One day before the presidential election in 2000, president-to-be George W. Bush told an audience in Bentonville, Arkansas that his vanquished primary opponent, Sen. John McCain, had “misunderestimated me.”
That malapropism became one of the most famous of his many linguistic missteps. But, it was Bush, or rather his vice president and Ph.D. advisors, who “misunderestimated” the risk involved in going to war with Iraq. The predicted “cakewalk” into Iraq turned into a bloody nightmare occupation lasting more than a decade. The unforeseen consequences of war are very often “misunderestimated.”
I began thinking about “misunderestimated” risks this week when I read an article about the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration slapping a more visible warning on popular sleeping pills. I went through a serious bout of insomnia many years ago. For months I only slept every third night. I understand how desperate people get under such circumstances. But is it wise to take a sleeping pill, the known side effects of which can be driving while asleep and even suicide?
By the way, I never took sleeping pills during my bout with insomnia. I feared their side effects and dependency risks then as much as I do now.
Alongside the FDA announcement the Extinction Rebellion movement burst into the news with its decidedly better ability to analyze risk, in this case, regarding the consequences of climate change. Whether this movement succeeds at its goals, the people behind it understand what is at stake.
While I regard it as unlikely that humans will disappear from the Earth even with unchecked climate change, it seems quite plausible that billions of them will die early deaths as a result and that the population will plummet. That by itself would likely destroy our current complex, industrial civilization if the die-off were compressed into a few decades.
It also seems plausible that the infrastructure we have built—dams, reservoirs, roads, electric grids, seawalls, water systems, and other industrial and agricultural systems—will not withstand intact the heat, drought, floods, sea level rise, severe weather and other problems that unchecked climate change will bring with it. At the very least, we are unlikely to be able to reliably grow enough food to feed all of us.
How is it that the awareness of risk has become so blunted among so much of the world’s population? Of course, for the poorest among us—those who barely make it from one day to the next—risk is immediate, personal and abundantly clear. Lack of food, shelter, medical care and protection from violence are existential questions that command attention.
For many of the rest of us, we have been living in a fool’s paradise in which we have been convinced that risk could be abolished. Take a pill and go to sleep. No need to worry about side-effects or complications. Embrace your cellphone, even sleep with it on under your pillow. There are no risks of harm, physical or psychological, that can come from it. Eat whatever you see on television. Food is just fuel. Why not have anything that tastes good to you?
And, of course, scaling up the burning of fossil fuels to ever greater heights will be good for all of us and increase our wealth collectively. By now most people understand that fossil fuel combustion must decline and dramatically. But it keeps going up.
When there is no immediate personal punishment for any of the risks just listed, we tend to risk even more. We do not understand that we are in a game of Russian roulette. We wrongly believe that the longer we escape consequences, the safer we must be. But just the opposite is true. It turns out that the more often we perform risky acts, the more likely we are to perform one that is fatal.
It is true that living is filled with risks and we cannot eliminate them. But we can distinguish between those that will likely wipe us out personally and collectively, and those that will only harm us in minor ways that we can absorb.
The ultimate question that the Extinction Rebellion poses is this: Why should we care about human extinction? The geologic record suggests that humans will one day go extinct no matter what they do. So, what if that happens sooner rather than later?
The answer to those questions hinges on whether a person defines his or her community strictly in spacial terms and does not include temporal terms. In other words, are we a community of people only by space (and then only weakly at that) or are we a community that extends through both space AND time? In other words, does it matter whether human culture continues?
Those who deny climate change are answering the last two questions “no.” If those who accept that climate change is largely human-caused do not see it as an existential question, they may as well be deniers.
The hardest minds to change are those who accept climate change as a reality, but cannot embrace the necessary steps implied by that belief. Will the Extinction Rebellion change that? I’d like to think the answer is yes. But I think a more thoroughgoing change in human hearts and perceptions will likely only come from actual catastrophic consequences hitting much larger groups of people and only if they understand that those consequences are the result of climate change.
Photo: Great train wreck of 1918. The Tennessean. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1918trainwreck.jpg