When facing seemingly impossible odds, we are sometimes capable of rising to the challenge, no matter how unpromising the situation, as I explored in this piece in the Irish Examiner at the end of June. On the other hand, value rigidity and an unwillingness to adapt can lead us to disaster – a quirk we appear to share with some of our fellow primates.
CLIMBER ARON RALSTON faced an agonising choice. The then 27-year-old was exploring a narrow canyon in a remote part of Utah in 2002 when a boulder broke loose, crushing and pinning his right arm.
Trapped, low on water, and with no mobile phone or prospect of rescue, a slow death seemed inevitable. The only hope of saving himself was to do the unthinkable: hack off his own arm with a small knife.
Ralston’s story of survival against the odds was dramatised in the 2010 film. Wolves, coyotes, and other animals have also been known to chew off their own legs to escape from a trap.
The urge to survive is supremely powerful and is common across the animal kingdom. This instinct does, however, have some significant glitches.
Among humans and some other primates, there is evidence of flaws in our reasoning known as value traps. Author Robert Pirsig famously explored these, using the example of the ‘South Indian Monkey Trap’ which indigenous hunters have devised to catch the otherwise elusive forest monkeys.
The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut tied to a stake, with a narrow hole and a bait of rice or fruit inside.
“The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped — by nothing more than his own value rigidity”, Pirsig wrote.
Even when the hunters return to check their traps, the hapless monkey remains stationary, clinging on desperately to its “prize”, caught in an invisible trap of its own construction and unable to comprehend that sometimes, to avoid losing everything, you simply have to let go.
Despite our superior intelligence and reasoning power, we humans are also prone to value rigidity, and there is no more egregious example of this than in our collective response to the rapidly deepening global climate and biodiversity emergency.
Yet how have we reacted to this stark reality? With angry denial and indignation, demanding instead that “someone else” take the hit, while we cling ever tighter to our prize, whether it is cheap aviation, steaks, giant SUVs, or rampant throwaway consumerism.
Yet all the while, the trap is closing ever tighter. A recent study in the journalfound that widespread ecological collapse is likely to get underway much sooner than had been thought.
One in five of Earth’s critical ecosystems is now expected to collapse within a human lifetime.
The authors of the study explained how climate extremes could hit already stressed ecosystems, “which in turn transfer new or heightened stresses to some other ecosystem, and so on”. They label this likely cascading domino effect as “an ecological ‘doom-loop’ scenario, with catastrophic consequences.”
Using advanced computer modelling, the new research identifies how, once the interaction of the multiple stresses that are being simultaneously applied is calculated, the tipping points in ecosystems (the point at which they commit to failing irreversibly) occur much sooner than conventional climate models have indicated.
As an example, they cite a specific ecosystem currently predicted to collapse by the 2090s due to rising temperatures; it could in fact fail in the 2030s once other stresses such as extreme rainfall, pollution, or resource depletion are also factored in.
April and May saw the highest ocean surface temperatures for this period since records began in 1850.
The current Atlantic heatwave is “way beyond the worst-case predictions for the changing climate of the region. It’s truly frightening how fast this ocean basin is changing”, Prof Richard Unsworth of Swansea University told CNN. Nor is this an isolated incident.
Last year, the world’s oceans heated up by an amount equal to the energy of five Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating underwater every second, 24 hours a day, every day. That’s the energy equivalent of 160 million Hiroshimas accumulating in the oceans last year.
Make no mistake, the climate bomb is primed. The trap is set. The only question that remains is whether Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’ is capable of living up to that description and limiting our ecological footprint and so perhaps escape our fate.
Thirty, even 20 years ago, the options for an ecological ‘soft landing’ were still very much available, but during that period global emissions have effectively doubled.
What has to change now, so that our children and grandchildren have at least some hope for the future? In a word: everything. We now need to rapidly decarbonise every part of our societies and economies.
And yes, this means sacrifice and austerity. First and foremost, we have to break our lethal addition to fossil fuels. Conspicuous consumption, cheap aviation, and most meat need to be consigned to history.
Nature urgently needs the breathing space to allow ecosystems, on land and in the oceans, to begin to recover.
As in wartime, we must now ration carbon as a key resource, which means learning to live within harsh planetary boundaries. If all that really is asking too much, then you already know how this story ends.