Concord Monitor 11-6-15
I usually enjoy Clay Wirestone’s articles a great deal and was enjoying “Future Shock” (11-29-15) until it began to wend its way to what I feel is a dangerous conclusion. In it, Wirestone explores the human inclination to try to predict the future. He begins with forecasts about today made 30 years earlier in the film Back to the Future II (BTTF-II), emphasizing that the film wrongly predicted flying cars and hoverboards but accurately predicted video chats and drones. These examples illustrate what he sees as the hit-or-miss quality of predictions.
Of course the examples are frivolous forecasts, and Wirestone wants to fold in more heavyweight examples to his thesis, particularly forecasts that are especially sunny or gloomy. So, he imagines that people in the mid-1950s, looking ahead 30 years, would have predicted nuclear holocaust for the mid-1980s. That prediction would have been wrong of course – another example of hit-or-miss predictions. When Wirestone adds climate change to his list, my eyes pricked up, well you know what I mean.
At the end, Wirestone chooses not to take predictions seriously, and concludes by imagining the world 30 years from now “to be much the same as today with a few surprising twists.” He ends by urging us simply to “stick around and find out” what the future holds in store.
With climate change, sticking around to find out is a very dangerous choice. The article sidesteps this by ignoring or minimizing some key ways that predictions differ from one another. One way has to do with their purpose. Hollywood makes predictions that will titillate audiences and generate big box office profits like those enjoyed with BTTF-II. The scientists making climate change predictions are giving a warning. They have evidence of a rapidly approaching calamity and want society to notice it and take immediate action to avoid it.
Predictions also differ in their legitimacy (their validity and reliability). In the case of climate change, a great deal of scientific evidence points to the contributions of humans to climate change and predicts great danger if we fail to alter our behavior and reduce carbon emissions substantially and soon. That evidence has been vetted by many scientists and other notable entities like most nations of the world, the UN, the World Bank, the U.S. Military and Department of Homeland Security, the Vatican, and the European Union. Each has found the evidence reliable enough to take climate change very seriously. Particularly compelling is the fact that the world is experiencing growing numbers of the types of events and ecological changes contained in the predictions. As a result, each of the entities above and many others are developing detailed climate change action plans and are beginning to implement those plans.
Predictions also differ in their gravity. The failure of hovercrafts to materialize as predicted in BTTF-II has had little impact on our lifestyle or standard of living. But, if escalating carbon emissions continue and have predicted outcomes, life will change dramatically around the world.
Climate change predictions offer a small window of opportunity, perhaps 30 years, to reduce carbon emissions globally and substantially. When the Future Shock article reminds us that nuclear holocaust didn’t happen in the 1980s, it quickly passes over the possibility that predictions in the 1950s might have provoked actions that led to that outcome. But it is important to remember actions such as mass anti-nuke demonstrations around the world, the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 that likely contributed to that outcome.
The article also didn’t remind us of harm that can occur if we ignore predictions and miss opportunity windows. Recently I looked at one of these. In July 1938, Franklin Roosevelt invited 32 nations to a conference in Evian, France to consider The Jewish Question, the growing number of Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe. Soon all these nations would be Allies in World War II. Hitler’s response to the announcement of Evian was that he was “ready to put all these criminals (Jews) at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
Conference participants expressed much sympathy for the plight of Jews in Germany, Austria, Poland and other places, but each failed to commit to take in Jewish refugees. Each had an excuse – the Depression (Canada), no room (England), not wanting to alter its “demographic equilibrium” (Venezuela), not having a Jewish problem and not wanting to import one (Australia), saturation (France)….
In November 1938, Nazis across Eastern Europe carried out the infamous attack on Jews known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, during which about 1,500 Jews were murdered and 30,000 sent to concentration camps, 1574 synagogues were burned down, and more than 7,000 businesses were destroyed. Many see inaction at Evian as the green light Hitler needed to conduct Kristallnacht and escalate actions to rid the world of Jews. In January 1939, Hitler mocked Evian nations in a speech before the Reichstag: “It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them, which is surely, in view of its attitude, an obvious duty.”
The serenity prayer asks for the wisdom to distinguish what we can influence from what we can’t, so that we may enjoy serenity with inevitabilities and summon the courage to address what we can change. In the end, Wirestone seems to pick serenity in the face of bleak predictions, but he has to strain a bit to end there. You never know, he says. Maybe an invention will “suck surplus carbon out of the atmosphere.” [I’m glad MLK’s dream wasn’t of a discrimination-sucking machine that lured him to wait and see about civil rights.]
But Wirestone also exemplifies something very human in all of us, something to be wary of. We all prefer to ignore disaster or to avoid it by some simple act of “duck and cover” or by hoping for a carbon sucking machine. For climate change, however, with its strong evidence, its huge risk, and its rapidly closing window of opportunity, this would be a tragic mistake for us all.