Sunday, July 18, 2010

Looking ahead: anticipation and prudence

We are generally not very good at responding to long term threats. We are wired to focus on the immediate. Warnings that smoking or obesity might cut years off one's life all too often fall on deaf ears. Or even where the veracity of the claim is acknowledged, there remains a disconnect between this acknowledgement and remedial action.

Many ecological crises share this structure: incremental changes (often as the result of pursuing certain immediate objectives that may well be good or pleasurable in their own right) lead to unforeseen consequences “in the pipeline” that may take years, decades or longer to become fully manifest. Examples include declining biodiversity, habitat loss, soil degradation, ocean acidification and overfishing. Climate change may represent the most complex and difficult example.

The distance between the actions that cause harm and the suffering of that harm is widened in climate change to be not only temporal, but also spatial and relational, meaning that there is no immediate or proximate visibility to the consequences of actions that are only become highly problematic in a cumulative manner. Thus, there are a raft of distraction techniques that can dilute the fierce urgency of now. We can point out the relative size our tiny contribution and the inefficacy of reducing it by ourselves; we can question the consequences that are as yet only forecast; we can lower our ethical horizons to include only what is visible in my neighbourhood.

The problem is that we are used to making our ethical decisions as though we were walking, where avoiding a pothole or canine faecal incident is only a matter of looking a step or two ahead. But we are no longer walking. Our greater agency through soaring population and technological innovation means that our actions have greater consequences, affecting a wider sphere over a longer period of time. Our consumption and production don't just satisfy our immediate needs and wants but have unforeseen knock-on effects that extend much further than they used to. We are no longer walking. When you drive, you need to look further ahead, observing and anticipating events over a wider field of interactions and responding well ahead of time to possible threats. "Too late" happens surprisingly early. In driving, you need to look further ahead and further afield than when we're walking because the consequences of your actions are so much greater. A mistake while walking means bumping into a stranger and perhaps meeting a new friend. A mistake while driving could mean sending a tonne of metal travelling at superhuman speed into a brick wall, or under a fifty tonne truck coming the other way.
H/T mustakissa for suggesting this analogy.

But we are not even driving. Perhaps a more appropriate image for the scale of our agency and our consequent need to anticipate threats is flying.
Image by Ruth Brigden.


byron smith said...

For non-Aussies, the image is an Australian speed limit sign indicating maximum speed in km/h. However, for Australians the sign may be disconcerting because the usual maximum speed is 110 km/h. Only in the sparsely populated Northern Territory can signs like this be found.

Donna said...

I was thinking that did not look very Scottish.

Anthony Douglas said...

And here I was thinking it had been doctored!

(which, coincidentally, I decided I was going to do today for an upcoming sermon series promo - on John, of course)

meredith said...

When walking, you are entirely responsible for your own speed and direction. Many people in cars are similarly in complete control, though its possible to be merely a backseat driver. On a plane, the vast majority of people are passangers with no idea how to control its movement, and little opportunity to do so anyway. Unless, of course, they happen to take the option of hijacking..

byron smith said...

Meredith - Good point! Another option is bailing out, of course (with or without a parachute). Or just not buying a ticket and changing your travel plans.

byron smith said...

xkcd gets it precisely right. As usual.