In May 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Pole living in Prussia, published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” a book that used mathematics and astronomy to postulate how the earth and the then-known planets rotated on their own axes as they orbited a stationary sun. Within days of its printing, however, Copernicus died.
His theory of “heliocentrism,” the first scientific challenge to biblical and Greek teachings of an earth-centered universe, almost died with him. Assorted scholars and church officials undermined his discovery for nearly 200 years until, in a different era and with all his critics dead, it finally became accepted science.
As quaint, foolish or even dumb as that long fight appears today, its basis — mankind’s inability to accept new, provable facts because of the unknown change they carry — remains alive and well today. Two words prove it: climate change.
The biggest difference between the Copernican fight of yore and today’s bloody fight over climate change is that back then, Medieval traditionalists and Enlightenment-era scientists could duke it out for generations with nothing more than a few wood pulp trees losing their lives.
With climate change, however, there are millions of lives and billions of livelihoods at stake and no one, not even deniers, has any time to be silly, quaint or dumb. In fact, it’s more than likely we’ve squandered our best chance to limit its devastating effects while we’ve continued to waste time fighting over its existence.
That, too, isn’t new. In 1632, 89 years after Copernicus died, the Catholic Church put the Italian polymath Galileo under house arrest for defending the Copernican theory. The church, of course, later apologized to Galileo for its wooden-headedness — in 1992, 360 years after he died.
Don’t laugh, because history comes up a cropper compared to our wooden heads, tin ears and greedy palms when we’re often confronted with plain facts we don’t like.
A perfect example was last December’s massive tax cut. The Trump administration and GOP congressional leaders sold it on the twin fictions most cuts would aid the middle class (not true: in 2027, middle class taxpayers will average a $160 cut; a millionaire, $23,000) and, secondly, the cuts would not add to the federal deficit.
That latter prediction wasn’t just fiction; it was science fiction. On April 9, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecasted the federal deficit will top $1 trillion in 2020 and total federal debt will rise from $21 trillion in 2018 to $33 trillion — a very un-conservative $12 trillion — within 10 years.
To be fair, part of the soaring debt is tied to a $1.3 trillion increase in federal spending, again pushed and passed by the GOP-led White House and Congress last month. Still, why did Americans swallow such empirically false budget swill not once, but twice, in just the last four months?
The answer isn’t that we can’t do math. The answer lies more in the fact we have less trouble borrowing from our children and grandchildren than our grandparents and parents had. We are, in a word, greedier now and, worse, we justify that greed far easier now than before. Excuses abound.
We’re feeding the world.
We’re extending our brand.
We’re improving our efficiency.
We can come up with a myriad of reasons (and most of them legal) to justify our growing use of our grandchildren’s soil, water, air and money but not one of them adequately answers the question of why — with so much wealth, technology, and time — we don’t stop consuming what is theirs.
The messiest food fight this year will be the partisan boxing match over SNAP changes Republicans want in the 2018 farm bill. It will suck up most of the oxygen in the farm bill debate, but none of it will make one cent of difference to future farming generations or our ballooning federal debt.
And, yet, we’re going to do it because that’s what we now do; we fight over our nickels, not the futures of those who follow us. We’re smarter, richer, and better fed than Copernicus and Galileo could have ever dreamed, but it seems we’re no wiser than their detractors.