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The instinct (or lack of) to save the planet

The instinct (or lack of) to save the planet

By Aarron Toal, November 2021

Aarron Toal discusses how humans are hardwired to prioritise the present but that tackling climate change requires us to reevaluate how we deal with danger.

Our world is changing. Unsustainable consumption and the environmentally destructive behaviour of humans is pushing the planet towards an inevitable catastrophe. The resulting climate transformation in the form of extreme weather and sea level rise is likely to affect each one of us in some way during the next few decades. Experts warn that we have just 10 years before a global temperature rise of 1.5°C, the tipping point leading to an ecological runaway event, being a cascade of irreversible changes within the ecosystem that would see mass environmental degradation, population displacement and species extinction.

Yet, despite sobering evidence showing us heading towards a future of devastation and despair, the constant warnings have not been capable of changing our destructive behaviours sufficiently to prevent climate change. Whilst we possess an evolved instinct to survive, we lack an instinct to save the planet, perversely threatening our very survival. In fact, evolved behaviours that once helped us navigate our environment are the very things that are destroying it.

We live in an evolved society

Humans possess a collection of specialised, evolved circuits within the brain. Speaking instinctively to us, they facilitate adaptive behaviours that once evolved to assist with survival in our hunter-gather ancestral past around 400,000 years ago. However, we live in a society different to the one of harsh living conditions and realities to which our brains were previously calibrated. The behaviours that once ensured our survival are now the very ones responsible for preventing us engaging in pro-environmental actions to save the planet.

This is because we are instinctively primed to deal with immediate dangers, not long-term threats. Our ancestors faced immense challenges threatening their very survival every day, from scavenging safe food to eat to avoiding predators. Faced with such constant dangers, our brains evolved to filter out unnecessary information and focus only on what is immediately essential to our own survival. Being overloaded with information confuses us, resulting in a paralysis that could have deadly consequences, so we automatically tune out the background noise and focus on the clear and present dangers in front of us.

Such blinkered vision today results in a warped perception of dangers within our reality. We become desensitised to complex hazards that threaten our future existence, as we focus on the more immediate dangers affecting our present survival chances. Perceptually, 10 years is still a long time away. From an evolutionary psychology point of view we are programmed to deal with the here and now, not to waste time, energy and resources safeguarding for the future. The sacrifices that need to be made today to stop climate change go against our fundamental instinct to survive.

I will survive

Such efficient, evolved cognition, reliant upon mental shortcuts to guarantee an ability to deal with immediate dangers, does, unfortunately, make us behave rather irrationally too. Through optimism bias, we have the ability to persuade ourselves against taking action in the face of any threat that is not imminent. We convince ourselves that the fallout from climate change will not reach us here in Durham, or even if it does, the changes will be inconsequential to us compared with those who live near the coast or in faraway countries. We might also overinflate our own abilities to deal with the threat when the time comes to face it. Whatever the eventuality, we are confident that we will survive.

Such biased mentality is about not just reacting immediately to danger but also assessing how exposed we are to danger in our daily lives. We have all fantasised about how we would react in an aeroplane disaster or a terrorist attack. Scenarios like these are relatively simple to imagine yet statistically rather unlikely; although that doesn’t stop us wondering when sitting in the departure lounge at an airport. The point is that we can envisage them quite easily. But comprehending how we would react once the global temperature rises 1.5°C is infinitely more difficult. If it is difficult for us to comprehend, it is easy to forget.

Policymakers have the difficult task of implementing intervention strategies to encourage more pro-environmental behaviours to overcome a threat that, for the moment at least given current rhetoric, does not feel very threatening. Ultimately, engaging our innate survival behaviours within us on behalf of saving the planet (and ourselves) requires acknowledging our evolved way of dealing with danger, given that presently the very threat of climate change is not engaging our fundamental instinct to survive.

More information on Mr Toal's research interests.