Communicating Future Threats

One big challenge that activists face is the difficulty of generating concern for risks that are neither apparent nor imminent.  Those of us who speak out on issues related to the World Problematique, especially in North America, are in this situation because the threats we are talking about aren't evident in the daily lives of average people.  We take every opportunity to communicate our concerns, but without some evidence that the risks we describe are here now, the response of most people is less than enthusiastic.  People may admit that the analysis seems sound, but usually respond that their daily lives give them plenty to worry about already.  The only time that large-scale, distant risks generate a wave of action is when they become immediate, usually by a catastrophe or media saturation with a very specific message.   As examples, think of Hurricane Katrina, the Pacific tsunami, or the recent release of the IPCC report with its media-saturating publicity and dire warnings.

Why is it so difficult to generate concern for events that are seen as belonging to the future even though their consequences may be dire?  Why is it so easy to generate concern for much smaller events that are happening right now?  Consider the outpouring of generosity that happens when a local family without insurance is burned out of their home.  In a single day the community will respond more than they would to a year's worth haranguing by Peak Oil activists. 
A recent article on the web site "The Oil Drum" sheds some light on why this happens, and it's as simple as it is surprising.

Hurricane Katrina

This happens, apparently, because of the way we're wired.  It is the result of many millenia of mutation, genetic drift and natural selection - selection that favoured people who responded immediately to threats or rewards.  Those individuals that did not respond immediately (perhaps they didn't run from the tiger or eat the food that was in front of them) were more likely to be "selected out" of the gene pool.  They were the original Darwin Award winners.  This selection reinforced our responses to immediate and clearly understood rewards or dangers.  In fact, the further away in time the reward or danger was, the lower our response to it became, because its influence on our survival was correspondingly less.  Even if we waited to run until the tiger got closer, the chances were good that we would escape anyway, so there was no need to leave our meal just yet.  This idea is known as the "discount rate".  It's the same concept used by banks, where the present value of a future event is discounted depending on how far in the future it is.

Cave Men

While banks use a linear discount rate (expressed as a percentage), there is strong evidence that human beings use a more complex function that comes from different parts of our brain.  The more primitive parts (the brain stem and limbic system) are concerned with immediate survival and emotional responses.  They are much less capable of long-term evaluation, but provoke the strongest reactions to pleasure or fear.  The neocortex, on the other hand, is our thinking brain.  It analyzes, predicts and plans for the future, but has more limited access to our emotional triggers.

As a result, immediate threats or rewards that require no deep analysis tend to activate the "earlier" portions of our brain and prompt very strong responses.  More abstract threats and rewards identified through the analytical capability of our neocortex don't activate our limbic system, and so usually prompt a much less intense reaction.  In addition, emotions easily override the intellect, so you get reactions like, "Yes, I think Global Warming is important, but I have a date tonight with the hottest guy on the face of the planet!"  That's not a lack of concern for the future, it's a direct result of the way we are constructed.  It's because of our hard-wired "hyperbolic discount function".  Immediate and concrete concerns always strongly outweigh the distant and abstract; it's the reason we got this far as a species.  The discount function is called "hyperbolic" because it falls off rapidly at first, then flattens out as time passes.  Events that are very near term evoke a sense of urgency that falls off steeply as the time horizon passes from the domain of the limbic system to the domain of the neocortex, resulting in the characteristic shape of a hyperbolic curve:

Hyperbolic Discount Function

In light of this, it's easy to see why Peak Oil doesn't set off alarm bells for most people.  There is no visible crisis to urge our limbic defenses into action.  There's lots of gas at the pumps and the price is acceptable.  Hurricane Katrina caused a bit of a ripple in our Peak Oil awareness when gas prices shot up.  However, the visible problems with oil supply mostly went away once the storm passed.  Immediate concerns rule the day, and when the threat of  gasoline shortages faded, so did our concern.

So does this mean that Peak Oil outreach, or Climate Change education, or activism on any of the other components of the Problematique is pointless?  Not at all.  You may see little immediate result from your educational efforts, but everyone has a neocortex.  We are not just bundles of limbic responses, simple fight-or-flight machines.  Those of us involved with Peak Oil or Climate Change - or air pollution or biodiversity loss or food scarcity or conflict resolution - should know that when the inevitable crisis hits some people will say, "Oh yeah, what's-her-name was always going on about this.  I think I understand what's happening."

Homer's Brain

For a more complete, rigorous and amusing discussion of this topic, take a look at the article "Climate Change, Sabre Tooth Tigers and Devaluing the Future" by Nate Hagens on The Oil Drum.  For a more formal treatment of the topic you can read the paper "Global Warming and Hyperbolic Discounting
" written by Prof. Larry Karp at the University of California, Berkeley.

© Copyright 2007, Paul Chefurka

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