I so wanted the Eagles to lose on Monday night. It was 3rd and goal, looking bleak for Cleveland, and I said aloud, “McNabb is going to turn it over.” And he did! If I were a primitive person, I would think that my wishing, my energy, had made it happen. I would perhaps be frightened by my own powers, yet I would immediately try again considering my feelings for the Eagles. Each correct or near correct prediction would reinforce my sense of my own power, and each miss would make me doubt my mojo. No amount of wishing, in fact, could make the Eagles lose, but that inconvenient fact didn't stop me. Although we like to think we are not primitive peoples, in many ways we are. Temporal proximity can always be reframed as causality. And causality can strain credibility, especially when the distance in time and space between the action and the result gets distended. So, I offer three simple examples from the irrefutably clear to unavoidably complex.
Clear cause and effect: throw your shoes at a world leader, become a hero...and be hustled away in your stocking feet. Did he have a back-up pair? Did he have an accomplice? Action yields reaction...and then a chain of reactions unanticipated by the Lone Shoe Thrower.
Reasonably clear cause and effect: smoke, develop cancer. Smoking’s relationship to cancer is official scientific truth, even though there are people who don’t smoke who do get lung cancer and people who do smoke but don’t. But it took a long time for the link to be established, and even longer for it to be accepted. On one side stood scientific reasoning, on the other wishful thinking; the former is no match for the latter, but the human mind has an almost infinite capacity for cognitive dissonances.
Unavoidably complex cause and effect: belch CO2 into the atmosphere, change the climate. But, like the stubborn, chemically-addicted smoker, we offer a collective shrug and mutter something about Chicken Little. If the local weatherperson says there is a 100% chance of rain tomorrow, most of us take an umbrella. We believe that the swirling colors and big blue arrows on the map carry some precious information about our future. We can actually see it coming...oooh, it’s already in Cumberland! It’s easier to believe small science than big science. It’s easier to act on something that has immediate and minor consequences than on something with diffuse and distended consequences.
It’s almost too obvious to bring in the old frog in boiling water story. (I personally harmed no frogs in the construction of this aphorism) The story is that a frog tossed into a pot of boiling water will leap back out immediately, but a frog put in a pot of tepid water will just sit there as the temperature is gradually raised (By whom? That’s not in the story, thus the awkward passive voice) until the frog finds itself, if frogs are sufficiently self-aware to find themselves, cooked. We are all individual frogs whether dialing up our daily caloric intake one cookie at a time or ratcheting up the acceptable price on some coveted item. It’s just a little more, a little bigger, a little warmer...what’s the harm? We’re also a nation of frogs, letting our city and town boundaries creep outward, adding one more lane, loosening one more little regulation. What’s the harm?
If we were frog-tossed into our future, the one we are blithely and blindly constructing for ourselves, like time travelers in a sci-fi film, we would return sobered. We would immediately regret the time and creativity squandered in pointless arguments about veracity and blame. We would suffer unprecedented anguish at what we had done. But ours is not the world of science fiction, only science. Tiny, incremental, inexorable change stalks the background of our sensible experience, and we just don’t believe that all of this will affect us. It must be somebody else’s problem. We continue our quotidian habits reassured that every day seems to be pretty much like the last one, as if wishing could keep change at bay. But that’s an idle wish, one that can not be realized. Example, a physical impossibility: I wish I were tall. Another example, any wish to change the past: I wish the Browns had beaten the Eagles. The one we need to avoid is to wish we had done something about climate change when we still had a chance. Hey, is it getting warm in here?