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Climate Change

The Real History, Prehistory, & Mythology of Anthropogenic Climate Change (Part 5)

This article is part of a short series. You can find Part 1 herePart 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

Putting This All Together

Now that we’ve got a better idea of how long our species has been affecting our climate, let’s look at just how bad this really makes things for us. Industrial warming alone is catastrophic, but now we know that it’s on top of changes that we’ve been making to the Earth for almost ten thousand years.

And really, it starts before that. “Archaic” humans (that we’re partially descended from), like the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others we’re still discovering, spread out from Africa into other continents and didn’t cause widespread extinctions of the megafauna. When the most recent version of humans started spreading, things suddenly changed. Slightly better hunting abilities led to overhunting of all of these species.

When the food from hunting large animals ran out, we decided to take a second look at controlling plants and animals with agriculture and herding. Not only did that prevent the next glacial period, but it also led to the creation of barren deserts. The Sahara’s grasslands got dried up by a combination of overgrazing and the slight warming due to agriculture and deforestation. Other places around the world are facing problems with desertification, and for similar reasons.

The desert I live in faces toxic dust every time the wind blows, and other deserts are facing similar problems as their lakes dry up. We can’t blame the failure of natural dams on humans, but the subsequent drying up of the lakes as we diverted water away for agriculture and warmed the air (increasing evaporation) lays squarely on our shoulders.

What’s Wrong With Us?

More important than the “How?” is the “Why?”

It’s a lot less damning to think that we’ve only started making big mistakes 250 years ago, and that the people who came before lived in some semblance of balance with nature. It’s comforting to say that we come from a line of “noble savages” and historical heroes who only started making big mistakes relatively recently, and that we can just go back to being better if we make a few tweaks to our ways.

It’s a lot harder to admit that our species has been the driving force behind increasingly bad environmental disasters for longer than we had the means to write about them. It’s hard to face the fact that destroying ecosystems, destroying climactic systems, and then going on to destroy the whole planet is in our nature as humans.

I don’t mean to make any kind of “original sin” argument here, though. We aren’t fundamentally evil, but we might be fundamentally disabled when it comes to long-term thinking about cause and effect. Killing huge numbers of animals led to running out of those animals, but we didn’t want to admit that we did anything wrong. After all, the waters started flowing out of the mountains more after grandpa killed all those critters off and we started farming, so one of those grandpas must’ve slain some dragon or other to release all of the water that didn’t flow before.

It’s clear reading Ruddiman’s book that deforestation was not only recorded historically, but actively encouraged by political leaders. Sawing down trees to grow more food, even to the point where 85% of the forests in England were gone, was seen as a good thing. Who doesn’t like more food? But now, humans don’t want to admit that these epic deforestations of millenia past caused significant climate change.

Even now, as the evidence piles in proving that industrial levels of greenhouse gases is causing even bigger problems, many people don’t want to admit that it’s a problem, and don’t want to do anything about it. Even as the concept of anthropogenic climate change gains widespread public acceptance, the number of people purchasing an electric vehicle or taking other meaningful action on climate in their personal lives falls far below the number of people who tell pollsters they think it’s a real problem.

Just like the people who continued the mass killings of mammoths and giant sloths, we don’t want to admit that the way we’re taking care of business is enough of a problem to actually do anything about it.

How Do We Change This?

At this point, I’d really like to hand it back to readers for ideas on how we can make a meaningful difference. Obviously, we’ve got a real problem in the human mind that keeps us from really making a solid connection between our behavior and problems that add up from enough of that behavior.

Do we have any doctors (of psychology) in the house? If so, what drives this fundamental disconnect?

If you changed your ways on this at some point in the past, what prodded you to make that change?

If we don’t start identifying ways to deal with this fundamental human disconnect, we could end up wasting our time arguing with people while the world’s problems compound. Or worse, we could get everyone to agree with us what the problem is and why it must change, but watch everyone do nothing about it.

My personal theory is that we’ve always (as long as there have been humans) gotten too caught up in the day-to-day struggle to survive to want to spend any time, money, or effort changing things. We can always solve a big problem like our household’s carbon footprint next year, when there aren’t so many bills due, chores we’re behind on, and home improvement projects that the wife is expecting action on. Things will be better next year, right?

I mean, who has $600–2000 to improve the house’s wiring, another $2000 to put in an electric heater, and a bunch of other money to convert the gas appliances to electric? The furnace, stove, oven, water heater, and maybe even the dryer are all working fine right now, and there are some other things after my money right now.

But next year, there will be other things after my money, too. And the year after that. And the year after that. It’s going to take some serious, deliberate action and sacrifice in the face of other demands to make it happen.

I don’t want to tempt readers with the question, “Am I a dumb ape like the people 10,000 years ago, too?” because I know what the answer to that is, and I don’t like it any more than you do.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things:


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