CLIMATE CHANGE

Four times in history when Humans ignored warning signs

We have a funny relationship with risk

George Tsakraklides

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http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2013/10/07/pregnant-smokers-have-babies-with-smaller-brains-behavioral-problems/

I have mentioned before how the destruction of our planet is the default scenario according to our biology and our DNA. Overcoming this destiny requires making the best of our intelligence as a species. And this includes learning from our history.

There are countless instances where we consciously chose to ignore real and present risk, and close our eyes to rapidly deteriorating situations. It is worth refreshing our memory with these “achievements”. This is vital so that we can have no arrogant misconceptions about our supreme abilities to tackle climate change. Our actions throughout our history speak much louder than any words or promises.

I have chosen four random examples below of instances where humans grossly miscalculated risk, chose to take no responsibility for the situation, and surrendered to it rather than taking corrective action. Basically, the exact opposite of what we need to do to tackle climate change. Enjoy.

The sub prime mortgage lending crisis

This is what essentially led to the 2008 recession. Despite the simple fact that loans were given to people who obviously wouldn’t be able to pay them back, the loans bonanza continued by greedy banks. Once all the banks were doing it, the practice became normalised and got out of control. The tiny minority of economists who alarmed us about the risk of these mortgages bringing down the whole economy were labelled as doomsayers.

Our brains are simply unfit to take any risk seriously, unless it impacts us “right here, right now”, even if this risk may be around the corner. Not only do we ignore known risk, we actually manage to convince ourselves that it does not exist: Nobel Prize economists were not able to predict the economic crisis because they convinced themselves Freddie Mac and Fannie May and all the banks were too big to fail. Similarly, climate change to some appears too much of an Apocalyptic story to be believable, and that Earth is too big to fail.

This proves that whatever “risk ignorance” brain mechanism we have, it seems to be more powerful than even our own intelligence. It is more powerful than the facts. It could be a lack of imagination. Or perhaps a survival mechanism that prevents us from becoming depressed and paranoid.

What is certain is that this mechanism must be there for a reason. It may be the same one that allows us to take everyday risks such as getting in a car and driving, without thinking of accident statistics. Ignoring risk may actually be a survival strategy that allows us to live our risky lives. A strategy which however won’t save us this time.

Smoking

It is the most obvious manifestation of disregarding real risk, because the damage to our health is real, visible, backed by science and inflicted every single day.

However in this instance as well, the risk is in the future, and the damage takes place in small increments on a daily basis. The very gradual nature of this damage to our health allows smoking to pass under the radar of our life-threatening risk detectors, despite the fact that it is actually life-threatening. Again, this brain mechanism manages to by-pass our intelligence. Even in the presence of explicit “Surgeon General Warnings” on the actual package, smokers manage to convince themselves that by some miracle they may live a long and healthy life. That they will be in the lucky percentage that doesn’t get cancer. That medicine may advance so much by the time they get cancer that they’ll be easily cured. That maybe, by the time their health deteriorates, they won’t care about their health anymore.

The future is just not that important. It takes either an extreme level of optimism, or extreme stupidity, to be able to think this way. Either way, the same brain mechanism as before is in action here: if the danger is not imminent, i.e. right here right now, we are able to ignore it, to “defer” our worrying into the distant future. This allows us to live a carefree life and take some risks that bring us joy, such as smoking and drugs.

Construction in flood-prone areas

Another example involving property, this time actually related to climate change, comes from Miami. In the most striking example of humans building expensive properties in flood-prone areas, Miami’s wealthy are completely ignorant of the fact that sea level rise due to climate change has already started to affect Miami. This is evidenced by the increased frequency and severity of flooding in Miami Beach, and the fact that the scientists and authorities have already started planning and building for “the next 20 years”, taking careful note of predicted sea level rises in different parts of the city. It is a glaring example of herd behaviour reinforcing denial of risk and danger until the very end, when the sea water is lapping at the edge of that expensive grass lawn. In complete disregard towards all the evidence, construction along the waterfront is booming and the housing market is as strong as ever. Not for very long though. In the documentary Disappearing States of America, a Miami resident selling their home talks about the ignorance of locals towards all predictions, signs and warnings regarding the massive problem Miami will face as 97% of its area gradually disappears into the ocean within less than 100 years.

The Aral Sea

This example is especially useful as the disaster here actually happened. Humans allowed perhaps the greatest environmental disaster in history slowly unravel, even though they had the time and ways to prevent it. Over just a few decades, one of the largest fresh water bodies in the world that featured high in my World Geography book when I was a toddler, has all but disappeared due to overuse of its water for agriculture. In similarity to the examples above, humans ignored the risk. But what happened when the risk actually materialised is even more scary. Once the villages had no water to drink, no fish to eat, and the water’s edge had receded tens of miles from the port, another brain mechanism kicked in: radical acceptance of the new reality. People accepted that they had less food, and of lower quality. That they suffered from increased respiratory and other diseases from the toxic chemicals they breathed after the lake turned into a dust bowl. A rapid normalisation process had happened in people’s brains, where they had accepted that this was the new norm, that they lived in a dystopia. Although many moved away to other parts of the country, many stayed back to live in this new dry, polluted, dusty world. They had shifted their brains from initial denial of the danger to an equally dangerous and defeatist radical acceptance of their situation. Needless to say, both of these brain mechanisms are defeatist: they prevent action.

To summarise

It seems our brain has pathways that allow us to circumvent bitter truths: the first pathway is denying risk despite how much evidence is in front of us. This allows us to take risks. The second pathway allows us to quickly accept bitter truths and things we supposedly cannot change, or are too lazy to change. This is some type of mental homeostasis. As a scientist who knows too much about climate change to be able to sleep at night, I know that avoiding sorrow is not a solution. It is cowardice. We need to be brave. Brave to be aware of the damage we have done, as much as this is painful. And aside from awareness, our society needs to cultivate values such as empathy, compassion, and love.

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George Tsakraklides

Author, biologist, exploring our broken kinship with the planet. INFJ born 88 ppm ago. 📚 The Unhappiness Machine. A New Earth. Lexicon of Dystopia.