Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Mayans and the End of Days

As we stand poised on the abyss of annihilation which has apparently been foretold by those particularly perspicacious folks, the Mayans, I would like to humbly suggest that, in my heart of hearts, I think I should be planning to have something to do on 22 December. I don’t mean to be rude or dismissive of such an august culture (or those who presume to interpret it), but I just have a hunch we’ll all still be here the day after tomorrow. But I have a hunch, also, that while we will still be here the day after tomorrow, we may struggle to stick around the day after tomorrow (which I mean figuratively, as in, a hundred years or so from now), if we don’t clean up our act. Let me explain.

Collective action problems abound in this world of ours. We may individually be brilliant, there might even be the odd genius in our midst, but collectively we tend to be, as often as not, imbeciles (which gives us a nice collective noun for any group of people, ‘an imbecility’). There are problems of commission ('The amount of pollution coming from the exhaust of my car is negligible, so why should I give up the comfort when no one else is doing so?' thinks every one of the several billion drivers on the planet). And there are problems of omission ('Why should I go to the effort of recycling when no one else does?' thinks every one of the several billion consumers on the planet). In essence, it’s someone else’s problem, not mine. And this is a problem. For us all. Individually and collectively.

Why is this such a problem? Take the vexing problem of climate change, for instance. At present, fossil fuel CO2 emissions continue to rise dramatically. In 1990, they stood at about 21 billion tonnes. By 2010, they were approaching 32 billion tonnes (the only blip in this magnificent ascent was in 2008 when the financial crisis briefly slowed production). And the rise is showing no signs of slowing down (if anything, it’s speeding up). In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that these emissions would lead to our planet experiencing a 4°C rise in temperature by 2100. This is considerably, if not drastically, above the 2°C rise which the Panel said should be avoided if we wished to go on living in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed (or, as will be the case in some places, just living). As it happens, that prediction was made using an antiquated model. Thank goodness for progress! Now we know that it is much more likely that the temperature rise will be between 5–6°C by 2100, and there’s even a 10% chance of a rise of 7°C. Much as some people might think they would like to see a slightly warmer climate, one doesn’t need to be a rocket (or climate) scientist to appreciate that none of these figures are good. They’re bad. Very, very bad. Now, to do anything whatsoever about this requires collective action. And that means we need to act individually, as a collective, to reduce our emissions. But as long as everyone thinks it’s someone else’s problem, then we’ll do nothing, but slowly roast (or freeze, or drown in the deluge, or be blown away by yet another oversized hurricane).
Another imbecility of people.
And the rising temperatures are not all there is to be concerned about. They’re just one part of the very big, complex and rather unnerving situation we now face (read all about it, it's wonderfully gripping, in the New Scientist, 17 Nov 2012). So the end of days is not likely to be tomorrow, I am willing to wager, but if we don’t cease our collective denial (the one thing we seem to be able to do collectively reasonably well), the end of days just might not be that far away.

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