Jacqueline Windh

On knowledge versus action


This week, an article in The Guardian (referring to unpublished data from the International Energy Agency) indicated that our greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 were the highest on record – ever.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?