Climate Changes. Not us.Posted by ed in blog March 5, 2012
I spoke at the Scottish Energy & Environment Conference a few weeks ago. The dramatic shift in Scotland’s ‘sizzling’ narrative on renewable energy being clear from the outset as the Energy & Tourism Minister (now there’s an interesting portfolio combination!) Fergus Ewing announced: ‘We used to think that Scotland just had terrible weather – now we realise it’s an amazing economic opportunity!’
In a plotline weirdly parallel to the classic film ‘Local Hero’ I had some fun at the expense of Donald Trump whose highly contentious golf course in Aberdeenshire is still stirring controversy. Trump’s announcement that if a proposed offshore wind-farm next to the course goes ahead he’ll pull out of his golf gazumping vainglorious white elephant suggests a possibly delicious ‘win:win’! Begging the question ‘Why does Donald Trump hate offshore wind? Because he’s afraid his wig will blow out to sea…(boom boom)’
However it was the presentation of Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Bangor University who really caught my attention. In a talk titled ‘Climate changes. Not us’ he suggested we had no chance of stopping climate change, leaving us 3 options: Mitigation, Adaptation or Suffering…
He argued persuasively that our perception of the world is inherently flawed, what we know affects what we see and that we actually miss most of what is going on around us. Examples abound from the classic ‘Missing Card Trick’ to the hilarious ‘Gorilla’ trick. This brought to mind Daniel Kahneman’s observation that ‘What You See Is All There Is’ (from his brilliant book ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’), where quite blatantly what we see is NOT all there is, and hence our judgements and actions are at best made using incomplete evidence and at worst wildly inaccurate or misleading!
Thierry pointed out that the brain is effectively ‘the elephant in the skull’, our cerebellum being brilliant at ‘auto-pilot’ functions (like walking, driving, talking etc) but far less good at constant, cognitive and conscious control than we might ourselves believe. Whilst our brains are fantastic at reactive adaptation (honed over 100,000’s of years) they are pretty rubbish at proactive adaptation that slow-burning (no pun intended) challenges like climate change require.
Nor will techno-fixes save us says Thierry, using an image of a 5000 year old toilet – essentially a hole that water is poured into to disperse our effluvia – to ram home the point that despite some basic automation (‘flushing’) we have progressed very little in this most basic of functions. Noting that the global loss of agriculture-limiting phosphorous in human poo that this entails is also a very real, serious and impending crisis.
Our challenge, outlined Thierry, is thus…
- Behavioural not technical
- Behaviour is dictated by the brain
- The brain is evolved to adapt reactively
- No-one knows (yet) how to change mass behaviour
- We need to stop the hypocrisy (on climate we are already at point of no return)
- We need to act at source i.e. focus on sustainable climatic behaviours and actions in the same way we have done with tobacco, asbestos etc
His prescription? Radical political moves on mass intervention, financial pressures and incentives, education and reform of enterprise. Hike petrol prices fourfold, increase the early education budget fourfold, tackle banks, tax margins and reward transparency and ethics and lastly grip wealth distribution and inequality through a proportional income tax that addresses the fact that 25% of US revenues got to 1% of the population (and 12.5% go to 0.1%!).
Simple eh?! He concluded on a powerful couple of comparative images showing the similarities of connections within the brain to those of the global internet, arguing that individual neurons in the brain don’t know what we’re thinking, that our brains actively dissociate themselves from ‘us’ and that consciousness is an amazing and emergent property in which the whole is very much greater and more transformative than the sum of the parts.
Hinting that a similarly emergent property could arise from the internet – a ‘singularity’ of global consciousness – he warned that such a manifestation might not be very happy with us and what we’re doing to ourselves and the planet (yikes!). We have been warned…