Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Our Faith Is Our Downfall

Most of us believe strongly in either God or Science. A few of us believe strongly in both. That ought to be a comfort, but it really isn’t.

Christians see the world through the framework of the Bible, Muslims through the Koran, Jews through the Torah. Same God, different books and beliefs. There are many other religions with many other devout followers, each ascribing meaning to the world through the lens of faith.

They believe God (or Gods) will ultimately act to save the world and them. Whatever mistakes we make, God can fix, so we needn’t worry too much about the vicissitudes that alter our reality.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to thoughts and prayers following mass shootings, for example. If we just think and pray enough, God will make everything better. We simply need to put ourselves in his hands and let him heal us.

Science births a different kind of faith – that we can understand the world and ultimately master it. So far, this has generally proven to be true.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning that hundreds of millions might die of starvation in the 1970s. And in that decade, China instituted a one-child policy. But advances in fertilizers and agriculture allowed for greater efficiencies; we were able to produce more produce on fewer acres. The crisis was averted.

Or look at the “ozone hole,” which was reported in 1985 by Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. Their work showed that CFCs were to blame. CFCs were eventually banned, and the ozone hole (which protects us from deadly radiation and makes life on land possible) began to heal.

Whenever there has been a life-threatening challenge, we have been able to overcome it, so we begin to feel like that will always be the case. But decay doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. You get a few small earthquakes, and then a few more, and then one day you get a massive temblor, causing horrific destruction.

But we don’t expect that. We don’t really plan for the worst-case scenario. We assume science will find a solution when we need one. So instead, we march on like we always have. We give ourselves permission not to act because we believe we’ll ultimately figure out a way to fix whatever breaks.

We continue to engage in industrial capitalism, striving for exponential growth. We decide that we can manage the side effects of our current lifestyles with future developments like geoengineering.

If the world warms too much, we’ll just build a shield in space to deflect some of the sun’s rays. If the water rises too high, we’ll just construct a better dam and levee system. If more and more wildfires occur, we’ll just invent better fire-resistant buildings. And ultimately, we’ll move out to Mars and beyond, where we’ll be able to survive even if Earth becomes uninhabitable.

We presume we can keep living the way we have for the past few centuries, making more stuff, taking more resources, excreting more waste. Technology will save us from ourselves, we think. So we don’t change. We don’t pull back from our acquisitive hedonism. Full steam ahead. We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

And if it’s too late then? Well, we tried. We gave it our best effort. Except, of course, that we didn’t.


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