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Why Sandy Won’t Change Anything

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A vast storm shuts down the largest population area of the United States. Millions of people are without power, transportation, even their homes. New York's Gov. Cuomo says it seems like "we have a 100-year flood every two years now."

"The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations," he told reporters. "We are only a few feet above sea level." And also, "We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination."

Mayor Bloomberg says we need to start building huge storm barriers to protect New York City. Experts in climate, engineering, politics, transportation, experts in almost everything are talking about this "new reality" or "new normal" and how we have to respond before it's too late (which most of them say it already is).

So, do we now "get it" that huge changes are now taking place on our planet?

Unless a threat is literally staring us in the face, like a lion or a crocodile or an enemy a few yards away on the battlefield, we just can't recognize it. We have no mental equipment to deal with it.Probably not. The fact is that as a species, we're just not equipped to deal with long-term crises.

What we're very good at is responding to immediate challenges. So we're mobilizing like crazy now to get the power back up, drain the subways and tunnels, rescue the people who didn't believe they were in the path of a dangerous storm, and throw ourselves into a giant recovery operation.

But can we take action to stop what storms like this one portend for the future?

According to Dr. David Katz, a physician at the Yale Prevention Research Center, we're simply not wired to comprehend threats that aren't immediate:

Our perceptions of time, and peril, were shaped by the long sweep of our shared history. The perils that mattered most were the fangs and claws of predators. They chased us, and we fled or fought back. It all happened fast, and then was over.

For most of our brief history as a species, we've been concerned with getting through the day, not with what may happen to us next year, or to our children a decade from now:

Most decisions we have made routinely throughout our history related to food, shelter, and social interaction. Much of the time, the focus was on living out the day.

There was no estate planning in the Paleolithic. There were no retirement homes. Long-term thinking extended to seasons, not much beyond.

So we are hard wired to notice minutes, hours, days, and to some extent, weeks and months. Years are already a bit blurry, and decades were mostly beyond the limits of consideration for most of human history. Anything with effects over longer spans than decades is probably just about meaningless to us, biologically.

That means that unless a threat is literally staring us in the face – like a lion or a crocodile or an enemy a few yards away on the battlefield – we just can't recognize it. We have no mental equipment to deal with it.

We are aroused by threats that are immediate -- although we may tend to forget them as soon as they subside. Long-term threats that don't rear up on hind limbs and wave their claws in our faces today may not only be easy for us to ignore -- they may be hard for us to take seriously. Our perspective remains the endowment of the savannah, and the simple and immediate challenges of survival. We tend to use 'short-sighted' as a pejorative term, but it is the native state of our species.

And that may count among the greatest challenges to our survival now -- because that perspective, and our Paleolithic time horizon, are obsolete.

As a doctor, Katz specializes in the obesity epidemic, and draws a parallel from that to climate change. Eating what's bad for you doesn't make you sick immediately. The threat may be years away. So, for most people it's unrecognizable until heart disease, cancer and diabetes finally strike. And even then, it's hard to make the connection.

Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy says that our brains simply didn't evolve to deal with problems that aren’t within our immediate sensory sphere. Unless we're under direct, immediate threat, we just don't get it.

When it comes into our sphere of experience, then we do get it. And that’s what has to happen for us to get it. We’re the kind of species where something has to hit us on the head for us to deal with it. So we’re quite well equipped to mobilize and clean up the mess. But it's got to be real to us at a sensory level. Otherwise, it’s like trying to see a color you don’t have a receptor for.

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Bill McKibben's 350.org followers gather in Times Square before Hurricane Sandy hits.

So has Sandy now made it "real" to us? Probably not, says Bill McKibben of 350.org, who campaigns for people to recognize what we're doing to our planet:

Our two presidential candidates have managed to slog through a summer of campaigning that carried them through the hottest month in U.S. history (July) and across a heartland enduring an epic drought.

. . . I would have been shocked if either of them had raised the issue, just as I’ll be shocked if Congress ever—ever—breaks its perfect 20-year bipartisan record of accomplishing nothing on the topic.

Astronomer Phil Plait wonders whether such a huge storm can make a difference to our denial and non-comprehension:

Sea ice melting happens far away; droughts, fires, shifting weather is unpredictable and difficult to grasp; statistical graphs are easily manipulated by special-interest groups and generally difficult to interpret anyway. But a hurricane a thousand miles across doing tens of billions of dollars of damage and causing untold chaos is more than a wake up call. It should be a shot of adrenaline into the heart.

Will it be? Maybe a little bit, but probably not much. After Katrina, New Orleans rebuilt the levees. But no one focused on climate change. So yes, New York and New Jersey will take action to prevent such huge damage in the future. But will we try to protect the planet? Unlikely.

At the end of Gov. Romney's convention speech, the audience roared with laughter when he poured scorn on the fact that "President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet." He added that "My promise is to help you and your family."

Millions of those families are now in urgent need of that help. And the only way to stop it getting unimaginably worse is to do what we can "to slow the rise of the oceans." 

Right now, we're still at the very beginning of where our ignorance and helplessness has taken us.

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4 comments
Mark Sterkel
Mark Sterkel

Edward Abbey one said "enjoy it now, while you still can, while it's still there".

Mark Sterkel
Mark Sterkel

Edward Abbey one said "enjoy it now, while you still can, while it's still there".

Andrea Penardo
Andrea Penardo

The Green Party's Jill Stein is addressing just this issue!

Andrea Penardo
Andrea Penardo

The Green Party's Jill Stein is addressing just this issue!