Friday, August 19, 2011

Safe Distance

When driving, I try to maintain enough distance between my car and the one in front of me so I can react to any problems that might come up. This has saved my life on at least two occasions, and avoided less serious accidents numerous more times, especially in bad weather.

For my current job, I do a lot of highway commuting, and spend as much time in stop-and-go traffic as going at high speed. I've noticed that it's becoming harder and harder to maintain a safe distance because other drivers don't recognize the need to keep such a distance; they instead seem to view the space I'm leaving as an invitation to dive in front of me.

I suspect that the growing number of accidents that routinely slow traffic to a crawl is partly due to people not driving with a reasonable amount of caution. The faster people try to go, the more they're willing to do to “get ahead” -- even by a handful of minutes -- the more likely it is that something bad will happen.

These observations have strong parallels in other parts of my experience, so much so that I think they are a useful metaphor for life in general. Take, for example, the willingness of corporations to push the envelope of what's legal, even to the point of trying to change that envelope through lobbying and influencing elections. Instead of limiting activity to within a safe margin, they try to redefine what people consider safe. When more people tailgate to get to their destination faster – the equivalent of competitive economic growth – it becomes the norm, and the increase in crashes becomes an expected cost of driving that everyone must pay.

Police do a modest job of controlling recklessness; when they're present, traffic slows considerably, just as regulations in the economy divert money from growth to maintaining constant production. Take the police off the road, and individual people's speeds increase, resulting in more fatalities and property loss. Reducing the size of government by cutting taxes has an equivalent effect, as does the exertion of political influence to cut regulations and provide loopholes in their enforcement. For a relatively small number of individual drivers (or the irresponsible rich), this is a boon; for the vast majority of the rest of us (or the poor and middle class), it is increasingly dangerous.

Another consequence of not observing safety margins in our activities is the deterioration of the infrastructure that enables them. With fewer taxes, roads can't be maintained and they become less drivable. With less environmental protection, natural systems have a harder time keeping the Earth habitable. A few people can make more money faster, acquire a brief superiority in power over their lives and those of others, but eventually the system that sustains that growth becomes too deteriorated for anyone (or anything) to use it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Power, Responsibility, and Climate Change

A recent article discusses the mortal threat posed by global warming, and scientists' frustration with people's indifference to that threat. Part of that indifference is due to the insistence by deniers that it's all a hoax designed to hoodwink the public into paying loads of money to environmental groups and a growing green industry.

Seen through the prism of responsibility and power (which I discussed in my last post), scientists and environmental activists are operating from a position of high responsibility, and trying to gain enough power to match it, while the climate deniers have high power and are trying to avoid responsibility by rejecting the impacts of their actions. Scientists are working on increasing responsibility among others, in the hope that they will turn their existing power toward meeting it. Deniers, not recognizing the legitimacy of responsibility, see them as fakes who are competitors for power.

Mixed into all this is a difference in tolerance for uncertainty. Scientists recognize that they will never be totally successful in their quest to understand the way the world works, and are able to live their lives with the knowledge that some day what they think they know may be proven false. There are others, however, such as the deniers and their audience, who can't stand uncertainty; they need to have black-and-white answers, even if those answers are more imaginary than real.

The recent debt ceiling crisis demonstrated that politicians aligned with the climate deniers have an arguably sociopathic lack of conscience by their willingness to jeopardize millions of lives and risk world economic depression to gain more personal power. In a smaller scale example: If they were on the Titanic, they would have steered the ship toward the iceberg, locked everyone else in steerage, and taken all the lifeboats, all so they could be the only ones alive. Unfortunately, in the case of global warming, our whole planet is the Titanic. Extending the analogy, the lifeboats won't last long, and any hope of rescue is based on total fantasy (even if the deity they expect to rescue them did exist, he would more likely set their boats on fire than welcome them onto his heavenly island).

Seeing this, many of us who feel more responsibility than perhaps is personally justified, are getting increasingly stressed out by the imminence of the danger and shrinking time to mitigate its worst effects. Recent news about melting Russian permafrost, coupled with the dying of the oceans and its potential for unleashing a global holocaust that would wipe out most of life on our planet, adds to the sense of urgency while suggesting that it may already be too late. We feel obliged to try to save lives anyway, no matter what the probability of success and the personal distress it causes, because ultimately it's better to leave a legacy of more life than death.