|‘The Sky Is Falling’: A Losing Argument for Environmentalists|
|Thursday, 13 September 2012 00:00 | Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary|
A while back, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote a column about our nation’s passivity. His argument was essentially that since the end of the Civil Rights era, Americans have stopped giving a damn. “Being American has become a spectator sport,” he wrote.
So why is this happening? According to Herbert: “This passivity and sense of helplessness most likely stems from the refusal of so many Americans over the past few decades to acknowledge any sense of personal responsibility for the policies and choices that have led the country into such a dismal state of affairs, and to turn their backs on any real obligation to help others who were struggling.”
Valuation is the scientific word for what Herbert is talking about. In his amazing Why Choose This Book, Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist Read Montague explains it this way:
Two questions face every creature on our planet every moment of the day. “What is the value of my available choices?” And beyond that, “How much does each choice cost?” For a mobile creature, choosing is not optional. All outcomes, including doing nothing, are choices. At its core, moment-to-moment living is a problem of investment and returns, and we all want to choose so as to get the most return for the least investment. These problems seem straightforward until we consider the stakes involved for real creatures in the real world: life or death. This is why organisms are desperate. Failure means oblivion. Which creatures win in this world? Those that accurately estimate the costs and the long-term benefit of choices will be more efficient than those that don’t—and in the long term these are the winners. This is why one sees valuation mechanism present at every level in biological systems, from molecules all the way up to the strategies for social exchange. What do valuation mechanisms give to a system? They let a system care. The system can care more about one event than another. And that’s the key to building information-processing systems, biological or otherwise, that are truly adaptive—they must care about what they do.
According to Herbert's piece, Americans have begun to care more about themselves than their country—that’s the reason why we have sat back and done little, while, to again quote Herbert: “the nation’s political leaders and their corporate puppet masters have fouled this nation up to a fare-thee-well.”
And while I agree with Herbert about the results, he hasn’t read his Montague, so I disagree with his reasons for those results.
Human beings are information-processing systems—meaning we take in a ton of data. First we evaluate this data based on our survival needs (that is, we evaluate this data based on the two questions Montague mentioned) and use the results to hopefully make better decisions.
Herbert believes that we have learned helplessness. We don’t believe we can effect change and thus don’t attempt to make changes. But the operant question is why have we learned helplessness?
Is it because, as he argues, we are a selfish culture too tired to give a damn? Or is it because we can’t find a way to care?
These may sound similar, but they’re not.
Take climate change, a problem most experts feel we are still greatly ignoring. We don’t care enough… so is it passivity or valuation?
My argument is that not enough of us can yet find the value in change—not that we’re reluctant to change. That’s the problem with the media needing to present the global-warming information either as controversy or doomsday and not much in between. The controversy makes people question the value of their choice, the doomsday scenarios as well.
The reason we are passive, then, might have little to do with our values and much more to do with our brain’s innate sense of valuation. Which means, rather than trying to shout about the end of the world, environmentalists might have more luck shouting about the wonders of transformation—focusing not on what we’re losing, but rather on potential gains.
Though what potential gains we might find due to battling climate change, well, that remains an open question.
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