06 July 2012
Along with our deteriorating math skills, the U.S. population (not coincidentally) is becoming increasingly, willfully ignorant about science. It is a phenomenon I cannot grasp. The word 'science' literally means 'knowledge'. Why would anyone choose to avoid understanding the world around them?
Well, probably because it's hard. But nearly all the worthwhile things in life are hard ~ science, math, relationships, parenting. We're driven by strong biological, genetic, and cultural imperatives to seek out relationships and parenting. If history is any guide, we're also born with a powerful need to explore, to discover, to expand our horizons. So what if it's hard, stop whining.
The nosedive in enthusiasm for science and math seems to come and go in cycles. Remember the Dark Ages? Nosedive. Remember the Enlightenment? Climbing high. Take a moment and recall your own reaction to taking science classes in school. Did you opt out of the challenge of biology and chemistry and physics, instead taking some remedial 'general science' class? Did you shy away from algebra, geometry, trigonometry, telling yourself that having a vague grasp of addition and subtraction was good enough? To what extent did your parents influence your choices, by advice or by example?
That cross-generational encouragement is essential, as is the sometimes-flaky, sometimes-sound advice we receive from our peers. According to Christopher Mims in How Our Disinterest in the Environment Signals the End of Nature, we suffer from " 'generational amnesia', in which [our elders remember] an ecosystem that younger generations haven't a clue ever existed. It's not an intuitive phenomenon. We consider 'nature' to be whatever we experienced as children, and, limited by our incomplete grasp of history and our short lifespans, are only capable of recognizing short windows of change in what is by now the most profound transformation the Earth has experienced since the great extinctions of yore ~ that is, the human experiment .... We have basically killed most of the wildlife that was available to us a single generation ago".
But generational amnesia is only a partial explanation. There are those among us (like me) who have vivid memories of habitats, entire ecosystems, and many, many species which shared our garden planet only half a century ago, but which no longer exist ~ or exist in threatened numbers and a degraded environment. Too few of us want to understand that as nature fares, so fare humans. We are consciously deciding to ignore the warnings of biologists, climate scientists, and ecologists.
Care for proof? Consider the introduction of a bill in the North Carolina legislature which would in essence make it illegal to take science into account when state and local policy makers determine whether sea level rise is real. Instead, that determination will be made by ~ wait for it ~ a committee, the Coastal Resources Commission (an entity more concerned with land development than with the reality of climate change. Under the legislation, the CRS is "restricted from using accelerated sea-level rise models if they are not 'consistent with historical trends'."
Be definition, if one is making a decision based on the past, one is going to be caught napping if a new and destructive event like anthropogenic sea level rise starts lapping around one's ankles. That's like driving a car by referring solely to the rear-view mirror. What are these people thinking? Answer ~ they are not. Which is compelling evidence why we need fewer lawyers and more scientists in all levels of government.
Bottom line, we have arrived at a tipping point for our planet. A major new study in the journal Nature phrases it as though the tipping point isn't quite here yet ~ "A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation .... 'It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point. The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.' "
The truly discouraging aspect of the report is that the information has been around for at least thirty years ~ this is language I encountered while pursuing my bachelor's degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. I suppose the authors put things in a tentative future tense to avoid sounding alarmist, but NEWS FLASH, alarm is exactly what is called for. The tipping point isn't approaching, it has already passed. The carbon cycle and water cycle are already disrupted. Fisheries have already crashed or become so poisoned by toxins like mercury that they are not edible. Agriculture is in crisis due to years of drought produced by global warming. Glaciers, the Arctic polar ice cap, and the Antarctic ice shelves are disappearing. And yes, myopic North Carolina, sea levels are rising. As the human population soars, competition becomes deadly over dwindling resources. The atmosphere, the land and the world ocean are polluted. The time to begin "adequate preparation and mitigation" was decades ago. The time for alarm is now.
I've been talking and writing for years about the threshold beyond which the ugly processes we humans set in motion achieve such momentum that they become irreversible. We've already crossed that threshold. The tipping point is behind us. The only question remaining is whether we can muster the understanding, the will, and the setting of priorities to salvage what we can. We must do this not for our own survival (though our survival depends on it), but rather because we have an ethical responsibility to all of life on Earth. And that's not science, folks, that's common sense. When you make a mess, you clean it up. It is the only planet we have.
(Art credit ~ Cheng Li)