Lemmings are small rodents (5 to 7 inches long) that live on the tundra near the Arctic. It is a popular misconception that lemmings commit mass suicide by running off cliffs. The myth, however, has a kernel of truth to it. It is based on the fact that lemmings (particularly the Norway lemming and the brown lemming), reproduce so quickly that their populations fluctuate chaotically. Their numbers swell to beyond the carrying capacity of the land, at which time the population drops to near extinction due to starvation, predation, and migration misadventure.
It is this last factor – migration misadventure – that gives rise to the myth of mass suicide. Lemmings are good swimmers and do not hesitate to cross rivers and lakes during their migrations forced on them by overpopulation. But if the body of water happens to be so wide (an ocean for example) that it exceeds their physical capabilities, they will drown. This isn’t exactly suicide but, as I said, misadventure due to foolishness.
The parallel with the present condition in which homo sapiens finds itself is similar to that of lemmings in several ways. The root cause of the lemmings’ dilemma is their inability to control their population. The root cause of planetary degradation, including climate change, is the inability of homo sapiens to control its population. Both the lemming and human problem are caused by overpopulation.
Lemmings don’t deliberately commit suicide, but they don’t have the foresight to plan for the consequences of their unbridled reproduction, or to distinguish between a river or the North Sea. Of course we don’t expect a rodent to be able to do this. Only an animal with a large brain and the ability to plan for the far future could do it.
Or so we thought. We are such an animal, but despite this fact, we are acting just as foolishly as lemmings. The fossil fuels we continue seek, dig up, and burn are increasing the temperature of the planet at a rate unprecedented in the 500 million years since there have been flora and fauna on the planet, and yet we press on, burning more coal, oil, and natural gas every year, and doubling down on our ill-advised bet that somehow our technology will save us from a climate catastrophe that science tells us is now unavoidable; a climate catastrophe that will reduce our numbers quite as effectively as the quadrennial lemming purge.
We humans suffer from the conceit that we are rational creatures wedded to logic, practicality, and a utilitarian assessment of our options. This conceit pervaded Europe before the First World War. Consider this excerpt from Wikipedia:
“A 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, argued that global capitalism had made territorial conquest unprofitable and had removed the risk of major wars. The Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.” “The powerful bonds of commercial interest between ourselves and Germany,” it insisted, “have been immensely strengthened in recent years … removing Germany from the list of our possible foes.” The truth, as the world discovered in 1914 and is re-discovering today in Ukraine, the Middle East and the China seas, is that economic interests are swept aside once the genie of nationalist or religious militarism is released.”
It thus came as a shock to everyone that Europe so quickly descended into violence and chaos following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. Who would benefit from this conflict? No one, and yet it went on for over four years and claimed the lives of 20 million people – half military personnel and half civilians.
Today we similarly stand speechless before a world that is wittingly destroying the planetary resources on which our lives depend – the climate being the chief resource. How can this be happening? We can call it irrational, but that explains nothing. An economist might say it’s because humans place a deep discount on the value of the future. In other words, the farther off the consequence, the less value it has to a person, even when the consequence is calamitous. It’s why Wall Street is obsessed with the next quarter’s dividends, and why we’re not willing to take the bus, eat less meat, not led the car idle, or stop buying single-use plastic bottles so our grandchildren can enjoy a global temperature that may be one degree lower forty years from now. The health, welfare, and happiness of the child – and all children – has more value that any of the inconveniences I mentioned, but after the implicit time discount, they just don’t resonate with us.
And it is not only the time discount that matters. The assessment of the probability and severity of the consequence is also a factor. Thanks to the misinformation, confusion, and overstated uncertainty spread by a multi-billion-dollar lobbying campaign by the fossil fuel industry over the past 20 years, most people misjudge and greatly understate these factors. Today, nine out of ten Americans do not realize that the debate among climate scientists about the cause and consequences of climate change has long been over.
In his book Losing Earth, A Recent History, Nathaniel Rich notes that, at the moment we began to burn fossil fuels in the mid-19th century, we lost control of our technological future. The immense wealth and power granted by this almost magical resource was so great that it would determine its own future. Today we remain in thrall to this toxic gift of nature. Energy is determining our future, we aren’t, and as long as that is the case, we will continue to burn fossil fuels.