Is Your Brain Green?

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.

4 thoughts on “Is Your Brain Green?

  1. what utter nonesense. I mean, really, a new low. Ok, here’s the stunningly brilliant counter example: “Careful, the stove is HOT!” — will you touch the stove? No, you won’t. Not unless my tone is sarcastic or otherwise giving mixed messages. The stove is hot, my alarm is the good information and everyone except the stray few idiots will modify their walking pattern to veer slightly safe of the stove.

    The trouble with the Green fad is just that: it is fueled by fad, its pronouncements most strong from vested interests, it reeks of hidden agendas and mixed messages. Earth is warming and it is caused by my using plastic grocery bags? Even if I don’t know how the plastic grocery bag was vilified by a misprint in an obscure Canadian study, it still causes the BS meter to kick up a notch. Right, and during WWII they wanted us to hand over our metals ‘for the war’ only to be secretly scrapheaped because consumer metal makes poor weaponry!

    It is said in psychology that one choice is psychosis and two choices is neurosis … or salesmanship. I think a more interesting question is not why we make politically incorrect decisions despite earnest peer pressure to do otherwise, but rather why should we bend to peer pressured decisions as readily as we so often do, when we endorse wars, or bad science.

  2. Mr. G, by a new low, I assume you are speaking about the post, rather than the NY Times Magazine, since they recently published a feature on Freeman Dyson, calling him the global warming heretic.

    Let’s take your stove counter-example, and ask a simple question, why do little kids tend to touch hot stoves? Even when parents tell them it’s hot, they can be intrigued by the pretty color of blue gas or red coil, and they don’t have the personal experience of burning pain to know to keep their distance. With global warming we don’t really have a personal experience of a burning hot stove.

    I tried to write the piece by speaking about the environment in general, and not global warming per se. And with the environment in general, it is absolutely clear that human behavior creates enormous problems. Take industrial production in China, which drives extraordinarily bad air quality. Only an immediate and public event – the Olympics – forced the government to systematically address that problem. Olympics over, and now with a global economic crisis, industrial production is again the main concern.

    Or habitat and species loss, where I do have personal experience. Most species loss is among types of animals that humans don’t really care much about – say, insects. We need something warm and fuzzy to identify with, for example, World Wildlife Fund’s cute panda. But identifying with pandas doesn’t help us address industrial pollution or save insects. It is good for fund raising, however.

    In Nigeria urban people favored “bush meat,” and didn’t really care that their demand fueled a whole class of professional hunters who were systematically devasting local wildlife. People in villages in local forests understood this, and their own hunting of bush meat wasn’t really the problem. It was the outside hunters who came in with one purpose, to harvest as much meat as possible and move onto the next patch of forest.

    Those are a couple examples of systematic problems, and why behavioral science isn’t necessarily the answer to those. My use of a Hero metaphor is also problematic, since that might not address systematic change either. But that this problem is complex, both a collective neurosis and a systematic phenomenon and thus not reducible to asking if our brains are green, in that we are in agreement.

  3. I think the problem is with the confined environment of our awareness.

    My current fieldwork in Bahia, and my previous fieldwork in Indonesia, has made me realise how much Economics empowers our awareness; how money allows us to care about things that go on in our life and empowers us to care about things; How our interdependent relationship with the economic behaviour of those around us influences how we care/value about the objects, people and events in our lives.

    I think that you are completely correct, Daniel, in suggesting that it is possible for us to have green brains and in suggesting our concerns are not with the green-potential of an individual brain but with the system of brains.

    Our capitalist system may have led to the current global concerns, but attacking the capitalist system may not be the entire solution. The negative behaviours of the capitalist mind-set feed-off into societies not privileged to be empowered by capitalism, but privileged in different directions by different cultural ideals. Unfortunately, pollution in these societies is not something the people are empowered to care about. Capitalism breeds the desire to sell consumer products to any buyer, but it doesn´t encourage the sale of a respect for nature. Respect for nature does not make a profit.

    Criticizing capitalist behaviour requires a long-term action plan that takes into account the effects it has had on those societies economically subscribing but not economically empowered by capitalist behaviour.

    hmmm… it seems that I will have to put these thoughts into words that are more clear at an hour more conducive for thinking.

    Nice post! Lots of words for thought! I want to learn more about these decision sciences!

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