Our Puzzling Nonchalance

Given the weather anomalies of the past few years (and the phenomena caused by them, such as wildfires), the methane “time bomb” in the Arctic (also this video), and the fact that the Arctic is our “canary in the coal mine,” one might think that our “leaders” in Washington would be preoccupied with the matter of global warming (or, as some prefer, “climate change”).  Especially given that the high degree of interdependence that exists in our society is a “recipe for disaster”:  It means that our society is extremely fragile, and in consequence could easily collapse with a slight “push.”  What’s ironic about that “push” is that although it would come directly from Nature, the ultimate responsibility for it would be our own—our burning of fossil fuels, along with our deforestation activities.

Needless to say, our “leaders” are doing “next to nothing” about global warming; in fact, virtually everyone in our society is simply “going about business as usual,” as if nothing of significance is going on “out there.”  In short, our nation seems to be in the grip of nonchalance, and that fact is puzzling.  Or is it?  In point of fact, despite the fact that ours is the most intelligent of species, several factors help explain why we humans—we Americans in particular—are not using that intelligence:

1. The nature of our everyday lives (e.g., the fact that it removes us from Nature—both physically and mentally).

2. A failure on the part of those, in our society, who are expected to see “the big picture,” and to then—depending on their specific position in the society—either inform the rest of us of problems that they perceive (e.g., the media), or act on those problems (e.g., our “leaders”).

3. The pernicious activities of those with a vested interest in continuing the activities (i.e., the use of fossil fuels and deforestation) responsible for the global warming that is now occurring—which activities are threatening to have effects that will be intensifying in the near future.

Recently, however, I have come to realize that a more subtle factor is at work, which fact has had a chilling effect on my thinking—forcing me to conclude that our situation, as humans, is now virtually hopeless!  That factor:  The assumptions that we (Americans especially) hold tacitly, which assumptions then tend to guide our thinking (to dignify that which goes on in our heads!) and our actions.

I use this essay, then, first to identify those assumptions (as I perceive them, at any rate), then to note, briefly, the implications of our embracing those assumptions for our utter nonchalance regarding global warming.

Given the (basic) lack of research findings to which I might refer to support my discussion of tacitly-held assumptions, I am unable to be as specific as I would like to be; e.g., I am able to quote but a limited number of statistics.  However, I do have a “gut feeling” that the assumptions identified below are more common with those in the upper-middle class and upper class, than in the classes “below” them.  I also believe that readers who have lived in the United States for some time—I, for example, have lived in this country since birth, and have lived in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maryland (“eastern shore”), and Ohio, and am now 75—will recognize the essential “on targetness” of my list of assumptions.

Our Tacitly-Held Assumptions

The “baker’s dozen” of assumptions (mixed in with a few facts) listed below are somewhat linked together; given that, it is advisable to present them in a logical order—and I strive to do so below:

  1. We live in a governmental unit (series of such, actually), and not in a “society;” given that fact, any talk of “societal influence” is mere gibberish.
  1. Governmental units are of an atomistic nature; that is, they are mere collections of individuals and families, connected contractually, who live in a specified territory.  These units are (unlike societies) “real” units in that they exercise control (the nature of control specified in the contract—specifically in the “laws” that help operationalize the contract) over those who live within the geographical bounds associated with the government. Among the control functions of a given governmental unit is that of levying taxes; among the services provided by the unit are protective ones (police, fire, military).
  1. The behavior of a given individual results from free-will decisions on the part of that individual.  There is an exception, however: The governmental unit within which one lives has the ability to compel certain behaviors (such as paying one’s taxes); and if one disobeys the laws that have been established for the governmental unit, and is caught, one will be subject to the sort of punishment specified in the unit’s law code. (Note that this assumption assumes (!) impartiality on the part of the unit’s laws, thereby overlooking the possibility that vested interests actually write laws, and do so to serve their interests.)
  1. Although individuals have free choice (with the exception stated in point 3), a more fundamental factor causing behavior is motivation:  Individuals are motivated to seek happiness.  They then use the free will with which they are “endowed” to decide what actions, on their part, will result in happiness for them.  It does not, note, follow from this fact that the decisions made are always, or even primarily, “good” ones—those that would serve to maximize one’s happiness.
  1. Happiness comes from consuming—goods especially, but also services.  This is what one actually means when one declares (with a high degree of accuracy!) that Americans are materialistic.
  1. The new is preferred over the old, so far as material things (including, e.g., buildings) are concerned.  Likely this preference was developed in response to “model” change by the manufacturers of products—which have become an annual affair—rather than the other way around.  (This is consistent with point 5 above:  For the owners/managers of manufacturing firms to maximize their incomes, they must maximize their sales, model changes being a means to that end—supported, of necessity, with advertising, of course).
  1. One acquires goods and services by either (a) producing them oneself, (b) purchasing them, or (c) both.  Acquisition via thievery is forbidden by the mores of those living in a given governmental unit (“stealing isn’t fair, although it’s OK to excuse Robin Hood’s activities; after all, he was so handsome!)—and also against the law, thus subject to some sort of punishment if one is caught.
  1. Given that we now live in a society (whoops!) characterized by a high degree of interdependence, one will especially acquire goods and services by purchasing them.
  1. Actions are required in obtaining goods and services—whether one is producing for oneself (“prosuming”), or traveling to a location where desired purchases can be made. In either case one will strive to minimize those actions (George Kingsley Zipf’s principle of least effort).
  1. To purchase, one will need a source of income; there are two possible sources, both involving (what is at least labeled as!) working:  Starting a business, or obtaining employment with an existing firm.
  1. In working, one receives payment, of course—and according to what one deserves, no more and no less.
  1. Because of this, someone unable to acquire much has failed to do so because of not working enough time and/or well enough.
  1. One should not help others in need, in part because they have been receiving what they deserve, in part because doing so would reduce one’s own level of happiness.  Thus, it is not to one’s interests to help others.  In short, being selfish is assumed to be “natural,” if not good.  (Jesus taught that, right?!)  The rich—who “are different from you and me”—are, actually, more selfish than the non-rich.  (There!  I have finally made a statement with a quantitative element!)

(By the way, when the United States is referred to as an “individualistic” country, what is usually meant, I believe, is that most accept assumptions 1 and 13.)

A Brief Commentary on the Assumptions

How should these assumptions be characterized?  What should be noted is that virtually all of them are of an economic nature. Although, in actuality, the country is not a business, it’s notable that Calvin Coolidge once said “the business of the American people is business,” in this statement (in his  “Address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors,” Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925):

There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise.  Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.

The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of (Oliver) Goldsmith (1728–1774) which everybody repeats, but few really believe:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

In making this claim, Coolidge “hit the nail on the head”!  And the fact that economic matters have been the preoccupation with most Americans through the years, helps explain why few in this country:

  1. Understand how the economic activities that take place in this country are related to the environment.  An exception is that most know that coal, petroleum, etc., are extracted from Earth. However, the fact such things are typically labeled as resources means that they are thought of primarily in terms of how they are related to humans from the standpoint of their utility.  (The fact that “utility” is a fundamental concept in the discipline of Economics proves—if one needs such proof!—the utter shallowness of that discipline!  In this country, at least, it tends to be a mere handmaiden of those who direct our quasi-capitalistic economy!)
  1. In perceiving economic activities as occurring apart from the environment (except for the point made in point 1 above), most tend to be oblivious as to how those activities impact the environment—the changes that they introduce in elements of the environment.
  1. In not recognizing the impacts of their activities on the environment, they fail to recognize that the changes in the environment that are impacting them (e.g., the snowiness in some parts of the country this winter season) are ones for which they are responsible.
  1. In not recognizing that, they do not, of course, recognize that there is a time lag between cause (their activities) and effect (environmental changes)—the fact that it was their activities around 40 years prior that are responsible for the environmental changes that they are observing now.
  1. Related to the matter of time lag is the fact that global warming is a process that “feeds upon itself.”  That is, as warming occurs, it causes changes that themselves result in further warming—which fact implies that once warming begins, it will begin to accelerate (increase at an exponential rate), at some point in time, so that it will become noticeable to many, if not most people. (And that Earth’s “thermostat”—because it “works on a timescale of hundred thousands of years”—will not be able to prevent “runaway.”  But likely not to the point (except in a billion years) where we would be another Venus—which has a mean temperature of  462° C, vs. our “mere” 16° C)

Conclusions

The three factors that I listed at the beginning of this essay may (with others not listed?) go a long way to explain the nonchalance regarding global warming that exists in this country—despite a recent poll that seems to lead one to a different conclusion.  (A graph on this site indicates that as of 2013, 57% of Americans believe that “increases in the Earth’s temperature over the last century” are due to human activities, and that 58% worry a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of the time about global warming’s occurrence.  The meaning of these results are, however, in question—a point that I will not pursue here, though.)

My thesis here is that so many Americans are occupied with economic matters (and entertainment—which itself is an economic activity!)—that they lack the “big picture,” and are thereby unable to recognize the severity of the threat to us humans posed by global warming. What’s especially of significance is this lack by our (ostensible) “leaders”—this epitomized by Jim Inhofe’s “snowball” episode!  And to think that Inhofe is Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee!

The news media that report local matters concentrate on crimes and accidents, whereas the media with a national audience tend to focus on political matters at home and abroad.  Our relationship, as humans, with the environment is given little attention by the media. Local media report on current and expected weather conditions, but one never hears a reporter of the weather mention global warming. Such reporters may make reference to the jet stream, and may use deviations in its course to explain weather conditions; but one never hears that those deviations are occurring because of the global warming that is occurring.  (To his credit, the Today show’s Al Roker did make a reference to “climate change” on the Larry King show. But has he been ordered, by his employer, not to mention it on the Today show? If so, why doesn’t he have the integrity to quit his job?  Could it be because his net worth—in financial terms, at least—is 30 million?!)

I will not here offer a still more fundamental explanation—an explanation of why Americans’ particular preoccupations have developed—because my only purpose here is to identify basic American assumptions, and discuss how they might relate to global warming.  Other factors might also be identified, of course, that have implications for how Americans relate to global warming, but again, I have chosen to limit the scope of this essay as specified.

Al Thompson retired three years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.