We human beings search for patterns. We look for them in the weather, in the habits of those around us, in the lives of other creatures and in our own. We especially search for patterns in tragedies. We don’t want to believe that horrible events could happen at random to anyone, let alone to us and our families. We want to believe that if we explain these events – if we know what causes them and when they occur – we can avoid them. We want to control the future…to produce safety at all costs. It is a human quality, but it is a particularly Western quality – of Europeans and Americans – to believe that we can actually produce the safety that we seek. The systems of colonialism, capitalism, militarism, and racism have created wealth and technology that allow a degree of safety and convenience never before seen in the world. But this safety and convenience have been created in a zero-sum game, at the expense of people of color, poor people, the people in the Global South – and these groups often overlap. The effectiveness of this zero-sum game for Europeans and Americans makes the seeking of patterns a life-or-death enterprise.
This desire to recognize, understand, and predict patterns often produces missteps when we create patterns out of limited data. When we attribute ship and plane disasters to the Bermuda Triangle, or when we explain national events through conspiracy theories, we fall into this trap. When the data is limited and the explanation is fallible, it feels better to have some reasons, any reasons, even if they are not legitimate reasons.
But the flip side occurs as well. Sometimes we find patterns and we don’t like their implications. We mistrust those who have found the patterns.We want to live as if these patterns are false, and so we ignore them. Two prime examples of this willful ignorance in current times are our collective treatment of COVID and climate change.
We see the data that the pandemic is not over. Yes, cases are dropping in the United States, and they have dropped before, and then they have increased. Cases are currently increasing in Europe – might they do so here in the coming weeks? In the meantime, every state has dropped its mask mandate, leaving older and immunocompromised people to worry about whether they might contract the virus from any one of the unmasked people around them whenever they venture to the store. And we place no priority on our governments funding preparedness for future pandemics. We see the data that the pandemic is unpredictable, we see that increases are occurring elsewhere, we see that masks help prevent the spread of the disease, we see that the disease still kills the elderly and immunocompromised, and we do nothing.
We see the data that our carbon emissions are unsustainable. We see that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere continue to grow. Global average temperature continues to rise. Some people experience climate anxiety and depression. Others seem to ignore the issue entirely. And people in both groups continue to live as if there is no crisis. We see the data that CO2 continues to rise, we see that CO2 increases cause temperature increases, we see that higher average temperatures produce dramatic climate and weather events that affect more and more people every year, and we do nothing.
How do we reconcile these two complimentary attitudes – the creation of fictitious patterns and the denial of real ones? It makes sense once we circle back to safety and convenience. We invent or disbelieve patterns, in the end, not based on the evidence, not based on the data, but based on our convenience and our short-term safety. If a fictitious pattern conveniently confirms what we want to be true about ourselves, we often choose to believe it. If a real pattern means that we might have to make significant changes to our lives, we often choose to ignore it.
But if we want to survive in whatever sense that is meaningful to us – as individuals, as communities, as nations, as societies, as a civilization – we must choose. Will we choose to ignore the evidence that this pandemic is still with us, or that another worse one could easily come along? Will we choose to ignore the evidence that we are heading into a deepening abyss of climate catastrophe? Will we choose our convenience and short-term safety? Or will we choose the truth?
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