Janet Asimov: Lessons in Humility (Part 3)
Disasters that are mainly our own fault should certainly result in humility, if not plenty of humiliation. Regrettably, the all too usual response to many man-made disasters is denial, with or without a frantic search for someone else to blame, plus a demand that someone else (preferably supernatural) take care of the problem.
True humility means accepting (and admitting) your own contribution to the disaster, and doing something about it. The sad fact is that many human-made disasters could have been avoided, and that present and future horrors may still be lessened if people do some humble, constructive thinking leading to helpful action.
I tend to be pessimistic about this, which you might keep in mind as I review some of the disasters that I think are our own fault. It’s hard to be humble and forgiving when you’re scared and angry, which is what one often is when reading up on the latest news, especially that dealing with environmental problems.
Then, what about the environment? Don’t listen to the politicians who deny that anything done by them and their wealthy backers could possibly have a causative relationship with current or future environmental disasters. Look at what’s actually happening. Don’t pretend that you are witnessing a normal trend that will reverse itself.
Climate change is much in the news and much denied by people who are not, of course, reading this, and who pretend that the present serious climate change is due to the normal tilting of the planet in its travels around the Sun.
It is true that the tilting of our planet’s orbits does increase or decrease the amount of incoming sunlight. It is also true that shifting tectonic plates move the continents around and increase or decrease the amount of ocean to reflect sunlight and absorb gases. These changes ordinarily proceed slowly. That’s not what is happening now.
To put the current scientific liberal point of view (alas, there are others) in a short, depressing paragraph, human activities cause changes that are proceeding much faster than is normal for the planet. As Earth’s temperature rises, melting permafrost releases methane, a greenhouse gas. Sea level rise causes coastal flooding. Disastrous changes in oceanic currents occur due to melting ice. There is more extreme weather---droughts, tornados, hurricanes, etc. Serious infectious diseases are more likely to afflict humanity in climate change.
If you are still with me, please pay attention to the recently discovered data from analysis of ice cores taken from both poles. Carbon dioxide is indeed a greenhouse gas, the increase of which has occurred with or probably before the rise in Earth’s temperature. Global warming is real. It can’t be blamed on Earth’s tilting. Furthermore, it’s happening so fast that only human activity accounts for it.
Homo sapiens has an immense carbon footprint. It all goes together in disaster: the increasing numbers of people, the destruction of carbon sinks like forests, the burning of fossil fuels … but I’m sure you know all this.
You should also know what can be done about the present and much worse future disaster. We have the technology to use other forms of energy. It will cost more for a while, but grandchildren to come will be grateful.
Pollution is not just another problem causing disaster now and in the future. Pollution of the atmosphere is what’s causing global warming. Pollution of our soils and water is ruining our health. There are even “cancer villages” in China and other parts of the world, including the United States, where cancer rates are high and the water is polluted with cancer-causing chemicals. I refuse to go on and on about this, something everyone should understand and accept as part of the folly of Homo sapiens.
There is so much we could do to save our planet and ourselves. I’ll mention only a few of the ways:
We should plant trees.
We should manage our farming better, with more diversity of crops to prevent wipeout of a food upon which we depend. We should plant more perennial vegetables. We should use less dangerous pesticides.
We should have more and better cities instead of land-wasting and automobile-using suburbs, and those cities should have solar panels, gardens and greenhouses on each roof.
The point is that we need lots of greenery to give us oxygen and absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that we stupid human beings are building up in the atmosphere.
I love this one, promoted by Trisha Atwood of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver: We should build up populations of natural predators that eat the herbivores that eat the greenery. Studies have shown that when sea otters are killed (mostly by humans), the number of sea urchins goes up, and they decimate the kelp beds that soak up a lot of CO2 and give O2.
We should be more sensible (and healthy) about our own human diets. If it meant saving Earth, I would settle for food synthesized from vats of algae, but it hasn’t come to that yet. Nevertheless, our lifestyles, especially what and how we eat, matter, according to Curt Collier, Deputy Director of Groundwork Hudson Valley.
What we do has and is changing the great connected environment of Earth. Who is this “we”? Top animal? Top predator? Destroyer of the world?
Maybe we are all of these things, so it behooves us to look at how many of us make up that “we.”
Some quite credible and presumably well-meaning people, including a few scientists, neglect to mention overpopulation when urging us to change our ways and contribute money to save the environment.
Every day I get requests from organizations I feel duty bound to support but which disappoint me because they apparently ignore the fact that seven billion people are a lot. (I thought it was six, and used to say that Earth’s population had doubled in my lifetime, but when I paused for breath suddenly it’s seven). The predictions are for ten billion people on Earth. People even write about how Earth can support that many.
I just don’t believe it. There are already many members of our current population who are dying, or fighting and dying, for water and food and a good place to live.
Years ago, when I was writing articles about the dangers of overpopulation, I listened to Isaac [Asimov] on the subject and recommended education and equal rights for women as ways of helping humanity keep its numbers down. In the article, I also urged that birth control be easily available and safe.
A very religious friend (now long dead) read the article and said, “But God will take care of overpopulation by increasing the death rate.”
It seems to me that the most important thing that environmentally-minded people can do is to teach others that decreasing the birth rate is preferable to increasing the death rate.
In summary, let’s avoid or cope adequately with any disaster, from our planet or from space or from our own folly, by accepting humility. We have made mistakes. We have much to learn.
It is also probable that we are a species that is alone, helped only by its own intelligence and ingenuity.
Or at least we could say, with Ben Franklin, that God helps those who help themselves.
Janet Asimov is a writer and psychiatrist in New York. She was married to the science fiction author and past American Humanist Association president Isaac Asimov.