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Expired · 22nd June 2009
Ray Grigg
"The human tragedy," wrote Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), "is that circumstances change, but man does not."

Machiavelli, of course, is known for writing The Prince, a 16th century treatise on political strategy. It continues to engender uneasiness because its methodical description of how to gain and keep power still feels both disturbing and true. His ideas somehow managed to blend pessimism and realism into a message that warns and illuminates even today. Honesty, it seems, must journey through discomfort to reach insight.

But Machiavelli, like others who survive the test of history, are often deeper than the acts for which they are famous. And this depth – the substance that nourished what they have created or done to be remembered – echoes from the past to inform and challenge us. This is why Machiavelli's insight about the cause of human tragedy should give us pause for uncomfortable reflection.

Perhaps his few words sit uncomfortably with us because they predict an almost inevitable mismatch between who we are and what happens to us. Time and circumstances do not seem to have altered our human character despite the unprecedented changes that are happening around us these days. Indeed, if Machiavelli could sense this steadfast attribute of humanity five hundred years ago, then he would be awestruck by juxtaposing our collective character with the incredible changes presently underway. Even though he was alive in a time of considerable energy and excitement, that change is dwarfed by the speed and scope of the change enveloping us now. By almost every conceivable measure, we live in a world of cataclysmic upheavals. And yet our human character still seems fixed on being itself, plodding steadily into the rapidly emerging future with a dull innocence that is strangely incongruous and alarming.

Many modern thinkers are now beginning to consider this incongruity. And it alarms them when they weigh our stolid propensity to be our stubborn selves against the formidable tasks that the changing world is demanding of us. Thomas Homer Dixon, author of The Ingenuity Gap and innumerable other thoughtful writings, almost beseeches us to awaken to the multiple challenges we must confront. John Polanyi, an eminent scientist and Nobel Laureate, nearly pleads with us to adopt a scientific model for understanding and conducting our way through the difficulties ahead. James Hansen, the world-renown climatologist and the first to measure global warming, practically begs us to undertake immediate and radical corrective measures to control carbon dioxide emissions. And the honourary grandfather of environmental science and creator of the Gaia Theory, James Lovelock, essentially abandons our fate to the planet's wisdom, anticipating that humanity will learn a terrible lesson on its way to finding an ecological equilibrium with nature. (Of the seven billion people alive today, he expects only one billion will be left alive on the planet by 2100.)

And this is just a meagre sampling of the many thinkers who are urging radical and immediate corrections to the course of our collective behaviour if we are to avert a global environmental catastrophe within the next few decades. The desperation in the tone of their warnings has increased tenfold over the last couple of years. Impatience, exasperation, panic and incredulity are now their discernible responses to a public that is largely indifferent to the mounting dangers. Perhaps their position is nicely summarized by Guy Dauncey, a BC environmentalist, author and lecturer who, despite being extremely well-informed on these issues, persists in being an optimist about our prospects. In his EcoNews publication (June 2009), his optimism falters and his English propriety lapses when he writes, "Among those who are close to the climate science, the depth of the trouble we are in is enough to make you want to shit your pants. The general public has no idea how severe the looming emergency is, and – judging by the BC election – nor do most politicians."

Of course, we know that the louder people shout, the less credibility they have. Climate scientists find themselves in this dilemma. If they express their concerns calmly and rationally, their warnings garner little attention; if they are shrill and screaming, their warnings are dismissed as emotional and suspect.

Last month, when the Canadian public seemed to be obsessed with whether or not the Vancouver Canucks hockey team would win a birth in the Stanley Cup playoffs – should anyone think Machiavelli was wrong, the Romans got into the same frenzy about gladiators – the American Meteorological Society quietly published new projections for global temperature increases. Based on more thorough and comprehensive studies, they expect "a median probability of surface warming of 5.2° Celsius by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4°."

This is very bad news considering that climatologists in 2003 expected an average global increase to be 2.4° for 2100, the upper range to which our civilization would be capable of adjusting. Any higher temperatures will cause global pandemonium as huge populations are dislocated by climate change.

The temperature projections are sobering enough. Perhaps, however, scientists are mostly alarmed because they have placed their gathering storm of data beside their dawning awareness of our human character. On virtually every environmental front, they are measuring a widening chasm between the rate at which circumstances are changing and people are not.

Let us hope that Machiavelli was wrong.