Sunday, May 05, 2019

Risk 'misunderestimated': War, sleeping pills, and the Extinction Rebellion

One day before the presidential election in 2000, president-to-be George W. Bush told an audience in Bentonville, Arkansas that his vanquished primary opponent, Sen. John McCain, had "misunderestimated me."

That malapropism became one of the most famous of his many linguistic missteps. But, it was Bush, or rather his vice president and Ph.D. advisors, who "misunderestimated" the risk involved in going to war with Iraq. The predicted "cakewalk" into Iraq turned into a bloody nightmare occupation lasting more than a decade. The unforeseen consequences of war are very often "misunderestimated."

I began thinking about "misunderestimated" risks this week when I read an article about the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration slapping a more visible warning on popular sleeping pills. I went through a serious bout of insomnia many years ago. For months I only slept every third night. I understand how desperate people get under such circumstances. But is it wise to take a sleeping pill, the known side effects of which can be driving while asleep and even suicide?

By the way, I never took sleeping pills during my bout with insomnia. I feared their side effects and dependency risks then as much as I do now.

Alongside the FDA announcement the Extinction Rebellion movement burst into the news with its decidedly better ability to analyze risk, in this case, regarding the consequences of climate change. Whether this movement succeeds at its goals, the people behind it understand what is at stake.

While I regard it as unlikely that humans will disappear from the Earth even with unchecked climate change, it seems quite plausible that billions of them will die early deaths as a result and that the population will plummet. That by itself would likely destroy our current complex, industrial civilization if the die-off were compressed into a few decades.

It also seems plausible that the infrastructure we have built—dams, reservoirs, roads, electric grids, seawalls, water systems, and other industrial and agricultural systems—will not withstand intact the heat, drought, floods, sea level rise, severe weather and other problems that unchecked climate change will bring with it. At the very least, we are unlikely to be able to reliably grow enough food to feed all of us.

How is it that the awareness of risk has become so blunted among so much of the world's population? Of course, for the poorest among us—those who barely make it from one day to the next—risk is immediate, personal and abundantly clear. Lack of food, shelter, medical care and protection from violence are existential questions that command attention.

For many of the rest of us, we have been living in a fool's paradise in which we have been convinced that risk could be abolished. Take a pill and go to sleep. No need to worry about side-effects or complications. Embrace your cellphone, even sleep with it on under your pillow. There are no risks of harm, physical or psychological, that can come from it. Eat whatever you see on television. Food is just fuel. Why not have anything that tastes good to you?

And, of course, scaling up the burning of fossil fuels to ever greater heights will be good for all of us and increase our wealth collectively. By now most people understand that fossil fuel combustion must decline and dramatically. But it keeps going up.

When there is no immediate personal punishment for any of the risks just listed, we tend to risk even more. We do not understand that we are in a game of Russian roulette. We wrongly believe that the longer we escape consequences, the safer we must be. But just the opposite is true. It turns out that the more often we perform risky acts, the more likely we are to perform one that is fatal.

It is true that living is filled with risks and we cannot eliminate them. But we can distinguish between those that will likely wipe us out personally and collectively, and those that will only harm us in minor ways that we can absorb.

The ultimate question that the Extinction Rebellion poses is this: Why should we care about human extinction? The geologic record suggests that humans will one day go extinct no matter what they do. So, what if that happens sooner rather than later?

The answer to those questions hinges on whether a person defines his or her community strictly in spacial terms and does not include temporal terms. In other words, are we a community of people only by space (and then only weakly at that) or are we a community that extends through both space AND time? In other words, does it matter whether human culture continues?

Those who deny climate change are answering the last two questions "no." If those who accept that climate change is largely human-caused do not see it as an existential question, they may as well be deniers.

The hardest minds to change are those who accept climate change as a reality, but cannot embrace the necessary steps implied by that belief. Will the Extinction Rebellion change that? I'd like to think the answer is yes. But I think a more thoroughgoing change in human hearts and perceptions will likely only come from actual catastrophic consequences hitting much larger groups of people and only if they understand that those consequences are the result of climate change.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe Clarkson said...

fossil fuel combustion must decline and dramatically

with unchecked climate change, it seems quite plausible that billions of (people) will die early deaths as a result and that the population will plummet

Since we still have not even begun the process of reducing fossil fuel consumption, the rate at which it must be reduced to prevent unchecked climate change has now become so dramatic that it also would result in billions of early deaths and plummeting population. We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. My belief is that we won't rapidly reduce fossil fuel combustion deliberately. It may still happen, but only as a result of some other force(s) that cause the collapse of civilization.

ChemEng said...

Risk is normally considered as a single point event. For example, a motor vehicle collision happens all at once. Even events such as a crash of stock prices generally take place over just a few months. But the risk to do with climate change is not an event, it is a process.

Recently some friends and I met to discuss David Wallace-Wells’ book The Uninhabitable Earth. I found the book to be confusing because it jumped about so much. Are we talking about the year 2020 or 2100? Given that he has done so much research I would like him to publish charts showing his projections over time to do with issues such as global temperature and sea level. Will those predictions be correct? No — none of us can forecast the future correctly. Nevertheless, we all make predictions when, for example, we choose our career path. We do the best we can with the information that we have.

We also need to understand the risks associated with responses. At the Extinction Rebellion site they propose that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. That’s just seven years from now. This action would presumably shut down most of our transportation systems, leading to unimaginable suffering.

Captain Nemo said...

Great post as always! The climate emergency is upon us. Could Project Earth Shield be a short term remedy until the world transitions to a sustainable future? Why could and couldn't this idea work?