Opinion: It’s time to leave political tribalism behind


Newby, a retired research biologist of The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, was the director of The Bronowski Art & Science Forum from 1999 to 2012. He is a science writer and lives in Del Mar.

Most everyone is aware of the ongoing climate related events: melting of the polar ice, entire Alaskan communities that are sinking into the ocean, catastrophic storms, massive forest fires, and, of course, the worldwide heatwaves. If one follows the science, one knows of the overwhelming evidence of the connection between climate and burning fossil fuels.

Despite all these climate-related occurrences, almost three-quarters of Republicans (72 percent) said the economy should be given priority, even at the risk of ignoring climate change, believing that climate change is either just a minor threat or no threat at all, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of Aug. 3. It showed 80 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents said addressing climate change should be given priority even at the risk of slowing the economy. Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and implied that it would only affect us in 300 years, with a sea level rise of just 1/8 inch.

The Heritage Foundation, has written a presidential transition playbook, Project 2025, for if a Republican is elected next year. This nearly 1,000-page document outlines reforms for all the various departments in the federal government. Concerning energy, this playbook mandates policies for the federal government to prioritize reliable, affordable energy over any project that would reduce carbon emissions. It should be noted that the fossil fuel industries are financial contributors to the Heritage Foundation.

Why has this existential threat to humanity become political? To address this question, one should consider that humans evolved as tribal animals. Over millions of years, humans, a tribal species, developed the behavioral skills necessary to outwit adversarial competitors as well as survive harsh environmental factors. Of the many factors that aided human survival are two tribal genetic behavioral traits that added our species survival, both of which may seem diametrically opposites: compassion and self-indulgence. Greed may be a more acceptable name than self-indulgence. It’s not surprising that these traits remain vibrant in modern times.

Compassion is exemplified not only by the Mother Teresa types, but the millions of individuals who reach out to friends and even to strangers to provide aid in their discomfort and are offered without expectation of a monetary reward. These compassionate people are very often the most honest. Compassion is a bond that unifies a tribe.

There are also those whose compassion levels are diminished by concerns only for themselves. These are the humans who steal, cheat, lie, scam and even murder others solely for their own benefit, a behavior that I would label self-indulgent or just simply greed.

Obtaining sufficient money to pay the rent and for utility bills and food is not wanton greed. Most individuals would do most any thing to provide for their family. Being self-indulgent for one’s self and one’s progeny is paramount for survival of one’s genome. Excessive indulgence rarely benefits the tribe or humanity as a whole.

Obviously, everyone at times exhibits both some compassion and greed. The degree of expression of these traits varies widely among humans depending upon circumstances. Fortunately, some people are known for their compassionate spirit, while others are known for their greed. Interestingly, one’s compassion or greed levels seldom change throughout one’s life.

Tribal loyalty is a common genetic trait of humans. Loyalty to a leader or a sports team are examples. Tribal loyalty can be taken to extremes. Throughout history, people have followed charismatic leaders, some of whom were also tyrants, dictators, autocrats or despots; leaders who demanded absolute power and loyalty.

Religious and political wars have been instigated by such tyrants and fought often by young men believing themselves to be patriots. Leaders with egregious behavior use time-old techniques to recruit and retain support: disparaging their “enemy,” controlling the media, controlling the education of the young and labeling opposing information as fake news or a hoax.

Herein lies the conundrum. Humanity is facing an existential threat. Humans have adversely affected the Earth’s ecosystem. The exact timing of a total environmental collapse is debatable but its inevitability is certain — unless humans listen to the science and ignore the demigod-like politicians whose main interest is self-interest. We need to sideline those politicians whose concerns are only themselves and their power. Our planet desperately needs leaders who value humanity and have the compassion and energy to preserve this beautiful planet.

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