By Al Lehmann
“Attention! Attention! Awwk!”
In Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, set on a fictional tropical atoll somewhere in the South Pacific, the elders trained myna birds on the island to cry out this reminder throughout the day. The intended effect was that children should be conditioned to live alertly in the moment, attuned to the world around them. It was part of their Buddhist training.
Alertness has always served human survival. After all, in situations of serious danger, an unobservant hunter might lose his life. But one who consistently read the signs around him (unexpected sounds, the sudden flight of birds, inexplicable shadows, and so on) might not only save his own life, but also capture the game he was seeking.
In contemporary urban life, reading signs has become both more abstract and more simplified, abstract because the signs are symbolic, and simple because the information provided is usually very brief, available to be read and comprehended at a glance.
An octagonal, bright red STOP sign, for example, communicates redundantly: red represents danger, and the octagonal shape associates directly with the simply printed command. Even simpler, some signs are merely single letters (H for hospital, for example), or are composed merely of outline pictures (such as the walking man on the street light). It’s almost as if we’ve become stupider over time, requiring simplification after simplification, either because we can’t understand anything more complex, or because we don’t want to bother trying.
Thus, when signs of literally earth-changing significance are laid out for us by better-educated members of our species, it may not be terribly surprising that we ignore them. However, the consequences of ignoring them may be terribly surprising, with the emphasis on “terribly.”
Signs given us by the science community this past year include the following uncomfortable facts, laid out in a report signed by over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries around the world. Their report opens: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’” Over the past ten years:
1. Human population has risen 15.5%.
2. Global tree cover has diminished by 49%.
3. Air transport has increased by 64%.
4. CO2 emissions have risen nearly 18%
5. Fossil fuel subsidies are still above $400 billion/year.
6. World GDP has risen by 80%.
7. Global surface temperature has risen another .18 degrees C (now nearly 1 degree above the historical average.
8. Arctic sea ice has declined by nearly 12%.
9. Greenland has lost another trillion or so tons of ice.
10. Sea level has risen another 31.4 mm.
11. Ocean acidity has increased by over 4%.
12. Extreme weather events have increased by 43.8% leading to damage cost increases of 83%.
Of course, we can’t be expected to read the significance of these signs. We’re too dull-witted. And besides, their implications might make us feel uncomfortable, uncertain about the future. Our dreams of endless growth and progress might have to be reconfigured somewhat.
And after all, vaunted leaders such as President Trump have assured us that all this is just a “Chinese hoax.” We’ve got LNG! There’s money to be made!
Thank goodness. I was a little worried there for a moment. I have important things to concern me, like keeping up with the Kardashians and checking my Facebook feed.