The Neuropsychology of
Climate Change

As I watch the events in Copenhagen at the COP15 conference unfold, I am filled with ennui.  The malaise does not flow from any sense that the conference and climate change itself are unimportant. On the contrary, like climate change activists and ecologists around the world I feel deeply and passionately that the issue is crucial to the long-term wellbeing of the human race.  The ennui comes from watching yet another attempt to grasp the nettle founder on the completely predictable rocks of human psychology.

It's not that I feel the technologies of renewable energy and conservation aren't up to the task at hand.  I think it may in fact be technically possible for renewables to power an industrial civilization. I'm not 100% convinced, but given the right starting assumptions and the right expectations for the level of industrial activity, it should be possible. My concern has nothing whatever to do with technical feasibility. It used to, but I no longer think that technical feasibility will play a role in the outcome.

Similarly, I don't dismiss the huge body of empirical evidence that says technical remediation is possible.  I am saying that I don't believe such technologies will be deployed on the scale and time line necessary to accomplish much of anything.  I see the barriers to implementation more as shortcomings in human neuropsychology than any particular deficiencies of technology.

I refer to neuropsychology because I think that our evolved brain structure has bequeathed us with a number of key psychological qualities that will act as impediments in this situation. Those qualities include our herding behaviour, our steep discount rate for abstract threats, our tendency to see the world as separate from us, and our urge to seek power on the one hand and defer to it on the other. All these qualities seem to be exquisitely suited to supporting and defending Business As Usual.

The reason we are unlikely to see a global civilization powered by windmills has nothing to do with whether such a thing is technically possible, and everything to do with whether the psychological framework that underpins our particular industrial civilization will permit that to happen.

Here is how I think the psychological jigsaw puzzle fits together.


First of all, human beings have evolved a steep "discount function" with respect to abstract risks like global warming. What this means is that the more abstract and remote a threat is, the less urgently we respond to it. In fact, it's difficult for most people to perceive remote, abstract threats as threats at all. We tend to respond urgently only to immediate, tangible difficulties. I've written about this in general terms here, and there is a paper by a professor at UC Berkeley on this effect and its application to global warming here.

Next there's our herding instinct. Like our hyperbolic discount rate, this appears to be a product of our limbic brain. What it does is makes us very susceptible to popular opinion we tend go along with the herd unless there are urgent personal reasons not to do so. It's why we respond so well to advertising, why stock market bubbles develop, and why the "War on Terror" meme was so successful. In each case we adopt rational justifications for our behaviour, but the behaviour itself is actually rooted at a very deep level in our brain's wiring.

Third is our deference to authority. That comes from even deeper down, from the "reptilian" brain that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago. This part of our brain generates behavior related to survival and hierarchy. It's where the "fight or flight" mechanism resides, and where our urge to dominate or submit to other troop members comes from. Because of this, when an alpha human asserts themselves, large numbers of "average citizens" immediately and unquestioningly accept their leadership.

These three qualities define the behaviour of the vast majority of people when it comes to a threat like Global Warming. They don't see it as an immediate threat, so they're not prepared to spend significant time, energy or attention on it. When they see their friends and neighbours ignoring it this reinforces their assessment and makes them feel perfectly justified in their non-response. In the USA, the right wing noise-box makes all kinds of authoritative-sounding pronouncements against action, so the three tendencies line up to make people believe such stupidity as, "The calls of alarm are coming from eggheads with agendas who are just getting their panties in a bunch over grant money and academic empires." People will stop driving their SUVs to work when the neighbours do; the neighbours haven't stopped, there's no sign around them that this "global warming" thing is even real, the kids still need to get to football practice, and everybody on Fox News is telling them not to fall for that baloney. So they keep on driving.

The other great behaviour modifier is fear.  Fear is a survival mechanism that is rooted in the reptilian brain.  Its expression is controlled by our hyperbolic discount function:  near term threats cause more fear than distant ones, regardless of the sizes of the threats.  This plays out in two ways in the global warming debate.  Climate change activists ask us to fear the inexorable long-term change we are inflicting on the planet, while their opponents ask us to fear the loss of jobs and personal income that fighting global warming could entail.  Which fear is more powerful? Which one will influence our behaviour more?

That's the innocent side of the equation. Now let's look at the darker, more cynical side. Politics. In the USA your representatives are elected by the people I just described above. If an individual politician awakens and starts promoting renewable energy, this leaves an opening the size of the Kasserine Pass for their opponents. All the opponent has to do is appeal to the three instincts I described above, toss in a bit of short-term fear, and the result is virtually a foregone conclusion. They paint the concerned politician as slightly hysterical, say that the proposals are going to cost people their jobs, point out that even if there is a potential problem it can be taken care of later since everything is just fine right now, trot out a few dissenting scientists to weaken the perception of consensus, and reassure the voters that they have their best interests at heart unlike the self-serving, hysterical greenie they're opposing. On Election Day it's game over.

Now why would a politician be so cynical? It all comes back to the power-seeking aspects of the reptilian brain. To an alpha, being top dog is more important that anything else in the universe. Ordinary people are simply resources to them, because they have a very strong sense of separation between self and other. As long as their nest is appropriately feathered today, they really don't care if ten million Bangladeshis will be displaced by a rising ocean in 30 years. It's simply not an issue.

This applies in spades to the corporate interests that control many (or most) of the successful politicians in the world today. In most countries you don't become a successful politician unless you have a commonality of interest with the corporate power brokers. You can disguise it (as Obama has until recently) but it's a fact of political life. Such politicians will not permit the adoption of any legislation that threatens their corporate symbiotes. If there is pressure to adopt something, the political process can be manipulated to ensure that it will be weak, unenforceable and full of loopholes.

The major corporate interests are not about to risk their entrenched powers by taking a gamble on renewable energy or conservation, especially if they worry that it might erode their position. And since ethics is not a fiduciary requirement for a corporation, they are under no obligation to fight fair. Buying politicians and funding disinformation campaigns are all in a day's work.

Cynical politicians tend to win because they'll do whatever it takes to win.  Their agenda is always in favour of the moment, they are supported by corporate interests that are both risk-averse and amoral, and the voting public is easily led by those who know a bit about evolved neuropsychology and are prepared to put their own interests ahead of those of the voters.

This is the recipe for Business as Usual. The boffins can develop all the clever technology they want, the activists can rant and rail, the enlightened policy wonks can write papers until their fingers are worn to stubs – in the face of the forces I've described above, nothing will change until the problems are so overwhelming that they can no longer be denied. Even then, the politicians will misdirect the public away from the real causes (generally by scapegoating a person or a group) if it's in the interests of their corporate string-pullers to do so.

As they follow their instincts, people won't see themselves as rejecting affordable, abundant, clean renewable energy in favor of dramatically lower standards of living. Instead they will see it in the terms presented to them by the politicians, business leaders and the media.  They will see themselves as rejecting the lower standard of living that the greenies want to impose on them in support of a self-righteous agenda that puts the needs of animals and plants ahead of those of human beings. By doing this we will of course back ourselves right into the corner of lowered standards of living, but those in power won't ever put it that way, and those who do speak that truth will not be believed.

I suspect that most environmental activists see people by and large as rational actors, driven by neocortical reasoning and information. I don't. I see people as largely irrational. To varying degrees, we are all subject to the unconscious influences of our reptilian and limbic brains, with our neocortex providing little more than post-hoc rationalizations to validate the unconscious decisions that drive our behaviour. This is why I believe the Green Revolution as it is currently formulated is doomed.

Bodhisantra

December 11, 2009

Update: A Freudian way of looking at these psychological effects

It occurred to me this morning that I'm also talking about the influence of the id. The id in Freudian terms is the "part of the personality structure that contains the basic drives. The id acts as according to the 'pleasure principle', seeking to avoid pain or unpleasure aroused by increases in instinctual tension."

It's the psychological repository for our most basic drives, and will not take "no" for an answer. Our modern industrial culture devalues or even discourages the self-examination necessary to bring the workings of the id into consciousness. As a result, many of our decisions are driven by its unconscious, unrecognized and therefore unconstrained desires.

When we are faced with the possibility of large, uncomfortable changes (like the consequences of climate change and their threat to our safety and comfort) it is the pain-avoidance mechanisms of the id that come into play. Again, the unconscious nature of the reaction causes our conscious mind to dress up the instinctual responses in socially acceptable clothing.

The counterbalance to the id's uncontrolled libidinous urges is supposed to be provided by the inhibiting action of the superego (what we normally call our conscience, our "better nature"). When the threat to our personal well-being becomes sufficiently strong, however, the id (being primal and unconscious) tends to win out. As the threat of climate change becomes clearer we're seeing the id's influence appear in the increasingly frantic tone of denialism as well as beggar-thy-neighbour personal decisions and national policies.

Can the rational processes of the ego and the inhibitory influence of the superego combine to defeat the self-centered desires of the id in this crucial arena? They won't if we don't realize how we're being driven by our psychology.

December 15, 2009


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