncturing growth and economic freedom to pursue their own economic agenda.

      You will admit there are people hiding behind the patina of Environmentalism, who have no idea what they are talking about but enjoy the power the fear would give them. (Just as I will admit there are entrenched interests who refuse out of hand any conclusions that get in the way of business as usual, and don’t bother discriminating between the good science and the bad.)

  9. We don’t claim that CO2 “caused” temperature rises in the past. We say that because of the greenhouse effect CO2 makes natural temperature rises worse, much worse in fact.
    Temperature shifts are  caused primarily by variations in the earths orbit around the sun over thousands of years.
    Climate change is real. But it is not a policy prescription. I believe that Cap and Trade is the best trade off between the markets and our future welfare. You may think that leaving businesses to innovate unencumbered will produce the best solution. I will leave that for another day.

    • Jeremy – bless you for being rational about this discussion.

      FAR too many people assign some evil motive one way or the other. We both agree that technological innovation will get us to a cleaner future, and that clean for “clean’s sake” is worthy, where it makes sense economically. Where we differ is on which direction will ultimately spur the innovations that make cleaner energy a reality – and recognition of a common goal removes a lot of unnecessary heat from debate.

      Thanks for coming by — and feel free to peruse the other 99-percent of my content that is not focused on this issue!

  10. Jeremy Gordinier says:

    It’s always nice to have a spirited discussion with someone who takes these issues seriously. I enjoy reading your blog and I’ll definitely be back.

  11. Jeremy Gordinier says:

    By the way you can blame Jacob for starting this ruckus.


  1. Mark Ragan says:

    It's impossible to give tweet-justice to this post, except to say, "this is really good." via @ikepigott

  2. RT @ikepigott: Sometimes, you just have to lay it out there and not worry about who might be offended: http://ike4.me/o31

  3. Dana says:

    if you're not following @ikepigott you're missing out. oh yes, and read his post on 'perspective' today, too – http://ike4.me/o31

  4. RT @MarkRaganCEO: It's impossible to give tweet-justice to this post, except to say, "this is really good." via @ikepigott

  5. Scot Hacker says:

    The question is not whether it's getting warmer or colder, but how/whether we'll be able to adapt. http://bit.ly/cDGdjJ

  6. Ike Pigott says:

    @RedCrossPRChick @RedCrossDallas – Cold is the new Black: http://ike4.me/o31

  7. Ike Pigott says:

    @infobabe – We're forecast for 2-4 inches here. I know it's not #snomg levels, but it's something. Also http://ike4.me/o31

  8. Jill Bode says:

    @ikepigott I've decided that you are too smart for me to hang out with anymore…Any blog with 5 graphs is beyond me! http://bit.ly/91D71H

  9. [...] Piggott’s taking the long view, doing a riff on P.J. O’Rourke’s classic piece, Whiffle Ball World. (I don’t [...]

  10. Jeff Moore says:

    Courtesy of @ikepigott “And just what is the optimal climate for the Earth?” Maybe today's climate is the anomaly. http://is.gd/8rh36

  11. Kyle Sellers says:

    Oh, I agree with you 100%. Check this out: http://ike4.me/o31 RT @trianglman: Year to year differences aren't as important as big picture