Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Limits of Human Ingenuity

Throughout our history, we humans have been problem solvers. Of course, many of the problems we’ve had to solve have been problems of our own making, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we have mostly found solutions to them.

But what’s interesting to me is how often we, knowing the solutions to problems, nevertheless decide to do nothing to change the situation for the better. For example, we know that getting regular exercise will make us healthier – increase our metabolism, decrease our blood pressure, improve our blood sugar levels – and yet many of us don’t exercise regularly.

The same applies to what we put in our mouths: we know eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthier than a diet with lots of meat and processed food. Cooking at home is better than eating out. Kale and eggplant and broccoli are good; French fries and burgers and milkshakes are bad. Yet…

Why do we choose to ignore these problems? Largely because we don’t perceive these problems as problems. If I like hamburgers and playing video games rather than sipping water and munching on a carrot while I take a long walk, what’s the problem? If I have a heart attack and my doctor tells me I have to give up smoking or eat better or get some exercise, then I’ll do it – or at least I’ll consider it seriously. Until then, don’t bother me. Go preach to the rest of the world and leave me alone.

The planet is warming? I don’t really see a problem. I don’t notice any major difference in my life as a result. Sure, it doesn’t get as cold as it used to in the winter, and it seems like we’re having more flooding events, but other than that, no big deal.

Those nerdy scientists will figure something out if it becomes a big enough problem. They always find a solution eventually. So why should I have to pay an extra dollar a gallon for gasoline? Why should I have to pay an energy surcharge on my utility bill? That’s government overreach. Let’s wait till it becomes a problem and then we’ll fix it.

But of course, even though we’ve always come up with some sort of solution to our problems (or a solution has occurred regardless of our efforts – like with the 1918 flu, which just sort of faded away), that doesn’t mean a solution will always be possible. For millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the planet, escaping extinction many times.

Until the last time.

That same fate may befall us. Our executioner may be bacterial or viral. It may be a combination of causative events. It may be slow, a gradual diminishment of the population that tails off to nothing over hundreds of years.

But I suspect we are headed for an ending of sorts, a time when humans will no longer be the dominant species on the planet. It won’t happen next year. It probably won’t happen in the next century. But I believe it will happen eventually.

What can we do about it? Many things. We can devote more resources to fighting bacteria and viruses. We can try to combat climate change by modifying our behavior, our energy usage. We can have fewer children to decrease the stress we place on our world. All these things will help. And we mostly won’t do any of them until we have to, until it’s actually too late.

Then we’ll lament our leaders’ shortsightedness and curse our forebears for their selfishness and ignorance, but that won’t really be us. That will be our great-great-great-grandchildren, and we’ll be long buried, having passed our time in luxury relative to the pain they will know.


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