Willful Ignorance

The Inlander | April 13, 2006
Education, you could say, is the backbone of America. Nifty inventions like the steam engine and the computer chip have created a powerful economy and enabled our affluent way of life.

From the time we’re born, our parents read to us; in elementary school, we learn to spell and add. As the years pass and our powers of comprehension grow, we study history, science and philosophy. After high school, many go on to college in the world’s finest system of higher education. Some specialize even more, and in the span of a couple decades go from sounding out Dr. Seuss’s rhymes to unlocking the mysteries of the genetic code.

As our best and brightest stand on the shoulders of ever-taller giants, human awareness grows exponentially. It’s an exciting time — a time when solutions to some of humanity’s hardest challenges are coming into focus. God gave each of us a brain so we can solve our problems. Or, to put it in more secular terms, education equals progress. Or at least it could.

So we have all these scientists at the tops of their fields, trained in the world’s best institutions. These are perhaps the most refined, high-functioning minds ever to think — the very pinnacle of the human species.

Let’s be sure not to listen to any of them.

Yes, it’s become fashionable to be an idiot.

And the willful ignorance goes all the way up to the leaders of our country. Ron Suskind wrote a chilling story in the New York Times Magazine just a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election that shed some light on the way such people think.

He recounted in the story how a person Suskind called a senior adviser to George W. Bush told him in 2002 that, “guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’”

Who needs knowledge and enlightenment when you can simply create your own reality instead?

It was exactly 100 years ago this week that Mother Nature reminded the bustling city of San Francisco who, exactly, would be creating the reality in this world. On April 18, 1906, one of history’s most powerful earthquakes ripped the city apart; for four days afterwards, the city burned out of control. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. The city had been powerless to predict or prevent the catastrophe.

Then, just seven short months ago, Hurricane Katrina formed and, as predicted, blasted New Orleans, breaching the levees that protected the city and cutting a swath of human misery in her wake. We predicted that one, but were still — somehow — powerless to stop it.

These memories, both fresh and a century old, should humble us. Instead, we seem even less connected to the reality-based community as Mother Nature’s latest convulsion looms. Scientists call it “global warming”; Republican talking points prefer “climate change.” Whatever you want to call it, its impacts will make the San Francisco Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina look like amateur hour. At least that’s what all those scientists are trying to tell us.

But we don’t want to listen. Like those bent on ignoring the facts behind evolution, a sizable percentage of us simply do not believe in global warming — including the guy who could actually do something about it.

Books have been written about global warming, so there’s no use in recounting here how many of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1980. (Nineteen.) Or how fast Arctic ice is melting. (By about 9 percent per decade since 1978.) Or why South Florida could be underwater by the year 2100. Or why kids would have no idea why they named it Glacier National Park. Or why wildfires rage in Texas — in January. Or that carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in 650,000 years. No, that’s a lot of fancy-pants, scientific gobble-de-gook.

But if our leaders would stop creating their own reality for a minute and listen, they would find out that our education system has produced the solution — via those scientists we trained to help when we need them. So we know what is causing global warming (air pollution), and we know how to fix it (stop polluting the air). In light of past catastrophes, that’s progress. But it will still take action, and believing that, indeed, we have a problem is a good place to start.

If you want to learn how societies throughout history have thrived, barely survived or died out completely, you’ll want to read Collapse by Jared Diamond. Global warming is hardly mentioned, but it is the subtext of the entire book.

What I like about Diamond is his optimism. Clearly a wise man, he has no faith at all in our leaders. But he does trust that reality will awaken Americans from their dreams of granite countertops in time to change the future. His book is like a shot of espresso for the slumbering masses.

Diamond makes his point with a single, indelible image rather than through a polemic. Maybe an emotional appeal will work on the skeptics.

Centuries ago, on Easter Island, the people did something really stupid — they chopped down every blessed tree on the island. It was the beginning of that society’s painful decline. So Diamond leaves you imagining a man chopping away at the last tree on Easter Island. We could learn something about ourselves, Diamond believes, if we could get inside his head. What could he possibly have been thinking?

If human nature is constant, he was probably too busy creating his own reality to even give it a second thought.

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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