Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ignoring threats, or paying them too much attention?

On the passive suggestion of Parapundit's Randall Parker, I'm reading The World Without Us, a book by Alan Weisman that attempts to describe the future following the abrupt extinction of homo sapiens. It immediately strikes me as disappointingly misanthropic and distractingly quasi-religious (what Half Sigma terms "Gaia worship"). The recurring criticisms I have with this approach--the idea that humans have somehow unfairly intruded onto evolution's domain rather than being a product of it, the exclusive focus on biodiversity at the expense of biomass, and the assertion that while human immigration from the third world into the West is grand, all other forms of immigration (human or otherwise) are inherently bad--are present. Sifting through that, though, the descriptions given about the influence of humans on ecosystems, from what becomes of the salt dumped onto roads by trucks during snowstorms to the fates of potentially feral pets, makes for intriguing reading.

My point is not to give a book review. I'm not even 100 pages in, and, more importantly, reviews are, uh, not a personal strength. I did, however, want to tap readers for thoughts on the following passage (p3), where Weisman asks whether or not humans will realize the point in time where they've crossed the rubicon, dooming the planet as we know it. Seems to me that he gets it exactly backwards:
The truth is, we don't know. Any conjecture gets muddled by our obstinate reluctance to accept that the worst might actually occur. We may be undermined by our survival instincts, honed over eons to help us deny, defy, or ignore catastrophic portents lest they paralyze us with fright.
To the contrary, are we not 'excessively' worried about all sorts of perceived threats that are, in reality, far less threatening than we imagine them to be? We're afraid to go swimming in the ocean for fear that we might be mistaken shark bait, even though the annual number of shark attacks in the US averages less than 20, and less than 5% of those are fatal. We scurry indoors during a thunderstorm, even though the chance of getting struck by lightning is infinitesimal. We have to fight through the sometimes numbing anxiety of approaching an attractive girl even though realistically the worst that happens is we're politely turned down. We buy home owner's and life insurance policies even though odds are we're going to lose money on the deals, because we fear the worst. We're disgusted by the idea of eating a piece of food that falls on the floor, even as our pets happily show us how silly that worry is. We regularly go through media cycles in which the next big pandemic set to ravage humanity is spotted, with hysterical documentaries close behind, before going out with a whimper ahead of the next big pandemic just over the horizon.

What are the real threats that we systematically tend to ignore? Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, maybe? The fact that business owners will intentionally make economically poor hiring decisions and run their businesses into the ground just to spite a black guy or a lesbian, too, I guess. Uh huh.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense to me. Survival is the primary objective, more important even than reproduction, as the former is a prerequisite of the latter. Better safe than sorry. That veritable aphorism is one that Weisman, as an author, surely benefits from.


Anonymous said...

I like George Harrison's take on it, "the microscopes that magnified the tears."

I always loved that line.

You know you are safe and comfy when such mild or unlikely events paralyze you with fear.

Word verification: braties

lil mike said...

The author seems to accept as self evident that we are racing towards and environmental catastrophe. That's not clear to me at all, even if one accepts AGW as a valid theory.

I do find myself worried about a potential global extinction event from a comet or asteroid strike, even though the odds of it happening in my lifetime are extremely low.

Of course, the odds of it happening sometime are fairly high.

Of course, I think Weisman's book is more wish fullfillment than warning. He strikes me as the type who regard the human race as somehow outside of the environment instead of part of it, and are irretrivably broken, doomed to foul our own nest until we kill ourselves off.

That of course, is the ending Weisman seems to prefer. His book is really about how the earth could heal from that horrid abberation known as people.

Audacious Epigone said...

lil mike,

Well put. It's easy enough to separate his sentiments from some of the book's more interesting content, but it is still difficult as a reader to shake the feeling that there is a lot of intentional omission taking place.

Anonymous said...

"He strikes me as the type who regard the human race as somehow outside of the environment instead of part of it, and are irretrivably broken, doomed to foul our own nest...."

Hey, isn't there a really old collection of writings on this theme? Oh, yeah, the Bible.

Nothin' new under the sun.

Max said...

Humans exagerate out of control and/or new risks and diminish one they can control/existing ones.

That doesnt mean the risks they can control are not real and consequences could not be catastrophic. For example during cold war risk of nuclear armageddon was quite real

Irrational fear of airplanes and train crashes while using cars, the examples you mentioned. Fear of nuclear power plants and ignoring the harm coal fire one inflict

Bottom line humans (as a whole) are bad and incompetent. - and that applies to risk assessment as well.

FuturePundit said...

I found the book useful for a number of reasons:

- It helped me think about what causes structure decay. If you are going to build a house, a patio, or something else it helps to appreciate the power of plants to do damage to it. Plan accordingly. This is especially valuable for summer homes or country homes you won't always be at.

- If you want something to last then build it underground. Without UV to feed the growth of plants stuff can last a long time if they are kept cool and dry.

- It shows how much we've altered the natural environment. As the human race continues to grow in size and wealth the damage will become greater still. This could cause us serious problems.

lil mike,

Regardless of Weisman's motivation for writing the book it is educational. You don't have to agree with his hopes or fears to learn useful information from the book.

FuturePundit said...

Most scenarios I can imagine wiping out the entire human race would likely wipe out almost all the other species.

How could an asteroid strike wipe out everyone? Even if it wiped out billions of people some would survive underground. We've got too much stuff to get wiped out entirely.

What's a plausible scenario for wiping out the entire human race without wiping out most species? An AI revolt? Even a genetically engineered pathogen would probably not wipe out everyone unless it could survive in many other species.

Audacious Epigone said...


I'm enjoying the book for exactly the reasons you list. The 'misanthropic' slant doesn't bother me per se, only the nagging suspicion that some omission might be going on.

Re: the event that knocks humans out but not the rest of the mammalian world, Weisman doesn't devote any time speculating on what that could conceivably be, probably because unless it is artificially created (ie a genetically engineered pathogen), it's exceedingly unlikely.