The Anecdotal Species?

A recent article in the Economist suggested that the U.S. space program was headed further astray by concentrating on manned missions when so much more knowledge could be obtained at a lower cost from instrumented unmanned missions. After reading that, my first reaction was to disagree — on the grounds that unmanned missions keep getting their funding cut because they’re “just” research, and research always tends to get cut first in any consensus budgeting process, either in the corporate world or in government. In addition, I had the feeling that most people don’t identify with space cameras, comet probes, asteroid probes, near-earth orbit surveys, and the like, despite the cries and protests from many in the scientific community that “science missions,” as opposed to astronaut missions, are being under-funded, even though they provide far more information per dollar spent.

But then, ever since the Soviet space program collapsed, much of the impetus for U.S. space development seems to have collapsed as well, whether for manned or unmanned projects. Only when Americans perceive an immediate and real threat do we seem able to press for research in technological or military areas.

As I considered these points, I began also to reflect upon the time I spent at the U.S. EPA, when there was a great furor over the possible contamination from leaking Superfund sites. Now, there was no question that a considerable number of abandoned waste sites were in fact leaking and contaminating the environment near those locations, and public opinion was clear and decisive. Fixing Superfund sites was top priority. Somewhat later on, the Agency looked further into the environment priorities, and issued several reports. The gist of the findings was that, in general, that the public’s priorities for environmental improvement were almost inversely related to the real dangers to people and health. The actual illnesses and deaths from leaking Superfund sites were far lower than those from at least five other major environmental issues. How could this be? It happened, I believe, because we are an anecdotal and egocentric species. Those dangers we see and hear personally, those we can understand easily, and those which can be related to us personally by those we know and trust — these are the dangers we believe in. When chemically-caused cancer occurs in a local community because of groundwater contamination, we react. But when the EPA or a state health agency notes that fatalities are rising from exposure to natural radon or skin cancer caused by the thinning of the ozone layer, we don’t. When health agencies point out that smoking is a far greater health hazard than any of the environmental concerns, such notice has a comparatively small effect. Even when the massive damage claims arrive from increased hurricane activities, we tend not to put as much personal priority in looking into why hurricanes seem to be more of a problem — and we just want someone else to pay for the repairs.

We all want our problems solved first. Then, and only then, will we devote resources to other people’s difficulties. This is a practical and natural approach from a Darwinian and historical point of view. If we don’t solve our problems first, we and our children may not be around to solve anyone else’s problems. But what happens when a non-immediate problem could become a far-larger problem threatening us and everyone else?

This difficulty isn’t a new problem in American society, and it’s not a problem confined to the U.S. Prior to roughly 1938, no one wanted to consider the implications of what Stalin was doing in the USSR or Hitler in Germany, or Mussolini in Italy. No one in the “western” world paid all that much attention to the Japanese “rape of Nanking” and what it foreshadowed. Today, because the area has no oil and no strategic import, and because few Americans have seen or experienced the brutality and continual death, most Americans don’t really pay much real attention to the genocide in Darfur.

This same mindset applies to the exploration of space — or the issues surrounding global warming. If something doesn’t pose an imminent danger or have an immediate entertainment or economic value… one that can be exploited quickly, why bother?

Then… add one more complicating factor. In neither space exploration nor global warming do we truly have a certain solution. While we’ve reached the point where it appears that a majority of the knowledgeable scientific community believes that there is some form of global warming occurring, there is no strong consensus on what might be called a workable strategy. What one group calls workable is called punitive by another. Reducing carbon emissions is one possibility, but that will penalize third world and developing nations disproportionately, if carried out. Unilateral action by industrial nations means their citizens bear higher costs. Reducing greenhouse gases is another possible approach, but that cost falls more heavily on the high-tech economies. Requiring more fuel efficient cars increases costs and decreases choices more for those who require cars to get to their jobs… And so it goes.

The bottom-line question might well be: Can a species that’s been hard-wired over a million years to be short-term, personally/familially-oriented, and anecdotal cope with problems that require long-term planning and wide-spread consensus?