Monday, August 3, 2009 - 3:20 PM

OOS 7-6: Myopic man: Human self-deception of risk as a factor in global climate change

Marc Pratarelli, Colorado State University Pueblo


One enigma involving humans and their environment concerns the observation that we seem to know what the problems are that we're facing with environmental decay, and yet, are quite unable to change people's mind-set about personal, political and economic behavior. Anyone who claims that "substantive" progress has been made with respect to environmental problems has the burden of proof upon them. "An Inconvenient Truth" reminded us, no index shows an improvement in the health and integrity of the planet. The fact remains, consumption indices, population growth and other variables are going in the wrong direction. Hence, the enigma. From policymakers to Joe-the-plumber, people know what the problems are. As early as 1933, Leopold described environmental problems very adequately, but few listened. This begs the question: what common attribute does Aldo Leopold's generation share with our contemporary babyboomer generation? The answer lies in our biological predisposition to behave in ways that enhance individual and group short term success, at the expense of long term survival. While at face value this may appear to be a pessimistic Malthusian-like observation, we need to reconsider the benefits of focusing our activism to dramatically improve scientific and ecological literacy and raise the consciousness of the masses to make us "better." Denying the truth about the underlying "root causes" of climate change is no longer acceptable policy, even if you're Al Gore.


Why believe the myth that more technology will fix our problems? One lesson from anthropologists is that technological fixes have never solved anything in our 7 million year history. Quite the opposite is true. Each technological revolution was followed by increases in human fecundity. Another example is the belief each empire has had, that it was impervious to collapse. Yet, all past empires have collapsed. When we stop to consider how history repeats itself, and then what hasn't changed about our behavior today, there is only one causal explanation that defies repudiation. The answer is self-deception; the ability to replace an inconvenient truth that invades consciousness with a more convenient and pleasant one. Dealing with this biologically based "cause" of climate-change, rather than focusing the public's attention on colorful graphs and video images of environmental "effects", is the Achilles' heel of the modern environmental movement, and the subject of this presentation. The sooner we turn our attention to it rather than avoiding it, the sooner those environmental indices may begin to turn around.