Sustainability Catastrophes

Last week, a pair of independent scientific research studies came to an identical conclusion: calamitous climate change is inevitable. Indeed, it’s not just likely … it’s inevitable.

Apparently, the scientists assert, the ice sheet covering a broad region of Antarctica is now so unstable that it will inevitably collapse and melt away. And the resulting rise in ocean and sea levels will flood the world’s great waterfront cities.

So why weren’t the studies regarded as “calls to action” by our societies? Why did a controversy over a race horse’s nasal strip attract more attention than this inevitable calamity of environmental sustainability?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to consider the time horizon of the ice melt. Both research studies conclude that the primary effects will not be felt until the next century.

The detrimental effect of lengthy time horizons on human perception, of course, is not resticted to the issue of climate change A French academic named Thomas Picketty recently wrote a book named “Capital in the 21st Century” that focuses on the struggles of middle class families.

The book is now an international bestseller. But why aren’t policy makers debating his primary recommendation of a global wealth tax?

Once again, the time horizon of the scientific analysis may provide an explanation. Picketty reviews centuries of economic performance; he concludes that the emergence of an enterprising middle class during the twentieth century did not represent an inevitable trend in global capitalist history.

Ultimately, he warns, virtually all of the wealth (i.e. “capital”) in our society could be acquired by a very small number of property and business owners. In other words, human society could revert to the economic structure of medieval times, when most individuals spent their lives scrounging for survival.

Of course, you may not necessarily agree with Picketty’s gloomy suggestion of a social sustainability catastrophe. And although it is difficult to argue with the science that underlies the climate studies, you may be optimistic about mankind’s ability to adapt to the evolving environment.

But if you spend any time at all thinking about these concerns, you may be expending more of an effort to consider these calamities than our own government leaders.

To what extent should elected leaders modify contemporary economic, social, and environmental policies to address foreseeable catastrophic events that will not occur for decades?