E.O. Wilson, a biologist whose work on the social insects I’ve long read with admiration (though I’m less enamoured with his recent work on kin versus group selection) provides today’s quote of the day. It is taken from an article from the Irish Times titled Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change:
If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.
Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that “the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon – as an important moral imperative”, according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature Climate Change.
Thus I’m not impressed when anyone states “I believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in climate change”. It has nothing to do with faith – for me at least. I recognise by cognitive limitations and defer not to the expertise an individual, but to the collective knowledge of the world’s scientific community.
I am personally ill-equipped to “prove” or “falsify” climate science: which is why I don’t debate the science. I will read the research in order to deepen my understanding, and ask questions and – yes – even be sceptical. But I believe I have the humility to acknowledge my limitations, unlike some.
The Wilson quote reminded me of the long running discussion that has been raging on my post on countering the denial movement. In response to a question from Sundance, a regular commentator here, on the question of “human nature” I noted:
We are pattern seeking animals, it is what marks our species as distinctive. And is foundational to our survival. Agreed. There is a difference between politics and human behavior, but one informs the other.
I’d also note the “flight or fight” response is also essential to survival (actually that’s a very crude way to describe a complex range of adaptive behaviors, but lets treat it as shorthand). It is near universal among all animals. Deep within the structure of our brain is the amygdala – associated with modulating fear, aggression and memory consolidation. But the flight or fight response can also be maladaptive.
The point is this: the interaction between our psychology, individual values and the norms of our community and society will temper how we react to the world quite profoundly. I have a hunch that the climate change debate is less about left versus right and more about our species and its ability to problem solve.
We evolved in the plains of Africa, and for hundreds of thousands of years lived in extended family groups as hunter gatherers. 5,000-10,000 or so years ago we started farming and building the first cities. In the last 100 years the world’s population has grown from 2bn to almost 7bn. We’ve been to the moon, invented writing and developed complex societies. Our cultural evolution has been stunning, and yes worth celebrating. I celebrate the achievements of our civilisation.
And [all the] while evolution has continued its slow, iterative pace. The cognitive skill set we have is perfectly adapted to foster the individual’s survival instincts has changed little. Put crudely, the problem is beyond the scope of the individual and even groups of individuals.
That’s what makes climate change seem overwhelming – terrifying even. Thus an individual’s reaction in either denial, indifference and at the other extreme fatalism (the world is doomed!) is understandable. Everyone will grapple with these basic emotions – including myself. I have no special knowledge, but I have meditated long on my own response and sought out the best information to ensure I am informed.
Flight or fight responses can be maladaptive: to give but one example of fight or flight misfiring, think of the zebra standing frozen before the lion unable to react.
Climate change is a civilisational challenge that transcends the individual’s ability to both fully understand it’s risks and devise potential solutions. This is why we may be at such a stalemate.
The scientific method is one of our tools in understanding the world, but also recognizing and explaining risk.
Climate science is the early warming radar of civilisation: we can pay attention to the looming danger on the screen, or scream at our instruments in terror and frustration. We can choose to dismiss one set of instruments, and claim it broken. But when all the instruments and all the warning systems are screaming “code red” to ignore them is denial. It’s flight or fight gone awry.
Then we are no different from the zebra standing transfixed in the face of a predator.
Readers here appreciate I am very much focused on exploring and even countering arguments from climate sceptics – this is part of the political debate and the discussion over values. I’ve always acknowledged that. Indeed, my values and centrist politics are stated on the “about page”.
But I see this debate between sceptics and proponents of the science as a tiny component of a much larger, richer and more complex problem of mitigation and adaptation.
And for me that is what is both fascinating and tragic.
However I think Wilson’s quote sums it up beautifully, and far more concisely than I could.
I am also reminded on a beautiful scene in one of my favorite films, 1993’s Gettysburg (see above), based on the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Sharma – a fictionalised account that famous battle from the US Civil War.
The scene contrasts our capacity for genius and our frequent descent into barbarity: “What a piece of work is man…”