New Internationalist

Don’t trust your Stone Age brain: it’s unsustainable

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Helen Camakaris explains why our own thought processes are hindering attempts to save the planet.

Sarah G under a CC Licence

Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling we have when we know we should invest in solar panels but the 46″ wide screen TV wins out; we know we should catch the bus but we take the car anyway. It’s that sense of discord that arises when emotion and reason don’t get along. And unfortunately, it’s alive and well, sabotaging the climate change debate.

We’ve evolved to feel a single sense of self, but our minds consist of multiple voices. Our emotional brain has first go at making sense of our world, instantly telling us how to behave and what to believe, based on instincts reinforced by upbringing. Sometimes our rational brain is then called upon to endorse our intuitions, which then become beliefs. Problems that are unusually difficult or surprising will recruit our rational brain, but reasoning takes effort and we avoid it when we can.

Unfortunately our emotional brain is encouraging us to pursue perceived self-interest even if that means trashing the planet. This leaves our rational brain to try to justify our actions, even while the walls come tumbling down and the temperatures keep rising.

If we are to have any chance of a future we need to understand why our intuitions are so poor, and how we might temper them by engaging our ability to reason.

We haven’t evolved to be successful in the modern world. Civilisation arose only 12,000 years ago; in evolutionary terms that’s just the blink of an eye. Ninety-nine per cent of human evolution occurred during the Stone Age, so our evolved instincts, personality traits, and even some of our cognitive ‘short-cuts’ are much better suited to this Pleistocene world.

Altruism vs self-interest

Evolution didn’t care about the future; it was simply driven by those who survived and left the most descendants. So our ancestors were the ones who were best at competing for food and status, securing mates and having babies. They were materialistic, living very much in the present and rarely constrained by sustainability. They ate a broad range of foods, and if resources became depleted they could expand their territories or move on, behaviour that led to the extinction of many animals and to extensive migration.

A level of altruism did evolve, but it was circumscribed by benefits to kin, expectations of reciprocal reward, and an obsession with fairness. Altruism can often therefore be trumped by self-interest.

We might expect that intelligence and language would have been game-changers; they were, but not necessarily for the better. We learnt to tame nature and harvest its bounty, to build great cities, and to harness the laws of physics and chemistry. We may celebrate the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of modern civilization, but it also ushered in burgeoning overpopulation, resource exploitation, pollution and climate change.

So if we evolved to exploit nature, and to be blind to the consequences, what now? Our only chance is to wrest control away from our emotional brain, and construct a new reality where our rational brain can take control.

We need to design a new kind of democracy where many government decisions are made co-operatively, with multi-party representation and the input of experts. Such think tanks must have strategies in place to promote critical self-analysis and to ‘frame’ policy to reflect the long-term reality. The cost of climate change mitigation can then be shown to be minute compared to the cost of inaction.

If we value a sustainable world, the GDP must be replaced by a measure of a country’s wealth, including resources, social capital and the cost of pollution. Costs should reflect the inclusive cradle-to-grave value of products and services, so that choices reflect out true long-term interests. Conspicuous consumption might be curbed further by offering workers the choice of more leisure rather than a salary increase, and by rewarding excellence with honours and privileges, rather than fat pay packets and obscene bonuses.

Education must produce adults who can think critically and understand what’s at stake and why our judgement is flawed. To counter self-interest, the government should use incentives and disincentives to guide public behaviour. We need to encourage altruism by instituting reciprocal, incremental improvements, and by showing leadership.

We are at the crossroads. Unless we recognize the less-adaptive aspects of human nature and devise ways of keeping them in check, the world we bequeath to our children will be a diminished one. We have the means to do this, but do we have the will? Evolution may have made us the most intelligent animal on Earth, but it makes no promise that we will be survivors.

Helen Camakaris is Honorary Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne. This article originally appeared on theconversation.com, and is cross-posted with permission.

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