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An essay donated by Dave Wilson

Homo sapiens’s potential fatal flaw

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Let me elaborate on a rather gloomy point I made in an earlier essay about the need for progress and change in our values and in the things we regard as important. Our hands with their opposable thumbs give us great manipulative skill. And as a species we are very smart but not necessarily wise. (Being wise I regard as being smart AND taking a long-range, evidence-based point of view with a broad outlook.) These characteristics, hands and smarts, have given us incredible powers, including the manipulation and changing of our environment on a very grand scale. Our third characteristic, combined with these two, is our fatal flaw, a recipe for disaster and even our extinction. This third characteristic is our incredible ability to engage in wishful thinking -- to believe and act on what we want to believe in defiance of evidence, often overwhelming evidence, that this is not true. Very commonly this belief is based upon greed or fear, and this type of wishful thinking is found at all levels of our society, from the high school graduate flipping burgers to the corporation president with his MBA to the university professor with his Ph.D.

Let me give a few of the many egregious illustrations of this type of wishful thinking:

  1. The efforts by the lead industry to smear and discredit the research that demonstrated that environmental lead is a serious hazard to young children.

  2. The efforts by the coal industry to defend the position that coal dust is benign and is not responsible for severe lung damage despite the enormous amount of medical evidence to the contrary.

  3. The efforts by the tobacco industry to convince the public that the use of tobacco has no ill effects on human health, despite the enormous amount of medical evidence to the contrary.

  4. The existence of Superfund sites (major hazardous waste sites which result in hazards to human health) scattered around the entire country. They were created by companies because this was the cheapest way to store chemicals or get rid of toxic wastes and because corporate executives believed that the basic laws of physics, chemistry, and biology didn’t really apply to them.

  5. Efforts by fishing industries to override scientifically based regulations and catch limits designed to prevent the fishery resource from being destroyed.

  6. Our military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

  7. The massive efforts being made by several business sectors and the Republican Party to deny the existence of climate change.

For the long haul, we need to change those values we hold dear to include a number of new ones:

  1. We must develop a willingness to take the long view; to think in terms of our children’s and grandchildren’s needs as being important, rather than discounting them into virtual non-existence because they are future, not present, benefits.

  2. We must develop a willingness to face unpleasant (or at least less profitable) facts, rather than pretending that they don’t exist or are just the junk science vaporings of idealistic tree-huggers and can safely be ignored.

  3. We must develop a willingness to use resources held in common (fisheries, aquifers, federally owned forests and grazing lands) for the long-term good of all, rather than for one’s own maximum immediate benefit.

  4. We must come to a realization that the winners in Life’s race are not necessarily those who die with the most toys, and seek other means of fulfillment than the acquisition of material wealth above and beyond what we need for comfortable survival.

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Obviously making these changes in our value system will be a very long haul indeed. Given the speed at which we are producing changes that make our world less livable for us and a host of other species, we don’t have time for something that will be a very long haul. What to do as a stopgap? And what to do to speed things up?

  • First -- and as a conservative I don’t like to say this -- government regulation as a stopgap. Faulty as it is, it does work. I have seen the enormous progress we have made under EPA, the FDA, OSHA, and a number of other government regulatory bodies. For many years we had systems of voluntary compliance, and they simply did not work. Careful, thoughtful, research-driven regulations and solid enforcement are certainly essential at this stage of our moral development, in exactly the same way we need laws and police to protect us from ourselves.

  • Second, our churches have a role to play in this, a role which some are already playing with vigor and effectiveness. The four new values I listed above are, I believe, quite compatible with the moral and ethical principles of most of the major denominations of Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths as well, and our churches could play an even more significant part in speeding the process of educating us to these vital new values. Some churches are setting a spectacularly good example.

  • Third, our educational system has made a start at moving into ‘environmental education’ and ‘ecology’ in a significant way. One can therefore hope that the next generation will be much more adequately educated than ours was in the importance of taking the long view, of facing facts rather than engaging in wishful thinking, of thinking and acting in a globally responsible and sustainable way, and of valuing and enjoying aspects of our world that cannot be bought at the local mall. One can also reasonably hope that the next generation will have the necessary factual and scientific background to achieve these ends effectively.

  • Fourth, we have a host of large and small groups promoting conservation, ecological thinking and action, wildlife preservation, etc. -- groups like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, to name just a few. These groups are serving an invaluable role as educators and promoters of an environmentally sound long view and of global sustainability. They also play a major role as watchdogs publicizing and pursuing cases of environmental abuse and attempts by corporate lobbyists to subvert the system.

Whether this combination of forces will be sufficient to prevent us from flushing the world down the toilet is anybody’s guess. I find it a little scary to think that this is probably the best game in town.

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Originally posteed: 2013-JUL-19
Latest update: 2013-JUL-19
Author: Dave Wilson

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