Obliviousness to global catastrophes- if we can’t feel it, it simply doesn’t exist.

October 3, 2015

I am convinced that one of the limiting factors of the human species is our inability to understand cataclysmic events that are occurring because they develop at a rate that is outside our ability to emotionally comprehend. And, as humans, if something can’t be understood at an emotional level, then it is unlikely to receive the attention it deserves.

I have written before about the Holocene extinction, a cataclysmic event through which we are very likely living.[1] Everyone look around. Does it look like we’re in the same predicament as the dinosaurs and are about to become extinct?  Admittedly that’s a hyperbolic question.  And, the expected answer is a resounding “No. Everything looks normal.” However, we need to remember that after that asteroid slammed into the earth, it took the dinosaurs another 30,000 years to die out. And yet, when one visualizes the extinction of the dinosaurs, the vision is one of near-immediate obliteration. Actually, that’s an accurate characterization if one is thinking in geologic time.

Our perception of the extinction of the dinosaurs is that it occurred rapidly and catastrophically, but it actually took 30,000 years for the dinosaurs to die out after the meteor strike. How we perceive the sixth great extinction, the Holocene Extinction. We don’t really perceive that we are living during a mass extinction because the cataclysmic events occurring around us are happening at a rate too slow for us to feel.

The guiding clock of a human is not based on geologic time, but on what we experience in our daily lives. Intellectually, we can observe and understand long term events, but we aren’t likely to act on them because they fall outside the collective consciousness of our species.[2] If a dinosaur hatched 5,000 years after the meteor strike and could ponder such things, what would it think while looking around munching leaves? Not much, within her mind everything would seem normal; she wouldn’t see any mass extinction. The most likely thought would have been, “Where’s my next leaf?”

If we are in the midst of another great extinction, then we won’t see it either. Not because it’s not happening, but because it is happening at a rate that is too gradual for us to feel and experience. We’re too busy looking for the equivalent of our next leaf. It’s not just the Holocene extinction that we have trouble seeing. There are other events occurring around us that portend disaster, or at least extreme discomfort, for our species to which we are oblivious.

I remember a few years ago reading about the thermohaline circulation- the great oceanic conveyor that moves warm water from the Gulf of Mexico northward toward the United Kingdom[3]. I was struck at the time not only by the elegance of the system that kept Northern Europe relatively temperate, but also by its fragility. It has been widely suggested that the perturbation and subsequent shutdown of this system was what lead to the Little Ice Age 10,000 years ago and that a subsequent shutdown would lead to another big chill in Northern Europe.[4] Climate scientists believe this transition could take place in a matter of a few years – not a few centuries.  Such is the nature of tipping points.

Recent evidence suggests that the disruption of the thermohaline circulation has already begun. Chris Mooney wrote about this possibility recently in the Washington Post and offered the following map from NOAA as suggestive evidence. [5] The map shows anomalous record cold in the Northern Atlantic at the terminus of the thermohaline circulation.[6] Does this corroborate the suggestion that the great conveyor has started its collapse? Maybe, maybe not, but it is highly suggestive that something not normal has been occurring recently.


What does all this really mean? Maybe a few tens of thousands of years from now whatever sentient beings exist will look back and wonder how we humans could have been in the midst of such catastrophic events and taken no action to alter the course of our future. It is surely within our intellectual grasp to do so, but we will not. Instead, we live our daily lives consumed by the minutia of the present minute. We will be driven by our primitive emotion-based compass to pursue the fleeting distractions of the hour. We will fight over land, go to war over religion, fight over sexual orientation, argue endlessly of funding social programs, debate spending obscene amounts of GDP on the military and its methods of mass destruction, wonder what the Kardashians are doing, or fight about restricting firearms intended only to kill humans.

It would be so glaringly obvious that all of these pursuits are so incredibly meaningless if we could only understand, no, if we could only feel that the events of our world do not follow humans’ perception of time. If we look closely and critically we can see the events unfolding, but because we can’t feel them, the odds of our taking any meaningful action is, unfortunately, quite remote.

Inevitably, we are part of this world and whatever we do is all that we can do. Our logical and intellect may not outlive the consequences of our emotional behaviors. Humans will be humans, and in 100,000 years or so, the Earth will have sorted things out one way or another- with or without the assistance from humans. The only question is if our species will be around to see how things turned out.

[1] “The Holocene extinction event. Is our species’ destiny to be known as “The Burners?” https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2014/04/13/the-holocene-extinction-event-is-our-species-destiny-to-be-known-as-the-burners/

[2] “Humans are a minor perturbation in the life of the earth.” https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2014/02/09/humans-are-a-minor-perturbation-in-the-life-of-the-earth/

[3] NOAA, Currents: Thermohaline Circulation  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/tutorial_currents/05conveyor1.html

[4] Ice Age Reboot: Ocean Current Shutdown Viewed as Culprit http://www.livescience.com/46548-ocean-currents-linked-ice-age-length.html

[5]Global warming is now slowing down the circulation of the oceans — with potentially dire consequences


[6] NOAA Global Analysis – August 2015 https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201508


One Response to “Obliviousness to global catastrophes- if we can’t feel it, it simply doesn’t exist.”

  1. Bob Nelson Says:

    Wonder if there is an equivalent to Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: