Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is Natural Selection Enabling Global Warming and Economic Inequality?

Discerning the same pattern in two distinct (yet related) domains likely points to a more fundamental dynamic having its roots in human nature itself—that is, in our species as formed through 1.8 million years of natural selection. Critically, the overwhelming majority of the incremental adaptations to better fit with the environment occurred while homo sapiens individuals lived in small hunter-gatherer “bands.” Our nature, as in our genes and bodies, is a result of a myriad of such “fine-tunings” that occurred in and for a way of life, or “world,” that differs appreciably from that of modern man. We may therefore be hampered internally from being able to cope even with our own messes, and even survive them. In fact, because it will take natural selection a long time to “catch up” with our large and complex living (and working) arrangements, we may actually be unwittingly inclined to make matters worse even to the point that we as a species lose out—meaning go extinct. In this essay, I raise two problems—global warming and economic inequality—as demonstrative of this self-destructive element in our very nature.

In its Climate Change 2014 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that the world, “in many cases, is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate.”[1] This point bears on adaptation to the changes taken as a given, which as a strategy can be distinguished from prevention, which seeks to obviate or avoid the changes themselves.  According to the U.N.’s expert panel behind the report, without “additional measures to contain emissions,” global temperatures would rise about 3 or 4 degrees Celsius (5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 on top of the 0.8 degree Celsius (1.4 F)increase already “on the books” from when record keeping began in the nineteenth century.[2]  Cuts in emissions of 40 to 70 percent by 2050 would be necessary to keep the rise to 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 F), which would be necessary to avert the worst.[3]

Lest government officials around the world conclude that continuing to “kick the political football down field” given the number of years between 2014 and 2050, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri adds an important economic and political factor: “The longer we delay the higher will be the cost.”[4] Even so, by the sheer gravity of the status quo (and the vested interests behind it), we might expect the de facto choice of going with the higher costs anyway, with current carbon emissions held more or less constant. So it might come as a surprise to learn that the global carbon emissions set a record high in 2012. They rose by 2.2 percent (1 gigaton) a year during the first decade of the twenty-first century—a rate of increasing exceeding those in the previous decades.[5] Meanwhile, the global population continued to increase unabated, ironically making it decreasingly likely that the innately schizogenic[6] species would survive in the “brave new world” of a warmer, more volatile clime.

Globally, we are going in the wrong direction, which is particularly astonishing given the science that was coming in. Even before the evidence of the human (homeogenic) contribution, why exascerbate the problem by adding record amounts of CO2 emissions? The human brain seems to have a (genetic?) blind spot that operates at the expense of its very genes. 

That is to say, not only was the world as a whole not making a dent in the existing emissions level; governments taken as a whole were allowing the problem to worsen. “There is a clear message from science,” Ottmar Edenhofer of the IPCC said. “To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”[7]  Astonishingly, even with reasonable forewarning of danger to the species and the “relatively modest” cost of “keeping global warming in check” if and only if “the world acts quickly to reverse the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere,” humanity seems stuck to its “business as usual” mantra as if the species were oblivious to tomorrow, or at least conveniently content living for today with a minimum of obstacles getting the way of our selfish pleasure.[8]

It is as though humanity had been bitten by some insect infected with a virus that renders its victims totally oblivious to their own self-defeating actions and even prompts the creatures to, as it were, smoke even more. I suspect that no virus is necessary—that this pattern exists societally in at least one other major domain, suggesting that something in human nature itself not only dismisses warnings, but also cheers us on to make matters even worse.

The other domain I have in mind is that of income and wealth inequality. As reported in USA Today, American CEOs saw their total compensation—including salary, bonuses, perks, and realized stock and options gains—increase 13 percent to a median level of $10.5 million in 2013, even as the 105 million full-time workers saw their wages go up just 1.4 percent to a median level of $40,872.[9] In other words, for all the warnings of destabilizing levels of economic inequality among Americans, the gap was actually widening.

Both with regard to global climate and American democracy (as distinct as a type from plutocracy, the rule of wealth), two degrees of separation are in play. Not only have efforts not been forthcoming to reduce the imbalances of carbon and income, respectively—this is bad enough—but we are also making the problems worse.  

To be sure, arguments can indeed be, and have been, tendered on behalf of economic liberty and even employment security against hampering business production and capping incomes via progressive taxation. Such objections typically focus on the business and individual levels and more or less assume that the system, whether an ecosystem, society, or government are simply aggregates that do best when the individual units, or parts, perform optimally. Systemic constraints on the latter for the good of the system are thus counter-productive, even unfair, in this line of reasoning.

Antithetically, the “systemists” point to the systemic risk of a unit piercing through the constraints of an ecosystem or the umbrella-like stability of a political economy—Gregory Bateson describes this danger as a schizogenic variable breaching an otherwise homeostatic equilibrium.[10] Even as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook claims his total compensation in 2013 of $3.3 billion is not too much, and Larry Ellison of Oracle does likely regarding his own $229.8 million and Howard Schultz again for his $163 million at Starbucks, the economic and political power latent in such extraordinary gains in wealth (not to mention the prior years’ incomes accumulated by these three men alone) act as “black holes” both with respect to representative democracy and (relatedly) the interests of the business sector relative to broader interests in long-term human survival on a hotter Earth.

In short, the system being out of balance both globally and in the American context goes beyond the tension between individual rights and the security of the overarching systems; the status quo itself has too much power over our species. Indeed, given that almost all of our species’ existence has involved the pressing survival need to guard against the threat of immediate dangers, such as that of a tiger or lion lurking in a nearby bush, our very nature is oriented to today over tomorrow. The oceans of time necessary for natural selection to adapt our very nature to our complex economic, governmental, and social arrangements means that our species and its even its best form of government yet may succumb to our own misguided devises that are oriented to extending “the party” today (for in the long run we are dead, right?).

2. Ibid.
3. Gary Strauss, Matt Krantz, and Barbara Hansen, “The $100 Million Club: CEOs Get Richer; Workers Get Left Behind,” USA Today, April 4-6, 2014.
6. Ritter, "U.N. Climate."
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. That is, acting as a variable maximizing its value at the expense of the system, such as an ecosystem.