Humanity (noun): species capable of writing poetry about horses, incapable of calculating the odds at the races.
The future depends on being brave about the right things. Planning for tomorrow is therefore a simple matter of distributing fear correctly. Why is it so difficult, then?
As our species grows in wisdom and ability, we remain disappointingly the same in weighing risk. Our elites are blind to it. By pulling out of the Paris Agreement—and by a dozen other signs—our government shows its inability to understand the world. This weakness is surprisingly widespread.
When we look at the world of tomorrow, we can clearly make out who the chief destroyers will be: The United States and its partners in global warming. We are, it is noted, a huge engine of world-warming. Much as we like to tout our wokeness on multiple levels, America has not stepped back from the ever-looming brink; we stand in proud defiance of nature’s laws. The recent news—Trump shredding the Accord—was to be expected, but that does not make it any less grim for the planet.
For this is the age of misunderstood risks. Trump could do this with impunity because large swathes of the public, and the ruling class, do not accurately understand the risk. One of the clearest signs that humans are not inherently rational is our dim awareness of what risk actually is. Anxiety is an evolutionary response towards threats, but people in general tend to be afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times, in the wrong ways.
Many of us are afraid to fly on planes. Yet we board our cars without fear. Why? Automobiles are much more dangerous and more likely to murder us at high speeds. We fear dirty bombs, but millions of us smoke, which is sure certain to kill you deader than a knife in a neck vein. And this is true in our politics as well. We misunderstand what we need and why we need it. We reckon with our fears, and not our judgment; we pass up the steak to have a full hour feasting on the garnish.
There have been several books published about this tendency—some of them are recent, and some of those are even readable. The best of these bards of risk is Michael Lewis, who wrote about the human power of danger-calculation in a nonfiction book, The Undoing Project. That work considered the scholarship of two academics, Tversky and Kahneman, who scientifically proved the pervasive patterns of irrationality in human minds—and how we could correct them. Self-awareness is the key. An article in the Times quoted Kahneman: ”“No one ever made a decision because of a number … They need a story.”
In Undoing, Lewis wrote the two best sentences of his career:
To Danny the whole idea of proving that people weren’t rational felt a bit like proving that people didn’t have fur. Obviously people were not rational, in any meaningful sense of that term.
Consider that sentence. I have. What else can explain the White House and Wall Street’s rush to abandon science, and their brassy adoration of climate denial? As Lewis wrote, “The failure of decision makers to grapple with the inner workings of their own minds, and their desire to indulge their gut feelings, made it ‘quite likely that the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.’”
We are sending our grandchildren down the drowning path if we surrender our participation in the Paris Accord. We keep repeating this error across all of public life. We spend American tax dollars on the military, as if it wasn’t already the most potent arsenal in the world twenty times over. And we get the threat wrong! There is no force that can threaten us the way climate change can. No Russian army or Chinese fleet could drown New Orleans—but the warming world will do it, without opposition from this White House. As Naomi Klein wrote for The Intercept:
Now that it seems virtually certain that Donald Trump will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, and the climate movement is quite rightly mobilizing in the face of this latest dystopian lurch, it’s time to get real about something: Pretty much everything that is weak, disappointing, and inadequate about that deal is the result of U.S. lobbying since 2009.
This is not native to Trump, but symptomatic across our entire political culture. This was established during Obama’s late professorship in Washington. Everything that is limited about the agreement, Klein points out, was the result of America influence: the commitment to keep warming below an increase of two degrees, and not 1.5, is America’s doing. That individual nations could unilaterally decide how much they were willing to do to reach that temperature target was America’s doing; that the agreement is non-binding, and that poor countries cannot seek damages from the cost of climate disaster—again, this is our doing.
“The fact that it is an ‘agreement’ or an ‘accord,’” writes Klein, “and not a treaty — the very thing that makes it possible for Trump to stage his action-movie slow-mo walk away, world in flames behind him — was lobbied for and won by the United States.” The eternal summer is coming, and greed rules where reasonable trepidation ought to. Our leaders are afraid of everything but climate change. We are so behind that Germany and China are moving ahead on green energy before us, and our big, polluting, hegemonic republic is straggling after.
This isn’t an abstract concern. David Leonhardt wrote in the Times that the damage from climate change is not a future-bound possibility, but pouring down havocs of every kind on the here and now.
“Last year, melting permafrost in Siberia released a strain of anthrax, which had been sealed in a frozen reindeer carcass, sickening 100 people and killing one child,” Jon Mooallem writes. “Parts of Washington now experience flooding 30 days a year, a figure that has roughly quadrupled since 1960. In Wilmington, N.C., the number is 90 days.”
We can see this pattern repeated on every level of our society. We buy for war, and forget climate change. We choose austerity over prosperity, letting our fear kill our hope. We lower tax rates to sink the world and to damn equality. We abuse Muslims we imagine to be terrorists, while white nationalism is a clear and present danger on our own streets. We are unable to understand our own risk.
How is that we are so unable to see the true threats? We have decided to embrace the course which rests on less evidence every time: we keep returning, like a Poe protagonist, to the same scenes which will sink us. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are dangers in the world, but none of them is inescapable. The major calamity—the key obstacle upon which every other harm rests—is a lack of judgment, a needless anxiety which scares us into preferring approved poison, when we could drink from the tap with minimal hassle. What is particularly frustrating about our time is that all the solutions are there, but the thinking is bent and warped. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to think. Sad!