The past 12,000 years have been pretty calm from a global climate perspective. The 100,000-plus years before that were just the opposite, a climatic roller coaster. Massive ice sheets advanced and retreated. The sea level rose and fell dramatically. Quite a few species fell off the ride. In the coming decades, the climate may change even more rapidly than during the Late Pleistocene, the period from 126,000 to 11,700 years ago. It was during the Late Pleistocene that our species developed from a social animal, like monkeys or dogs, into a cultural animal, something unique in the animal kingdom.
Think of culture as the collective mind, the knowledge and practices embedded in language and tradition that pass from generation to generation. From an evolutionary perspective, culture was adaptive because it enabled modern humans to work together to survive dramatic shifts in climate and prosper in a wide range of environments. For better or worse, humans were able to hunt most very large land mammals to extinction, not because of our superior weapons but because of our superior tactics and teamwork in hunting animals no single individual could take on. (For the record, this column leans heavily on Florida State University Professor Roy Baumeister’s excellent book, The Cultural Animal.)
The amazing success of our species was possible because we had a culture that could remember technological advances, pass them to new groups and new generations, and accumulate innovations over time. Most powerful of all were the intangible tools that enabled individuals to succeed in groups and groups to succeed in competition with other groups.
Sophisticated social animals like chimpanzees have political skills, they can form coalitions and manage pecking orders. Only a cultural animal can internalize group norms in the form of moral principles. As we evolved as cultural animals, the successful individuals were those that best negotiated the day-to-day moral dilemmas. How do you fairly divide the day’s kill? How do you protect smaller, weaker group members from being hurt or exploited? How do you manage members who shirk their duties? What is your responsibility for the injured, the sick, the young and the old? It is these skills of moral judgment, not our vaunted technological prowess, that will enable us to deal with the challenge of global climate change.
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Our Washington state legislators have so far failed to move forward Gov. Inslee’s Carbon Pollution Accountability Act. It’s easy to see why action on climate change would grind to a halt in the legislature. Few voters choose their state legislator on the basis of their position on climate change. Most voters are concerned about more immediate problems, like getting a decent education for their children, paying for health insurance, or getting to work in a reasonable amount of time.
This is why I support Initiative 732, which will place a tax on carbon pollution and use most of the proceeds for a 1 percent reduction in the state sales tax. Given a clear shot at making carbon polluters pay, a majority of voters might vote yes. Of course, voters will need a lot more information before they reach that conclusion. Initiative 732 will be on the ballot in November 2016, leaving plenty of time for us all to learn more.
What I like best about Initiative 732 is that it will require every voter in Washington to make a choice, a moral judgment about climate change. Initiative 732 invites Washington voters to do the right thing. It’s entirely possible the initiative won’t pass. No doubt there will be plenty of money from oil companies and the Koch brothers for a media campaign against the initiative.
No matter, this is the right conversation for us to be having as a society. If Initiative 732 passes, as I hope it will, it will represent one step on a longer path toward changing the way our society uses energy. It will take years to develop new social norms about conserving energy and protecting the atmosphere. Confronted with the enormity of the task, I draw inspiration from the 150-year struggle that ultimately led to the emancipation of slaves throughout the New World.
I sincerely hope we can speed up the process this time around!
Paul Elwood is an amateur philosopher and professional investment analyst working for state government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.