Scott Russell Sanders
an excerpt from
Near and Distant Bears
Suppose you are walking along a path in the woods, and as you round a bend you suddenly encounter a grizzly bear, just a few feet away, lumbering in your direction. How do you react? Before you have time to think, your body launches a flurry of responses—adrenaline and pain-killing endorphins and some two dozen other hormones surge into your bloodstream, your heartbeat and breathing speed up, blood vessels to your major muscles enlarge as those to your kidneys and digestive system and skin contract, your pupils dilate and your vision narrows to focus on the bear. All of these physiological changes, and many others, happen in a flash. They are orchestrated by one of the oldest portions of the brain, the almond-sized hypothalamus, a structure we share with grizzlies and every other vertebrate animal. By swiftly preparing us to fight or flee or freeze, these mechanisms have enabled our kind to survive threats not only from predators but also from wildfire, rockslides, venomous snakes, and hostile humans.
Now consider a different scenario. Suppose you are walking along that same path in the woods. This time you are listening to a podcast about a new report from the world’s foremost experts on bears, who warn that the farther you proceed on this path, the more grizzlies you will encounter. The scientists cannot predict the exact number of grizzlies, or the exact location, but based on extensive research they are 90 percent certain that if you continue on this path, you will run into overwhelming trouble. Your only way of avoiding the bears, they argue, is to change paths. The podcast goes on to say that the report has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences and a host of other scientific organizations. How do you react? This time you will have to think, because your body is not hardwired to deal with more distant and theoretical dangers. The hypothalamus will not bail you out. You will need to engage the most recently evolved portion of your brain, the neocortex, which is involved in reasoning, imagining, processing language, foreseeing the consequences of actions, making ethical choices, and other higher faculties.
After considering the report, you may decide to turn around and find another path. Why risk being devoured? On the other hand, you may be so attached to this path, or so doubtful about there being any decent alternatives, that you will find reasons to shrug off the experts’ warning. Perhaps you distrust all experts. Perhaps you note that the scientists themselves are uncertain of the danger, since they claim only a 90 percent probability for their prediction. Maybe they are simply out to attract more funding for bear research. Maybe they are conspiring to curb your freedom by dictating where you can walk. Perhaps you imagine that even if there are grizzlies lurking down the trail, they are likely so far away that you’ll finish your jaunt before you reach them, or that if you do reach them you’ll figure out some way of fending them off. Or perhaps you believe that some benevolent deity watches over you and will protect you from all harm. For one or more of these reasons, therefore, you stay on the path. If you guessed right, you may stride along safely, but if you guessed wrong, you will stumble into disaster.
By now, it will be obvious that the path I have in mind, the one we are so reluctant to give up, is defined by consumerism, population growth, and economic expansion, all dependent on the burning of fossil fuel. Scientific warnings have so far failed to change the trajectory of the human economy, as nation after nation seeks to emulate the levels and types of consumption prevalent in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. When such warnings have not simply been ignored, they have been dismissed—using the sorts of arguments mentioned above—by advocates of unlimited growth, apologists for the fossil fuel industry, and believers in human exemption from ecological constraints. Taken together, the two scenarios—about near and distant bears—help explain why we react swiftly to immediate threats and why we react slowly, if at all, to remote or intangible threats, such as those posed by our degradation of the environment.
We often brag, with some justice, about how well we respond to emergencies, such as fires or blizzards or floods. Recall, for example, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. True, looters and scammers sought to profit from the chaos, and government agencies floundered, unprepared for the scale of the disaster; but on the whole, public workers and private citizens responded generously. Thousands rushed to the Gulf Coast to help clean up from the storm surge, and tens of thousands more donated money and goods to aid in the recovery, or welcomed refugees into their homes. No doubt we could have done more, and still need to do more, to relieve the suffering and repair the damage caused by Katrina, but the fact remains that our nation has invested billions of dollars and millions of hours of labor in the effort.
But could we have prevented the disaster, or made it less likely or severe? Scientists and engineers had been warning for years that New Orleans was at risk of catastrophic flooding due to the draining of coastal wetlands, which act as a buffer against high water, and due also to the likelihood that warming oceans would increase the power of hurricanes. Unlike the flood itself, which galvanized people into action, those predictions were hypothetical, based on research and computer models, and they were largely disregarded. Taking the predictions seriously would have required oil and shipping companies to restore the wetlands they had drained, would have required federal and state officials to push for deep reductions in greenhouse emissions, would have required citizens to pay slightly higher taxes and utility bills in the present to stave off crippling costs in the future—would have required, in short, a degree of cooperation, rational discussion, long-term thinking, and concern for the common good beyond anything our nation has ever shown. Yet these are precisely the qualities we will need, not only as a nation but also as a species, if we are to address the various planetary-scale threats to our well-being—above all that of climate disruption.
The survival reflexes our ancestors passed on to us are of little use in dealing with the heating of Earth’s atmosphere and the resulting hazards of extreme weather and rising sea level. Neither can those reflexes, honed over thousands of generations, defend us from acid rain, mercury poisoning, a thinning ozone layer, bleaching coral reefs, collapsing fisheries, eroding topsoil, dwindling aquifers, or wholesale extinction of other species. Unlike grizzlies and rockslides, these threats are largely a result of our own actions, because technology has enabled us to multiply our numbers and indulge our appetites on a gargantuan scale. Our evolutionary inheritance has not prepared us to cope with such challenges, for they have arisen gradually in human terms—although swiftly in geological terms—and have gone unnoticed by all but the most careful observers. We will not have thousands of generations to work out solutions; we must do so within the lifetime of a child born today, if that child is not to suffer, along with his or her contemporaries, from our negligence. To find solutions, we will need to reimagine our place in nature, our responsibilities as members of communities, and the meaning of a good life—which is to say, we will require a shift in consciousness as radical as any mutation in our evolutionary history.