Facing the Future
Facing the Future
Many Civilizations Have Come and gone over the past 6,000 years; some declined rapidly, some lingered, and a few renewed and rebuilt. These rise- and-fall cycles have been variously attributed to the typical increase in complexity of a society over time as procedural solutions to successive layers of problems accumulate and eventually stifle purpose and productivity, or to heightened social stratification, inequality, and consequent uprisings. But beyond the city walls are other explanations. Many societies have overexploited and degraded their natural environmental base; in other cases, natural changes in regional climates and environments have impaired harvests, caused water shortages, mobilized epidemics, or fomented political disorder. In the twenty-first century, populations around the world face unprecedented but broadly foreseeable changes in climate on a global scale, with impacts compounded by other environmental and demographic pressures. We cannot predict the consequences for human populations, but they may be dire— especially if runaway climate change occurs. The modest warming that has occurred since the mid-1970s, associated with increased severity of weather disasters, is already affecting human health and safety, via heat waves and other extreme weather events, physical injury, child undernutrition, changes in infectious disease ranges and seasonality, mental trauma and depression, and population displace-ment and lost livelihoods. Can we find another, safer way forward? Our elaborate primate brain with its unique higher-cognition planning capacity enables us, when pushed, to imagine alternative futures and to behave flexibly and seek transformative changes. But other human foibles and frailties inter-vene. These include the widespread assumption of unlimited economic growth, an instinct to retain current social and cultural structures, and the limitations of rapid-turnover democratic government. Structural impediments also persist: the continuing poverty and illiteracy of several billion people; the heterogeneity of cultures, beliefs, and political systems; and modes of scientific research not yet well suited to studying complex environmental and social systems. These make the task ahead more complex, but not impossible. To make headway will depend on people and communities under-standing climate change in terms closer to home. Talk of emissions, trajectories, scenarios, ocean acidification, targets, and timetables does not connect with daily lives.
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