Sink or Swim


“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
― Will Rogers*(1879-1935)


Last Saturday, April 22, was the 48th celebration of Earth Day, and the first March for Science in Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of other cities around the world. Just when we might have congratulated ourselves that reason and scientific inquiry had pushed aside superstition and muddled thinking, the medieval mind rises again and reasserts itself, now with a in-over-his-head champion in the Oval Office who is quite pleased to indulge the self-interest of his oligarchic cohorts in the fossil fuel industry. The lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder grunt their approval of his policies because those obnoxious policies appear to rile up the fancy pants pointy-headed folks, and that’s always a nice, satisfying feeling. The folks higher up on the ladder are only too happy to let those lower down bear their weight, and the reasons they bear that weight are not important to the higher ups, only that they continue to hold up the whole enterprise without asking troubling questions. It’s worked well for Wayne Tracker, aka Rex Tillerson.

It’s not the fault of these hard-working men and their unfortunate mules they’ve been told to “keep digging”.

The amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere is higher now than it has been in human history, based on what we know from ice cores. Sea levels are high and getting higher as the climate warms, and are already affecting coastal communities. It has been at least thousands of years, possibly millions, since Earth last encountered conditions like those we are entering into now. There is no basis for comparison for humans in the present age, now known as the Anthropocene on account of the profound effect people have had on the Earth, because in the interregnum we have settled the coastlines so densely that in geologic time it would appear as no more than the blink of an eye. Around the world now there hundreds of millions of people living within 100 miles of the sea, and accompanying all that settlement there has been an enormous investment in infrastructure such as housing, office buildings, and roads, along with the economic fortunes and personal hopes of all those people. And all of those people will feel – are feeling – the impact of a warming climate sooner than other groups living in other situations farther inland. Around the world, most of those people living along coastlines are poor. Ironically, in the United States, the richest country in the world and one where having a beachfront property is often a status symbol for the wealthy, the effects of sea level rise will possibly be more severe than average.

A portion of a BBC Newsnight interview with Noam Chomsky from June 8, 2012. The situation he bemoans has not improved in the nearly five years since the interview.

Whether a person believes climate warming is caused by humans or not is, at this point, almost immaterial. It is happening; it’s here. If scientific evidence is not persuasive to some folks, then common sense should tip the scales for them. Sticking their heads out of air conditioning into the natural environment for more than a few minutes at a stretch ought to help. Too many people unfortunately are willing to ride along with Wayne Tracker, despite their common sense and their personal experience. If the Earth is a lifeboat in the cosmos (and what have we found so far to tell us otherwise?), then we are all in this together, and at this point arguing about how we got here serves little purpose. Certainly there are some people in the lifeboat who seem to feel it’s perfectly fine to flourish their revolvers and shoot holes in the boat, which of course makes things worse. What to do about them? If we can find the political will among our fellow survivors, we take away their revolvers, for they are imperiling everyone’s chances, and their ideology be damned. They should know better than to pound in the stakes of “Global Warming is a Hoax” yard signs in insufferable heat, throwing themselves into a tizzy, giving themselves a paroxysm of the vapors. They are dangerous nitwits.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 masterpiece Lifeboat holds our attention despite the limited setting because of the universal behaviors we can all recognize.

What would you do if you were on a lifeboat at sea and one or more of your fellow survivors exhibited behavior that was detrimental to your own survival, as common sense dictated it? If your children were with you on the lifeboat, and therefore your progeny were endangered as well? It’s hot, and your patience is growing short. What’s particularly annoying is that you notice some of the unhelpful survivors appear to be cynically manipulating the others, the true believers, for their own gain. Besides the danger, this behavior turns your stomach. If there were another lifeboat nearby, you’d dive off this one and take your chances with the sharks until you reached the other boat. But there isn’t another lifeboat as far as the eye can see. You’re stuck with these people. Nevertheless, with water everywhere, it’s good to know how to swim.
― Vita