Where the difficulty lies

by Milan on April 6, 2011

in Climate change

On the first page of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker sets up an interesting taxonomy of human undertakings: “what people can achieve easily, what they can achieve only with sacrifice or pain, and what they cannot achieve at all.”

Stopping climate change, I think, falls into the second category. It can be brought under control, but only with sacrifice and pain. Ironically, I don’t think the bulk of the problem is physical. The physical task of replacing the world’s energy system with a carbon-neutral one is an enormous one, but it seems to me that it will be easier than the political task of making people behave as though they give a damn about the future.

Right now, most people are making political choices that suggest they do not care what sort of world there is in 50 or 100 years. As long as people keep thinking in that way, they will continue to see fossil fuels as the most desirable form of energy. Despite the increased cost and difficulty of accessing them, they remain available for easy purchase. Furthermore, they are the basis for society as we know it – cities linked with rapid transportation systems, and industrialized rural areas providing the food.

It will involve sacrifice and pain to really accept that we are living at the expense of future generations. The choices we make now, in order to preserve the parts of our lives that are familiar, are impoverishing the lives of those people. Our desire to keep visiting family members halfway across the world in a day, to eat large quantities of meat, and to have access to cheap electrical power from dirty sources perpetuates a global energy system that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain human prosperity.

We can change that, but it seems to me like the day is far off when members of the general population will take the welfare of future generations seriously enough that they will accept real changes in their lifestyles and the behaviour of their governments.

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