The Sustainability Misjudgements We're Programmed to Make – Part 1

I am constantly inspired and enthralled by the ingenuity, compassion and creativity of the people around me. For upright, naked apes we’ve come an awfully long way. Our collective model of the universe (our knowledge) spans orders of magnitude and scales which our minds can only barely imagine, let alone experience. Our technology is profoundly astonishing: it enhances our capabilities as a species far beyond our original abilities in almost every aspect of our lives.

And yet we seem determined to throw all this away. The vast majority of us aren’t trying to poison ourselves, irreparably degrading our environment, consume the resources vital to our civilisation or generally jeopardise the survival of our species, and yet the net effect of our lifestyles, choices and actions leads directly to these outcomes. We’re neither evil, nor stupid, so why is it that we seem incapable of addressing humanity’s most important challenge: Sustainability? Wikipedia is pretty unambiguous on the meaning of sustainability:

Sustainability is the capacity to endure

Are we reducing our capacity to endure? That’s something I want to blog about separately: It’s quite a big topic in its own right. For now, I’m going to hypothesise that we are, simply to explore some of the behaviours that I think are generally undesirable, whatever the ultimate outcome. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I guess it was this post: “Top 10 Common Faults In Human Thought” that finally prompted me to try and crystallise some of my thinking.

Judge Dredd
Judge Dredd, courtesy of Flickr user Psycho_Al -

I guess a little background wouldn’t hurt. I believe that humans are born with a brain that has been shaped by evolution to serve specific purposes and tackle specific challenges. The human brain is not a blank slate, its development completely dependent on what we expose it to. If you want to read up, I again recommend Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate“. The brain’s very success in carrying our species to this point leave it susceptible to mistakes in perception (optical illusions), logic (which we’ll look at here) and memory (nostalgia!).

I’ll follow the order in the original article and then add some others at the end. It’s a long list, so I’ll stretch this over a few posts.

10. Gambler’s Fallacy

The Gambler’s fallacy is the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality, they are not.

Perhaps our greatest gamble is our reliance on technology. Thomas Malthus predicted as long ago as the 18th century that unhindered population growth would be “checked by disease, famine and widespread mortality”. Up until now, technology (particularly the Haber process for creating artificial fertiliser) have kept humanity’s food supplies in sufficient quantity (even if we don’t choose to distribute it evenly). Medical technologies and practices have defended us against smallpox, tuberculosis and a host of human zoonoses, diseases and epidemics. We’re gambling that using up our fossil fuel reserves now will allow us to develop replacement technologies in time to transition seamlessly and securely. Technology has always served us well up until now, so the chances are that it’ll serve us well in the future too, right?

9. Reactivity

Reactivity is the tendency of people to act or appear differently when they know that they are being observed.

I don’t think that this fault is necessarily the most important in terms of sustainability, but I’m sure we’ve all at some point caught ourselves being a little greener than usual in order to escape criticism from someone we think is greener than us. One example stays with me from my young and foolish university days. I dropped some litter (something my parents would have given me a scolding for) and a friend reprimanded me, embarrassing me to the point that I haven’t knowingly littered since. So what harm is reactivity? Maybe just that it’s hard for us to be honest with each other about some of our worst habits and behaviours.

8. Pareidolia

Pareidolia is when random images or sounds are perceived as significant.

It’s snowing – so global warming has to be a hoax? Maybe the most important insight into our psychology that this phenomenon offers us is in fact recognising that our brains are not faultless computing machines: they’re pattern-matching algorithms designed to interpret and predict our environment. We need to stay mindful of the need for rigour and method in our decision-making. This works both ways: we’re equally as likely to see false positives as false negatives.

7. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecy is engaging in behaviors that obtain results that confirm existing attitudes.

As the source article says:

Economic Recessions are self-fulfilling prophecies. Because a recession is 2 quarters of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline, you cannot know you are in a recession until you are at least 6 months into one. Unfortunately, at the first sign of decreasing GDP, the media reports a possible recession, people panic and start a chain of events that actually cause a recession.

Will the same be true for an environmental recession? Will the first signs of resource scarcity cause resource grabs or wars which exacerbate the situation and lead to real resource shortages? Do films like The Road and Children of Men give life to fears that our civilisation will inevitably end in a decline into chaos and desperation? Are there expressions of hope and a positive future that are as compelling?

This short YouTube video is worth a watch. It’s palindromic in that the phrases can be read in reverse order and the result would be the same. It’s a fantastic little illustration of how closely hope and fear are related, and the importance of perception:

6. Halo Effect

The Halo effect is the tendency for an individual’s positive or negative trait to “spill over” to other areas of their personality in others’ perceptions of them.

The Halo Effect is perhaps most harmful at a corporate level. “Surely this company which makes such good _____ and has a glossy web page explaining its commitment to sustainability must be a safe bet. I like their products so much that I simply can’t believe that they’d be engaged in harmful and unsustainable activities.”

I’m not saying that all companies are bad: I’m just saying that just because a company is carbon-neutral and recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s not flying fresh fruit from all over the world, lobbying government for policies that have favourable loopholes or are investing their profits indirectly in arms manufacture.

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments. The second post in the series is in progress, more to follow soon…

*Update: The second post on this topic is here.*