Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 9, No. 11, November 2013
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Evolutionary Psychology of Fukushima

Paul Chefurka

Originally published in Approaching the Limits to Growth, 13 September 2013

"Over the last million or so years, the human brain appears to have
evolved some qualities that are now working against us."

Human civilization is engaged in the project of using materials and energy of all kinds to create ever-increasing amounts of order and structure in the world.  At the same time, in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we are creating ever-increasing amounts of entropic waste.  No problem there, it's what we're supposed to be doing.  We might prefer to stop making waste and just create structure, but unfortunately that's not how the game is played in this particular universe.

There is even one more problem. As Neil Young famously noted, "Rust never sleeps." Anything we build must have more energy and material constantly fed into it for as long as we wish to maintain it. That's the Red Queen's race. It's the place that Tim Garrett of Utah thinks most of the energy we use goes - not to build new stuff, but just to keep the old stuff from falling apart. I'd be willing to bet that a similar proportion of the material we generate goes for the same purpose. So our conceit of "creating structure" comes with an additional hidden ecological price tag, a bill that must be paid in perpetuity.  It's the Gillette principle: buy the razor once, buy new blades forever.

The thermodynamic foundation of this enterprise is tightly connected to human social behavior by way of our evolved psychology.  That linkage completes the coupling of the whole physical/genetic/psychological/behavioral/cultural edifice into a solid, persistent dissipative structure.

Over the last million or so years, the human brain appears to have evolved some qualities that are now working against us.  Here are some of those qualities that are crucial to understanding how climate change and Fukushima (and by inference the rest of the Global Clusterfuck) have happened.

  1. We place far more importance on finding and using energy (food, thermal fuel and electricity) than on what happens to the waste products.
  2. We pay far more attention to concrete, immediate threats than to distant, abstract risks.
  3. We act immediately on threats that affect our daily lives, but spend very little energy addressing complex future risks.
  4. As our primary evolutionary advantage, the human brain functions mainly as a limit-removal mechanism. As a result we pay far more attention to opportunities than to consequences. 

All of those behaviors had their origins in adaptations to problems we faced repeatedly over long periods of time earlier in our species' history. According to evolutionary psychologists, these behaviors became encoded into special-purpose problem solving mental circuitry - i.e. the mechanisms that generate these behaviors are physically encoded in our brains. This physical encoding happens because it's far more efficient and faster to have a piece of special-purpose "hardware" to solve a class of recurrent problems than to arrive at behavioral solutions from fresh algorithmic analysis every time. This worked very well through many tens of thousands of years of slowly-changing history. The difficulty it poses in a fast-changing modern environment is obvious. 

It's very hard to override this solution-generating circuitry using conscious logic. Most people tend go with the generated solution because it works most of the time - and that tendency is itself an evolutionary adaptation. Because most of the time the presented solution will be close enough for horseshoes means that conscious double-checking is generally a waste of time. Even doing the analysis to determine that the "solution" may be wrong is too hard or energy intensive for most people. So we tend not to do it. If it feels right, we usually assume it is right.  Oops...

The examples of nuclear power and fossil fuels make the operation of these mechanisms very clear once you know to look for them: 

  1. We place far more importance on finding and using the energy itself than on what happens to the waste products of CO2 and spent nuclear fuel. 
  2. We pay far more attention to concrete, immediate threats like the loss of jobs or declining standards of living than to distant, abstract risks like climate change or the possibility of a nuclear meltdown.
  3. We act on threats that affect our daily lives. Only once a reactor has melted down or droughts and floods threaten our food supply does society at large pay attention and begin to act.
  4. Our brains function mainly as a limit-removal mechanism. As a result we pay far more attention to opportunities ("We can power civilization the modern way, by splitting atoms!") than to consequences ("Oh, we can deal with the spent fuel later, there's lots of time for that.") 

Humans also tend to assume that our intellect is strong enough that it can control our actions, govern the direction of our development and deal with the risks. Unfortunately, the forces that shape our behavior have a very strong genetic or "hardware" component that is difficult to recognize, let alone overcome through reason. 

Adding to the dilemma is the fact that we have evolved similar special-purpose mechanisms to promote social group cohesion. These mechanisms entrain our personal behavior to conform  with that of people around us, so that the group can present a united front. Objectors, malcontents and whistle-blowers are subjected to enormous social pressure to get back in the fold or risk ostracism. So people who say things like, "Perhaps we shouldn't use every last source of energy we can, and maybe we should apply the Precautionary Principle once in a while," are about as welcome in broader society as skunks at a picnic. They are ignored, derided, harassed, or even sanctioned through job loss or imprisonment. 

I do not think that humans are generally stupid or exceptionally greedy - at least not exactly. We are living with psychological influences that are very old, and are embedded in the physical structure of our brains. The way we have evolved makes it much easier for us to go along with each other and continue expanding the human experiment than to go against social norms and practice restraint.

Does this mean that our behavior is deterministic?  Perhaps not, philosophically speaking.  What it does mean is that our behavior is constrained and shaped by so many physical and biological mechanisms that are outside our awareness and beyond our control, that it might as well be deterministic.  If we assume that human behavior is in fact deterministic, we won't ever go too far wrong.


Paul Chefurka is a Computer Scientist with a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He has spent over twenty years working in Research and Development in the Ottawa telecommunications industry, and is currently Project Manager at Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His personal web site, Approaching the Limits provides open access to his writings and is a valuable resource for study and reflection on many dimensions of the impending ecological crisis.

The Sustainability Dance

Graham H. Pyke
University of Technology Sydney

Originally published in Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, 17 October 2013

"Our future is in our hands, but we shall have to dance together."

I believe, as I am sure many of you do as well, that achieving sustainability for humanity is going to require various mechanisms for getting the sustainability message out to as many people as possible and mobilising them to take appropriate action to promote sustainability. But how are we going to do it, effectively and sustainably?

Getting the sustainability message out to as many people as possible will no doubt depend on the messenger, the nature of the message, and the communication strategy, and not on any one of these factors acting on its own. It will probably always be true that researchers, their academic institutions and their various collectives, will have greater credibility and impact than other sources. In order to mobilise action, the messages will need to be captivating, compelling and memorable, and this will probably necessitate that the messages are expressed simply, concisely, clearly and logically. Patterns of communication within the general community suggest that communication strategies will have to include relatively traditional media such as TV, along with ‘new age’ social media using the Internet, such as Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Of course, there will almost certainly always be those who deny and criticize both these messages and their messengers, and this issue should be confronted head on. Research, including that underpinning sustainability, has always benefitted humanity, a point that needs to be made forcefully and frequently. Those who criticize sustainability research and its practitioners generally have non-research agendas they are promoting and offer no credible alternatives to current wisdom and business as usual. Ideally, they should be forced to ‘put up, or shut up’, but achieving something along these lines will take effort and time. Researchers need to support science in general, and sustainability science in general, and to defend these against unwarranted and unjustified attack.

The process of getting the sustainability message out there from authoritative sources will itself need to be sustainable for it to continue. Academic institutions and research collectives will only be able to “peddle” the sustainability message if this fuels their bottom line, which may be as basic as continued financial viability. Only if attempts to communicate sustainability messages support their positions in academia, will researchers and other academics continue to do this. Academics are people, with their own needs and wants; institutions and collectives have similar goals.

Academic institutions will push and sell sustainability messages so long as this translates into continued, and ideally improved, support from Government and other sources of funding, and increased student interest and enrolment, with its consequent financial benefits. The bottom line for institutions can be expressed in terms of dollars.

This bottom line for academic institutions depends on research productivity and excellence, and on the levels of student demand. These days, assessments of Universities and the like depend on research productivity, as has always been assessed by measures such as numbers of academic publications and levels of financial support obtained competitively, and is now increasingly evaluated through measures of research excellence such as numbers of citations and peer review. At the same time student evaluation of Universities increasingly depends in turn on such assessments of Universities as, for example, in various worldwide rankings that have arisen. In short, research productivity and excellence drives University assessments and rankings, which drives support and student enrollments.

The bottom line for academics similarly depends on research productivity and excellence, with lip service to other broader goals. The mantra for researchers has always been ‘publish or perish’; now getting lots of citations is also important. Universities and the like generally include contribution by their academics to ‘The University’ or ‘The general community’ as stated desirable activities, but these things are obviously difficult to assess and, when ‘push comes to shove’, generally receive scant consideration. There would seem to be little, if any, incentive for academics to pursue anything other than the standard and time-honoured measures of academic performance.

Promoting sustainability for humanity is therefore something that our present academic world does not really encourage. Such promotion of sustainability does not, unfortunately, equate to research productivity and excellence. In fact, time spent promoting such sustainability may be time taken away from further production of well-cited research publications. Why then should an academic, especially one at a relatively early career stage, spend time promoting sustainability? The general answer is … they shouldn’t (unless they are truly exceptional, and can meet the usual academic standards as well).

The resolution of all of these issues will require what I call the “Sustainability Dance”, whereby we all work together to pursue and promote sustainability. Government will only take action if ‘mandated’ by the electorate. Companies will only take action if required by consensus amongst shareholders. Universities will only develop courses re sustainability if demanded by students. How well people are informed about sustainability issues will depend on the various media by which we all communicate, and how we use these media. And so on! Only if we all dance together, academics, members of the community, politicians, the media, and others, can we achieve such things. This would be the “Sustainability Dance”.

I therefore urge you all to join with me in the “Sustainability Dance”. As an academic, I can and will promote getting the sustainability message out to the intelligent, but under-informed and mis-informed, general community. I shall be doing this in partnership with Paul Ehrlich and others. As members of the general community, you have control over who you vote for and, if shareholders, what your investment companies do. You may also be able to demand changes in educational and other institutions, and endeavour to obtain information from authoritative sources. If you are students, or potential students, you can choose amongst competing Universities and courses. And all can work through organizations, like ours (i.e., Sustainability Central; Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere), to help bring society to the realization that sustainability must be not just its top priority, but its preoccupation. For sustainability to be achieved, all these things will be required, and they will need to be simultaneous and integrated. Surely, this is possible.

Our future is in our hands, but we shall have to dance together.


Graham Pyke is Distinguished Professor, School of the Environment, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia. His main research focus is to "understand ecological, behavioural and evolutionary processes, and thereby inform environmental appreciation and stewardship." Together with Professor Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University) he is founder of Sustainability Central which seeks to provides a place to share ideas and develop future champions in Sustainability. The focus of SC is to achieve cross-disciplinary sustainability across the four pillars: Health; Economic; Environmental; and Social. For more information about Professor Pyke, visit his UTS website.

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