Thursday , January 17 2019
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A matter of slow time

One of the sad truths about aging is that you never notice it happening.  Sure, you can look at old photographs and trawl through distant memories and know, cognitively, that you are no longer the person that you once were.  You can notice lines and blemishes on your skin that weren’t there back in the day.  You can even use dyes and potions in a vain attempt to recapture your lost youth.  But at any given moment, the process of aging is so slow that we fail to notice it.  Indeed, mentally, most of us stop at some point in our thirties; at least until a raft of physical ailments and infirmities remind us that, no, those days are long gone.

This lack of connection is not only with the people we used to be.  Behavioural economists and psychologists have demonstrated that almost all of us are disconnected from our future selves to the point that they are no different to strangers.  Again, cognitively, I understand that I will get older and that the likelihood is that as I do I will be more prone to illness and disability and less able to do the things that I can do today.  But cognitive awareness is not sufficient (for around 90 percent of us) to cause us to change behaviour in order to mitigate some of the impacts of aging and change.  As I explained in the book, The Consciousness of Sheep:

“An adult will not educate themselves so that a stranger can get a better job.  A drunk will not turn down a drink so that a stranger will be spared a hangover.   A smoker will not turn down a cigarette so that someone else does not get cancer.  And none of us will leave our cars at home or turn down holidays abroad so that strangers do not have to cope with economic collapse and climate change…

“Again, we all ‘understand’ this at a cognitive level.  For example, we know that someone who is in a poorly paid and/or stressful job would be better off taking up a night school or distance learning course than, say, going to the pub in an attempt to unwind.  Nevertheless, adult education is struggling to recruit students while pubs are full of people complaining about their jobs!”

Humans are simply wired this way as a product of millions of years of evolution.  For all but a few thousand years, humans have needed to be here-now focused.  It is only with the introduction of sugar to our diet since the seventeenth century (now, of course, a seriously negative excess) that we have had sufficient additional calories both to take time out from the daily drudge and to have the additional blood sugar to facilitate rational thought – one reason why, incidentally, willpower has been shown to increase in people who are given a shot of glucose prior to making a decision.  Allow ourselves to get tired or deprive us of the calories required to think and we quickly revert to the level of awareness of hunter-gatherers; our mental “event horizons” shrink back to our immediate surroundings and emotional and physical needs.

One consequence of this evolutionary legacy is that we lack the processing equipment to properly assess risk.  That is, we are far more likely to respond to a relatively minor threat that affects us (or those close to us) directly than to a catastrophic event that affects others (including our future selves) at a spatial and temporal distance from us.  Governments, too, are far more likely to pass legislation and provide resources to address relatively trivial immediate issues than make any serious attempt to mitigate against the whole raft of human impact problems that are slowly driving us to extinction.

It is in this context that we should view our inaction on climate change; since, as with aging, that “change” happens too slowly for it to be taken seriously.  Looking back, we can observe that storms are more ferocious, rain events are more likely to cause flooding, and that we have more hot and wet summers and fewer cold and snowy winters.  But today, as I sit writing this article, feels much the same as yesterday; and this December seems the same as last December.  And for most of my fellow Britons, the Tory mishandling of Brexit is of far greater concern today than the increasingly likely extinction of humanity a decade or so from now.

When James Howard Kunstler referred to our (i.e. western civilisation’s) predicament as The Long Emergency he hit the nail on the head.  In the course of my lifetime the human population has grown from 3 billion to 7.5 billion.  At the beginning of that period, the planet appeared to have an abundance of resources on which to build an affluent global society.  The “Green Revolution” provided new varieties of crops that promised to confine famine to the history books.  Energy generation and resource extraction grew exponentially, providing the basis of a post-war boom that created as much wealth in two short decades (1953-73) as had been created in the previous 150 years.

In the 1970s, however, the long emergency began.  The fallout from human activities began to produce noticeable negative effects on the environment.  Concern about global warming grew.  At the same time, oil and mineral resource production stopped growing exponentially; producing the ongoing economic crisis that has rumbled along ever since.  A combination of debt, offshoring and an assault on living standards in the developed states helped to maintain economic growth for a shrinking affluent class and a megalomaniac elite; but only at the expense of even worse crises later on.  By the first decade of the new millennium several key resources that underpin the global economy became economically scarce – that is, they became so energy and money expensive that their production could no longer grow without taking energy and money from elsewhere in the economy.  Chief among these is oil – “the master resource” – which is involved in the production and/or transportation of everything humans consume.  And chief within the broad category “oil” is diesel, the fuel that powers the world’s machinery and road transport.

Take a look around you at your family, friends and neighbours.  Understand that 6 out of every 7 of them are only alive because of oil.  Take away the oil and there is no industrial agriculture; no extractive industries, no industry, no transport, and ironically no solar panels or wind turbines.  Now understand that if we do not cease using oil (and coal and gas) more or less immediately, 6 out of every 7 of them are going to die anyway because of the polluting fallout – including climate change – from all of those industrial processes that keep them alive.  But that isn’t going to happen today.  Nor – unless you know what to look for – will you notice much change from day to day, week to week or even year to year (although those old enough to remember will be aware that 2018 is very different to the years before 2008; and that even those years were very different to the swinging 1960s).

We are not, therefore, going to do anything to address or even mitigate the human impact predicament that is slowly eroding the life support systems that most modern humans depend upon (although most don’t even know it).  Instead we will focus our energies and resources on immediate issues like whether the con artist in the blue tie is better than the con artist in the red tie, or whether we should put off doing anything about the plastic waste problem until after we’ve unwrapped our plastic Christmas gifts.  As the long emergency unfolds, we most likely will not even notice the 6 out of 7 humans as they depart this life.  After all, most are blissfully unaware of the reckless state manslaughter of thousands of Britain’s poor, disabled and homeless people, or of the ongoing opioid epidemic that is driving thousands of Americans to an early death; despite these being manifestations of exactly the kind of decline in life expectancy we expected to see as we passed the limits to growth.

Back in the 1970s, we could have acted to avoid a collapse.  We didn’t because the future looked to be a long way away.  Today the best we can do is to mitigate some of the worst of what is about to befall us.  But even now the future seems less urgent that the present.  There will, however, be a series of emergencies in the 2020s as the developed countries, and especially those in Europe, experience shortages of critical resources – including fossil fuels – that people did not realise our lives depended upon.  When that happens it will be impossible to maintain international trading arrangements, leading to a collapse of economies and political revolts on a scale and ferocity that will make Brexit, Donald Trump and the yellow vests look positively benign.  Meanwhile, trends that are already unfolding around us (such as increasing child mortality, homelessness, food shortages, falling life expectancy, and the emergence of deadly strains of formerly treatable illnesses) will worsen; resurrecting living conditions of a kind last seen at the dawn of the industrial age.

The only question left to be answered is whether we will come together or fall apart in the face of collapse.  And all I have to say on that matter is: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

As you made it to the end…

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