Best Case? Worst Case? The Colorado River & The Culture Of Exceptionalism

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The human body can exist for up to 30 days without food, but only 3 days without water. Without it, civilization ceases to exist. John Fleck, the director of the Water Resource Program at the University of New Mexico, and Brad Udall, a professor at Colorado State University, have penned an article in the May 28 issue of Science Magazine that warns the decreasing flow of water in the Colorado River poses a danger to the 40 million Americans who depend on its water to grow their crops, fill their water bottles, and flush their toilets.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but just imagine for a moment what would happen to the US food supply if all the fruits and produce grown in the Southwest were to shrivel and die due to lack of water. If that doesn’t get your attention, imagine if all the toilets in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego suddenly stopped working. It’s not a pleasant subject, but sanitary sewers are essential to urban life.

The Fleck/Udall piece examines the tension between the worst case scenario scientists often focus on and the best case scenario policy makers and governments prefer to believe in. They point out that 100 years ago, E. C. LaRue, a hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey, analyzed the Colorado River Basin and concluded the river could not reliably meet future water demands. “No one heeded his warning,” they write. “One hundred years later, water flow through the Colorado River is down by 20% and the basin’s Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the nation’s two largest reservoirs — are projected to be only 29% full by 2023.”

Crunch time is coming. The various agreements between the Southwestern states are up for renegotiation over the next 4 years. “There is an opportunity to manage this crisis… Will decision makers and politicians follow the science?” Fleck and Udall ask. “Colorado River water management has a long and uneasy relationship with science,” they write. “LaRue’s analysis of the early 20th century was brushed aside in favor of larger, more aspirational estimates of the river’s flow made by bureaucrats who wanted to build dams. Scientists who agreed with LaRue — there were many –were ignored. This left the river over-allocated and put the basin at risk.”

Here’s what the data shows. Over the past 5 years, run-off efficiency — the percentage of rain and snow that ends up as river water — is down dramatically. Half of the decline since 2000 is attributable to a warming planet. For every 1°C rise in average global temperatures leads to a 9% decline in the Colorado’s flow, according to scientists. This year’s snowpack was 80% of average, but is delivering less than 30% of average river flows. Hot, dry summers bake soils, reducing flows the following year.

The models scientists use tend toward “worst case” scenarios. But governments and political leaders prefer to tell voters what they think they want to hear — “There’s plenty of water for everyone. America will never run out of water.  The future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades. Build, baby, build!”

“Climate science indicates that there will likely be less water in the Colorado River than many had hoped. This is inconvenient for 21st century decision makers and overcoming their resistance may be the hardest challenge of all,” Fleck and Udall say.

Best Case, Worst Case, & Willful Ignorance

Writing in The New Yorker on May 19, climate activist Bill McKibben delves into what he describes as The Particular Psychology of Destroying a Planet. In that article, he applauds the recent work of Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, two Harvard researchers who have meticulously documented how ExxonMobil deliberately distorted the conversation around carbon dioxide and climate change for decades. The company has consistently pushed the best case scenario while demonizing scientists for being a bunch of Nervous Nellies who are always shouting about how the sky is falling.

“How is it that some people, or corporations, can knowingly perpetuate the damage? Or, as people routinely ask me, ‘Don’t they have grandchildren?'” McKibben asks. On Twitter, Supran explains, “ExxonMobil tapped into America’s uniquely individualist culture and brought it to bear on climate change.” Many of its strategies were based on the lies spun by lawyers working for the tobacco companies 50 years ago that have now been adopted by the meat industry.

McKIbben says part of the explanation is revealed in a new book entitled “Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis,”  by Sally Weintrobe, a psychoanalyst in the UK. The book is sub-titled “Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare.” Here is the summary of the book on the Amazon website:

“Sally Weintrobe argues that achieving the shift to greater care requires us to stop colluding with Exceptionalism, the rigid psychological mindset largely responsible for the climate crisis. People in this mindset believe that they are entitled to have the lion’s share and that they can ‘rearrange’ reality with magical omnipotent thinking whenever reality limits these felt entitlements.

“While this book’s subject is grim, its tone is reflective, ironic, light and at times humorous. It is free of jargon, and full of examples from history, culture, literature, poetry, everyday life and the author’s experience as a psychoanalyst, and a professional life that has been dedicated to helping people to face difficult truths.”

Weintrobe claims our psyches are divided into caring and uncaring parts, and the conflict between them “is at the heart of great literature down the ages, and all major religions.” The uncaring part wants to put ourselves first. It’s the narcissistic corners of the brain that persuades each of us that we are uniquely important and deserving, and make us want to except ourselves from the rules that society or morality set so that we can have what we want.

“Most people’s caring self is strong enough to hold their inner exception in check,” she writes, before adding that “ours is the Golden Age of Exceptionalism.” Neoliberalism — especially the ideas of people such as Ayn Rand that were enshrined in public policy by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — “crossed a Rubicon in the 1980s,” Weintrobe writes. Ever since then, neoliberals “have been steadily consolidating their power,” she says. For more on this topic, please read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

Weintrobe says the neoliberals who “drove globalization forwards in the 1980s” were captivated by an ideology that whispered, “Cut regulation, cut ties to reality, and cut concern.” Donald Trump, McKibben writes, was the logical end of this way of thinking, a man so self-centered that he interpreted all problems, even a global pandemic, as attempts to undo him. “The self-assured neoliberal imagination has increasingly revealed itself to be not equipped to deal with problems it causes,” says Weintrobe.

In her conclusion, she contrasts this narcissistic entitlement with the activities of young people who are now demanding climate action so they will inherit a planet that continues to support human life. “They, who will have to live in a damaged world, need our support to stop further damage. The danger is that unless we break with Exceptionalism and mourn our exaggerated sense of narcissistic entitlement, we may pay them lip service with kind words but throw them overboard…..while we carry on with carbon-intensive life as usual.”

Plan For The Worst

The knock on climate scientists is that they can’t predict the future accurately. Their worst case scenario has global average temperatures rising by more than 7º C (12.6º F). If that were to happen, humans would disappear from the face of the Earth just the way dinosaurs and pterodactyls did 65 million years ago. The Earth will continue to exist and new life forms will appear — eventually — but humans will cease to exist.

“Balderdash,” say the neoliberals. “That’s ridiculous. Those scientists are just trying to scare us so they can continue getting lucrative research grants from governments that are stupid enough to believe all that horse puckey.”

Experience teaches us that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but using best case scenarios as the basis for our plans for the future is simply foolish. As German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke observed more than a century ago, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.”

Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower espoused variations on that theme. Sir Winston said “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” Ike added, “The very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” And no less a personage than Mike Tyson may have summed it up best when he said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Mother Nature is preparing a massive punch in the mouth for humans. We can see it coming. We have been warned. We have squandered opportunities to address the approaching onslaught for the past 5 decades. Climate scientists create worst case scenarios not because they are sick puppies but because they don’t know everything and are willing to admit what they don’t know. The difference is, the fossil fuel crowd won’t admit what the do know.

In the TV show Law And Order, district attorney James McCoy was forever suggesting people be prosecuted for “reckless endangerment, which is defined as “conduct which creates substantial jeopardy of severe corporeal trauma to another person.” Think of it as walking through a crowd of people carrying an open container of gasoline in one hand and a lighted candle in the other. Does that person intend to hurt or kill people? Probably not. But if the worst case scenario happens and there is an explosion that kills or maims others, a conviction for reckless endangerment could follow.

Which raises this question — if a corporation knows its products are causing harm to the environment that puts all of humanity at risk but hires armies of public relations flacks, lobbyists, and lawyers to hide its knowledge from the world, is that not reckless endangerment? And if so, why are the leaders of that corporation not in prison?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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