Death by denial, in the face of emergency
About 25 years ago I found myself in the emergency room of the Cowichan District Hospital. While I was not convinced that my condition was an emergency, I wanted some expert opinions on my condition. Although I had sustained an industrial accident, I was walking and talking with very little discomfort, no visible bleeding and in my opinion, I was feeling and looking pretty good (younger and less grey at least).
After some rather uncomfortable examinations during which I asked the doctor if it was the whole TV rather than the camera he was trying to insert where the sun didn’t shine, it was decided that I needed emergency surgery which would result in me waking up in the morning with a colostomy. This opinion was given to me by the attending emergency room physician and the intestinal surgeon that happened to be in the hospital at the time. Of course, I asked what the consequences of doing nothing and ignoring this “alleged emergency” were likely to be. The surgeon responded that he expected I would die a painful death within 72 hours, but on the bright side he would get home in time for dinner. Not being one to believe everything I’m told, I sought another opinion from my family doctor who fortunately took time out of his hospital rounds to pay me a visit. When he was presented with all the available information, he quickly agreed that this was indeed an emergency, but that painful death in 72 hours was doubtful, 48 hours being far more likely.
Now I am sure that if I had spent more time and wandered around the hospital, I would have been able to find people who had contrary opinions. Likely they would not have been practicing doctors or intestinal surgeons, but perhaps some X-ray technician, admin worker or physiotherapist would have suggested doing nothing, or waiting a few days to see if things got worse.
To sum up; I went to experts for an opinion on an issue of health. The professionals in their field used the best available information, current science and historic evidence to determine that I was facing a life and death emergency. I chose to take the advice of the experts and believe that inaction would likely have dire consequences (for me at least) and that emergency measures that would cause some short-term pain, would greatly increase the odds of me getting to see my children grow up.
Happily, capable people were mobilized, emergency measures were taken and all went well, in that after several months I once again had an intact and fully functional digestive system and I am now able to happily watch my grandchildren growing up.
So, what has changed in the ensuing 25 years? Many things of course, but the change that I find the most disconcerting, apart from the sags and wrinkles, is climate change. Twenty-five years ago, while the science was not new (the “Galileo” of climate change science was John Tyndall in 1859) I knew nothing about it and would certainly never have believed it was, or would be considered an emergency in my time. And yet here we are in 2019 with thousands of scientists from every first world country and every national academy of science and every true scientific organization engaged in climate science, telling us that we are causing the sixth great extinction and facing an existential crisis for our global civilizations resulting from human caused climate change.
The comparison that I am trying to draw is between how an informed person of average intelligence behaves in the face of an existential emergency and how we as an informed, intelligent society are choosing to behave in the face of an emergency that affects not only us but everything and everyone we love.
We have all the facts and science we need, for those who care about facts and science. We are surrounded by visible evidence from the dying cedars and salal to the vanishing glaciers (from 70 down to seven on Vancouver Island in my lifetime) to the Cowichan River facing yet another year of critical low flows. And we have a consensus (97 per cent) of bona fide climate scientists speaking by the hundreds in unison, telling us that we are facing an emergency, such that if we do not act now and act with zeal, in 10 short years we will likely pass the point where efforts to avert disaster will be futile.
And yet we dither. Worse than that, we seek the opinions of the unqualified and/or discredited few who offer contrary views with “alternative” facts, and we make the choice to “wait and see” or actively work to block meaningful emergency response.
For me it will matter little in the long run as I will be long gone before the worst of climate change cruelly reshapes the natural world. I will be saddened of course to watch our rivers and forest die, to know that so many innocent people and species suffered and died needlessly from our simple refusal to acknowledge an emergency and respond with appropriate action. And I carry the guilt of knowing that the damage done mostly by my generation will be felt mostly by the generations to follow.
I have reached out to and engaged respectfully with numerous intelligent folks in the climate denial camp and discovered that they will not be swayed by facts, science or evidence that contradicts their convictions. It seems that they would rather go down with the ship than consider the possibility that the ship is sinking, despite the overwhelming consensus of all the sailors on board. Sadly, we are all on the same ship and there are no life boats.
I know it seems I am painting a grim picture, but I am not without hope. That is why I continue to be a sustainability activist; to reduce my carbon footprint and share my story, plant trees, grow food and support local farmers, to protest fossil fuel expansion and export projects and to lobby all levels of government to declare a climate emergency now and then mobilize the people and resources needed to mount an appropriate emergency response. (Approving a 600,000 barrel per day bitumen pipeline would be the opposite of an appropriate response).
You may listen to the chiropractor on matters of skeletal manipulation, to the accountants on matters of money, to the minister on matters of the soul and ask geologists about your rocks, but in matters of climate science, I maintain you should listen to no one but the climate scientists, who are urging us all to recognize the emergency that is staring us in the face, and mount an intense emergency response! Immediately!
One might, I hope, be asking oneself “but what can I do?” The answer is that your future and mine is yet in our hands and that actions of individuals like you and I around the world, from how we live and travel, to how we eat, drink and celebrate, to the charities, organizations and politicians we support; are going to determine our near and distant future.
For local opportunities to get involved I would be happy to offer options and remain one of the vanishing few who still has a number in the local phone book.