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Can We Adapt in Time?

August 25, 2010
by Sandy Tolan
Image source: Photograph by Nubar Alexanian

It may be all in our minds.

On a cold wet day in 1997 I stood beside a retired fisherman on the end of a long wooden pier in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where, since 1623, fishermen had departed and returned with the north Atlantic bounty in the holds of their vessels. In its time, Gloucester was among the world’s greatest fishing ports. Now we gazed out at the nearly empty Gloucester inner harbor. The old fisherman looked at me, frowning, and asked, to himself as much as to me: “What happened?”

What happened? The Gloucestermen took too much. They saw the warning signs but mistrusted the messenger, who usually came in the form of a clipboard-carrying U.S. government biologist. For decades the Gloucestermen fought every restriction until there was virtually nothing left to defend. As the numbers dwindled, the fishermen rushed back to sea, competing with their neighbors to harvest what was left. It was a classic battle over the commons—and in terms of its behavioral roots, its cultural and economic consequences, and its sheer preventability, the Gloucesterman’s predicament mirrors that of all of us in the unfolding crisis of climate change.

Like the early data on the decline of George’s Bank, where generations of Gloucestermen set their nets, the signals of a growing climate problem have been steady—faint at first but increasingly clear, and now joined in a unified scientific voice with growing evidence to accelerate their concern.

Early signals of the consequences of global warming are beginning to come in from every part of the planet. An examination of such signs was at the heart of an eight-month Graduate School of Journalism investigation overseen by Professor John Harte of Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and me. Eleven students traveled from the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic, documenting climate-change impacts that are already evident. Yet even with these and many other reports, the problem is still not understood as real enough to provoke dramatic action at home. For most of us, it seems, the water hasn’t risen high enough, and the ice hasn’t melted fast enough, to grab our attention. Like the frog in a slowly heating pan of water, we remain immersed—unready, or maybe unable, to leap to new circumstances.

Why is this so? How much has to do with culture, particularly American culture and the lifestyle it makes possible, and how much with human nature—specifically with the limitations of the human mind?

The abundant way of life afforded by technology and by generations of cheap energy no doubt contributes to a sense of complacency. If emerging problems seem theoretical or distant, then change—or worse, actual sacrifice—seems downright ludicrous. If up to now the gravity of the problem has seemed unclear, and the solutions too expensive, business as usual is the natural response. Who, from any culture, would want to give up their hard-won acquisitions voluntarily? And what’s the point of sacrificing what seem to be little pieces of comfort, when no one else is?

Some scientists, especially those who study evolution and the human brain, argue that something deeper than culture is at work. They suggest that millennia of human evolution have conditioned us to respond primarily to immediate dangers—the snap of a twig, the crack of a thunderbolt, the flood in the canyon, the hunger in our stomachs. This, they argue, is clouding human ability to adapt to a threat that, until recently, has been invisible.

“The human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world,” wrote Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich in their 1989 book, New World New Mind. “The human nervous system, well matched to a world in which small, sharp changes were important but large gradual changes were not, is inadequate… Our nervous system and our world are mismatched now… Although we are evolving, our mental machinery will not change biologically in time to help us solve our problems.”

Ornstein, an expert on brain research, and Ehrlich, the author and Stanford biologist, linked this limitation of human perception to the problem of climate change, which was then barely a speck on the global radar. “In the long run,” they wrote prophetically, “CO2-induced warming would melt the polar ice caps, thus flooding many areas. Our old minds, however, don’t have the capacity to recognize the threat of CO2 increase. After all, a squiggly line on a chart is hard to translate into a portent of catastrophe.”

In the nature of human beings, Ornstein and Ehrlich suggested, action seems imprudent if the threat is distant, even if it is real and growing. “Cultures did not spontaneously develop the ability to deal with long-term trends,” they wrote, “because they had no need to until very recently.”

If this is true—if biology is destiny—what does it say about reason, and human will? If our biology is hard-wired to respond to the most immediate threats—not to catastrophic scenarios of sea-level rise pegged to, say, the year 2050—is there any way to act in protection of our grandchildren, and theirs?

Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard evolutionary biologist, once said that far-off catastrophes, engineered by our own species, are simply out of the range of human capacity for planning and action. “It doesn’t matter that that evolutionary process may be leading an entire species to the precipice,” he said. “There is nothing in the species to foresee what will be happening ten generations down the line, only what is happening at the moment.” Human beings, he added, “have a hard time reasoning why they should care what might come about 100 years hence.”

Considering the effects of our actions today on people in a distant future is not unheard of, of course. Environmental leaders and even a few politicians speak of this. Some native peoples say they think seven generations forward, and there are indications that this is because they learned from past mistakes. According to some Native American oral traditions, the original inhabitants of the continent underwent hardships of their own doing and adapted. “Certainly in Lakota oral history, we have narratives saying our conduct seriously threatened the natural world,” oral historian Edward Valandra of the Rosebud Sioux reservation told me. “And we paid a price for that. We were admonished. We paid a price.”

Wilson concurs: “A general trait of early people was to eat up everything they could get their hands on, and to become conservationist only when finally they realized that it was necessary for their survival.”

For some modern scholars, evidence of past collapse—be it among the Maya, the Easter Islanders, or the Akkadians along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—should be sufficient to warn a highly educated, technological society of the folly of its chosen path.

“We are persisting when we ought to know better,” says UCLA professor Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. “Whereas past socie­ties persisted without being able to know better. When Mayan society was collapsing, the Mayans had no knowledge that society in the Fertile Crescent had already collapsed because of salinization. They had no knowledge of the fall of the Roman Empire several hundred years before that. So they could not learn the lessons… And yet we can.”

Today’s central challenge may be to generate empathy for our descendants 50 or 100 years from now. (Scientists frequently cite 2050 in their warnings on the need to act on carbon emissions today.) Yet how possible is it for us to generate compassion for generations whose lives we cannot immediately imagine?

Wilson has written that “compassion is flexible and eminently adaptable to political reality,” depending on one’s own allegiances. “So we therefore work like some great all-devouring juggernaut,” he explained to me, “and it takes a considerable stretch of the intellect to start thinking in terms of a centuries-long future.”

Ornstein and Ehrlich, however, have argued that humans can change their supposed biological destiny in the interest of preservation of the species. “For the first time humanity has the knowledge to destroy itself quickly,” they wrote. Yet, “for the first time humanity also has the knowledge to take its own evolution into its hands and change now.”

Wilson, though, remains skeptical that humans can change their very biology. After all, he states, “The genes hold culture on a leash.” Yet despite the evolutionary “leash” on human action, Wilson believes a conservation ethic can emerge. “The reason why we are conspicuously lacking it in Western cultures, including the American culture,” he says, “is that we have just concluded several centuries of worldwide colonization in which we always had another place to go when the place that we ruined was no longer sustainable. Finally when you come to the other shore, and when a few generations have suffered, then you begin to think like a conservationist.”

Perhaps the Kyoto Protocol, a global, U.N.-sponsored accord to limit carbon emissions, is such an example. It is, in any case, an expression of human will, and its ratification, by leaders and elected representatives of most of the Earth’s nations, suggests that humans do indeed have a capacity to look beyond a generation or two and even to consider protecting the commons. That the nation most responsible for global warming—the United States—refuses to ratify the treaty suggests that culture and lifestyle, not just human nature, play at least an equal role in not facing up to the problem.

At the heart of the American resistance lies the automobile, and the economic, political, and social structures we have built around it: vast networks to acquire, secure, and deliver petroleum; cities that sprawl ever farther from their centers; and a romantic magnetism that draws from the depths of American culture. This romance runs from Kerouac’s On the Road in the 1950s, to the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe in the 1960s, to the TV ad showing a sleek black sedan cutting through pine forest on a curving mountain highway, far above some unknown sea. This message elicits desire, and a longing for the freedom of the open road. In doing so, it underpins the entire American politico-economic-military effort to bring ever more energy to the people.

So perhaps human nature is not the main culprit. Nor is “Western” culture, for even the Europeans have by and large embraced Kyoto. Their political and social institutions, which have developed efficient mass transit systems, have led them to consume far less energy per capita than Americans do.

Some Americans, indeed, seem to be waiting for a grand “tech fix” to get us out of the problem. This is illusory. Yet if all the automobiles in the country magically became hybrid vehicles tomorrow, the results would be stunning: gasoline use for those vehicles would be cut in half, with an annual savings of some one billion barrels per year. If more efficient uses of electricity were implemented—including things as simple as energy-saving light bulbs and better standards for refrigerators, as were implemented in the 1990s in California—the U.S. could cut its electrical use by some 30 percent, which would bring it within compliance with Kyoto. And for those who point out that the growing industrialization in China and India will contribute equally to rising carbon levels, similar technological solutions, which would not necessarily impede growth, are being feverishly developed by engineers and planners around the world.

For years, the problem of global warming, as presented in the American media, seemed theoretical. It was cast as a fierce debate between dueling scientists over the gravity of the problem and whether it could be linked to human activity. In fact, climate scientists had decided both questions resoundingly in the affirmative years earlier, and their consensus has been reflected in the reports of the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing the conclusions of more than 2,000 scientists in more than 100 countries.

Whether resistance to global warming lies more in the hungers of American culture, or because our species is wired to ignore problems in some far-away future—this matters less now than it may have a few years ago, because the future has arrived. We have indeed come to Wilson’s “other shore,” and the evidence is mounting that the shoreline may not be there much longer.

Sandy Tolan teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism, where he directs international reporting projects. He has produced dozens of award-winning documentaries for National Public Radio, focusing on land, water and natural resources. He has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Audubon, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and other publications. He is the author of Me and Hank (Free Press, 2000), an exploration of heroes and race relations through the experience of home run king Hank Aaron. His most recent book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury), was released earlier this year.

From the September October 2006 Global Warning issue of California.

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