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Oil, climate and time: Why some problems will wait and others will not

America believed it could put off the question of slavery. It did for 73 years from the drafting of the U.S. Constitution to the beginning of the Civil War.

America believed it could put off women’s suffrage after the Civil War even though so many women had worked so hard for abolition and for the rights of former slaves. It did for 54 years until the passage of the 19th Amendment.

The right of gays and lesbians to marry and to be free from discrimination in employment and housing is an ongoing struggle.

All these problems, however painful in their consequences, were or are being addressed over time. I say over time because, by their very nature, they were or are capable of being addressed by human action alone. In short, they are social problems. And, while those who are suffering from discrimination and hatred would like both to end now, the American republic has experienced continuity for more than 220 years despite many such trying social issues.

With gun control, the soaring federal deficit and the sluggish economy dominating the headlines now, it easy to confuse problems that are primarily social in character such as gun control with ones that involve the laws of physics such as climate change and resource depletion.

Exclusively social problems have a way of being addressed—if they are addressed at all—over many decades. Problems such as climate change and resource depletion will not wait for that kind of schedule.

The laws of physics are indifferent to the political schedules of humans. Climate change appears to be speeding up as ice melts faster and faster on Greenland and at the poles. Last year was the warmest year ever recorded in the United States. Climate change is not struggling to be emancipated or seeking the right to vote or to marry. It cannot be put off with assurances that it will have to wait until next year when the political climate might be better.

Climate change is indifferent to such condescension and remorseless to boot. It proceeds whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The same can be said of resource depletion. We can pretend that America is heading toward so-called “energy independence,” even as worldwide oil production remains stalled for seven years running. But oil cannot be cajoled to do anything that the laws of physics will not allow.

Lawmakers and presidents think in terms of what the public or a particular lobby will permit. Physics does not have a lobby. It merely has laws which we have no choice but to follow. If our human laws, regulations, customs and practices don’t come into alignment with the laws of physics, then it will be our grief since the laws of physics show mercy for no one.

It really is that simple. The complex part is the human side of the equation. We did not evolve in a climate that was rapidly changing. We did not evolve in a full world in which both renewable and nonrenewable resources were being tapped at ever higher rates. We did not evolve in societies so complex and global in their scope that our circle of electronic “friends” might include thousands, many of whom live continents away. We did not evolve in societies in which planning for events decades into the future—for example, highway and airline traffic—was a necessity.

We are fit to understand and align with the laws of physics in matters that are close to us, say, playing catch or accurately steering a car. But when it comes to abstract worldwide phenomena, we seem to be at a loss.

Some say it is the vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and elsewhere that are preventing us from taking the necessary actions to address climate change and resource depletion. There is certainly some truth in this. But those interests are counting on us to stay stuck in our evolutionary training which makes us blind to the most urgent problems around us.

Transcending that training will be our most difficult and necessary task ahead if we are to survive as a species in the coming century.

Clock image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

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