The Situationist

Archive for February 9th, 2007

The Heat is On

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2007


Last week, the United Nations made public the fourth IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on climate-change. The report, collaboratively prepared by many of the world’s most authoritative climate scientists concluded that there is at least a 90 percent chance that we humans are the cause of current increasing temperatures around the planet. Among other consequences, that temperature rise is likely to cause an increase in sea levels of between seven and twenty-three inches, contribute significantly to the disappearing alpine glaciers, and lead to still more severe weather events.

Viewed in context, that’s the good news. The bad news is that our goose is already cooking, and the longer-term consequences of our environmental predicament seem dire and inevitable. It as if we have dialed up the oven and have no way to dial it back down. Whatever we do today, the heat will linger and the bird will continue to roast. Like it or not, the heat is on.

This is a challenge whose solution requires that we think and act in new ways across unfamiliar time frames, borders, languages, and cultures. Forget short-term solutions. Any hope for improvement calls for immediate and dramatic changes that, at best, will yield only gradual and ambiguous results. Improvements will be measured not in years or even decades but in lifetimes.


The IPCC’s science-based conclusions and the visibly dramatic weather-related anomalies of the last few years are the sort of thing that are finally getting through to the public and undermining the credibility of doubt-mongerers. But why has it taken so long to get this far? How has it happened that we humans have been for so long obliviously turning up the heat in our own oven? And why aren’t we taking dramatic steps to begin addressing the causes of this planet-altering and species-threatening tragedy?

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman claims that the law of “unintended consequences” cautions against enacting significant reform any time soon. That sounds sensible until one remembers that just as regulatory actions can have unintended consequences, so can regulatory omissions. After all, the long-term absence of meaningful regulation seems likely to have contributed to the unintended climate change. Something else is contributing to our sluggish and half-hearted reaction. Social psychology and related mind sciences have much to teach us about what that something else is.

We humans think we see clearly all relevant causal factors, though many are all but invisible to us. We have a difficult time identifying, much less monitoring, much less understanding slow and non-salient changes in our environments. We have an aversion for complexity and unanswered questions. We have trouble connecting bad outcomes with benign intentions. We are motivated to deny the existence of threats to our system or to alter our behavior from that to which we have grown accustomed. Those motivations and others are easily exploited by wealthy powerful industries that have made it their business to criticize, mock, and otherwise raise doubts about the emerging scientific consensus. But wait! There’s more! Daniel Gilbert

Below you will find a terrific essay by Dan Gilbert, who has generously agreed to share some of his short, popular writings on The Situationist. (Thanks, Dan.) This piece reveals how some of our psychological proclivities and vulnerabilities have contributed to our environmental predicament. If you haven’t read his work before, you are in for a special treat. Dan is clever, eloquent, and hilarious. But, be warned, his message is also quite sobering.


If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming
Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2006

No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won’t involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.

Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

The second reason why global warming doesn’t put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn’t cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn’t force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain’s call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.

The third reason why global warming doesn’t trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That’s what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

global warming from ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain’s most stunning innovations, and we wouldn’t have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

We haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we’ve only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.

There is a fourth reason why we just can’t seem to get worked up about global warming. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn’t happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he’d return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem..

The human brain is a remarkable device that was designed to rise to special occasions. We are the progeny of people who hunted and gathered, whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a stick. When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm resolve, just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.

It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness

(To visit the Climate Change Project, click here. To watch a Stephen Colbert Report interview of Tim Flannery, author of The Weathermakers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change, click here.)

(Dan Gilbert is also the author of best-selling book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” which The Situationist highly recommends. To read a New York Times review of “Stumbling,” click here.)

Posted in Deep Capture, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

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