Trapped in the Headlights of Climate Change

Posted on January 7, 2011


The fact is, it isn’t really the lights that pin them there, although it may seem that way to us.  That animal frozen in our headlights is merely displaying a tactic which kept its ancestors alive from a time long before there were humans and human civilization and cars to run animals down with.

The efficacy of the freeze-in-place tactic is attested to by the fact the animal is there to resort to it.  If the tactic hadn’t worked effectively for millions or hundreds of millions of years—for its ancestors—it’s fairly unlikely that the animal would have trotted it out on the unfortunate night it became roadkill.  Life-threatening situations call for only the most effective and time-honoured tactics, nothing less.  The animal couldn’t have guessed that with this particular dangerous encounter, oh dear, “time-honoured tactics” were the quickest route to becoming pavement pizza.

You see, the ancestors of that animal trapped in the headlights faced generation after generation of predators which attacked things that moved, but which sometimes missed things that didn’t.  So until just that very moment—when the animal encountered a fender travelling at 100 kph—the tactic was clever and useful.  But in an unforgiving universe, if a tactic doesn’t work just once, then it’s too bad, Jim.

Or too bad, Bambi.

You see, headlights represent a new, impersonal sort of death for Bambi & Co.  Vehicles hurtling along highways are not like predators at all—except for their deadliness—because predation is always quite personal.  Freezing in place sometimes works when the danger is personal, but is at best irrelevant when not personal.  A car coming at you down the road therefore calls for another idea.  Like—with all due dispatch—getting off the road.

Instincts can kill.  What Bambi needed was a study on the characteristics of cars, and how best to deal with them.  Then a timely briefing.  But Bambi, not being human, didn’t have culture available to it, which could have arranged these things, so Bambi was and is always at the mercy of instinct.

And that is why—given our collective access to better information through science—that the human reaction to climate change makes us stupider than Bambi.  We know better, we’ve done the study, we’ve attended the briefing, yet we still stand in the road, stunned and motionless.

And the instinct that has trapped us, and which is now threatening the health of our planet and of our civilization, is the human instinct for politics.

How silly we can be.

A year or two ago my daughter Haisla was associated with a particular group for a few weeks.  They met regularly.  Some hung out together.  Factions were formed.  Allies were gathered.  In short, it was society in miniature.

One day Haisla happened to mention her first trip to Africa, which was when she visited Egypt, she said.

Immediately, another person in the group, who I guess had taken a dislike to Haisla, disputed that Egypt was in Africa.

Yes, it was, my daughter said, she had been there.

No, it wasn’t, said the other.

My daughter brought in books on Egypt, but her opponent would not look at them.

I asked my friends and they agree with me, she said to Haisla.  Then, perhaps wishing to go to a higher forum, she started to raise the dispute on Facebook.

Impatient, a third member of the group finally weighed in.

I have a world globe in front of me, she said.—Yes, Egypt is in Africa.—It doesn’t matter whether your friends agree with you or not.—Haisla is right.—Stop being stupid.

The climate change debate is dismayingly analogous to that silly little dispute with my daughter and is taking place for what looks like some of the same reasons.  Because humans don’t always like each other.  Because humans have an instinct for dividing into factions and playing politics.

Somebody took a dislike to my daughter and was prepared to take umbrage with anything she said.  And so summon a crowd to her side to support her umbrage.

In the climate change debate, some people have become impatient with ‘liberals’ and ‘uppity scientists’ and ‘hippy environmentalists’.  And so they have undertaken to summon a crowd to their side to shout these annoying and inconvenient people down.

Like my daughter’s low-grade nemesis, those who would deny the facts about climate change also refuse to look at the scholarly and scientific evidence.  Instead, they trade opinions among themselves, as if opinions about facts mattered just as much as the facts themselves.  As if, given that you got enough people on your side, you could vote Egypt out of Africa.

The trouble is, like geography, physics and science isn’t up to a vote, and physics and science is what you’re talking about when you’re talking about climate change.  Politics is useful for deciding what to do about the facts, but it is beside the point in regard to determining the facts.  Unlike human laws and human policies, the laws of physics can’t be repealed by a supermajority in the Senate.  Physics doesn’t care whether you’re left wing, right wing or barbecue buffalo wing; it carries on regardless.

And physics in the form of climate change is hurtling towards us down the road.  We can save ourselves by acting rationally and quickly upon the scientific evidence available to us.  Or we can dawdle and hem and haw and play word games while the danger bears down on us, trapped by our human instinct for politics and for factionalization.

In which case label our civilization Bambi and buy a wreathe of lilies to toss on our coffin.

We’re about to become roadkill.