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Climate Change: What Will The Humans Do? (Part 3)

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The third in a series that explores a big unknown variable for modeling future global warming.

A Game Amid ‘Grave Realities’

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” says T.S Eliot.

So much reality is forced upon us by the enormity of our manmade global warming that it’s very hard to bear. The world’s leading climate scientists and policy makers are letting themselves say publicly what they’ve long said off-camera: Even the very existence of the human race is threatened.

“OPTIMISM FACES GRAVE REALITIES AT CLIMATE SUMMIT” is the all-caps boldface lead headline on the December 1, 2014 New York Times. The second paragraph of the article, setting up the UN’s 20th annual climate summit, held in Lima Peru, reports that uncontrolled global warming could make the world “uninhabitable for humans.”

Call it “the enormity problem.” How can we possibly handle such frightening and extreme findings, think about them effectively and confer sensibly as we try to coordinate?

Metaphor often helps. Humans have always employed metaphor when looking at daunting realities. One degree of separation can protect our fragile courage. By looking at the snaked-haired Gorgon Medusa only in her reflection on his shield, Perseus avoided turning to stone so he could then kill her. Shakespeare’s Hamlet spoke of the end of art’s “purpose” being “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature”—all of nature, lovely and ugly.

Metaphors can help break the most difficult problems into manageable parts, or boil them down into engaging puzzles that may offer a sort of playful fun and even beauty… while still helping resolve the problem. They are also a way of not looking directly at the Gorgon Medusa while still letting your thinking unconscious work out the problem.

Here’s a metaphor game to help us handle the new and grave reality of manmade global warming.

A Metaphor Game…

Imagine a small band of some 40 or 50 hunter-gatherers. Let them stand in for the billions of selves who now make up our entire human race—a little planetary band in serious trouble together. This little band may be much easier to think about than all of us in our ungraspable multitudes and varieties.

The little band finds that its wild world is suddenly threatening it not only with great suffering, already afflicting some of them, but quite possibly with total extinction, leaving the natural world to carry on without them.

And there’s a second metaphor inside this one: A single person. Sometimes this little band may even act, in effect, as if it is one person, its overall behavior and impacts unified, at least temporarily, and any unruly renegades or outliers in the little group suppressed or sidelined.

For example, sometimes the entire group may appear (as did Hamlet) to procrastinate, not take action against its known present danger, much as any scientist or manager, writer or parent or student may sometimes pause or divert while in the midst of a complex task.

We can use these stand-ins to focus the climate modelers’ inescapable question “What the humans will do?” by asking metaphorical questions:

—How is this little band behaving so far?

—What might we hope they do?

—What might successful behavior in this little band look like?

In at least one basic sense, this metaphor also presents the climate reality itself. Since the swirling atmosphere has no borders, all humans suffer from its warming – it’s called global warming. And all humans participate in the carbon cycle: the molecules from any single puff of the invisible heat-trapping gas CO2, whether from your mouth or a chimney, soon spread out around the entire planet. So earth is not only like a single entity, it also is one.

This metaphor can help us see that, like it or not, we must deal with it together. But what little band of humans doesn’t have its internal conflicts? They may sometimes even work to our advantage.

The Mental Health Of Refugees

This little band, like human groups worldwide, contains a variety of personality types, with differing strengths and weaknesses.

Some are natural leaders, some more passive but still thoughtful. Some simply seem needy, or uninterested. A few may be pensive loners, or wild clowns. There may be one or two disruptive sociopaths. Some may be in despair about the crisis, perhaps giving up. A few may even deny or belittle the huge problem as they struggle with various personal problems or pressures, perhaps even form a tiny clique of denialists within the endangered group. And so on.

The natural leaders, who for some reason feel the impulse to hold the little band together, are torn by the differing demands of compassion for the vulnerabilities of some, of various allegiances and implicit promises, and of long-range needs of the group as a whole.

This variety of personality types, found in all human groups, is believed by many evolutionary biologists to be embedded somehow in the universal human genome because it can make us more fit to survive. Whatever unexpected new dangers the chaotic world throws at a group, it is more likely to survive (and thus also to pass on the genetic cocktail that produces such variety) if it has among its members a good range of styles of possible response.

This idea is supported by the unexpected result of surveys made over several decades in refugee camps around the world by Richard Mollica, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

Mollica found that, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or type of trauma escaped from (war, natural disaster, a tyrant’s oppression…) roughly the same percentage of refugees in any camp tended to have any one kind of major mental disability.

For example, roughly a third of those in each refugee group suffered from PTSD and roughly two thirds from depression. These rates are much higher than in the world’s non-refugee communities: only about 2% are estimated to suffer from PTSD of various durations, and roughly 7% to 9% from depression.

This and many other scientific studies suggest that a variety of somehow “inborn” personality types is inevitable in any human group. Recognition that our little band will inevitably have a variety of personalities (probably for good evolutionary reasons) may help us to be more tolerant of differences and to try to bring differing individuals into fruitful cooperation—the naturally conservative and naturally liberal, the quiet and the outgoing, the more literal and the more metaphorical, the more discursive and the more epiphanic, the hyper-intense and the laid back.

Even the naturally uninterested and disengaged may serve not only as tests of leaders’ compassion but also as challenges to those leaders and other role models: can interest in the uninterested somehow be unobtrusively but helpfully aroused?

But anyway, we have no choice about it; the mix is there.

It may be hard to find out how every member may play a part, but sacrificing some of them—leaving them behind—is surely ugly and wrong. Beneath us. We’re all in it together, and to say this is not merely to display hypothetical compassion. (You sometimes hear comments made in a sort of frustrated jest that the only solution will be for world population to be cut down to a quarter of its current size. Aside from the unspeakable suffering in starvation or chaotic war that would entail, which is what leaders are now working hard to prevent, scientists say it might not work anyway—that it probably wouldn’t happen soon enough to make any difference, given how much warming is already “built in”, for the coming decades, and that it doesn’t address critical problems such as the unknown “overall tipping point” in temperature rise at which a rapid runaway warming might be triggered, assuring catastrophe.)

Thinking by Not Thinking

While having a mix of approaches in a group may be an advantage, recent science has shown that each person’s mind may itself contain a variety of internal approaches—including both the seemingly unaware quiet response and the assault of the noisy verbal logic-wielding intentional problem solver.

When Einstein discovered that E=mc2 he did not first decide that “Tomorrow at 2:35 PM I will discover that E=mc2”… and then go do that. How does anyone ever think of anything?

In a much-noted 2006 paper, a Dutch professor of social psychology named Ap Dijksterhuis and an American professor of management and organizations, Loran Nordgren, established “UTT”—Unconscious Thought Theory. They showed that people often did better at solving a complex problem if, right after they were presented with the problem, they were then somehow distracted from thinking about it for 4 minutes before they had to give their answers.

Remarkably, they gave much better answers than people who were allowed to think about the problem undistracted during those 4 minutes. They also did better than those who had to answer immediately, with no reflection time.

In other words, your non-conscious or unaware brain may be better at solving complex problems “all by itself,” without “you” or your ponderous logic-bound ego trying to direct your conscious thoughts each step of the way.

Can Procrastination Allow for Deep Thinking?

Scientists have long noted that lab animals, when given a new maze problem more difficult than those they had already learned to solve, will often display “displacement activity.” After seeing that it does not know the answer right away, a cat will sit down and lick its shoulder, or a mouse will vigorously scratch its ears and sniff around a bit.

It appears to be a sort of embarrassed procrastination, perhaps trying to relieve the stress of the new situation.

It may also be an instinctive thinking tactic, getting one’s own cumbersome or limited logic-bound conscious thinking out of the way for a moment so that the unconscious thinking brain can work on it, unencumbered.

Writers report that sometimes, if they get up from the keyboard for a moment and do something else—rinse a few dishes, make a cuppa, open a window, often something that involves working with the hands and temporarily focuses conscious awareness on something not too taxing—the brain may present the next hoped-for line of words; they will “pop into mind.”

The brain working on problems “by itself” is also known to students who learn to put hard problems into their minds before going to sleep so they may experience good solutions the next morning, or even in the middle of the night after the first four hours of sleep—the natural “first sleep” that anthropologists have discovered in hunter-gatherers around the world, after which the little group’s members may talk quietly by the fire for a while before retiring for their “second sleep.”

Historians have recently discovered references in pre-industrial literature, starting just before the emergence of electric lighting in the 1800s and going back to Homer, of such “first” and “second” sleeps. Historian A. Roger Ekirch reports that

“…typically, individuals slept in two distinct phases, bridged by an intervening period of wakefulness of approximately one hour. People also used this time to pray and reflect, and to interpret dreams, which were more vivid at that hour than upon waking in the morning. This was also a favorite time for scholars and poets to write uninterrupted, whereas still others visited neighbors, had sex, or engaged in petty crime.”

Ekrich and others also worry that the modern loss of such segmented sleep may affect mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation is common in the hard-working “progress” bound world now grappling with global warming.

Our metaphorical little band in the wild presumably does not have handy kitchen espresso makers, late night TV in the living room and bright iPad screens in bed to keep them from their timely, restorative “first sleep.” However, the sleep of at least some of them is probably troubled by their new crisis.

Thinking Is Not Unlike Falconry

Psychologists have long studied how we work instinctively with our unconscious minds. It’s not unlike falconry, in which the human learns to work with nature (hawk nature) in a cooperative and not entirely captive situation – the hawk, once free, flies back to you, sometimes with a prize. The falconer is no less “trained,” in a sense, than the falcon.

Once you’ve chosen a problem to stick with, say scientists, you may also have to get out of your own way from time to time and let your natural brain think by itself.

How might this apply to our little band in trouble? Clearly, they cannot all spend all their time worrying the problem to death. They have to keep hunting and gathering, eating, tending and guiding their young and elderly, relaxing, getting enough sleep to stay clear headed. (It can seem almost bizarre at times to read and ponder some of the most alarming reports from climate scientists, and then go straight to a pleasant or celebratory gathering where global warming doesn’t even come to mind.)

Sometimes the hunter-gatherers may entertain each other with song or bits of stories they’ve learned – or, if they’re lucky, listen to a traveling bard or proto-Homer who may come in out of the wild to their little circle with a great epic tale to recount in mesmerizing beautiful verse.

Is Hollywood Our “Collective Unconscious”?

It has often been suggested that Hollywood, and popular arts in general, may be something like a Jungian “collective unconscious” responding to deep underlying worries of the time – to the time’s ”form and pressure”, to use Hamlet’s phrase.

In recent years, Hollywood has poured out a growing number of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies, as if responding to our gathering collective anxiety about global warming and the related destruction of species and ecosystems. There’s even a new sub-category of such films, coined in 2007 by blogger Danny Bloom: “Cli-fi” is science fiction set in worlds disrupted by manmade climate change.

In 2004, The Day After Tomorrow showed us a world suddenly thrown into a severe ice age when global warming melted so much heavy fresh water from the Greenland ice sheet into the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream that its circulating current shut down and stopped carrying tropical heat to the northern latitudes as it does today. In 2014, Interstellar gave us a parched and blighted earth unable to provide food for its starving inhabitants – and the fantasy that humanity would somehow even have time to find a home on another planet, though none alive today might make it that far.

Nor do today’s actual climate scientists and world leaders, working hard on the climate crisis, give any thought to such escape. They are working with reports that global warming is already killing many (who would not die if there were no manmade climate crisis), is bearing down fast, and is already showing early signs of the sort of economic disruption which, amplified, could make the expense of any space efforts unconscionable here on our only home. The planet’s leaders tell us we’re not there yet—life still goes on fairly normally, pleasant or not, for most people, but not all—and that we’re all headed that way.

A number of researchers are exploring how humans often go into a sort of trance or “hypnogogic state” when watching a good movie. If movies are somehow a collective unconscious, our societal “dreams,” then the counterpart in our little band might be not only the tales they may tell each other, or hear from wandering bards, but also their dreams and day-dreams. Field anthropologists have found some hunter-gatherers make a habit of telling each other their dreams first thing in the morning.

Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” Perhaps such dreams (and our movies) are a way to find out what the unaware part of our various brains are working on as we live with the climate crisis news now filtering constantly into our daily lives.

Some movies even model what scientists and psychologists have discovered is a vital survival tactic, long used instinctively by our own highly social species and others – fun in the face of danger. And play, both fun and deadly serious, has now been shown by psychologists and neuroscientists to be a vital survival trait in a number of animals.

Play: Vital for Survival in a Dangerous World

Play behavior expert Dr. Stuart Brown reports that play keeps the brain and mind flexible, giving it “a good workout,” so that it can keep exploring for out-of-the-box solutions.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has even found that the drive to play is built into physical structures deep in the brain stems of a wide variety of animals. One of the most delightful scientific proofs of how deeply nature has embedded fun as a motivator into brain stems can be seen in this brief video of Panksepp eliciting audible giggles and laughter from loving lab rats by tickling them. They can’t get enough of it.

Imagining our little band of hunter-gatherers somehow having fun as they work to resolve the dangers facing them may help us recognize when a working enjoyment among those trying to save us now may also be a kind of “productive fun.”

But preventing our total self-annihilation is, of course, a grim business. It needs the most committed sort of attention.

How Do Successful Scientists Think?

Philosopher of science Sir Peter Brian Medawar—regarded as “the father of transplantation” and awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in immune responses and transplant rejection— addresses scientific inspiration in his 1968 lectures at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought.” He reviews the assertions of philosopher Sir Karl Popper that good new ideas and discoveries arrive in the minds of scientists on their own mysterious time-tables, then asks further how such non-conscious intuitions might be summoned. He points out that, as many successful people learn one way or another, such creativity:

“cannot be learned, perhaps, but it can certainly be encouraged and abetted. We can put ourselves in the way of having ideas, by reading and discussion and by acquiring the habit of reflection, guided by the familiar principle that we are not likely to find answers to questions not yet formulated in the mind…”

Focus and a commitment to solving a serious problem— “nose to the grindstone”—is necessary, but it needs healthy care and feeding of the mysterious mind in hopes that it may at some point grace you with a solution.

The Integrated Person (and Group)

Medawar’s personality, as it happens, is described as a delightfully integrated mix of intense professional focus and good fun:

“He is remembered for his wit in real life and popular writings. Famous zoologists such as Richard Dawkins, referred to him as “the wittiest of all scientific writers,” and Stephen Jay Gould, as “the cleverest man I have ever known.”

The great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who was also described by those who knew him well as kind, delightfully sensitive, and perceptive, once surprised a writer who was interviewing him during film production in which the writer had noted that Kubrick worked constantly and intensely, by saying, “I’m just waiting for a good idea.”

Kubrick, the great genius, having to wait for a good idea?

It’s never paint-by-numbers, not if you’re aiming high, as our climate crisis now demands we do. And joy or at least pleasure in your work may be an important part of some of the process.

Enter the Climate ‘Medicine Man’

Who, in our little metaphorical band of hunter-gatherers might be the appropriate experts for diagnosing the trouble’s causes and prescribing a solution?

Climate scientists? This reporter and many others working the climate story keep rediscovering what eminent climatologist Richard Somerville of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography explained in his 2006 editorial essay, “Medical Metaphors for Climate Issues“: medical metaphors often serve best. “We climate scientists are planetary physicians,” he says.

Most patients with a serious disease want to know their prognosis—especially if there is still a chance that, with focus and effort, the worst may be avoided, as most climate scientists still tell us is the case on earth. Good doctors learn how to deliver momentous news well, as do good professional journalists.

Professional Journalists: Translators for Medicine Men

It has been difficult, ever since the great enormity of the climate crisis became evident to those who wanted to look, for responsible editors and news directors to report this news. They immediately found themselves running not only into commercial, and often misguided, pressure not to scare away ratings or circulation. They also had natural reservations about losing credibility—which is all any reporter ever has to stand on.

All professional journalists have also naturally had their own disbelief and initially self-protective denial to deal with. (After ten years on the story, this reporter still sometimes finds himself being dragged back up out of a natural denial about it all by new and worsening hard news, though like the pioneering climate scientists and policy leaders who have led the way, and now like much of the world at large, I am getting more accustomed to the situation.)

Some editors have even had, briefly, the initial vague feeling that “we’ve already covered that story”. It’s partly true; the basics of the crisis have been told many times over the years, it’s the unfolding that must now engage us.

And perhaps the news directors, like all of us, have at times instinctively reverted to the “displacement” tactic described above, sensing that this immense problem is horridly real but that they need just a little time to “sleep on it”, to get out of the way and let a superior “Unconscious Thinking” work on this complex problem.

They may be doing this in order to then offer something other than the reactive and unthinking, positional and mindlessly politicized effusions that have erupted both from the unconscionable climate deniers (some of them not “skeptics” at all, as they fashion themselves) and have erupted also at times from those who have rushed too soon into hopeful but simplistic super-solutions that have no chance of working.

We professional journalists are like translators for the “medicine men”—the scientists—to boil down their sometimes necessarily geeky explanations and recommendations.

A journalistic watershed in this task of ours was finally crossed by The New York Times editors in the December 1, 2014 headline, cited at the beginning of this column: “OPTIMISM FACES GRAVE REALITIES AT CLIMATE SUMMIT.” The New York Times was not the first, by a long shot, to declare the gravity of this crisis, even here in the United States where solid mainstream climate reporting has often lagged behind that in Europe.

In 2006, a Time magazine cover, announcing a “Special Report Global Warming” displayed bold white and red letters that said “BE WORRIED, BE VERY WORRIED.”

In fact, serious reporting about the scale of the climate threat began in mainstream American media in the late 1980’s. However, this reporting was quickly countered by cynical denialist attempts to sow confusion about the solid science.

Checking in With Our Metaphor

So how is our little metaphorical band of hunter-gatherers doing?

Fairly well, perhaps, at least for starters, but still facing possible extinction if they don’t do much more right away.

To begin to push our metaphor back toward the global reality it represents, let’s say the little band has now discovered, to its surprise, several other little bands who live at some distance but are suffering the same grave problem.

Together, they have even begun to send a few representatives every autumn to a multi-tribe powwow at an agreed-on neutral meeting place for an exchange of ideas, stories and hopefully creative ideas about the situation. Perhaps they will begin to discover in their conversations that some of them have been over-hunting, or over-harvesting, or indulging in too much deforestation, or too much clearing with slash-and-burn…

One thinks of course of the UN’s plans to reach a final binding agreement by all countries at the December 2015 climate summit in in Paris. And also of the new climate reporting platforms now sprouting in many languages around the planet’s World Wide Web.

Demolishing the Tower of Babel

The metaphor grows even closer to the reality when looking at some remarkable new global communications techniques, such those use by James “Kimo” Goree, co-founder of the internet’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the flagship product of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and Director of its Reporting Services.

Goree keeps a close watch on the daily climate negotiations going on all the time around the world at many levels, and directs them onto his “IISD” website, highly valued by policy leaders around the world now working intensely to resolve this great crisis. He often text-chats in real time with his correspondents around the world by cutting and pasting his replies, and reading theirs, though an instant computer translator that is fluent in all the languages he doesn’t speak.

Such ubiquitous instant global fluency—demolishing The Tower of Babel at last—was barely even dreamed of in 1988 when James Hansen and other now highly revered climate scientists told a US Congressional hearing that dangerous manmade global warming was already underway and changing the climate.

And it is inevitably helping us do what biologist E. O. Wilson has long pleaded with us to do, see ourselves “as a species”—and see, as we must, how dire is its immediate situation now, and how good it might yet be. The great losses this powerful new communication now show us may be cause for a certain grief but, as leading climate journalist Ross Gelbspan points out, they need not lead to debilitating depression – as shown by his own continuing efforts and those of a new generation of vigorous professionals around the world.

Arriving Back at the Grave and Promising Reality

Soon, if we keep stretching this metaphor of a little band of hunter-gatherers, it becomes clear this is not really a metaphor at all. We really are still hunters and gatherers relying for our survival, entirely and solely—albeit with more complex technology than we once had—on the limited nature of our tiny planet…which is certainly, for the foreseeable future, our only home.

The world’s climate scientists tell us that the next few years, up until mid century, are bound to see rapid warming. But that if our little band does keep getting its act together, employs immediately the known solutions, and keeps finding better and better ways to turn this great crisis into great opportunity, the extensive suffering and loss that has already begun in some places may soon be lessened, and an excellently refreshed and transformed world may be achieved.

Read Part 1.

Read Part 2.


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