Photograph by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Getty
An idea beloved of the technorati is that we are actually living not on the earth we seem to inhabit but in a simulation. Elon Musk has said that it’s “most likely” the case, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has set the odds at fifty-fifty. If so, we’ve clearly reached the point where whoever is supervising the action has handed the game over to a bored supervillain who is wildly pressing buttons: Pandemics! Locusts! Firestorms!
The name of this newsletter is The Climate Crisis, but for the moment the emphasis is going to be on the last of those words. We need to understand how crises work, and, since I’ve been thinking about them for many years, I have a few thoughts to offer. This week’s reflection has to do with time, which is a variable we seriously underappreciate. We’re used to political debates that go on forever—when I was a high-school debater, in 1978, our topic for the year was “That the federal government should establish a comprehensive program to regulate the health care system in the United States.” We imagine that, if we don’t solve a political problem now, we’ll get around to it eventually. Meanwhile, we’ll chip away at it—delaying a solution extends suffering along the way, but it doesn’t necessarily make a problem ultimately harder to solve. Certain kinds of problems don’t work that way, however. Physical problems—climate change and the coronavirus being the pertinent examples—are all about time. And what’s striking to me is how similar these two examples are.
We know that the first cases of the coronavirus in South Korea and the United States emerged on January 20th and January 21st, respectively. The Koreans responded immediately, rolling out a widespread testing regimen; it was disruptive, but that nation “flattened the curve” and is now looking at the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. In this country, we delayed; the President didn’t want “the numbers” growing, and was convinced that it would somehow “go away” by itself, maybe when the weather warmed. So we wasted many weeks, during which time the virus gathered momentum. Now we face an incredibly costly (and far more disruptive) effort to keep it from taking down our entire society.