Your brain is unsustainable - don't trust it!

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Your brain is unsustainable – don’t trust it!

Our own thoughts are stopping us saving the planet, says Helen Camakaris


(Sarah G under a CC Licence)

We feel bad when we know we should buy solar panels but we buy a 46″ wide screen TV instead; we know we should take the bus but we take the car; this is cognitive dissonance. It’s when emotion and reason don’t agree. And there is a lot of it around – it’s bad for the climate change debate.

Our evolution means we feel we are one self, but we have many voices in our minds. Our emotional brain tries to understand the world first from our natural instincts and life experience. It tells us how to behave and what to believe. Sometimes we then ask our rational brain to check our intuitions, which then become beliefs. Problems that are unusually difficult or surprising need our rational brain, but it takes a lot of effort to reason and we avoid it when we can.

Our emotional brain is encouraging us to follow self-interest even if that means destroying the planet. And then our rational brain tries to justify our actions, while the temperatures keep rising.

If we want a future, we need to understand why our intuitions are so bad, and how we could change them by using our ability to reason more.

We haven’t evolved to be successful in the modern world. Civilisation started only 12,000 years ago; in evolutionary terms that’s very recent. Ninety-nine per cent of human evolution happened during the Stone Age, so our instincts, personality, and even many of our ideas are much better suited to this Pleistocene world.

Thinking of others or thinking of ourselves

Evolution didn’t worry about the future; it happened because of the people who survived and had the most descendants. So our ancestors were the ones who were best at getting more food and status, getting partners and having babies. They were materialistic, living in the present time and not thinking about sustainability. They ate a lot of different food, and if there were not many resources left, they could move to new land. This behaviour led to the extinction of many animals and to extensive migration.

Some people thought of others: for benefits to their family, for expectations of others helping them later, and to be fair. But self-interest can be stronger than interest in others.

We might expect that intelligence and language would change this; they did, but not necessarily for the better. We learnt to control nature and use it, to build great cities, and to work with the laws of physics and chemistry. We celebrate the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of modern civilization, but it also brought overpopulation, resource exploitation, pollution and climate change.

So if evolution made us exploit nature, and not think about the consequences, what now? Our only chance is to take control away from our emotional brain, and create a new reality where our rational brain can take control.

We need to design a new kind of democracy where many government decisions are made co-operatively, with many parties and ideas from experts. These “think tanks” must plan for critical self-analysis and make decisions that reflect the long-term reality. Everyone will see then that the cost of reducing the effects of climate change is very small compared to the cost of doing nothing.

If we think a sustainable world is important, we must replace the GDP with a different measure of a country’s wealth, including resources, social capital and the cost of pollution. Costs should show the total value of products and services (through all the processes), so that we can choose better for the long-term. We could cut visible consumption by offering workers the choice of more free time instead of a salary increase, and by giving good workers honours and privileges, instead of more and more money.

Education must produce adults who can think critically and understand what the risks are and why it is difficult to see this. To reduce self-interest, the government should guide public behaviour by encouraging and disencouraging different things. We need to make people think of others.

We are at a very important time in history. We need to see how human nature finds it difficult to adapt and find ways of working with this, or the world we leave to our children will be a worse place. We have the ability to do this, but do we want to? Evolution made us the most intelligent animal on Earth, but it does not ensure that we will be survivors.

Helen Camakaris is Honorary Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne.

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