Saturday, December 30, 2006

Futurist Positive

I recently saw futurist John Naisbett on a local talk show, discussing his latest book. In the 1980s, I was one of millions to read and enjoy Megatrends, his groundbreaking treatise on the future.

At the end of the show, hosted by Aaron Harber on PBS, Naisbett was asked about global warming. His response was similar to that of many skeptics on the issue: the science is all but compelling (he recalled similar warnings about global cooling when he was growing up). Recalling predictions of a mass extinction in 200 years if we don’t reign in global warming soon, Naisbett pointed out that people will not be swayed by such long term concerns. Previous to this discussion, he had argued that people are mostly motivated to act by the promise of short term gain, where the feedback from their actions is direct and visceral.

Knowing more about the science, and apparently about science in general, I strongly disagree with Naisbett’s assessment of the global warming threat. No serious scientist argues that global warming will do more than continue to delay the onset of Earth’s last ice age. As described in the book The Life and Death of Planet Earth, the ice age could start within a few hundred years (after we stop burning fossil fuel).

Far more troubling to me is Naisbett’s assertion that people do not care about their impact on the future. He was referring to a theory that our carbon dioxide emissions may trigger a major mass extinction, which would have otherwise waited some 250 million years for the formation of a super-continent to stop ocean currents (see my essay Global Warming and Mass Murder). If such a mass extinction occurs, it means that this country so many Americans are proud of will be limited to only doubling its current age, and humanity will be gone in ten generations or so. Can people be so callous and self-serving that they are willing to risk that?

As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, we may be facing a similar catastrophe within the present generation. Getting people to consider cutting back their driving and purchase of large homes to deal with the more modest consequences of global warming – disease spreading, cities flooding, polar bears dying, droughts and wildfires – seems hard enough. The feedback is getting stronger, but when will it be visceral enough, and will it be too late when it is?

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