Deadly Margins

Erwin Schroedinger apparenty said “I hate that bloody cat.”

His wonderfully eloquent mental model of understanding the fine margin between being alive and not being alive haunted him like an actor’s soap opera persona. I’m not sure how many people care about the science, but don’t you dare hurt a cat.

One and a half degrees doesn’t seem like much, but the problem is that when we reduce things to a number, they lose personality and context. Most of us wouldn’t even notice it if we were out walking, but applied over large, varied areas, temperature increases of around one point one degrees matter. Inflexion points. Phase change.

They have ensured that the area around the Mediterranean is burning, from Turkey to Tunisia, and the forecast is that by the end of the century, the areas around the Med will be desert. I lived for five years in Cyprus, and earlier this year I watched places I know and love in the Troodos Mountains go up in smoke, and that feels personal. Then there is Australia, and California, and…

The thought of margins occurred to me as I was queuing in my bank. Again, it’s the little things – people wearing masks, signs saying “respect our staff”, clear panels between me and staff trying to be helpful but constrained by an algorithm far, far away, with the supervisor who could tame it nowhere to be found. Combined with the nature of online service, which operates down similarly narrow, predefined, depersonalised tracks it makes the bank’s claim to be “beside you all the way” quite funny. The emotional distance these tiny things create between me and somebody trying desperately to be helpful is enormous.

I see that Google has come up with a cunning wheeze to cut employees’ salaries who work from home, based on how much they might be saving by not commuting. And there was me thinking people got paid for what they produced. Marginal cost thinking on steroids.

In her wonderful book “Wilding,” Isabella Tree talks about “baseline fallacy” – the tendency we have to experience change as only happening in our lifetimes. Even when that tiny change might the final increment in a long process preceding that point at which dramatic phase change occurs – which is, of course, the case, right here, right now.

I think that’s what we are experiencing. Our logical minds understand one and half degrees, but our senses, our visceral gut feeling that things are changing exponentially means that one and a half degrees does not reflect the deep sense of unease we have.

I have described this dissonance elsewhere as a “quickening”. It feels like when birds go quiet before an earthquake or the surf recedes before a tsunami, or the government expresses full confidence in a beleaguered minister. We know what’s happening, but no one is talking about it in a meaningful way. That has to change, and we must not wait. Ask the person next to you about what really matters, and be prepared for a long conversation.

How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway.

Forecasts have two deadly features. Firstly, they are rarely correct. We cannot forecast the emerging variables in advance, let alone the event. The best forecasters in the world cannot do one hundred days – the rest of us mortals, far less. Secondly, they encourage us to procrastinate by giving us the impression we have time to reflect.

We are in this. Media headlines that depend on daily sensation to attract attention may have dropped the IPCC report from the front page, but we cannot afford to. 

If in doubt, trust your gut more than a carefully calculated number. 

We are in this.

We can deal with it, but only by paying attention to it every day and starting to make changes without being told. Common sense stuff – how we live, the rubbish we willingly consume, the thoughtless travel. Every instance, a tiny, tiny percentage point erosion of a margin we cannot afford to eat into.

The science may be difficult, but the feeling isn’t.

When we’re aware we’re banging our heads against a brick wall, it’s probably a good time to stop.

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