[Corrected, see below] As graduation approached at my rural Michigan high school in 1985, our principal had a problem. The commencement ceremony usually featured two speeches: one from the valedictorian and one from the salutatorian. But in my graduating class eight people, including me, had a 4.0 grade point average. Who would give the valedictorian speech?
The day we decided the issue is cemented in my memory with equal parts pride and embarrassment. The nine of us, counting the salutatorian, Steve, who’d gotten an A- somewhere along the way and therefore had a 3.97 GPA, gathered around a big table in the principal’s office. We discussed electing a single representative to give the speech, but nobody seemed comfortable with the possibility that they might not be elected. Eventually we agreed that the only fair solution was to give nine speeches—or rather, one speech with nine parts. Steve would get the final word.
The next question was what the speech should be about. This is where I began to get pushy. Commencement speeches always look to the future, I noted. But to me, the only question about the future that really mattered was whether there would even be one, or whether we’d finally destroy ourselves through technology. Our speech, I argued, should be about the peril of nuclear war.
Not exactly an uplifting topic, I’ll grant you. But remember, this was 1985. The Cold War was still in full swing. More than 62,000 warheads sat in American and Soviet missile siloes and submarines, enough to turn the planet to radioactive dust several times over. President Reagan’s Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty called for deep cuts, but negotiations were stalled over issues like the Strategic Defense Initiative. Nuclear annihilation seemed all too possible.
It was an anxiety that found expression in movies and TV shows like WarGames (1983) and The Day After (also 1983). On top of all that, I’d recently read Jonathan Schell’s 1982 book The Fate of the Earth, a grisly walk through the consequences of nuclear war. I was deeply affected by Schell’s cry for a return to sanity, and by the work of antinuclear activists like Helen Caldicott.
So the idea I pitched was that our speech should be a hypothetical look back from a post-apocalyptic future. I’d set up the concept as the first speaker. Then the next seven speakers would talk about the things they missed most about the world that had existed before we nuked it. Steve would get the best job: issuing the call to action, by bringing the story back to the present and reminding the listeners that we still had time to avert nuclear war.
I’m not sure why the principal and my fellow students went along with this nutty scheme, which, in retrospect, was far too depressing for a commencement speech. In any case, we gave the nine-part address as planned. The students and families gathered for graduation listened politely, though with some puzzlement. The kicker is that there was a writer from the British daily newspaper The Guardian in the audience—why he was visiting our tiny town, I don’t remember—and he interviewed me afterward for a column about anti-nuclear activism in the U.S.
Within a few years, of course, the utterly unexpected would happen. The Soviet Union would collapse and both the U.S. and Russia would move ahead with drastic arms reductions. Today the global count of nuclear warheads is around 17,000, on the way down to a projected 7,800 by 2022. The threat of nuclear war, especially on a regional scale, is still very real, but global annihilation through nuclear fire is a receding worry.
Now we deal with new anxieties. 9/11 brought the specter of mass destruction wrought by political extremists. There’s horrifying sectarian violence in places like Ukraine, Syria, Israel, and Gaza. Ebola is on the loose again in Africa. But a large part of our nuclear-era angst has been transferred to a more nebulous fear: the prospect of social, economic, and environmental collapse if we aren’t able to hold back the consequences of global warming.
I certainly worry about this every day, and it sways many of my decisions as a citizen and a consumer, and my thinking as a journalist. As a child of the Cold War, I’ve barely known a time when we didn’t face a major existential threat. I’m accustomed to the presence of an organizing and motivating fear—and I suspect many entrepreneurs and innovators are, too.
But how deeply is this pattern embedded in our psychology? Do we somehow want to be scared about the future? If it turned out that the threat from climate change was illusory, or if someone came up with a solution, would it deprive us of a sense of direction and urgency?
In today’s political climate, it’s risky to ask such questions out loud. There’s a deep and dangerous rift between those who accept the reality of climate change and those who deny it. Neither side feels it can afford to be introspective, at least not in public. Doubt equals weakness.
But it’s important to understand our own biases, whether we’re talking about climate change or any big problem worth solving. A belief in the scientific method demands no less. Otherwise it’s too easy to fall prey to all sorts of weak thinking, including confirmation bias, the tendency to notice and remember new information only when it supports our existing opinions and beliefs.
Even if you believe that global warming is real and that it results from human activity, in other words, that doesn’t mean every new heat wave or hurricane is a sign of imminent global climate disaster. The things we say and do in response to the threat of climate change must be based on scientific evidence, not on anecdote or some kind of desperate search for a narrative through-line for the chaos of today’s world—or on what’s been called “the perverse joy of apocalypse.”
Why would anyone find joy in disaster? Many a religious cult has taken comfort and meaning from the idea that end times are approaching. And as the conservative writer Rod Dreher has pointed out, “apocalypticism…is by no means only a religious phenomenon.” In fact, he thinks climate change believers fall into this pattern. “Today you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse,” Dreher writes. There may be a little bit of truth in this thesis. If the prospect of catastrophe didn’t produce a small frisson of excitement, dystopian science fiction like the Terminator and Matrix movies wouldn’t be so popular.
But nobody enjoys a constant state of terror. I would be perfectly happy to live in a world where nuclear weapons had never been invented, extremists couldn’t shoot down passenger planes or fly them into skyscrapers, carbon dioxide wasn’t a greenhouse gas, and we’d learned how to live in balance with the planet’s natural systems. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and it isn’t confirmation bias to note these dangers are real.
I think fear is a useful emotion for innovation, as long as it’s based on truth. In fact, the threat and the experience of disaster can foster the unity of public opinion needed to bring about major shifts in policy. That’s what my MIT PhD dissertation was all about, back in the mid-1990s. I drew my evidence from major technological disasters of the ‘70s and ‘80s like Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Chernobyl.
But you don’t have to look to history for signs of technology’s unintended consequences. Just glance at a map forecasting the impact of sea level rise and you can see that an increase of just 5 feet would permanently submerge large areas of our coastal cities, including the parts of southern and eastern Cambridge, MA, where I live and work.
Scientists tell us that this kind of increase is quite plausible by the year 2100, especially if the accelerated ice melting being reported in Greenland and Antarctica continues. In that 5-foot scenario, we’d also lose 7 percent of Manhattan, 20 percent of Miami, and 88 percent of New Orleans. If fear of this kind of loss and destruction isn’t enough to motivate the technology and business community to find ways to slow greenhouse-gas emissions, pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and start adapting to the irreversible changes already underway, then I don’t know what else will work.
Perhaps the reason that so many great entrepreneurs and innovators are still working on comparatively inconsequential problems like social/mobile apps and better ad-targeting technologies is that the reality hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe we’ll have to lose an entire city or region to a future superstorm—the big sister to Katrina and Sandy, aimed at a low-lying place like Charleston, SC—before we really wake up. If that were to happen, I think we’d see what a large role entrepreneurs and innovators can and should play in driving political change and moving us toward sustainability. If innovators can create new transportation systems like the Hubway bike-sharing system here in Boston, and spend time lobbying for new conveniences like Uber and Airbnb, surely they can mobilize to support bigger causes like cutting carbon emissions, enacting a carbon tax, and making renewable energy cheaper.
I do know that the power of fear is real. It gave me the chutzpah, as an 18-year-old, to lecture a town full of conservative Midwesterners about nuclear weapons. The line between healthy fear and paranoia can be blurry—but even the paranoid are right sometimes. As Dreher writes of his apocalyptic secularists, “Just because they’re terrified of [global warming] in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t.”
Indeed. In the old Greek myths, Cassandra couldn’t shut up about the coming calamity of the Trojan War, and her people locked her up rather than listen to her annoying prophecies. Today’s Cassandras, myself included, have the whole Internet at our disposal, and we will be harder to silence.
[Correction, 8/2/14: An earlier version of this essay indicated that there were seven valedictorians in the Charlotte High School Class of 1985, which is unbelievable enough. In fact, there were eight, plus one salutatorian, as several of my classmates have reminded me. I regret the memory lapse.]
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