May 24, 2014

Climate of the apes

In a Facebook discussion about climate change denial, a friend of a friend commented:

We must really think a lot of ourselves to think we can change this planet one way or another.

This is my response.

It’s not that we have an inflated impression of the power in our little meat-and-bones bodies. If it were just us hairless apes doing muscle-power things, we wouldn’t have this much of an impact on the biosphere.

The problem is that a few especially clever apes found some stuff in the ground which, when you burn it, releases a lot of energy, fast—much faster than our muscles—and they figured out how to use it to power machines that do more than we ever could do before. Once those clever apes had made the machines, some ambitious but not-so-clever others decided to use the machines as much as possible.

And nobody objected at first, because nobody had yet figured out that the energy-releasing stuff from the ground doesn’t just release energy when you burn it. It releases pollution into the air, pollution that changes the air. Not just soot or smog, which are easy to see (and which most of the apes are curiously willing to put up with as the cost of having all that machine power)—there’s other pollution you can’t see. The unseen pollution changes the air slowly, so you don’t notice it right away.

But we’ve been burning that stuff for a long time, and the clever apes have been studying that change. It turns out that the change is bigger than most apes might imagine.

It turns out that when you mess with enormous power that you don’t completely understand, that enormous power can change things you didn’t mean to change. Far more than you ever could have changed without that power. And the change happens even if you don’t intend it, even if you don’t want it, even if you don’t believe in it. Power is power. It really doesn’t care about you.

Pardon the Spider-Man quote, but it is perfectly appropriate: With great power comes great responsibility. Since we learned the side effects of burning all that stuff, our civilization has not been using the power responsibly.

Another quote: Power corrupts. When that power gives some apes the ability to do so much, and get so much profit from it, those apes (if they aren’t the most responsible apes) won’t want to stop using it. They’ll do everything they can to undermine and discredit the clever apes who try to stop them.

So, here we are.

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