April 19, 2009

Is the Brain Really Un-Green?

Here's a provocative NYT Mag piece that argues that we have a biological bias against so-called "green thinking." It would seem to me though that myriad cultures in the past have succeeded in maintaining a sustainable outlook of environmental harmony, e.g. many Native American tribes such as the Hopi, Kwakiutl, and Iroquois. These seem like counterexamples to the bio-reductive thesis. I would argue that much more than any genetically-determined un-green predisposition, it's the current culture of materialism and consumption that is much more to blame.

In any case, here is an interesting, if characteristically bleak passage:

"Cognitive psychologists now broadly accept that we have different systems for processing risks. One system works analytically, often involving a careful consideration of costs and benefits. The other experiences risk as a feeling: a primitive and urgent reaction to danger, usually based on a personal experience, that can prove invaluable when (for example) we wake at night to the smell of smoke.

There are some unfortunate implications here. In analytical mode, we are not always adept at long-term thinking; experiments have shown a frequent dislike for delayed benefits, so we undervalue promised future outcomes. (Given a choice, we usually take $10 now as opposed to, say, $20 two years from now.) Environmentally speaking, this means we are far less likely to make lifestyle changes in order to ensure a safer future climate. Letting emotions determine how we assess risk presents its own problems. Almost certainly, we underestimate the danger of rising sea levels or epic droughts or other events that we’ve never experienced and seem far away in time and place.

Worse, Weber’s research seems to help establish that we have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem — a plunging stock market, a personal emergency — comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out. Weber described what she calls a “single-action bias.” Prompted by a distressing emotional signal, we buy a more efficient furnace or insulate our attic or vote for a green candidate — a single action that effectively diminishes global warming as a motivating factor. And that leaves us where we started."

Let's start thinking about solutions. I'd say we should start by spending a whole lot more on education and economically incentivizing green behavior.

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