Sunday, December 11, 2016

Climate Crisis: The Long-Lag Non-Problem

Futurist Jamais Cascio makes a distinction between long-run problems and long-lag problems.  Long run problems evolve over time, and can be addressed when they come to fruition as well as along the way.  Long-lag problems are consequences of what is done now that doesn't come to fruition for a long time, but by then it is too late to address them.

The climate crisis is a classic long-lag problem.  We pour carbon into the atmosphere now and in 20 or 30 years, the atmosphere has heated up proportionately and the climate changes.

Part of our difficulties in addressing the climate crisis, Cascio says, is that we're not good at conceptualizing long-lag problems: "We are kind of used to thinking about long-run problems: we know this thing is going to hit us in fifty years, and we’ll wait a bit because we will have developed better systems by the time it hits. We are not so good at thinking about long-lag systems: it’s going to hit us in fifty years, but the cause and proximate sources are actually right now, and if we don’t make a change right now, that fifty years out is going to hit us regardless."

"We’re not really good at thinking about long-lag problems."
  And that's a problem.

Well, I don't buy it.  Humans have been thinking about long-lag problems since rudimentary civilization, probably since the Pleistocene.  For instance: if you eat all the food you stored for winter in the first week, before spring comes you will have starved to death.  If people hadn't figured this out, there probably wouldn't be people anymore.  Even animals have figured this out.

Most of the health warnings we get are long-lag warnings.  Smoke tobacco now and in thirty years you'll get lung cancer.  We may ignore that warning--and reasons that we might do pertain to how we respond to the climate crisis warnings--but we understand what it means.

So the basic thinking is not beyond even the average citizen, let alone scientists and leaders who are supposed to think about such things.  It's more about attitude and will and the irrational forces within us.

But I believe that it is precisely because we do understand the long-lag problem that these other factors get involved.  If we are afraid of certain changes in the present, if we are frightened at the prospect of future catastrophe that we've had a hand in causing, if our fears and selfishness overpowers our understanding, etc., that's going to set up conflicts within us.  And that's where the shadow can get thrown over the whole process of "thinking" about the climate crisis.

One of the salient features of such strong currents from the unconscious (characterized as denial or projection or whatever) is that they convince our conscious mind that they are rational.  Like the logic of dreams that seems perfectly reasonable during the dream, and totally whacked out when you wake up.

The real problems are more on the order of facing that I don't care enough about my children's and grandchildren's world to sacrifice or risk anything in my present, but I can't admit that, especially not to myself.  So I deny that there's a problem.

Or that the future is always at least a little uncertain so maybe it won't happen (maybe I'll discover a new food source before spring), so I don't have to deliberately do anything now, because I lack the will.  And if I can get a few others to agree with me, I feel safer, at least in the present.

This is apart from believing what someone is paying you to believe.

So I don't buy that it's a conceptual problem basically.  There are conceptual problems in dealing with complex systems and so on, that pertain to addressing the causes and effects of the climate crisis--lots of problems.  But the time lag isn't it.  It's the complex of conflicting feelings that the climate crisis stir up.  That's the crisis within.

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