Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.

  4 Responses to “Opening Doors & Windows – Part 1”

  1. Hi Roger. I think one of the ways we can open windows is to be as non judgemental in our discussions with people who disagree with us as possible.

    I find many of my conservative friends have invested a vote and some of their pride in supporting the current administration as well as their thoughts on climate change. I think as evidence mounts of both being mistakes, they feel they’re in a emotional corner and admitting to this error is an attack on their views of themselves and their values.

    Giving them room to change without even the lint of “I told you so” helps open doors and windows for them.

    Allan

    • Allan,

      Thanks for your thoughts about “Opening Doors & Windows.”

      I agree that giving others room to admit error without recrimination is a valuable thing to do.

      But how about the reverse? If climate deniers give me permission to admit error without recrimination, would I? I would have to listen without judgement to what they are saying. Do I have that much courage?

      I, too, am very invested in my ideas. I often wonder why. It feels to me that I am somehow less as a human if my ideas are wrong. My ideas and my identity become intertwined. I have always obtained a great deal of my identity from the value of my answers, and very little from the value of my questions.

      So, while I always want to give other a free ride to admit they are in error, I need to find the same generosity for myself.

      It’s a conundrum!

      With Gratitude,

      Roger

  2. Brief comment. It is easy to confound the difference between an item of knowledge and what we believe. A belief is analogous to a framework for the elements that we know, providing a boundary and n organizing pattern for the known. Assertions about the earth, including climate are more akin to a belief. Beliefs are very deeply rooted and we all are mightily tempted to rationalize away any opposing point of view. Evidence offered just does not fit within the existing framework. Especially when the “evidence” seems destructive to our operating framework.

    Thanks for the privilege of commenting….

  3. The evolution of man on a time line vs the evolution of Mother Earth would show two lines on a graph going in opposite directions. Yes, there was a time when we both reached an equilibrium, but that time has passed. The forces of nature are powerful. Can we meet the challenge of restoring balance? How much can Humans and other life evolve to adjust? The percentage of oxygen on our planet has been decreasing steadily according to our scientific data. It is not just melting glaciers and rising sea levels but decreasing oxygen levels. Also, consider the earth’s ability to sustain ever increasing population. So, what’s the answer? This is a global question. Unless a global summit can agree to work together to find solutions, I’m afraid that
    the planet wins.

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