This week marks 20 years since my father, Art Jarvis, died of a heart attack in the middle of a typical day trying to improve the education of kids as the last of many contributions to making the world a better place to live. For years, we spent a lot of our time together discussing issues over a wide spectrum, from the dynamics of our family to math, science, and the lessons he'd learned from a deep and broad background about how society works – and doesn't. Shortly before he died, he paid me the ultimate compliment: that we were alike in the way we thought, except for experience. I've noticed considerable differences since then, but still encounter situations where his wisdom comes to mind, typically in the form of sayings he either learned or created to summarize the core of an issue.
I've been sick at heart lately as my confidence in the salvageability of a livable future slips significantly almost every day. I miss my father more than ever in these challenging times, and wonder what he would say about what's happening and what to do about it. If you'll allow me, let me slip into my fiction writing mode, and channel the part of my father that lives inside me to imagine how a conversation might go between us.
BRAD: Hi, Dad. I can't tell you how much I've missed you.
ART: Me too, buddy.
BRAD: A lot's happened since you left.
ART: I'm sure it has.
BRAD: The family's a lot different. For one thing, I got married, if you can believe that.
ART: I figured you might, eventually.
BRAD: I also became an atheist.
ART: Really. How did that happen?
BRAD: After you died, I followed your example. Did a lot of studying, a lot of thinking, and was even fairly active in a couple of churches. Finally I realized that although many of their values made sense, they were man-made: taught by myths but not dependent on them. I dropped the myths, kept the values. Even refined them a little.
ART: What did you come up with?
BRAD: Maximizing life and happiness, first with people, then with other species, with the recognition that we're all interdependent and important.
ART: That's a good summary. It pretty much covers them all.
BRAD: Exactly. It's changed a lot about how I think about things.
ART: I'm sure it has. How's the business going?
BRAD: I had to walk away from it. We tried, we really tried, but it was too much for just the two of us, and then Eleanor had to leave. I had to survive, so I decided to try other things.
ART: What? What are you doing now?
BRAD: Believe it or not, I'm back doing test engineering, and my own writing on the side along with some music. I was also a technical writer for a few years.
ART: Technical writing? We used to do our own...
BRAD: I know, I know. You remember how you used to bitch about how bad help files were for software? I tried doing it better. Can't say I always succeeded, but it beat finding everyone's mistakes for a living, where I got a little too cynical for my own good.
ART: Is it working better for you now?
BRAD: It's complicated. That's what I hoped to talk with you about.
ART: Okay, let's have it.
BRAD: Remember how much fun we had asking questions no one else would ask because they thought the answers were too obvious?
ART: And we found other answers. I was proud of that.
BRAD: I never stopped. I think it's part of my DNA. After you died, I started questioning all of the basic assumptions in my life. The religion thing was a big part of that. I also got a job testing telecom equipment, and found a lot of bugs thanks to what I call my "special skill." I started to find problems outside of work too, especially when I started applying my new value system. Because life is paramount, I got interested in the possibility of Earth being hit by asteroids and comets, and realized that we're all pretty vulnerable to extinction by something too few people are taking seriously. The life test also pointed to the need to settle other planets, to avoid extinction from a warming Sun. I got into promoting Mars exploration as the first step toward dealing with that threat. Then I learned about another threat, far more insidious but just as deadly.
ART: What's that?
BRAD: Humanity is responsible for a mass extinction event, potentially as large as any caused by an asteroid collision. It turns out that other species do a lot to keep the planet habitable, and we're killing them off by stealing or destroying their habitats; polluting the air, water, and soil; and hunting them to extinction. Part of the pollution comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, which is causing heat to be trapped by the atmosphere; that leads to extreme weather such as droughts and mega-storms, melting of glaciers and the polar caps, and release of even more potent methane from permafrost which could amplify the effect by orders of magnitude. The carbon pollution is also acidifying the oceans, threatening the base of the food chain. By the end of this century, we could be all but extinct.
ART: A lot of other people must have figured all that out.
BRAD: The scientific community has done a great job nailing it down. Many have abandoned their normal reticence and are sounding the alarm big time. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry and others who depend on them have a stranglehold on the media and several governments, including ours, which is making it all but impossible to do anything meaningful about it before it's too late. I did my own research over the past few years, and it shows what looks like a clear correlation between humanity's impact on ecosystems, the populations of ours and other species, and people's happiness. I'm projecting a peak in world population in about 20 years, and a drop to zero within 60 years. My conclusions align pretty well with those of people who have done a far more thorough job of studying these things.
ART: That's quite a story.
BRAD: I wish it were just that. If I still believed in God, I might be able to delude myself into thinking that a miracle will happen to make everything okay. Unfortunately, as you used to say, "it ain't gonna happen," and the people who think that it will are dragging their feet, making things worse for all of us. Recently, I've been feeling that it's all hopeless.
ART: Remember what I used to tell you about feeling sorry for yourself.
BRAD: Like your dad said, "Run in place until you kick yourself in the ass." I remember.
ART: So what are you doing about it?
BRAD: I took this test job with a non-profit that's building a national network to monitor ecosystems. It's pretty cool, and a way to contribute to the science that can tell us how things are changing.
ART: That's great, son.
BRAD: I'm worried that it won't have any effect on what's happening, though.
ART: Let me guess. With all the information that's already out there, the idiots won't listen. What are the chances they'll pay attention to even more data?
BRAD: They're also enthusiastically trying to destroy ecosystems. They just don't value nature, except as a pile of resources to be exploited. Come to think of it, that's the way they view people too. Remember why I didn't pursue astronomy in school?
ART: Vaguely. I'm afraid I had something to do with that.
BRAD: That was during the '70s energy crisis. I figured it would be irresponsible to focus on what to me felt like mental masturbation while humanity was in danger of burning itself up by pursuing energy just to have more. Later, with the asteroid thing and the understanding of the Sun's future, I realized that science could illuminate what's coming, and how to create a better future, in part by recognizing and confronting threats. I was more interested in using science to explore options than contributing to the science itself, but it was important to know the science first. You showed me that education was key to getting people to even pay attention, and that's part of why I stuck with you on that; the other part, the biggest part, was that I loved working with you.
ART: I suspected that.
BRAD: But now I realize that even education's not enough, just like science isn't enough. Even knowing the options isn't going to solve the problems, or being able to show clear logic leading from cause to effect.
ART: I think you're going off the deep end, there. People just need to be shown...
BRAD: ...How to pursue enlightened self interest. I know you believe that. It was behind everything we did together. Unfortunately, beliefs are far more powerful, particularly when they're shared by one's community. They become part of our identity. When you challenge them, you challenge people's identities. You throw into question the value of all the things they did in support of them. You threaten to devalue their lives.
ART: But if they realize they're wrong, they can find something better. More happiness, to use your term.
BRAD: Not if a large part of their happiness – and the power that enables it – derives from their community. You'll have to convince the whole community, or force them into a situation where the community loses influence over them, like what happened to me after you died. Also, the risk of finding something better is losing what you already have; and it is a risk, because you may not find something better.
ART: That's an interesting theory...
BRAD: You taught me to think for myself, but you had your own value system superimposed on top of that, which because you were so smart, and had so much experience, I didn't really question until you were gone.
ART: Anecdotal evidence.
BRAD: Sometimes that's the most convincing kind. Like when it's yours.
ART: I think you're wrong, though I respect your reasons.
BRAD: You're proving my point: It all comes down to beliefs. And, for the record, I still respect yours. I also respect your judgment, as much as ever. So what do you think about all this? Is there hope?
ART: The people I grew up with did some amazing things in just a few decades, under similar conditions, with a lot at stake. Yours can too, if you have the stomach for it and don't give up. Take a deep breath, start running in place, and then do what needs to be done. I'll bet you won't be alone.