Humanity Faces Global Climate Change, Or…Lizards On Holiday

Our neurology may prevent us from perceiving climatic threat,
and yet it will soon become the "structural equivalent of war"

One of the articles in Global Climate Change (IC#22)
Originally published in Summer 1989 on page 56
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Guest Editor Bill Prescott, Director of Public Information for the Climate Protection Institute (CPI), is a dedicated environmental activist who (among other things) gives dozens of presentations a year on the global climate crisis. These presentations underscore its severity, but they also focus on workable solutions that have multiple benefits. For example, the California Legislature recently passed a bill – which Prescott helped to draft and lobbied hard to push through – that calls for employing the homeless in urban reforestation programs.

Bill also directs the Greenhouse Action Project, which is involved in citizens’ lobbying on climate change issues. To find out more about CPI or to get involved in greenhouse lobbying, write him at Bldg. 1055, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965.

Bill was a little hesitant about submitting this article. "I tried to write something upbeat," he said, "but I ended up writing what I really thought and felt." As Joanna Macy noted in her interview in this issue, telling the truth in these matters is of paramount importance. It takes courage to face the worst case scenarios associated with climate change – but only by doing so can we come up with true hope.

My favorite cartoon comes from one of those Far Side calendars by Gary Larson. It shows a brontosaurus at a lectern, addressing an audience of dinosaurs. The brontosaurus is saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the picture is pretty grim. The world’s climates are changing, the mammals are taking over, and all of us have a brain about the size of a walnut."

But is having a brain larger than a walnut such a good thing, especially if you want to survive global climate change? All the votes are not in yet, but after observing that humans have built billions of machines which pass gases into the atmosphere, and that these gases are causing changes that threaten most life on earth, one has reason to wonder. If anyone should think that our pinnacle of evolutionary development gives us the smarts to adapt to this emerging global threat, let them try to convince the Board of General Motors to stop making the machines that threaten the lives of their children and grandchildren.

The global climate crisis is an evolutionary crisis, because the evolution of millions of species is at risk, and because it will require a major adaptation on our part in order to survive. Once again, if you talk to the folks at GM about the need for them to help humanity adapt and survive, you will hear about their responsibility to their stockholders and employees, to the American economy, and so on. It’s a frustrating conversation.

It’s frustrating not just because of the difficulty of communication between divergent world views. It’s frustrating because both parties do not seem to be perceiving the same physical reality, much less sharing the same values about it. I believe that the reasons for this are evolutionary as well.

Books such as Ornstein’s and Ehrlich’s New World, New Mind, and Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths, point out that we are congenitally incapable of perceiving many real issues not because of the limitations of our sense organs, but because of the limitations of our neurology. Our neurology evolved in order to deal with immediate, short range threats, such as saber tooth tigers and bears at the cave entrance. We have trouble with global crises that take place over decades. What good is a "fight or flight response" in the face of invisible gases changing the weather? And even if we could manage a neurological and endocrinal response adequate to our survival, how would we sustain it over time? How many "greenhouse tigers" over how many years would it take to get us through this crisis?


Day after day our news media is filled with sensational personal threats that are easy to identify with: murderers, rapists, terrorists, corrupt politicians, and other assorted bears and tigers. Part of our neurological circuitry is designed to ignore threats that are not immediate, even if they may be more dangerous later. While it may be worthwhile to ignore an upcoming ice age when you are running from saber-tooth tigers, the modern fascination with sensationalist news and personal traumas only adds to the personal and cultural denial systems that keep us from perceiving and responding to global crises such as the nuclear arms race and global climate change. When an article on the greenhouse effect does appear, the response of an average, informed person is akin to seeing a disaster movie – people become very upset for a little while, then they forget about it.

But that’s only half the problem. The other half has to do with those dinosaur brains the size of a walnut. Our instincts are the motive force behind many of our higher mental processes. The medulla, or "reptile brain" as it is sometimes known, drives our higher mental activities to think and act on it’s own behalf – and so we brilliantly conceive and build thermonuclear weapons in order to insure our survival. The reptilian brain is reactive, repressive, aggressive, possessive, territorial and acquisitive. Even if it could perceive the threat of global climate change, it would probably only want to know what it could get out of it. This tendency has reached its nadir in the latter industrial age, creating the world of GNPs and MPGs, kilowatts and population curves, MIRVs and SDI. I have a friend, the archeologist John Steels, who refers to this as "reptiles on holiday."

With this equipment, we go to search for the grail of global transformation. And, as Walter Anderson and Don Michael point out [see their interview in this issue], to that end everybody has their own agenda, based on how much of the emerging realities they are willing to admit to, and on how invested they remain in their previous agendas. The nuclear energy industry sees in global climate change a chance to sell nuclear reactors. Secretary of State James Baker sees in global climate change an opportunity to reweave the tatters of U.S. global economic hegemony. New Age philosophers see in global climate change a way of selling the new paradigm. And environmentalists see in global climate change a chance to increase their power and influence, while shoving much of their previous environmental agenda down the throats of government and industry (who, in truth, could have worse diets).

I have an agenda, too. I want to see in global climate change the ultimate rationale for building a just, peaceful and sustainable culture. Out of radical crisis, radical transformation. I imagine the worsening environmental crisis somehow waking us all up, forcing us to embrace a grand and global alliance to transform our relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, and all life on this planet. I am deeply committed to this vision.


However, I doubt that nature – if the term still makes sense – cares about my precious vision. The truth is that the depth of human intervention in "nature" has disrupted natural processes to the point that they are no longer dependable for sustaining civilization and most life on this planet. Worse, the only way out is more intervention, since (short of extinction) our burgeoning human ranks can no longer cease to be a geologic-scale force in nature. We have ten to twenty years at most to completely change the lifestyles of most parts of the human family, and to radically alter the operation of industrial civilization worldwide.

If we fail, the ultimate result may well make nuclear winter look like an average cloudy day in Seattle. We can expect: (1) more severe heat waves, droughts, floods, forest fires, and crop failures; (2) melting glaciers and ice caps lifting sea levels and inundating coastal areas, low-lying deltas, and marshlands, along with salt-water intrusion into fresh water supplies; (3) changes in ocean currents, displaced monsoons and agricultural zones, and increased desertification; (4) more frequent and worsening storms with winds up to 225 mph; and (5) difficulty with photosynthesis in plants, the death of forests and coral reefs, disruption of the food chain in the oceans, and massive species death as habitats disappear.

The likely social consequences include social disruption and disintegration as more and more sustainability barriers are breached; mass unemployment and poverty as economic systems deteriorate; hundreds of millions of environmental refugees as desertification and sea-level rise force populations from their homes; chronic undernutrition and famine as food stocks plummet while overpopulation continues; health crises as water supplies are depleted and contaminated, and as insect pests, bacteria, and viruses increase and mutate in the warmer weather; and finally, civil strife, resource wars, and the decline of democracy as government infrastructures strain to cope with the deepening crises.

If those lists aren’t impressive enough, consider several of the climatologists’ nightmare scenarios, rarely mentioned, but nonetheless possible: ozone-layer depletion irradiating and killing the phytoplankton in the ocean, thus destroying the ocean food chain and releasing gigatons of C02 into the atmosphere; climate change-induced forest death adding more gigatons of C02 to the air; global warming releasing massive quantities of methane trapped in permafrost and tundra in the northern latitudes. Each of the above could rapidly double the greenhouse effect, thus doubling (at least) the severity of our list of woes. Each or all of these could well occur.

That’s the kind of thing we can expect, without radical change soon. Don’t let anyone fool you – that, or something like it, is the emerging reality, not some sweet, small scale, postmodern fantasy. The question is, can we ride that saber-toothed tiger of change towards some kind of humane, sustainable, global culture?

Perhaps. We are the same race that has abolished slavery and the divine right of kings, conquered polio and gone to the moon. But we’ve never had to deal with anything as sudden and radical as the climatic changes we must now attempt to mitigate and adapt to. It’s like deliberately moving the entire world from the mesolithic era to the neolithic in a few decades. It’s a lot of work to expect from people, especially when our evolution predisposes us to act only when our physical persons, or the small groups we identify with, are directly threatened. If we wait that long, it will be far too late to prevent unalterable breakdown.

The one thing we can count on is that things won’t remain the same. The scale of changes we are looking at are unprecedented not only in human cultural history, but also in the history of human evolution. The global climate crisis will profoundly affect nearly all human and ecological systems. Immediate domestic and foreign policy changes are required on the part of all governments and transnational organizations, especially the international cartels. Those policy changes must be instituted rapidly, and on a scale considerably broader than the last world war.

In fact, the global climate crisis has the real potential to move our current global governance beyond its atavistic, nationalistic preoccupations, and into a realm of global cooperation and cultural transformation. If we engage in this process of change as deeply as is appropriate, then we will find a threat persuasive enough to finally move us beyond war, something more convincing than ideological conflict, and more steadfast than human enmity. It has all the gory possibilities for personal heroism that are so attractive in war. It is already the "moral equivalent" of war; and with its reshaping of populations, restructuring of economies, reorganization of political systems, and withering effect on human aspirations, it will inevitably become the structural equivalent of war as well.

I would dearly love to insert here a prescription that would solve all our problems, so that we could all relax and go on to the next movie. Something inspiring is called for, perhaps about how the essential entropy of the situation will be transcended as the dissipative structures of global systems reorganize themselves into something higher, more fragile, and more conscious. Or how about the notion that the extremity of the global crisis will evoke from human neurology some hitherto unknown and unimagined capacity that will allow us rapidly to adapt? Unfortunately, I just don’t have it in me to lie that much. But for anyone who can’t stand the tension of not knowing what the solutions are, I recommend the global action plan outlined in Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 1989.


I myself am becoming suspicious of solutions. Not because the situation is hopeless; it isn’t. Of course we must work for a better world, with dedication, and persistence, and sweat. I can imagine no true human dignity ensuing from anything less. But there’s something a little too convenient in our search for solutions. We seem to need them so badly that I suspect they are a substitute for something more important.

Besides, most of our favorite agendas will likely be rendered irrelevant by the realities of climate change. We need to realize that the problem is not in finding solutions. The problem is in who we think we are, and in what we think the world is. To state the case anthropomorphically, any planet undergoing changes this radical must be trying to tell us something. If we want a real chance to transform our world, maybe we ought to learn to listen and respond, instead of imposing our recycled agendas on a weary Earth.

I hope we can learn to listen, before the winds of change drown out all hearing. There is a scene in the movie Starman in which a NASA researcher finally gets to talk to a real extraterrestrial, now residing in a human body. The alien says, "You are a strange species … intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are at their worst." We had better hope that he is right.

The Bear At The Door

by Alan AtKisson

It is often said that people can’t easily respond to global climate change, the greenhouse effect, or ozone depletion because these dangers are too abstract or remote. Neurophysiologists and others note that human brains are wired to respond to immediate, concrete threats like bears at the cave door, not invisible changes in Earth’s atmosphere. We are treated to an image of ourselves as a race of Missourians (Missouri is the "Show-Me State") unable to believe in the danger of something not directly obvious to the senses.

No doubt the neurologists have their reasons for thinking this way. But as a Missouri-born realist, I disagree. I look around and see humans responding to all kinds of threats, real and imagined, that are nothing if not abstract.

Take the stock market. We regularly read about investors being edgy, scared, or downright panicked at the thought of a decrease in the size of certain numerical values. Changes in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (if you really know what that is, raise your hand) are watched far more closely by a sizable portion of our populace than are changes in the local weather. For many office-dwellers, the Dow is probably the more "real" of the two.

Or to cite a non-numerical example, "national security" is the source of more fear to more people than bears ever were. Granted, nuclear missiles are not abstractions; but the possibility of war, or revolution, or even a modicum of truth being leaked from the halls of power – which is what "a breach in national security" usually means – is far less immediate than the drought and food shortages that are happening right now.

So what’s the difference? Why is one complex, abstract, human-created phenomenon treated as a real threat while another is met with glazed eyeballs, or outright disbelief?

The answer is conditioning. We have been inundated from birth with news reports telling us how important issues like high finance and national security are. We also have a lot of wars and depressions in our history to back up abstract tell-tales such as the commodity futures index and military force differentials. So we need only condition ourselves to perceive the reality of global climate change with the help of similar bellwethers.

Imagine, for example, nightly newscasts being concluded not with stock quotes, but with the Ozone Index and the Tree-Planting Report. Imagine several pages of the daily newspaper devoted to carbon emission figures from cities around the world (you’d keep up with the areas where you had investments in Greenhouse Bonds). Imagine the Environmental Protection Administration raised to Cabinet-level and the Department of Defense relegated to sub-Cabinet status – with news from the EPA appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal every day.

Imagine required courses in Earth Systems Science for every college student; personal income tax credits linked to a sustainable lifestyle index; and criminal penalties for driving cars not retrofitted with new hydrogen engines. Does global climate change still feel abstract?

If it does, then imagine living in Bangladesh, where deforestation and rising seas have already combined to flood most of an entire country. Or in Denver, where skin cancer rates for those under 25 are four times greater than they were a quarter century ago. Or on a farm in the American Midwest, where the drought-ridden 1980s – the hottest decade on record – have withered crops, the fortunes of farmers, and world food supplies.

By now, global climate change should feel very real, and very immediate. We humans don’t need a flesh-and-blood bear to get us going. We know a threat when we see one. During our long history – which I pray will be much longer – we’ve developed an almost unstoppable strategy that has worked to get us past every serious threat to our survival, and it will work now. We organize.

Alan AtKisson is the Managing Editor of IN CONTEXT.

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