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On knowledge versus action

June 1, 2011

This week, an article in The Guardian (referring to unpublished data from the International Energy Agency) indicated that our greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 were the highest on record – ever. This, in spite of the fact that we all “know” that human-caused global warming is real, that we should “do” something about it, and that many countries have set official targets that they are not taking appropriate steps to meet. (I am not going to address the climate-change deniers here. They ignore the data yet get far too much media attention – but I’ll talk about that in a future post).

This disconnect, between our knowledge and our actions, is really difficult for me to understand. To my way of thinking, when you see something that can go wrong in the future, you act to prevent it.

I finished my PhD in 1992, nearly 20 years ago. That same year, a group of 1700 of the world’s leading scientists published a letter warning humanity that we must change how we live if we are to avert disaster. That letter began:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

I don’t think that this week’s Guardian article will be “news” to any earth scientist or climate scientist. We have known all this for 20 years or more. And on some level, everyone – scientist or not – knows it.

So what I don’t get is how people can refuse to act.

I don’t even have children, but I look at the children around me: my little neighbours who knock on my door and ask me to ride my bike with them, my little niece in Ontario, my friends’ children. I want these kids to have happy lives, to grow up into a healthy world. I can only imagine the love that a parent must feel for their child – but in my imagining, that love is so strong that I would do anything, anything, to be able to promise my child a secure and happy future. But people aren’t. (OK, some people take feel-good steps like recycling – but I am talking about the steps that effect real and meaningful change).

There was an insightful article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, too, by columnist Ross Gittins, who commented:

“It’s a sore test of faith when people put power bills before their children’s future.”

We know all of these things. We know them, but – just like the smoker who means to quit, or the diabetic who keeps nibbling on sweets – that knowledge always comes with a “but.” But I was in a hurry. But I don’t have a choice. But it’s too hard. But I like my [insert noun here]. But everyone else does it.

We have the knowledge. We know that we must drop our consumption of resources and our greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically if we are to survive. We know this, yet we are doing little about it, far too little. What is stopping us?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. greg blanchette permalink
    June 1, 2011 7:19 pm

    It’s that old bugbear, human nature, IMHO. Evolution has equipped us to take action to clear and present danger — the wolf pack, the flood, the invading tribe. If the threat is cerebral, far in the future, and probably happening to someone else … well, it’s shadowy and easily trumped by whatever petty concerns are in front of us right now.

    I’m hoping that climate change will come on gradually enough to scare us into action before it kills us outright. These monster tornadoes in the US, along with sundry floods and droughts worldwide, may be wising us up. Personally i’m hoping for a category 5 hurricane to track through the Gulf of Mexico oil-producing region to snap the US into action. For sure it’s food and water that will be the lever that gets us moving — though whether we move toward meaningful action or mass warfare is as yet moot.

    We (global humanity) need to change the way we think, en masse, and put more planning emphasis on rational thought and less on … well, all those other human characteristics, like greed and jealousy and religious fervor. Those have their place in the mix, but they are not helpful in planning for a small, crowded world.

  2. June 1, 2011 11:32 pm

    I believe we are prevented from taking meaningful global action because of the huge and growing disparity between the politically wealthy and powerful and the equally huge and growing mass that is the rest of us at the bottom. Not enlightened self-interest, just self-interest. The elite is largely male and believes its wealth and power will insulate them against the consequences of global catastrophe, and, to a degree, they’re right. Meanwhile, they undermine efforts at remediation and continue to widen the gap. Canada has stepped way back from Kyoto and Harper will continue the intransigence. At some point there may be revolution and a global spring at huge cost. The Syrian regime has tortured a thirteen-year-old boy to death and sent his mutilated body back to his parents as a warning to even peaceful reformers. This after announcing an ‘amnesty’ for protesters. Even the U. S. is unwilling to outright condemn the Assad regime. I just don’t know . . . .

    • June 1, 2011 11:48 pm

      Hmm… but David, do you really think we are “prevented” from taking action?

      I get the feeling that we all could take action – but that most of us don’t. People don’t speak out. I don’t know if they just don’t have the skills (scientific literacy, numeracy) to be truly informed and engaged, or if they don’t want to be informed (the reality is too scary) or if they are too lazy to be informed/act or if they just have some blind trust that “someone else” will speak out or act.

      But I feel that we all could take action… we are not “prevented” by the politically wealthy/powerful. Rather, we enable the politically wealthy/powerful by choosing not to speak out – at least by not speaking out in any meaningful way.

      I wish I could feel more positive about our future. But, I feel that, unless people engage more – not just “know” or “care” about environmental issues (or community issues) – but to actually act, that we are pretty much doomed. I think we have been spoiled over here, in North America and most of Europe… nice democracies that treat most citizens relatively well. We;ve become complacent. The contrast that I see with the countries that I have visited in South America, where they don’t have such a nice and fair democratic record, or, as the world has seen in Egypt and Tunisia etc. this year, where people do not take their right to speak out for granted, is marked. Here – we are complacent, mal-informed and lazy. (Easier to focus on the hockey scores, isn’t it?). People don’t want to think of the future, of their kids.

  3. greg blanchette permalink
    June 3, 2011 4:56 pm

    Good point, David. I think it’s critical that the wealthy not be insulated from what’s going on. It’s a plain truth that, as our local First Nations say, “everything is one” — interconnected. But when you’re a billionaire it’s relatively easy to ignore that truth, at least until the plagues start, or the food riots at the gates of your gated community, or desperate people kidnap your child.

    Jackie’s right — we all have the choice to act right now, in ways small and large: by changing our life, what we eat, what we buy (or don’t buy), how we vote and what we tell our elected representatives. It’s dead easy to not drive the SUV to the store every day … but you have to be aware enough to realize you’re doing it, and motivated enough to then change that behaviour. I applaud the rise in gas price and pray for much higher prices, because that’s one way to make people conscious of their actions and the effects.


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