Sat, Jul

The Lucretius Problem – Denial of the Fossil Fuel Catastrophe


ACCORDING TO LIZ - In failing to understand that worse can happen than they have already experienced, people are unable to prepare for the worst that is to come. Be it the Paradise Fire or Covid, some events are so alien to their frame of reference that they don’t grasp the magnitude of what is happening until it’s too late. To make a plan. To survive.

That is the Lucretius Problem.

Lucretius was a poet and philosopher who pointed out that people perceive that the largest or scariest or most beautiful object they have ever seen or experienced is the boundary of all experience.

Lucretius died a half century before the birth of Christ and is best known for his long (six books long) De rerum natura – “On the Nature of Things” for those who don’t read Latin – about the physical aspects and underpinnings of the universe. And man’s perception of it.

A key argument was that only a fool would believe that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed.

And yet, over two millennia later, with all that mankind has learned, large parts of our understanding are based solely upon what we, as individuals, can see, touch and hear. Even with those faculties extended by telescopes and television.

People spent their life savings on fantasy vacations in 1929, in 1987 and in 2007 living in the fantasy that the stock market would replenish their funds the following year.

And it’s not just individuals.

Risk management assessment for insurance providers is limited to the worst incidents experienced. In other words lashed to the historical framework, and does not anticipate what the world is facing today in a world fraught with climate-driven crises that weren’t on anyone’s radar two, five or even ten years ago.

We have the technology to project worst-case scenarios but not the ability to comprehend just how bad it can get. For a better understanding, read the first half of John Vaillant’s Fire Weather about the Fort McMurray conflagration in 2016. In hindsight, the individual failings are obvious but at the time...

Fukushima succeeded Chernobyl succeeded Three Mile Island. Each was the greatest nuclear meltdown there ever was.

Crises in every jurisdiction are excused by those purporting to be experts offering up “I’ve never seen anything like this” and “It never happened before.”

Redundancies like the correct valve to protect the Gulf of Mexico from the Deep Horizon well blowout are routinely rejected as unnecessary.

Think about your unexamined expectations.

That the price of real estate will always go up, that you can continue to fill up your SUV weekly and that the planet can continue to burn fossil fuels with no risk for your children?

Wake up!

Remember the movie Deep Impact where investigative reporter looks into a possible political scandal about Ellie only to have her tabloid fluff piece morph into a comet that will create an Extinction Level Event?

The Sixth Major Extinction event is already underway and all evidence points to it being as bad as, or worse than, the Third: the end-Permian Great Dying which toppled the dinosaurs, when 83% of every genus, 81% of all marine species, 70% of terrestrial vertebrates, and 57% of every biological family were exterminated.

Later, when apes in Ethiopia first learned to walk and use tools, sea levels were 80 feet higher than they are today. And today, over half of Australopithicus’ descendants live in coastal areas that were then underwater.

A series of atmospheric rivers, the same systems that are supposed to sweep down on us this winter, drubbed the west coast in 1861 and 1862 turning the Sacramento Valley into a lake from the Coastal Range to the Sierras 300 miles long, 20 miles wide, and up to 30 feet deep.

California has had its share of horrific wildfires and few doubt that these will get worse as the climate inexorably worsens. Its inhabitants are also awaiting “The Big One.”

Movie-goers experience extreme satisfaction from disaster films – when they get to walk out of the theater alive.

But what they have seen could have planted the seed of what could happen.

Maybe if more movie-makers crafted their visions credibly on the could’ves instead of making it all a 50s-Martian-invasion joke, more politicians could be pushed to take action now and not wait until we are caught up in fire or flood.

When greedy profit-seekers huddle in boardrooms protected by the corporate veil take steps to cover up the risks and send expectations soaring – be they Big Tobacco or Big Oil – their customers are at risk and the taxpayers are too often on the hook to shore up the cost of health and environmental damages.

When Big Tobacco was put on notice in the United States, they turned their attention to other countries and when those countries – notably Uruguay and Australia – tried to strike back, these companies wielding power through multinational treaties and the American courts, ratcheted up the bully tactics.

Mining companies are at it around the world; Big Oil is at it in Ecuador and Peru. And Alberta, and Texas.

At the moment governments are servants to industry, they serve the will of corporate interests, not the people: that must change.

Both producers and consumers of carbon dioxide are not paying for the damages they create: that must change.

The fossil fuel Wizard of Oz is still trying to ride the tornado; but, with everyone on the hook for job losses, personal losses, health issues, and more costs to bear through taxation, they and their governments will have to change their behaviors.

Intergenerational injustice is flourishing. Over 1,500 lawsuits by individuals and class-action groups to protect the future of their grandchildren have been filed against – and mostly stymied by – oil industry companies.

Greta Thunberg and like-minded activists may soon be joined by non-environmentalists concerned about the impact on their pocketbooks.

The oil industry that has benefited since its inception from tax subsidies now want propping up by more of our tax dollars to survive, tax dollars from the very people whose planet they are knowingly destroying.

The immense debt loads they have amassed gambling on future profitability are no longer sustainable through the teacup trickery of buybacks and layoffs.

The ultimate burden may still be on the shoulders of the yet unborn but in the meantime, we have the opportunity to take action – as individuals, as cities, states and countries – to curb our thirst for oil and its byproducts, and insist on choices that beget life, hope, regeneration and renewal.


(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)