That question I get asked by dinner dates

Believe it or not, this is a global warming post of sorts. Inevitably, when someone new finds out what I do for a living, the question eventually gets asked, “So, is that global warming stuff really as bad as they say?” Never mind that I’ve always worked on water issues. But of course, I couldn’t help but have an opinion – most environmental scientists do. It’s pretty much our job to convince everyone that yes, it really is as bad as they say, possibly a lot worse. Anyone who works in the field knows this by now; the evidence is overwhelming and more is coming in all the time.

Of course, by the time you get through explaining this, people aren’t necessarily that comfortable with you anymore. And it’s not just dinner dates. I’ve had this conversation with my broker, my dentist, taxi drivers, airplane seatmates, family members, etc. They’re not uncomfortable with me because I’m unusually rabid about it. It’s more that I really know how bad it is and the certainty of that is unsettling. I can cite any number of examples of things that can go wrong, any one of which will cause major disruptions of life as we currently live it. Environmental scientists live with this stuff all the time, and its a hard time to live in because of that. It’s very difficult to have any real long-term plans (such as making plans for retirement) and there is a renewed sense of urgency about living life well now.

Environmental scientists often wonder why the public (never mind the government) doesn’t take this as seriously as it should. Psychologists are actually beginning to study this, and it has to do with something I’ve suspected for a while. People just feel overwhelmed by it. It carries the potential for life as we know it to change so drastically that many of us may not live through it. In the face of that, most people just can’t bring themselves to think about it. They feel helpless, and do nothing. Or do little things sort of generally in service to the environment, which doesn’t come close to what is actually needed. There’s a kind of denial deeply rooted in fear that just couldn’t exist if people were willing to look in an unbiased way at what we know.

I understand that it’s hard to accept that their kids may not have the opportunity to live in the world they’ve known, especially in affluent countries like the USA, where we cannot continue to consume what we do and still solve this problem. The despair of a truth like that would be untenable. In my ungracious moments, I think some others just don’t care and live high now because they know they’ll be dead before this really hits the fan. For all these reasons, I have come to doubt very much that any actions that rely on the government or the public will be effective enough to make a difference.

People in these conversations sometimes seem curious as to how I can live with this apparent truth and not be consumed by hopelessness. In my case at least, I feel very lucky to have had the life I’ve had. I live each day as best I can, try to make what contributions I can, and enjoy my life – I know all too well that it may not always be this enjoyable, whether for environmental or health reasons. I don’t see why we can’t live with our eyes open, and make each moment more precious because of it.

And if some brilliant entrepreneur saves us all from our folly, wonderful. I have no idea whether that will happen or not; it’s one of the many unpredictable factors in this whole situation. Part of me thinks it would be better if we could just learn to control ourselves, but IMO, the chances of that happening in time are slim to none. Which is NOT a good reason not to try.

And in the meantime, points to anyone who asks me that and makes it through the ensuing conversation with their comfort level intact. I’ll start with my broker, who actually got that it changed my investment strategy and went with that. Now if only my dates could do the same :)


7 thoughts on “That question I get asked by dinner dates

  1. tamino says:

    You may (or may not) already be aware of this, but much of the reason the public doesn’t take the global warming problem more seriously is an extraordinary, massive campaign of misinformation, spearheaded by ultraconservative “think tanks” and to a large degree funded by the fossil-fuel industry. The goal is to spread uncertainty and doubt, and fear of any action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

    The tactics are similar to those used by the tobacco industry to create doubt about the dangers of tobacco smoke. In fact, some of the “scientists” who participate in the misinformation campaign are the same “scientists” who used to be on the payroll of the R.J.Reynolds tobacco company. But the scope of the misinformation campaign about global warming dwarfs that associated with tobacco.

    • Mike says:

      It’s easy to cast doubt because that is what people want to hear anyway. It’s a “convenient fairy tale” or a cozy little story to help us feel better and keep us consuming cigarettes, or gasoline, or anything else.


      • Mike says:

        PS- Look up Magic Flute in Wikipedia and you’ll find the term “obscurantism”. Coincidence?

  2. I saw some of that during the Presidential campaign, but I have to admit I routinely avoid all forms of advertising so I miss a lot of that. One thing I do find is that people who try to be informed but are basically lay people tend to give the good data and the misinformation equal weight, not necessarily having the needed criteria to apply to tell the difference between them. Can’t fault them for this entirely, but it is frustrating.

    And too, I tend to blame our adversarial court system at the roots of all this. Scientists who participate in it for pay have given the public the impression that scientists will say anything and that all science is arguable – and also tends to equalize the junk science with the real science. Stuff that never could get published makes it into courtrooms and the media. All this without really seeing the vast majority of ethical scientists and science, and leaving them unable to realize just how significant something like the IPCC report really was, in terms of embodying the scientific consensus.

  3. Mike says:

    I think part of this is the usual right-winger, anti-intellectual response to any scientific results people are uncomfortable with. I hear this often – “It’s just a theory.” In other words, it isn’t True. Most of the public don’t understand that science isn’t about truth, and politicians or their well-heeled constituents take advantage of that fact to keep people guessing and thereby maintaining the status quo. Woohoo, party on, dudes!

    The knowledge that global warming is real, and that it is really happening, and that we are causing it, and that there is probably nothing we can do to stop at this point is very disturbing indeed. Yet most of us go on living as if nothing unusual was happening.

    I have made changes to reduce my carbon footprint, and will do more in future – but when I see my fellow citizens resisting change in a hundred little ways I question why I should sacrifice at all. I ride a bicycle because it’s fun and healthy and I cut consumption because I like saving money. In the end, we are only harming ourselves if the planet will not be able to support so many of us (or any of us). I take solace in the belief that we will be harming ourselves the most. Earth will abide.

    Unfortunately, this is not a pleasant dinner conversation. It is a little bit like someone asking you what you think their life expectancy is when they don’t really want to know what you think.


  4. Coppermoon says:

    Thank you for being rabid about this – we need MORE of folk like you….

  5. KatrinaW says:

    Dear Teresa and friends,

    Thank you for this post. As a professional counselor who is interested in how people function (and their dysfunction), when it comes to change, most folks would rather put their heads in the sand than to be proactive and educate themselves and make the necessary adjustments to their lives. I feel my clients are the brave ones who have made a commitment to themselves to change.

    So then, what will it take to wake folks up and inspire them to learn and change? Like a “Bell Curve”, some are ahead of the curve, such as yourself and the other responders, and are proactive, the majority are stuck in the top of the curve and won’t budge until it is necessary (and actually too late), and the other side of the curve are those who will never change.

    Faced with this human tendency, what can we do? I’m not sure, but I can see all kinds of interesting and entertaining ways to try to raise awareness, such as the current trend to “go green” and such. Problem is, it is very superficial and doesn’t reveal the more profound details of the problem, because, as you experienced, folks just get nervous. In fact, many go into their surplus hopelessness and feel very vulnerable, a feeling that the average American is not prepared to experience.

    So, I’m excited about you, your work, our work with Tarot, and the fact that at least some of us are brave enough to be the leaders in this world.

    Love & Light, KatrinaW

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