Four features “terrorism has and AGW lacks” according to DG

March 24, 2007 at 11:19 pm | Posted in America, Answer, Climate change, Climate preparedness, Cultural differences, Education & Thought Leadership, Environment, Ethics, Irresponsible, Newspaper, Relationships | 2 Comments

Re: If only gay sex caused global warming — Op-Ed in L.A. Times by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert — we could rally certain voters!

This is a continuation of a discussion with Darmok on Why Humans Have Trouble With Anthropogenic Climate Change. We are comparing notes about that Opinion piece that appeared on July 2, 2006 in the Los Angeles Times. Darmok is correct that I may be missing the point of Mr. Gilbert’s article. The point Daniel seemed to be making was an explanatory one: it is no surprise humans do not assess climate change as a significant threat, because our brains are not wired to deal with it. I have read similar remarks from climate sceptics. As an opinion piece, this seems insufficient.

I am a U.S. citizen, with a British accent, writing this in the Bay Area, and I am trying to highlight a point that I think is often overlooked by psychologists in every country: they forget, when dealing with human attributes, how much the society in which they operate forms opinions and affects what is acceptable. In terms of the ways one may approach key problems or issues of our day, such as global warming aka climate change, this omission of cultural influences on human responses is unhelpful, to say the least.

Daniel Gilbert states global warming does not register as a problem with humans because:

  • it lacks a moustache (i.e. there is no instantly recognised “bad guy”)
  • it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities
  • we see it as a distant threat to our futures (not to our afternoons)
  • if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected

It is interesting to note that as soon as scientists or environmental campaigners attempt to get the attention of the public by addressing these four points with respect to climate change, they are considered alarmist loonies! At this point the debate is re-framed by sceptics in emotional horror-response terms in an attempt to achieve their over-arching goal of preventing sensible action to combat climate change.

My particular issue is with a psychology professor from Harvard University selecting attributes that may be described as pan-human, and applying them to explain and excuse some Americans’ approach to the world: an approach which I believe has more to do with cultural norms that general human attributes, even though those attributes exist. Western culture tends to encourage selfish attitudes at a time when self-serving actions are damaging to our world. Egocentricity has served its purpose — look how much material wealth we have in the form of “stuff” — and now needs to lapse so the commonweal can flourish.

We have all the human attributes we need to rise above our caveman responses — isn’t that the purpose of citizenship and civilising influences? Many humans generally seem to be happy with many technological advancements, but progress in terms of human relations is almost non-existent (I was reading about that last week, and shall try to find the reference …) One positive way to make progress towards more successful human relations is to recognise where we are the same, what we can agree on, and work at expanding on those common attributes and shared goals.

Now, if you take the psychology professor’s examples as to attributes that are common to mankind, he provides a great argument for people who are not interested in changing their lives to combat climate change: he effectively reassures them they are normal in their stance. That is not helpful.

There is a world of difference between being able to understand people’s viewpoint and letting them feel comfortable with it remaining so, and working with them to show them that they are applying caveman responses to times that are not well-served by ignorance and hunkering down.

That is why I felt compelled to address Daniel Gilbert’s piece.



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  1. What a great post.

    Western culture tends to encourage selfish attitudes at a time when self-serving actions are damaging to our world.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you that Gilbert’s piece is not at all helpful.

  2. Thanks, timethief.

    By coincidence, I just enjoyed conversing over dinner with a psychologist. She too concurred with my comments about civilising influences, education, and will-power giving humans the ability to rise above base instincts, and pointed out that we have the choice to refuse to be limited by them. Animals do not have that same degree of ‘luxury’ to anticipate danger way ahead of time and be able to prepare and adapt to handle it.

    Humans have always strived to improve their conditions. There is no reason, and certainly no justification, for us to shrug our shoulders in defeat at the inevitability of climate change. We cannot, and should not, blame our ineptitude and lack of effort on the simple hard-wiring of our brains when studied from an evolutionary psychological standpoint.

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