Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The danger of comfort

There is nothing as dangerous as our attitude that if something isn't bothering us right here and right now, it can effectively be ignored.

It's what is behind the phenomenon that doctors rail against, that if you're feeling good at the moment, there's no reason to have an annual physical.  I say this with a degree of wry amusement because I'm a doctor avoider myself, but at least I acknowledge how foolish that approach is.  There are large numbers of illnesses that if caught early and treated are not really that serious, but if left untreated long enough can kill you.  I was just chatting a couple of days ago with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who had ignored increasingly severe headaches for weeks, and ultimately died of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm that probably would have been operable -- at the age of 41.

Scale that attitude up, and you have our current approach to the global environment.

Every time you look at the news you see more alarm bells about the current state of the natural world.  Just in the last two weeks, we've had the following:
  • A study at the University of Sussex showing that the world's biodiversity is falling far faster than previous models had estimated
  • A paper in Nature with new data about mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet, projecting the displacement of forty million people worldwide from coastal flooding and incursion of seawater in the next eighty years
  • A rather horrifying study from the University of California-San Diego detailing more accurate estimates of microplastics in the ocean -- bits of effectively non-biodegradable debris suspended in seawater, with unknown long-term effects on ecosystems -- and found that the average concentration was 8.3 million pieces of microplastic per cubic meter of water, on the order of six orders of magnitude higher than previous measurements
But here I sit in my comfortable office in rural upstate New York.  It's a clear December morning, the sky is a pristine pale blue, the tilled cornfield across the road dusted with snow.  There are birds at the feeders, a hawk is kiting high overhead, my dogs are snoozing in a patch of sunlight after an early morning's romp.  I have a cup of hot coffee, a fire in the wood stove.

All's well with the world.  Right?

Certainly looks like it is.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Pranjal kukreja, Adventure-clouds-environment-672358, CC BY-SA 4.0]

We're geared to respond to how our personal conditions are in the moment, so stories like the ones I mentioned above have a hard time gaining any traction in our consciousness.  I consider myself more environmentally-conscious than a lot of people (and for cryin' in the sink, I just spent the morning researching serious problems with the global ecology) and I still have a hard time feeling viscerally alarmed by it, the way I would if there was a forest fire headed this way or a chemical spill was killing all the fish in my pond or smog was making it impossible to breathe without a filter mask.

There's really no difference, though, between the three problems in the news and the three hypothetical ones I just mentioned -- or if there is, it's a matter of scale.  The three papers I referenced above are orders of magnitude more serious than any of the three local ones I listed.  If a wildfire went out of control and burned my house down, it would be a tragedy for me.  But the three papers I described are disasters in the making that affect not just one person, nor even a single community, but the entire world.

And for most people, they elicit nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders.

It doesn't help, of course, that the current government of the United States is actively involved in perpetuating this attitude, and (worse) spreading scientific misinformation.  For some of the perpetrators it's done with malice aforethought, because of the influence of money from the fossil fuel lobby and others like it, but for some -- like Donald Trump -- it's a combination of the "who cares, I'm doing fine" attitude with outright willful stupidity.  Take, for example, this direct quote from Trump's speech to a Turning Point USA (a conservative student group) rally just two days ago:
I never understood wind.  I know windmills very much, I have studied it better than anybody.  I know it is very expensive.  They are made in China and Germany mostly, very few made here, almost none, but they are manufactured, tremendous — if you are into this — tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere.  You know we have a world, right?  So the world is tiny compared to the universe.  So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything.  You talk about the carbon footprint, fumes are spewing into the air, right spewing, whether it is China or Germany, is going into the air...  A windmill will kill many bald eagles.  After a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off, that is true.  By the way, they make you turn it off.  And yet, if you killed one, they put you in jail.  That is okay.  But why is it okay for windmills to destroy the bird population?
Watching a video of this speech, it was hard to escape two conclusions: (1) Donald Trump is the single stupidest person ever elected to public office, and (2) the fact that there are still a significant number of supporters of this man's policies, who apparently still think he's the best president ever, makes me despair for the future of the human race.

When I taught Environmental Science, I was up front about my goal -- to widen students' perspective from what's right in front of them, to their homes, to their communities, to their nation, and finally to the entire world.  So much of what we're doing wrong lately -- or failing to do -- is purely because we only care, and act, on what is right before our faces.

So I'm glad that I've got a beautiful morning to enjoy, clean air, a warm and safe place for myself and my family and pets.  But I can't let that lull me into the Panglossian attitude that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."  In the current conditions -- with ecological perils everywhere, and a government that combines complicity and ignorance -- complacency is the deadliest danger of all.


As technology has improved, so has our ability to bring that technology to bear on scientific questions, sometimes in unexpected ways.

In the fascinating new book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, archaeologist Sarah Parcak gives a fascinating look at how satellite photography has revolutionized her field.  Using detailed photographs from space, including thousands of recently declassified military surveillance photos, Parcak and her colleagues have located hundreds of exciting new sites that before were completely unknown -- roads, burial sites, fortresses, palaces, tombs, even pyramids.

These advances are giving us a lens into our own distant past, and allowing investigation of inaccessible or dangerous sites from a safe distance -- and at a phenomenal level of detail.  This book is a must-read for any students of history -- or if you'd just like to find out how far we've come from the days of Heinrich Schliemann and the excavation of Troy.

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1 comment:

  1. Yup. I saw a post on LinkedIn the other day with a beautiful picture of a power plant in rural Alberta. With picturesque mountains in the background, snow covered trees and blue sky all around. Sun is shining of course (it's Alberta!). The post was brought to you by the typical "right is might" oil industry apologists that seem to claim if you can take a photo like this today, then all this noise about climate change and human factors are left-wing deep state nut job conspiracies meant to rob us all of our God-given rights. There's just no reasoning with these people. One at a time I suppose. One, immeasurably small step at a time. Eventually they'll find out they were wrong. Hopefully it's not too late by then. We just need to convince 51%.