I burnt my feet very badly once, spilling ignited gasoline on them by mistake. I went up in flames. For a while I felt no pain. I got to experience the way the body sets upper limits on excruciation in the short term. I take comfort from knowing that some sudden physical shocks don’t feel as bad as they look.

I learn about global warming. It worries me the way nuclear war used to. Well, not really the same way. Nuclear war is the heart attack of global disasters. It would be a sudden shock, jumping us as though from behind. Global warming is more like cancer. It approaches you slowly, and at first abstractly from the front. The doctors inform you that it’s coming to get you.

The news these days–really just in the last few years–informs us we’ve got the cancer. It’s malignant.

Anyone who has witnessed someone struggling with severe cancer knows that the complications compound and cascade. Global warming has that in common with cancer.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Still, there’s a limit on how much pain the news causes me. Next to every article about global warming, there’s an article about something with milder implications–the Oscars, local politics. In a way it’s absurd. If the bigger-news-means-bigger-font headline format were applied to whole newspapers, global warming stories should saturate the paper in ink. Still, we read, heave a deep but short sigh, and move on to other news.

When we look into the future and see something coming, we call it inevitable. When we look into the past and say, “Had we known then what we know now,” we’re also tempted to call it inevitable, even if it wasn’t. Hindsight is always 20-20.

I suspect that global warming was inevitable, as was our inability to predict it, and as is our limited response to it. Indeed, I suspect that if intelligent–that is, symbol- and tool-using–life were to evolve anywhere else in the universe, it too would deal with a climate crisis like ours, and deal with it as ambivalently as we do.

In the mid-1700s we discovered fossil fuels. By 1800 we had found ways to use them to do work. By the late 1900s, having become dependent on fossil fuels, we began to recognize global warming, the perilous side effect of using fossil fuels. By the early 2000s, though the evidence is quite clear, many still deny it, and far more don’t do much about it.

Inevitable? Really, what are the odds of such a turn of events? If you ran thousands of planets through the process of evolving life, and eventually intelligent life, how likely is it that they would end up dealing with a cancer like global warming?

Unbeknownst to our ancestors, say 15,000 years ago, pooled beneath their feet was the accumulated biomass of roughly 300 million years of life. What’s the likelihood that such an enormous accumulation of concentrated energy from the past would be pooled within a planet occupied by an intelligent life form–one well on the way to complex tool and symbol use?

Given that it would take a very long time for intelligent life to evolve anywhere in the universe, then anywhere intelligent life evolved, there would likely have been many prior life forms. By their nature, life forms concentrate potential energy. By its nature, evolution depends upon cycles of life and death. So an intelligent life form standing (crawling, slithering, hoverboarding, or whatever) atop a concentration of prior biomass? Intelligent life forms aren’t that likely, but were they to emerge, their chances of sitting on a goldmine of concentrated energy would actually be pretty high.

What’s the likelihood that this intelligent life form would learn how to tap and use its planet’s biomass reserve to do work? Also very high, if it got far enough to make complex tools. Tool use is an inevitable evolutionary adaptation. Using one’s body to fashion tools that in effect extend the body would be the inevitable outcome for any creature capable of complex mental modeling and subtle manipulation of the physical world.

What’s the likelihood of a substantial delay before this intelligent life form noticed the unintended and undesirable consequences of consuming in a very short time the potential energy that had accumulated over a very long time? Well, how likely is it that an intelligent life form would learn tool use before learning to predict subtle, complex long-term consequences?

Very likely. Indeed, for us it was burning through the fossil fuels that made the industrial revolution possible, which made the institutions of continual scientific progress possible, which gave us the ability to predict subtle, complex long-term consequences. We couldn’t have known about global warming without having caused it–and not just because by causing it we gave ourselves something to know about. It was in the process of causing it that we became perceptive enough to detect something as complex as a long-term trend in climate change.

Well, even without predicting global warming, couldn’t we have guessed that using the fossil fuel would have drastic consequences? What’s the likelihood that an intelligent life form anywhere in the universe would have behaved more responsibly to future generations by resisting the temptation to exploit the concentrated potential energy so quickly?

Low. What precedent is there for any beings to collectively resist exploiting ready resources? All species consume whatever resources they can exploit. We’re not greedier than other organisms, we’re just far better than most at finding new ways to exploit resources. Intelligence makes us much better than other creatures at resisting temptation, and we were never more intelligent than we are now. That intelligence provides us with greater capacity to exploit resources and greater capacity to resist temptation, but the latter is unlikely to outpace the former in any intelligent life form. Our intelligence arises from our powers of exploitation, which would always tend to get ahead of our capacity for foresight-motivated self-restraint.

It’s hard to imagine a creature that would gain the capacity for collective self-restraint in the service of very long-term goals before gaining the capacity to tap into accumulated biomass. But that’s what it would have taken to even retard the blaze that has consumed roughly half of our oil reserves in the last fifty years.

The “Politically Incorrect Guide (PIG) to Global Warming” is number 55 on Amazon’s best-seller list this week. Written by a senior fellow at the ExxonMobil-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, its inside cover text reads: “For decades, environmentalism has been the Left’s best excuse for increasing government control over our actions in ways both large and small. It’s for Mother Earth! It’s for the children! It’s for the whales! But until now, the doomsday-scenario environmental scares they’ve trumped up haven’t been large enough to justify the lifestyle restrictions they want to impose. With global warming, however, greenhouse gasbags can argue that auto emissions in Ohio threaten people in Paris. . . . ”

Last week, House ranking Republican member Jim McCrery argued against measures to curb global warming, saying that he doubts whether hurting the nation’s economy and losing jobs to China and India is worth preventing “a mere one degree rise in global temperature.”

George Bush hasn’t seen “Inconvenient Truth.”

This too is entirely predictable. Human symbolic capacity has given us, among other things, an extraordinary power for ambiguity. Symbols are useful largely because they are so flexible. With our symbolic capacity, we gain the ability to infer, to find possible meanings in things. This helps us find clues to reality, inferring from ice core measurements a realistic assessment of carbon dioxide levels millennia ago. It also gives us the ability to infer unrealistically optimistic interpretations that sidestep reality. Language is intrinsically slippery. Language without the potential for rhetoric would not be language.

So of course we would have people reading the signs on global warming differently. And of course a substantial number of us would ease the abstract pain of a global
cancer diagnosis with the rhetoric of denial.

I’m fifty and I realize now that I blew it. I’ve wasted my whole life learning things I now already know. Not only that, I’ve been imprudent. Like the guy who eats all his french fries and dessert before his broccoli, I used up all my best years first rather than spreading my adolescent vitality evenly across the entire length of my life.

I take some comfort from recognizing that it’s not just me. We all do that. We couldn’t help but do it. We’re right on schedule, doing what any late-blooming intelligent life form would have done, exploiting the rich stuff first before realizing that there might be costs, and then denying the costs as long as slippery language would let us.

R.O.S.C.O.: Right on schedule, chill out. We are probably one of several intelligent life forms in the universe that have gotten this far, to the brink of a puzzle our native wit may or may not have the wherewithal to solve. At the very macro-evolutionary scale, intelligence is being vetted for viability, probably not just here but on several planets throughout the universe dealing with similar problems.

At the rate diseases are becoming treatable, a lot of illnesses these days impose a bitter irony. If you die of an illness today that becomes treatable within the next two hundred years, think about your haplessness. Four billion years of life on earth and just your luck to be born two hundred measly years before life figured out how to cure what you’ve got. With global warming, it could be that way for all of us, afflicted with a cancer just shy of the collective native wit and wherewithal necessary to treat it.

One of the slipperiest aspects of language is the way it slips between levels of analysis. Notice how the rhetoric from the book jacket implies that it’s addressing global warming but really it’s an analysis one level up–an analysis of how the Left addresses global warming.

R.O.S.C.O. is a handy concept, but one that can easily be construed as an argument for complacency. Yes, at one level the conflict between forces for denial and alertness to global warming within and between us are right on schedule andin perfect harmony with each other. But that’s no reason to stop fighting. Chill out about the fact that there’s a fight, and keep fighting the forces of denial.