Is Your Brain Green?
Posted by dlende on April 18, 2009
Why Isn’t the Brain Green? asks Jon Gertner in the feature article of the “Green Issue” in this week’s New York Times Magazine. The issue is worth a visit alone for the striking photos, where the Momix Dance Troupe form vivid images of the head and the brain. But Green Lantern is going to come in handy.
So who wants to know why the brain isn’t green? CRED – Center for Research on Environmental Decisions – where they use behavioral research and decision science to understand “the green mind” (or lack thereof). As seems de rigeur today, any topic where we don’t act on the information available and seem to make irrational decisions is the target of this new decision science.
CRED has the primary objective of studying how perceptions of risk and uncertainty shape our responses to climate change and other weather phenomena like hurricanes and droughts. The goal… is to finance laboratory and field experiments in North America, South America, Europe and Africa and then place the findings within an environmental context.
So what are the problems? We’re bad at long-term decision making; we see environmental problems as far away from our everyday lives; we seem to have a “finite pool of worry” and make an occasional decision to help the environment while continuing on with our overall lifestyle.
Beyong covering the decision science, Gertner’s basic point is that we need to expand our notion of the usual culprits for why we aren’t more effective at addressing environmental problems – “the doubt-sowing remarks of climate-change skeptics, the poor communications skills of good scientists, the political system’s inability to address long-term challenges without a thunderous precipitating event, the tendency of science journalism to focus more on what is unknown (will oceans rise by two feet or by five?) than what is known and is durably frightening (the oceans are rising).” He came away from his interactions with CRED wondering “if we are just built to fail.”
The article goes give an interesting discussion of decision science – uncertainty, time, potential gains, potential losses, group effects – in relation to environmental topics. And Weber makes a great point that the vast majority of research dollars is going into the physical and technological sciences as we try to address problems like climate change. That is unbalanced itself, revealing our technological and money-oriented ideology in the first place.
And that brings me to my point. Asking is your brain green? kinda misses the point. It is like saying that because we make some irrational decisions from time to time, we don’t have a “capitalist brain.” Well, we obviously have an imminently capitalist brain (even a globalized brain?) and have created an entire capitalist system. But we also have an emotional brain, and can make hateful and wasteful decisions, and we certainly have a brain attuned to power, so the people with most control over capital can often make terribly damaging decisions for their own benefit.
As Elke Weber, one of the directors of CRED, says early in the article: “Let’s start with the fact that climate change is anthropogenic. More or less, people have agreed on that. That means it’s caused by human behavior. That’s not to say that engineering solutions aren’t important. But if it’s caused by human behavior, then the solution probably also lies in changing human behavior.”
And that’s the rub. I think we have a brain that is perfectly suitable to being green. But the system? Not so much… And I’d look at capitalism and its use of resources as well as our long cultural history of placing ourselves as above, outside and better than nature. That’s a powerful explanation –a production system and an ideology that then shape behavior.
Jon Gertner focuses on immediate policy, the sort of nudges and small-ball policy favored by people like Richard Thaler. And that might help with creating some different sort of connections in our Braintrust. But will it get us past security? Will it give us a hero to go in there and do something?
In other words, CRED’s theory is largely built from questions asked in the lab. CRED’s results from people in real-life situations paint a broader picture. One study of urban versus rural Alaskans’ views of climate change showed that “Among other things, the results suggested that experience of climate change is a relative thing: something happening to another part of your state, or to a different cultural group, doesn’t necessarily warrant a change in your own response. It likewise hinted at the complexity of instilling feelings of climate-related urgency in Americans.”
Certainly there a wonderful group of naturalists and environmentalists who have helped push the environment to the forefront of our collective conscious, even if we don’t always act on it. And certainly part of the reason we DON’T see it as a problem lies in the decision sciences. But that doesn’t explain why these naturalists and environmentalists do. The answer is simple – their values, coupled with personal experience, turn a relative thing into something that was wrong. Thus, the complexity of the issue – and most issues are – became simple in human terms. Something must be done.