Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why are we not acting to Save the World?

A simple question, and I’ll make it simpler yet.

The international climate negotiations have broken down and an artificial controversy is raging in the public opinion. I am not a climate expert. I’m an ecologist. I know something about conservation and environmental protection, the effects of humanity’s trespasses on the ecology, etc. But in the Biodiversity Year 2010, no one is really interested in doing something that would really make a difference to the biodiversity crisis. Just as our politicians and bureaucrats didn’t take their promise to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010 seriously. Even though, of course, the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are intricately linked.

Many years ago, B. F. Skinner had a book chapter entitled “Why we are not acting to save the world”. Skinner raises some good points abouth how psychological mechanisms and our evolutionary history has ill prepared us for these kinds of long-term threats. We have been selected for urgent “fight or flight responses,” and don’t know how to translate knowledge into action.

Nothing in our evolutionary history could prepare us for what is about to come. Skinner distinguishes between “knowledge by description” and “knowledge by acquaintance.” We cannot know the future by acquaintance, only as an uncertain prediction. “In general, the more remote the predicted consequence, the less likely we are to follow advice”. Think of warning labels on cigarette packages. Warning of an uncertain death at some future date is not effective in getting addicted smokers to abstain from that one cigarette today. Just like evolution has ill-prepared us for the high sugar and salt diet that we live now. Evolution acts on the here and now, it does not prepare us for the future. Instead we have been selected for high reproduction in a high-mortality world, very unlike the one we have lived in since the advent of modern medicine and the sessile and predictable agricultural life-style. Knowledge by description is not a good motivator for action, and neither is any description of a devastated future. Saving the world is to do something about the future, but the future doesn’t exist yet. Evolution acts on the here and now, not for the future.

But Skinner leaves something to be desired.

We need institutions with real power at the global level to deal with crises that require collaboration between nations. The kinds of problems of cooperation that made nation states necessary are now global, and nation states are not up to the task. Game-theory comes into play. It is hard to get people to sacrifice something for future benefits many of our generation wont be around to experience. We get free-rider problems and cheaters. The connection between the state of the world and any single action by an individual is remote. Individuals are hamstrung and pacified, because meaningful change requires that everyone cooperates. Except for a few token actions that you yourself can derive direct benefit from: taking the bus to work beats sitting in endless traffic jams; there are direct personal benefits to riding a bike, provided there aren’t too many cars on the road.

Worldwatch, in their last “State of the World” report argue that we need a cultural change. As part of such a cultural change, it makes sense that the concept of perpetual economic growth and the desire for ever increasing consumption has got to go. Personally, I think that ultimately we need a new ethic that values other species as highly as humans, if not higher. Why sacrifice for someone just like yourself? Past generations of humans didn’t leave any ivory-billed woodpeckers or Caspian tigers for me, or any old-growth forest or short-grass prairie to speak of. But to sacrifice for superior beings like tigers or snow leopards, that makes a lot of sense.

In today’s globalized economy it is hard for nation states to act unilaterally. And the way “demo-crazy” works these days (or doesn’t work, as the case may be), it is hard to introduce change that makes it harder to service debts and finance pensions. People have kids, so they have mortgages and need to keep working and saving for the unpredictable. In any case, it seems that the combined need for a growing safety margin and the urge to consume more, more, more... Either way, one little act of idealism makes little difference in the sea of everybody else’s small decisions. We are all embroiled in the tyranny of small decisions... We have (almost) all of us internalized the perpetual growth culture to such an extent that even environmental NGOs dare not challenge it. And no one dares to take on the issue of population growth.

It is logically inconsistent to be willing to fight to defeat Hitler, but not for a livable planet. Or a planet worth living on...

What would Gandhi do to solve today’s environmental problems? We need creativity and political savvy, and Gandhi had both in excess. He would probably set a good example. But the power of the good example is limited, and today’s challenges requires that everyone make an effort and that we collaborate at national and international levels. We need systems that make everyone behave responsibly, not just a few idealists. Even Gandhi would probably fail because it is hard to rouse people to action around anything but their immediate personal interests, and it is hard to get people to risk life and freedom before they are absolutely desperate. The ecology is such that by the time we are desperate it is probably too late. Besides, every campaign needs an easily identified enemy; it is much harder to act when we are all part of the problem. Too many of us are invested in the status quo. Few of us feel so strongly for the fish in the sea that we take action at the scale required to deal with officially sanctioned over-fishing and the destruction of marine life in general. And those of us who do feel strongly enough are in too much pain to be very effective. In any case, we are hamstrung and don’t know what we can do in a system dominated by a passive majority.

A though experiment: imagine that science showed unequivocally that to avoid an all-encumbering catastrophe in the next 20 years we all had to become vegetarians. And imagine philosophers showed that this was the only moral and ethical path to take. How would we go about it?

For those who claim it is unreasonable to demand that everyone become vegetarians: well, then you should have made sure that we didn’t grow to seven billion people on this earth and made sure we wont be 9-11 billion by 2050. If it’s easier to solve the population crisis, then be my guest. If your answer is that it wouldn’t work, then we wont be able to solve the climate crisis or the biodiversity crisis either. An impoverished world would result. Myself, I am not willing to accept such a result--for other species’ sake.

Alternatively, what if science showed that we had to outlaw trawlers and some of the other most destructive fishing practices, and protect at least 40 percent of the ocean from all fishing; how would we do that? Would we manage to pull it off in Norway? In Spain? In international waters? Can we stop the acidification of the ocean (caused by our carbon dioxide emissions) which threatens all calcareous life in the sea and the food chains that depend on it?

Obstructionists would just as easily divide public opinion with their incessant harping on “scientific uncertainty”; just like they’ve done with the climate crisis and evolution, and with the public health aspects of smoking before that.

I am not a social scientist, so I don’t know how to get the things done that we know need to be done. But the social scientists are not much help either. Fact is that we’ve constructed such a diffuse system, with checks and counter-balances canceling each other out, that no one knows how to bring change when we need it. No one knows how to translate knowledge into action in the face of large scale crises such as this. Our models of democracy were developed 200-100 years ago, in a time when people couldn’t conceive of humans threatening global ecosystems. We are all hamstrung in this system we have create. Heroism is dead.

We know what needs to be done, we just don’t know how--how to get humanity to act. We need more than business as usual to save the world. We have to get our economy, fisheries, agriculture, our transportation needs and our life-style choices subordinate to ecological tolerance and consideration of the other species with which we share the planet, now and in the future. Politicians are not good at going beyond business as usual. Extreme pressure is needed from the rest of us. If we’re to have a chance, we need to take a no holds barred look at the factors that keep us from taking action.

For me, the most important reason to care about environmental destruction and anthropogenic climate change is the terrible effects these will have on other species. Humans have only themselves to blame, and I care more for the victims than the perpetrators. Besides, I don’t think our much-vaunted concern for other people is all that it is made out to be. If it were, wouldn’t we have solved the poverty issue long ago?

I think there are many of us who care more for other species than we care for mankind, and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit it. Perhaps our sympathy for other species can act as an inducement to change where concern for other people have failed?

"Men have never loved one another much, for reasons we can readily understand: Man is not a lovable animal.”
  —Edward Abbey

Can we design a way of life that will have a better chance of a future? Not just for us, who don’t deserve it, but for all the beautiful, wondrous, innocent species, that still live in a way compatible with life?

7 comments:

俊偉 said...
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Stan said...

Tormod,Great article. Unfortunately, evolution (physically and culturally) takes lots of time, especially the physical type. Maybe gene manipulation is the answer?

Do you intend to get tis article published? If so, then you need to do some editing. For example in the paragraph that begins "In today's globalized economy" the second sentence is difficult to grasp "hard...harder". Further on: "unreasonable", not "unreasonably"; "well, then", not "well,they"; "9-11 billion", not "million".

Keep at it. dod

Thor said...

Thanx...

Yes, I have a genetic engineering solution: we make people really, really small. (Think Tom Thumb). Then they can eat as much meat as they like, travel as much as they like, breed as much as they like, and drive their tiny little boats and automobiles on whatever fuel they like...

Plus, then they would have some real predators, and birds would have plenty of food for their young and might be able to rebound.

Problem with genetic engineering is that the companies engaged in it usually pursue the wrong solutions... They modify crops to be able to tolerate higher dosages of their pesticides, for instance...

吳婷婷 said...

Thank you very much for such useful informaion ● 3●..................................................................

JasonBirk佳琪 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thor said...

Some additional musings here on our difficulty of dealing with unquantified risks, particularly those where we don't know when an event may occur: Washington Post.