Today, let us turn to Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, for some more answers. D. Gilbert is the author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness‘. Using an evolutionary psychology’s perspective, D. Gilbert explains why it is so hard for us to get excited about global warming, relative to other lesser threats such as terrorism, for instance. This has to do with the way in which our human brain has evolved to respond to threats. According to D. Gilbert, there are four characteristics that make us responsive to a threat, and global warming does not meet any of those:
- The threat has a human face: ‘We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to . . . has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them. That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t . . . Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.’
- The threat violates our morals. ‘The second reason why global warming doesn’t put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn’t cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn’t force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain’s call to action. Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.’
- The threat is present and immediate. ‘The threat of global warming is far, far away, not immediate, not something that makes you duck or twitch. In fact, a person really has to use the analytic brain hunks to get in a global warming lather, not the affective or emotional mechanisms that detect common threats and risks. As another scholar said, “risk is a feeling.” Statistics and reports don’t enter the brain through feeling portals. So after Hurricane Katrina, polling found concern about global warming ticked up.’ . . . ‘The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.’
- The threat happens at once. ‘The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected . . . Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.’
The irony is, if there is a human perpetrator, and moral blame to be assigned, we are first to look at ourselves. We are all responsible for what we are doing to ourselves and the generations to come. Our parents and our grandparents started it by going along with the industrial revolution and consumerism. We can give them the benefit of the doubt, however, since they did not know. We do not have that excuse, as it has now been proven that we are all the cause. Hence, I shall dispute Daniel Gilbert‘s claim that global warming is a threat without a human face. Instead, let us say that global warming is a threat with all of our faces. It suggests a communication strategy that deals with the issue of collective responsibility.
As for the moral threat, it is becoming more and more clear that we are killing ourselves and our children, slowly but surely. Maybe it needs to be made more obvious, by concentrating in one place, all the crimes to which we are all a part of? and by showing our personal connections to those crimes? The Story of Stuff video and the ilovemountains web technology both come to mind.
Technology and the media can also help trick our minds into feeling the urgency of he threat. Relating to M. Oppenheimer‘s point about the need for local and personal relevance, I am pushing for hyper realistic visualizations to help us ‘experience’ what our neighborhoods might look like as a result of global warming. Imagine 3-D Google Maps of the future. Nature can help also, and although the scientific evidence linking recent natural disasters to global warming is still subject to much debate, like M. Oppenheimer, I see the occurrence of such disasters as opportunities to shock people’s brains into taking climate threats more seriously.
Last, unless the majority of people understand the pernicious nature of global warming, and why it is fooling them into non action, very little will change at the individual level. So far, Al Gore‘s boiling frog analogy has failed to capture the world’s imagination. It is a powerful image, but one that has not been supported by any substantial ad or PR campaign.