56 / Head in the cloud

For F*ture's Sake!

Reading time: 3 minutes

We know we're living through a climate emergency and, in the main, accept human behaviour as the primary cause. We also realise the situation is urgent, yet our lack of collective action suggests otherwise.

Why is this the case?

In part, it’s a product of our evolution. 

Natural selection optimised our brain to survive in unpredictable environments that no longer exist. And, while psychologists have identified dozens of cognitive biases that once aided our survival, some of them help explain why we're now hindering it:

  • Hyperbolic discounting:

    We believe the present is more important than the future.

    Our distant ancestors were more concerned with being devoured by a saber-toothed tiger today, than crushed by a wooly mammoth tomorrow.

    Obviously, this kind of short-term thinking was logical for the time. Today however, in a stable society, this bias inhibits our ability to act against seemingly distant, more complex challenges.

  • The sunk-cost fallacy:

    The more you invest in something — whether it’s time, energy or money — the harder it is to abandon it.

    This might have been helpful back when the only way to survive winter, was to make sure every deer testicle counted. But today, in spite of clear alternatives, we've been reluctant to abandon the decaying carcass of fossil fuels, because we're too heavily invested in them.

  • The bystander effect:

    Research has shown bystanders are less likely to help a person in need if others are present. Instead, we assume someone else will intervene. The more people present, the larger the bias.

    In the context of a hunter-gatherer group, this made sense. If a member was in peril and everybody present stepped in to help, the survival of the entire tribe could be needlessly endangered.

    Today however, this bias leads to complacency. For example, in times of crisis, we rely too heavily on the will of our political leaders to take action. In doing so, we absolve ourselves of responsibility.

The bright(ish) side

These cognitive biases evolved for good reason. But now, in the face of a climate crisis, they’re proving our achilles heal.

Thankfully though, our biological evolution hasn’t completely stymied us from addressing the challenges ahead.  Its also equipped us with some superpowers too (they’re just being energised in the wrong direction):

  • Innovation

    Our ability to innovate is our most powerful trait.

    In the past, we used this skill to discover fire, invent the wheel and build the printing press. Today, it’s the turn of solar panels, electric vehicles and wind farms.

    But innovation exists as a bedfellow of economic growth and material consumption — two of the leading causes of climate change.

  • Mental time travel

    Our capacity to foresee and protect against natural catastrophes has never been greater. Compared to other animals, we appear unique in our ability to anticipate the future, and this is a powerful weapon.

    Unfortunately, this superpower disintegrates when large-scale collective action is needed. We work better in smaller groups (a legacy from our hunter-gatherer days).

  • Dunbar's number:

    We evolved to work cooperatively in groups of around 150 people.

    Just look at the strength of many local communities. When they are empowered to shape the narrative around their own interests, people are more likely to positively engage. If framed on a local level, climate change begins to feel more actionable and personal.

    But Dunbar’s number also creates space for silos. Climate deniers oppose environmentalists, while conservatives and liberals clash.

    Everyone, it seems, shapes climate change in their own image.

    So what can be done?

Conclusion

Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman knocked humans off their biological perch when his work on cognitive biases revealed we are not the paragons of reason we presume ourselves to be.

His observation that we are blind to our own biases suggests it’s wrong to assume evidence of climate change will eventually flow directly into collective action. Our attitudes and behaviours are too complex and amorphous — just like the problem of climate change then!

However — from cooperative social behaviour to to our ability to innovate and think about the future — all of these evolutionary milestones have, until now, helped us not only survive, but thrive. 

So, how can we ensure this trajectory will continue?

The situation is far from hopeless, but dealing with it correctly requires a more sophisticated understanding of human cognition.

Perhaps a greater awareness and acceptance of our cognitive biases could help us overcome social barriers. It would certainly be a humbling experience. Maybe it would help us identify shared values too, so we could build a global community — one that’s willing to fight a common cause, together.

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Thanks so much for reading. Until next week, take care - Scott