Specialization and Tunnel Vision

Article excerpt

The question wells up like one of those nightmares in which you call out for help, but no sound comes out: Why do our political and corporate leaders show so little interest in really mobilizing to stabilize the fast-deteriorating climate, ecology, and quality of our life on the planet? One reason is that we, their constituents and consumers, so rarely see any "big picture" of what is happening to us - and so the feedback we give our leaders is inchoate. Increasingly, we see only in fragments. We see an enormous tornado smash into Oklahoma City, for example, but we don't notice that it is part of a pattern of increased tornado activity over the whole country (an unprecedented 2,144 tornadoes struck the United States in 1998), or that it is part of a still larger pattern of climatic disturbance worldwide, driven by the massive burning of greenhouse gas-emitting oil, coal, and wood.

So it is with our perception of almost everything around us, now. With our new information technologies, we produce riveting images of the most sensational and intimate details of our fellow-humans' behavior - while utterly missing the larger significance. We notice the heroic drama of man's battles with weather disasters, but not the steady creep of climate change; we see the sad plight of threatened wolves, but not the invisible decline of global biodiversity; we hear stories about anxious Californians trying to keep out Mexicans, or West Bengalis trying to keep out Bangladeshis, but we hear almost nothing about the overextended carrying capacity of Earth as a whole.

One factor making it difficult for us to see whole pictures of the sweeping changes taking place in the world - to see complex webs of cause-and-effect, and not just immediate effects - is our increasing reliance on specialists as the principal sources of knowledge. Of course, specialization has had great value to modern society; one can board an airplane, sit back with a drink, and enjoy the product of decades of aeronautic engineering research without having to understand any of it. But that also means we can enjoy the amenities of our lives without having any inkling of what chain of events brought them about - or of what it may have cost to produce them. After all, in an age of information explosion, the sum total of human knowledge - of what there is to see and to plan for - is expanding far faster than even the most brilliant people are capable of keeping pace with. One unarguable result: with every passing year, each of us knows a smaller fraction of what there is to know than we knew the year before.

The expert view, as it probes deeper, also becomes narrower. It penetrates further and further into less and less of what is visible to everyone else. The danger, for us, is vividly described in a 1997 article by Timothy Ferris in The New Yorker magazine, on the probability (or improbability) that our planet will one day experience an apocalyptic collision with a large asteroid or comet. Of course, small objects hit the Earth every day, but the worry is about what will happen if a chunk of ice or rock the size of, say, the Rock of Gibraltar should strike our globe. Scientists say it would raise a tsunami - an oceanic wave - as high as a 70-story building, which would sweep such cities as New York, Miami, and Dhaka into oblivion. Its explosion, meanwhile, would pelt the planet with enough fireballs to set the planet ablaze and consume almost everything that was not drowned. The fire would send up enough smoke to plunge the Earth into a flood-covered darkness that would last considerably longer than 40 days and 40 nights. And that would kill off most photosynthesis-dependent life, which would, via the food chain on which we all depend, eliminate nearly all life, including our own.

The actual likelihood of such a collision depends, in part, on how many such rocks are at large in our solar system. Ferris reports that there are about two thousand large asteroids - ones "the size of a small town" - that pursue orbits bringing them close to the Earth. …