In my last piece, we touched on the third critical challenge regarding the climate crisis; creativity. In the first piece in this series we addressed the first challenge; cognition. In the second article, we explored the second obstacle to mounting a successful strategy to address the climate crisis; collaboration. In this, the final piece in this series, we explore the intersection where all three crises (cognition, collaboration and creativity) collide with chronology – C-5.
Humans create dangerous things. Unfortunately, for far too many of us, we recognize the term C-4. It is a member of the Composition C cohort of chemical explosives, originally developed by the British in WWII. Like its predecessors C2 and C3, C-4 is the product of a process. It is composed of a number of ingredients. C-4 is a very stable compound and not subject to detonation via most physical impacts. Detonation can only be initiated by a shockwave; when an electronic detonator is inserted into it and activated. Today, it is a compound with primary uses in war and some heavy construction projects (that require blasting). Unfortunately, this compound was used in the terror attacks against the USS Cole in 2000 (17 U.S. sailors killed), to destroy the U.S. military housing at the Khobar Towers in 1996 (18 killed and nearly 500 injured), and is the preferred explosive used by terrorist groups as an improvised explosive device (IED). It is estimated that IED’s have caused around half (45%) of all U.S. military deaths in operational war zones since 2006. If the history of human civilization teaches us anything, it is that we humans create circumstances, conditions and compounds that are destructive and deadly. Again, unfortunately, what we create may turn out to be something that comes together to cause our own demise. I regard to the climate crisis, we have moved beyond the C-4 stage in the process to the C-5 stage. Allow me to explain.
On June 15, 2021 researchers published the startling results of a study (Geophysical Research Letters - Satellite and Ocean Data Reveal Marked Increase in Earth's Heating Rate). The study was conducted by scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These researchers observe:
Climate is determined by how much of the sun's energy the Earth absorbs and how much energy Earth sheds through emission of thermal infrared radiation. Their sum determines whether Earth heats up or cools down. It's a delicate balance that determines the planet's climate. This study focused on what is referred to as the Earth's energy imbalance — “the difference between how much of the sun's energy the planet absorbs and how much energy is radiated back into space — approximately doubled from 2005 to 2019. The researchers referred to their findings as "striking." Basically, “the Earth is gaining more energy than it should - causing the planet to heat up even more, also known as a positive energy imbalance. Earth is trapping double the amount of heat now as it did in 2005, researchers say, leading to further increase in global temperature, more snow and sea ice melting and higher sea levels. It's a man-made change that's shifting the composition of the atmosphere,” they stated. (CNN June 18, 2021).” We, humans, are poorly equipped to recognize and act upon gradual, processual change. We search for patterns and attempt to order what we sense against our own experience to manufacture meaning. As one scholar suggests:
We are short-term demanding and long-term inattentive by nature. We live in a world that swarms with patterns at every level. We have evolved to be pattern extractors. Minds exist to predict what will happen next. They mine the present for clues they can refine with help from the past—the evolutionary past of the species, the cultural past of the population, and the experiential past of the individual—to anticipate the immediate future and guide action.
(Brian Boyd On The Origins of Stories – Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, pp. 87, 99 and 134)
In regard to the climate crisis, an ever evolving nightmare for the planet, we’re in dire straits. Cognitively, as Boyd points out, we are constructed to be long-term inattentive, pattern extractors, and to anticipate the immediate future and guide action. Well, what have we actually accomplished thus far? What are the implications, from a cognitive standpoint, with climate change; that is clearly evolving in severity and magnitude – gradually? Sure, we are extracting and sharing climate crisis data patterns. However, these patterns have no reference point in our past that can assist us. We have no experience in the past with the current problem – from a human evolutionary, cultural and experiential standpoint. Collecting data is one thing. Developing and implementing a globally coordinated, enforceable, effective strategy to deliver the essential corrective measures remains the challenge.
Remember, cognition refers to how we think and how we are wired to think. Furthermore: “Just as the human eye is susceptible to optical illusions, the human brain is susceptible to illusions about risk and probability.” Are we presently laboring under an atmosphere of illusions, myths and momentum? How confident are we about the probabilities we have assigned to the risks? What if we’re wrong or are required to confront the emergence of a tipping point event that we did not anticipate or imagine? (Andrew W. Lo, Adaptive Markets – Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought, p. 62).
Listen to author Michael Lewis: “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible, because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is in our imagination.” (Lewis, Michael The Undoing Project – A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, p. 194-195).
Can you imagine a world with a scarcity of clean drinking water? How about mountains without the essential, annual snow accumulation and natural, glacial reservoirs of water? What do you think about the possibility of millions upon millions of climate refugees escaping vast drought stricken regions that can no longer produce food, contain water, and sustain human life?
How have we, as a species, done with the eradication of hunger, poverty, pollution, racism, corruption, homelessness, income equality, education, the spread of life-threatening diseases, and the like? Are you confident in the way mankind is currently thinking about climate change? How we think about a challenge informs how we imagine the potential solutions and collaborate effectively to implement the same. Regarding climate change, do you think the examples above are outcomes that are extremely unlikely or impossible? Is the human imagination currently defective regarding the climate crisis? Like Lo suggests: “We aren’t rational actors with a few quirks in our behavior—instead, our brains are collections of quirks.” (Lo, Andrew W. Adaptive Markets – Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought, p. 187).
Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson states:
Researchers point out that the primary and crucial difference between human cognition and that of other animal species, including our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, is the ability to collaborate for the purpose of achieving shared goals and intentions.
(Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth, p. 226)
Thus, for Homo Sapiens, cognition is directly related to collaboration. In fact, they are inextricably woven together. What we do with what we think we know is a symbiotic relationship. If our cognition is deficient, how will that affect the forms of collaboration that emerge therefrom? Furthermore, are we currently at a place where you are comfortable with the actual existence of a global consensus on our collaborative approach to the climate crisis regarding the achievement of shared goals and intentions? What about China’s plans to build a cadre of new coal-fired energy plants?
Inertia is a concept in physics with pertinent implications for the climate crisis. It is a “property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.” Inertia is energy. It refers to energy exerted to maintain or change existing social structures and/or values. Status quo is a term inhabited by energy to maintain the current state of affairs. Status quo serves a massive reservoir of energy dedicated to preserving the existing architecture of the “way things are.” Inertia is also an impediment to essential change to address the climate crisis. The established industries which produce pollutants are massive and powerful; fossil fuel production companies, chemical producers, automakers, airlines etc. Inertia also inhabits the climate crisis itself. The rapidly warming planet is evidence of this, as revealed by the example at the beginning of this piece authored by scientists from NOAA and NASA. It is the rate, nature and forms the moaning and groaning our Earth expresses – that we are capable of measuring.
In terms of the climate crisis, the energy of inertia inhabits the intersection where cognition, collaboration and creativity collide. It is a space where the energy reservoirs of the status quo smash into the necessity for change, collaboration and creativity to ensure the survival of the planet. It is a space inhabited by conflict and resistance to change. Inertia contains velocity – the rate at which energy is expended to maintain the status quo and/or inspire new forms of cognition, collaboration and creativity.
So, what must we accomplish to coordinate and harvest the benefits of new forms of collaboration to address the climate crisis? Perhaps, the pathway ahead includes the language we use and the stories we tell one another? As Boyd indicates: “We achieve much of our advanced cooperation through language.” (Brian Boyd, On The Origins of Stories – Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, p. 103-104).
Listen to Harari:
The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances, myths can change rapidly. (Harari, Yuvall Noah Sapiens– A Brief History of Humankind, p. 32).
To communicate with one another, to tell our stories, to collaborate, cooperate and innovate more effectively, we evolved the ability to make sounds anatomically, using our vocal chords. Of course, our ancestors, the chimps, monkeys and apes are quite capable of demonstrating an ability for symbolic communication. We, humans, evolved well beyond that rudimentary skill set. We, humans, developed an even more profound ability beyond those of our ape-like ancestors referred to as symbolic reasoning; to create symbols, express ourselves via spoken sounds, invent language; words, gestures and terms that convey meaning to ourselves, and to those around us. The ongoing development of this unique capacity is deeply rooted in culture, human relationships, and historical epoch within which it arises. Furthermore, the meaning of the words we create may morph and evolve over time. However, even if we were creatures who evolved vocal cords, they wouldn't be of much use to us without a connection to our brain. All stories begin in the mind. What has been referred to as the Cognitive Revolution (a) and/or The Great Leap Forward (b) in our evolutionary history began somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago. It is during this timeframe whereby "Sapiens to start talking about things that existed only in their imagination.” (Harari, Yuvall Noah Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 156).
Around 100,000 years ago the appearance of human hunting skills was discovered. At just about the same time period, “archaeological discoveries in France and Spain indicate the diversity and function of the tools found at these sites "modern anatomy had at last been joined by modern innovative behavior." (Diamond, Jared The Third Chimpanzee - The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, p. 47).
Humans have been referred to as the great ape with a mind designed for story-telling. We have been characterized by the term Homo Fictus or fiction man; or the story-telling animal. Yet, there is a defect in our apparatus: "The storytelling mind is imperfect - it can also be a bumbler. The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true our stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can't." (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human, p. 103).
Recall from the Cognition section of this piece, we humans are pattern extractors. When we cannot find them, our minds create them. Yes, our minds create fiction when we are unable to conjure up accurate realities. Perhaps, our current stories/narratives about the climate crisis are both partially accurate and currently ineffective? Beliefs are contagious and infectious. They are transmitted among people. Ideas and beliefs arise amidst our cognitive processes. They are critically important to how we collaborate and create/innovate – and produce effective solutions to systemic threats to human health and existence. If how we think about a challenge is deficient, the forms of collaboration and creativity that arise therefrom are also likely to be incomplete.
It is here that we must introduce the notion of time. From a purely historical standpoint, chronology is a method used to display the time sequence within which we order events in time as they occurred. In regard to the climate crisis, we are dealing with a current and future event in time. How might the crisis continue to unfold and what events are likely to emerge in this future timeline? Who knows? However, to examine the climate crisis without considering chronology would be a failure of any decent analysis. Here is what I mean.
Time inhabits the climate challenge. Time inhabits our existence. Time is an assumption. We assume we will have time tomorrow as we did today. We assume there is sufficient time to develop and implement an array of effective solutions to address the multi-dimensional facets of the climate crisis. We assume we are able to measure the time we have left to accomplish the same. What if the measurements of time are inaccurate? What if we are unable to deliver the essential solutions? Listen to Fred Guerl, Special Projects Editor at Newsweek:
Sometimes, though, big changes take place suddenly and ripple through the entire chain of creation. Sometimes small changes become big changes, and big changes add up to gigantic disruptions—catastrophic ones.
(Fred Guterl, The Fate of the Species – Why The Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, p. 30-31)
How will the climate crisis continue to unfold? As this is a phenomenon we have never confronted before as a species, how might the yet-to-be-written history of our future unfold? Harari has a poignant observation:
It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. Today is no different.
(Yuvall Noah Harari, Sapiens– A Brief History of Humankind, p. 239)
Pulitzer prize winner, historian and geographer Jared Diamond adds:
By the time that the signs of decline are clear enough to convince everybody, it may be too late to save the species or our habitat.
(Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee – The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, p. 337)
Renowned economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin summarizes the current challenge as follows:
We are in a race to biosphere consciousness in a world facing the threat of extinction. Understanding the contradiction that lies at the heart of the human saga is critical if our species is to renegotiate a sustainable relationship to the planet in time to step back from the abyss.
(Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization – The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, p. 26)
What time is it in regard to the climate crisis? Really? How do you know? How much time do we have before new, surprising cracks emerge in the chronology we are currently relying upon?
At the time of this writing, (July 2021), a 12 story beachfront condominium collapsed in Surfside, Florida USA. There was no apparent warning. The cause is currently under investigation while the frantic search continues for the missing souls. Rising sea levels are suspected to be found to have compromised the foundation of the structure. In the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., an unprecedented heatwave descended upon the area June 25th through June 29th 2021. Temperatures soared 25-35 degrees above average. Daily, monthly, and all-time records were broken. All-time highs for three major cities in the area fell (Fahrenheit - Seattle 103, Portland 107, and Spokane's 108). Over 1 million acres have burned in wildfires in the American West as of July 1, 2021. Then there were unprecedented floods in Europe and China.
We have argued for millennia how we came to be here. Now our challenge is to agree upon how we might stay here. Humanity has now entered the C-5 stage in evolutionary history whereby the current environment within which we exist on Earth has fundamentally changed for the worse, by virtue of our own actions – and inaction. Our Earth is groaning and pleading for our help.
Wisdom may be an island. However, there is vastly more to be discovered than that upon which we currently stand. The tides of truth lap our shores every day. When they recede, they expose new realities, new challenges, and new opportunities. How will we respond?
Climate change is “remote” for the vast majority of people. Images of distressed Polar Bears struggling to survive on seas of melting ice produce an empathetic emotional response for most of us. So do absurdly high temperatures occurring in regions where said heat records do not historically occur. 12 story beachfront condos collapsing due to compromised foundations because of rising sea levels are no different. Do they cause us to change our thinking, the ways in which we collaborate, imagine, create, and our individual and collective behaviors? Will we do so in time? Again, we humans are creatures designed to be pattern extractors, short-term demanding and long-term inattentive by nature. How will the manner in which we are wired contribute to how we address the climate crisis?
Author Steven Pinker remarks: “Human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.” (Steven Pinker, Blank Slate - The Modern Denial of Human Nature, p. 453)
Michael Lewis writes: “Maybe the mind’s best trick of all was to lead its owner to feeling of certainty about inherently uncertain things.” (Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project – A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, p.42).
Andrew Lo of MIT adds: “Being without fear is, in a very real sense, deeply irrational.” (Andrew W. Lo, Adaptive Markets – Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought, p. 83)
Well, what’s the truth? Where are we in all this climate crisis business? Listen to evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel:
The word “truth” is heavily laden with difficult philosophical baggage, but as a shorthand, we can take it colloquially to mean knowing the right answer, or knowing what really happened in some situation, or knowing the best course of action, or the best solution to some problem.
(Mark Pagel, Wired For Culture – Origins of the Human Social Mind, p. 334)
Are you convinced that we currently possess the “right answers” to the climate crisis? Are you surprised that weather events (frequency, magnitude and intensity) are increasing across our Earth? Listen to Lewis:
He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.
(Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project – A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, p. 208)
Presently, we reside in the era that author Michael Lewis refers to as the fifth risk:
The risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.
(Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk, p. 75)
I refer to this era as C-5. The epoch in the history of human civilization where the human capacities for cognition, collaboration, creativity, and chronology collide. Unlike the stability of the explosive compound C-4, C-5 is unstable and unpredictable. The formulaic components of C-5 are ever-changing. The destructive capacity of C-5 is, frankly, unimaginable. How will human civilization respond at this juncture in our journey?
In this series, you might have recognized that I have shared the thoughts primarily from thinkers, researchers, authors and the like from the social sciences. There are no one or two-dose vaccines that are or will be, pertinent to the climate crisis. However, a multi-disciplinary approach to the solution(s) must include those whose life’s work includes pertinent, strategic insights into how humans are wired and how we must change our behavior to address our approach to the crisis. Our ability (capacity) to think (cognition), cooperate, (collaboration), innovate (creativity), and the timeframe within which this occurs (chronology) are fundamental to determining the viability of our efforts.
I will conclude with a quote from Author Harold Kushner:
Being human is such a complicated challenge that all of us will make mistakes in the process of learning how to do it right, then we can come to see our mistakes not as emblems of our unworthiness but as experiences we can learn from. Will we be brave enough to try something new without being afraid of getting it wrong? Our sense of shame will be the result of our humility, of learning our limits, rather than our wanting to hide from scrutiny because we have done badly.
(Kushner, Harold S. How Good Do We Have To Be – A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, p. 39)
The clock is not ticking… The alarm is blaring. It’s time to wake up!