Full disclosure: One of these articles was accepted and the other commissioned before the coronavirus crisis. Nonetheless, the question these essays raise is vital: As we survey the existential challenges humanity confronts—however immediately pressing the pandemic may be, grave medium- and long-term threats still face us—are we focusing our ameliatory energy in the most effective ways? By now, everyone worth taking seriously has accepted climate change as the dominant medium-term crisis of our age. (This is true even though the coronavirus poses the most urgent short-term predicament.) But what if climate change is but a symptom of an even larger crisis, one that few are eager to acknowledge? In another view, what if dangers lurking in the tech that so many of us rely on are of a magnitude at least similar to those we associate with climate change?
Nor, of course, should we minimize the impact of coronavirus, a “black swan” event anticipated by far too few* that nonetheless threatens to reshuffle the way we approach all our future priorities. Amid the ceaseless torrent of horrific pandemic news, one can’t help being intrigued by the trickle of “sidebar” stories noting how rapidly the ravaged environment recovers where contagion has brought industry and travel to a halt. Dramatically clearer air over China, cleaner water in the canals of Venice, and on and on. It’s remarkable how quickly microclimates recover when the heavy boot of human enterprise is withdrawn. (One researcher suggested that improved air quality owing to China’s near shutdown might have saved 50,000 to 75,000 lives.) Those who have—altogether justly, in my view—predicted apocalyptic outcomes of climate change just may have failed to allow for the possibility that our rapacious economy could just be “switched off.” After what many experts suggest may be a year and a half of social distancing, curtailed consumption, and nothing but virtual meetings, will humans learn to be gentler on the earth? It seems the height of naive optimism to imagine so. But if the first half of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that reality has a way of overpowering even the most careful and sober of predictions.
In this feature, two authors ponder threats that might merit greater prominence in our minds.
In “Why Climate Change Is an Irrelevance … ,” outdoorsman and author Kevin Casey delivers a jackhammer argument for why climate change is best understood as a symptom of the real über-crisis: overpopulation. Those who’ve followed my own writings on population over the years won’t see much here that’s unfamiliar. But you’ve never seen this perspective expressed with such locomotive passion and distilled into just under 1,400 insistent words. It may shatter a lot of preconceptions—who knows, maybe even some of yours.
In “The Internet, the Virus, and Reason,” journalist-ecologist Brian T. Watson highlights the corrosive effects of our ultra-connected world and its effects on the psychology—and the reasoning—of those who embrace it uncritically. Though the piece was commissioned before the pandemic, Watson nonetheless takes due cognizance of it and weaves it into his argument. He warns that the web’s dynamics may make it far harder for us to apply our wisest selves to critical problems, from the pandemic to climate change to the future of our democracy.
Secular humanism is about focusing human reason, innovation, and goodwill to maximize the quality of human living. Times as threatening as ours today might call for facing down our worst prospects in the cold light of reason—all the while retaining the capacity to consider them with boundary-breaking creativity. From wrestling with new crises in new ways, one dares to hope, new solutions might emerge.
* This is leaving aside the little matter of Trump aides receiving a confidential briefing from top Obama aides, just days prior to Trump’s inauguration, in which a global pandemic was presented as one of the more likely dilemmas the incoming administration might face. Here’s what Sean Spicer, soon to become Trump’s first press secretary, had to say after attending: “There’s no briefing that can prepare you for a worldwide pandemic.” See Nahal Toosi, Daniel Lippman, and Dan Diamond, “Before Trump’s Inauguration, a Warning: ‘The Worst Influenza Pandemic since 1918.’” Politico, March 16, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2020, at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/16/trump-inauguration-warning-scenario-pandemic-132797.