Scientific and technical advancements are impressive, powerful, and critically important, but they will not cure what ails society. The COVID-19 Pandemic has reinforced this fact; abundantly evident by the disregard by many of the long-ignored public health and environmental concerns. Each serve as proof that our world is changing, and that it is no longer our inability to understand the challenges before us, nor the limits of our technical prowess that confounds our efforts to extract ourselves from the current Covideian malaise or confront the other long-evident calamities. The challenge we suffer today is of a different kind, it is an epidemic of willful ignorance and the strong gravitational pull of self-interest that arrests progress on the most vexing issues confronting the world.
Throughout history, humankind has consistently conjured stories and methods that allow it to deny inconvenient truths and postpose the difficult but inevitable. Evidence of this uniquely human characteristic abounds and ranges from special interest and industry obstruction to nations’ coordinated denial on a global scale. It often takes the extreme to focus our attention on what has long been visible but ignored.
For decades, the tobacco industry cloaked the harmful effects of its products in contrived science and civil liberty arguments designed to confuse and distract. Only when evidence of the suffering became too voluminous and extreme to deny did politics and economics allow policy and circumstances to change. The chemical and pharmaceutical industries share a common pedigree of deception in the name of profit and self-preservation. It’s hard to admit the golden goose has a toxic side.
The story of fossil fuels and global warming continues this saga, but on much grander and more consequential scale. Scientist have warned for decades of the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions, while forecasting the tragic impact and herculean cost of ambivalence to no avail. Economics and convenience simply would not allow us to fathom the inevitable. Today, however, as extreme weather events parch, burn, flood and batter communities in ways not seen in recorded history, what has long been overwhelmingly scientifically evident, is now becoming an overwhelming reality – our world is changing.
Change is hard because it often means embracing a difficult and uncomfortable reality – we were wrong. It is also difficult because it means taking responsibility for our actions and their consequences. It has been said that knowledge is the elimination of error. But to eliminate error, it first must be acknowledged. This is the process by which we learn, evolve and progress.
The challenge before us is not a scientific nor technical one as brilliant minds will advance these areas for the common good, it’s a personal one. It’s one of vision, purpose, ethics and courage. Everyone, individually, must decide what they represent and how they will face the advancing realities personally, professionally and ethically. Just as a smoker must reflect on the impact secondhand smoke has on friends and loved ones, the decisions we make on a host of emerging issues will impact future generations.
Will we continue to vilify the COVID vaccine, burn masks and condemn scientist and public health officials? A response not unlike the Salem Witch Trials, where fearful men and women prosecuted and burned their ignorance while conjuring demons of their own creation to justify the absurd. Or will we rise to the challenge and acknowledge that change is not only unpredictable but inevitable; an integral and thus, inescapable, part of the human adventure. Will we acknowledge our errors for what they are, an opportunity to improve and take steps to respond responsibly?
Denial has never been a strategy for success. History books are replete with the fossilized relics of those who were unwilling to change, mistakenly thinking that their vision of the world and the future were correct and just, while ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
The impact of COVID-19 is easy to understand, consequential in scope, and immediate in nature. It is also a leading indicator that foreshadows the risks that lay ahead if individuals, communities, and nations do not come together in a coordinated and constructive manner to face the challenges ahead. Only one question remains: Will we embrace change and acknowledge it for what it is; an opportunity to eliminate error and improve? Or will we cower in self-interest and denial hoping to pass along the uncomfortable and the difficult to the next generation like secondhand smoke?