A Classic Struggle Between Head and Heart

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, I came across an essay by Elizabeth Kolbert called “Chilling.” Antarctica, she says, is losing ice. The evidence comes from the University of Colorado, where researches are interpreting data from Tom and Jerry, two orbiting satellites sent into space in March of 2002.

The rate of loss, according to the Colorado researchers, is great – about 36 cubic miles per day. And if the loss continues, it will mean that in the next hundred years the sea will rise much farther and faster than scientists had predicted.

That disturbed me.

For a long time, I had been very blase about global warming, arguing that most of the world could do with some warmer weather. But the more I looked into the subject, the more concerned I became. The bulk of the science suggests global warming is both real and dangerous. “Some say climate change is something for our kids to worry about,” one official told The Washington Post. “No. It is now.”

If everyone has agreed that global warming is something we should deal with now, what we do about it is still a matter of debate. “Yes, the planet may be warming up, but no one can be sure of why,” says Ms. Kolbert. “And, in any case, it doesn’t matter – let’s stop quibbling about the causes of the climate change and concentrate on dealing with the consequences.”

I went to bed that night thinking about the threat of global warming and its effects (including raising the sea level by a foot or more), and dreamed my house was being washed out to sea.

I woke up wondering if I should sell my home and buy another one further inland. That would be the prudent thing to do, I figured. Better to get out now while I could still get a good price. If I waited until it was obvious that all these coastal properties were going to be flooded one day, I’d be out several million dollars.

On the other hand, my heart argued, I have no reason to believe that the ocean is going to rise. It hasn’t risen in all the years that I’ve been living across from it. Chances are, it won’t rise in the future.

Plus, my heart continued, I love this house. I love the way it looks, the way it feels, and the view I get every time I look out the window. Why give up something I truly love because I fear that one day it will be less valuable or even worthless?

My dilemma was a classic struggle between head and heart. It was also, I realized, an example of the difference between two very different kinds of knowledge: wissen and erfahrung.

Wissen, you may recall from past articles in ETR, is the kind of knowledge that the head prefers: facts, figures, and data collected from second- and third-party sources, including research.

Erfahrung, on the other hand, is the kind of knowledge you get from experience. Burn your hand once on a hot stove and you will always be reluctant to put your hand there again, even if you read a hundred articles telling you that fire isn’t painful.

Erfahrung knowledge is deep and true. You can sometimes misinterpret the causes or effects of your experience, but the experience itself will leave an impression with you that you should trust.

The feeling I had in my heart was telling me to stay put. At the same time, the wissen knowledge I had gathered about global warming was running around my head, scaring the hell out of me.

But though I had read some compelling evidence that supported the view that the world is warming and the seas are going to rise, I didn’t know it. And when I realized how much I didn’t know about this subject and how unlikely it is that I will ever know enough to about it to have a useful opinion, I came back to the psychological place I always end up at in a situation like this: a position of neutrality.

You can’t be truly sure of anything you learn by reading books, researching studies, surfing the Internet, watching television, or listening to the words of other people. In making the important decisions in your life, it is always best to rely on your own personal experience.

Yet, for many problems that confront us, we don’t have personal experience to depend on. So what do you do?

One thing you can do is to do absolutely nothing. This is the course of action I take most often and the one I generally recommend to others. That’s because most threats that arise from wissen-based knowledge (remember the Y2K problem?) turn out to be nothing at all.

Some of these threats, though, do turn out to be real.

If the world really is warming up, it may well affect me. And if it’s going to affect me – to the tune of several million dollars (not to mention the threat of hurricanes and floods) – I should at least consider my options.

So that’s where I found myself that morning: emotionally neutral but resolved to come up with a rational response that would serve me well if the threat of global warming turns out to be true.

And here’s what I came up with.

Although I don’t get involved in politics, I’d support initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Even though I can’t know for sure whether they are the culprits, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the prudent course of action would be to take quick and effective steps to reduce them.

My feeble personal efforts may have no effect whatsoever on emissions (or emissions may have no effect on global warming). So I’m also going to prepare myself emotionally for a time when – sometime in the distant future -I may have to sell my house at a drastically reduced price or move out of it entirely.

It took me about five minutes to make those two decisions. And now I feel okay about staying in the house I love … without fretting too much about global warming.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]