Why We Won and How We Are Losing
From Start to Finish: Why We Won and How We Are Losing
Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall ends his recent book about the "Masters of the Planet" with such reflection:
[A]part from death, the only ironclad rule of human experience has been the Law of Unintended Consequences. Our brains are extraordinary mechanisms, and they have allowed us to accomplish truly amazing things; but we are still only good at anticipating — or at least of paying attention to — highly immediate consequences. We are notably bad at assessing risk, especially long-term risk. We believe crazy things, such as that human sacrifice will propitiate the gods, or that people are kidnapped by space aliens, or that endless economic expansion is possible in a finite world, or that if we just ignore climate change we won’t have to face its consequences. Or at the very least, we act as if we do (p. 227).
We humans routinely believe crazy things, but are we a crazy species? Does the big brain that allowed us to master the planet have a basic design flaw? Given the depth of the social and ecological crises we face — or, in some cases, refuse to face — should we be worried about whether we can slip out of the traps we have created?
We may not be driving ourselves into extinction, but we are creating conditions that make our future frightening. Our symbolic reasoning capabilities, impressive as they may be, are not yet developed to the point where we can cope with the problems our symbolic reasoning capabilities have created. And, what’s worse, those capabilities seem to make it difficult for us collectively to face reality — call that the delusional revolution, perhaps the scariest revolution of them all. The message transmitted and/or reinforced by the culture’s dominant institutions (government, corporations, media, universities) seems to be: (1) it’s not as bad as some people think, but; (2) even if it is that bad, we’ll invent our way out of the problems, and (3) if we can’t invent our way out we’ll just pretend the problems aren’t really problems. In short: deny, minimize, ignore.