Friday, June 23, 2006

Fight Rapid Global Climate Change through Technology and Overpopulation

The Field Museum's crack fundraising team called me yesterday. I said, sure, I'd be delighted to help out, particularly because I loved supporting an institution whose employes worked for such low wages. I elaborated that I could just sense the dedication, love, and scientific commitment radiating from the lower-level staff. The fundraiser agreed with me. I continued, however, that I'd heard some disturbing rumors, and wondered if he could tell me the CEO's salary before I wrote my check (a half million a year, much of it raised from families who make less than $80,000 a year). The guy said he had no idea what the CEO was making, that he had absolutely no way to find out, and was off the phone within ten seconds, despite my efforts to prolong the conversation.

Of course, the Field Museum -- with an annual budget that is probably higher than the eBay liquidation price of their exhibited collection -- is a outdated institution committed to an outdated scientific paradigm. Their pride in their holotypes has an eerily fascistic resonance, and is out of step not only with 4th century B.C. Platonism, but also with contemporary genetics and science. Their collection, dating from the twenties, of fingernails and hair clippings from the three hundred most beautiful people on earth crosses over from eerie to creepy, and is so bizarre that few employees are willing to discuss it. Speaking of creepy and eerie, the executive decision to remove the shrunken heads from display fifteen years ago, on grounds of "cultural sensitivity" ranks as one of the worst curatorial decisions in the history of public exhibitions (where's their sensitivity to the culture of European-American adolescents?). And, of course, if we go behind the public exhibitions to their private justification, the internet will ultimately make large duplicative collections of the world's species completely unnecessary.

Even so, the Field Museum's confused mission has comic effects. Their latest permanent exhibit, "the Evolving Planet", makes a compelling case for the fact that Earth has gone through a series of mass extinctions, and ends on the chilling note that we are going through one, right now. However, this man-made mass extinction is different: unlike the ones that cleared the slate and allowed interesting ecosystems to evolve on modified paradigms, this mass extinction provides a growth opportunity for institutions like the Field Museum, which closes the exhibit by asking patrons for money to help them fight the tide of terrestrial devestation.

There are many compelling arguments for fighting rapid global climate change. Almost all people experience a deep, existential wholeness when they survey a complex ecosystem, and, during a period of mass extinctions, nature is much less pretty. With that said, however, people who grow up in Arizona experience a similar aesthetic response when looking at desserts, and it may be arbitrary to prioritize forests over wastelands. So the "let's save nature" argument might be flawed; the most compelling reason to fight rapid global climate change is that our economy is built on top of the ecosystem, and an economic collapse would almost inevitably follow an environmental collapse.

But if the energies that could be used to reduce rapid global climate change are diverted into conservation efforts -- airlifting frogs to air conditioned zoos, that release even more carbon dioxide, to necessitate even more frog rescues -- there is less political will for producing lasting and real solutions. There is an almost spiritual symmetry in that fact that, at the very moment when we are destroying species at an accelerated rate, we are simultaneously developing the technologies that will be able to create species at an even faster rate. So, dedicating resources to preserving living members of species in inhospitable environments is like storing ice cubes all Summer and Autumn, when Winter is a month away.

At present, the only real way to fight rapid global climate change is to reduce the causes of rapid global climate changes: buy carbon credits, take fewer airplanes, bicycle, recycle, and purchase fewer, durable items rather than plentiful and poorly made products destined for the land-fill. However, given earth's projected human population growth, all the models show that will be insufficient. So the only real hope for humanity lies in slowing global climate change while working on a set of technological breakthroughs that would allow us to regulate the earth's weather system. Current science has a long way to go, but if we keep continue research, and we keep breeding, we might just be able to produce the people who have the tools to solve it.

{side note: I give money to the Field Museum every year, I enjoy their events, I am delighted by their collections, and am amused by their complete absence of social utility. Because they are a well-run example of a "for-profit-not-for-profit", their memberships trade for below theoretical value, and only a moralistic blue-stocking would refuse to join. Further, every species on the planet makes me feel a little bit richer, while making the world a slightly more interesting place, so, while I am philosophically irritated by the absurdity of a frog rescue operation, I am personally happy that it happened. And, besides, the Field Museum was not even involved in that particular airlift, anyway.}

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