I must confess that I usually do not tend to have any theme in mind before I start writing my articles. Mostly I place my dog on his cushion beside my desk, sit down, crack my knuckles, and then write about whatever is on my mind at the time. And every few minutes, I bend down and pat my dog.
A movie, but for real
In earlier articles over the years, we had explored the impact of food production on the environment, ranging from climate change via greenhouse gases (GHG) to pollution via chemicals and plastics used in food production and distribution.
It would be tempting and comforting to think that the damage to our planet caused by food production and other human activities is somehow reversible, and we are at an early stage in some environmental catastrophe movie where some science geek hero will eventually come along and saves the planet.
But we are not watching a movie, and the planet-wide impact of our past destructive habits is simply too great for some fancy imaginary hero to mitigate. Whatever people might think, our planet is not at an “early stage” on the slippery path to almost certain environmental disaster.
The problem is that there is no single solution. For example, even if we somehow devise a scheme for resolving plastic pollution in the seas, this will not solve the issue with GHG, nor fix the proliferation of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in our food, nor the contamination of our soils. It would not remedy the accelerating rate of biodiversity loss on our planet and would have little impact on the pathogens likely to cause future pandemics.
If there is a Bond movie villain out to destroy our planet, then it would be reasonable for the villain to gloat that his work is now around 45% complete and that it is too late for Bond to stop him.
I am sure many people reading this would agree that there are very significant problems affecting our planet, our food supply, and the future environment which we will leave to our children. The question is: why is there so little momentum by most humans to do something about it? This is something that has been puzzling me for some time, and which I will explore today, with a little help from my dog.
There have been severe floods in France and parts of Europe every year for the last few years, and one thing I recently saw on TV really surprised me. Several families had their village houses flooded some years ago and were again flooded this year. They were sadly bemoaning the renewed damage to their houses which they had repaired and renovated after the last flood.
This was so bizarre because it was blatantly obvious their houses on the bank of a river would clearly be affected by floods again.
Then I recognised that it was a form of denial of reality, and some flood victims just do not want to think about the next flood, even if it is certain to happen. So, they gamble by rebuilding and staying in the same houses, because gambling requires a sense of optimism, positivity, and hope, especially if the gamble was taken as a group supporting each other’s denialism.
Collectively, many people may also be taking such gambles because it is easier to be optimistic and hopeful that bad things will not happen rather than confronting huge, difficult, harsh issues related to climate change, for example. It is also part of the human coping mechanism when confronted with sizable challenges which cannot be tackled as simple tasks.
We are right, regardless
People are subject to biases, and even big, complex issues often tend to be resolved in the mind by applying previous biases. It is part of System 1 and System 2 thinking, as explained earlier in my previous article, ‘What we think of when we think of food’.
Regarding big issues which are beyond most people’s in-depth understanding, people often apply System 1 thinking first and rationalise it later. This is where confirmation bias may apply.
If someone denies climate change is happening, then severe weather is something that is just “part of a normal weather system” whereas someone more rational may view persistent inclement weather as an indication of a significant change in weather patterns. Either way, in their minds, both are right.
Sadly, it appears that social engineers control a big part of our perception of large-scale problems. For example, vested interests often pay social media firms to influence the thinking of large sections of the population. There may be campaigns based on deriding nutritional experts as “animal lovers” and “meat haters” in selected social groups.
For example, convincing parents that beef is somehow better for health than vegetarian food for their children will reinforce the same lie with other parents. Because it would become a core belief with their peers, these people will rarely understand that (a) beef is not necessary at all, (b) other foods can be more nutritious, and (c) beef is remarkably bad for the environment. These people may even look down on vegans and vegetarians as being somewhat unhinged.
We don’t want trouble
People strongly prefer to follow the behaviours of their friends and peers. This is a strong instinct which is part of the core psychology of humans. Therefore, even if people applied System 2 thinking and realise the errors of their peers, the social cost of not conforming to friends and peers may be so great that people would still prefer to keep silent than risk becoming ostracised.
Additionally, self-preservation also applies in situations where bullies attack experts. Many climate scientists are still seriously vilified even today, and some have had to fortify their homes and buy guns for protection after receiving death threats from neo-Nazis against climate change. Few people will stand up and openly defend such scientists for fear of attracting the same bullies.
Someone else is the enemy
Both advocates and deniers of climate change often need some enemy to fight against, and sometimes they are even the same enemy. For example, “corporate interests” may profit from promoting or denying climate change, and government are either scaring people with climate change or ignoring the problem.
Whatever it is, there are various broad “enemies” who are either harming people by exploiting their fears or not doing enough to make the planet safer.
While these often-vacuous silly arguments rage around them, many people are confused and would prefer to sit it out for the moment.
In the end, it should be acknowledged that humans are simply too poorly evolved to deal with huge, slow disasters. This is because the natural responses of humans when seriously challenged is either flight or fight. Both responses rely on rapid bursts of hormones to activate various muscles and fire up neurons in the brain to evaluate dangers and escape/fight options.
Hence, even if the System 2 brain can understand the seriousness of the environmental situation, there is not enough of an immediate danger which would spur the rest of the human body and mind to react urgently to such a slow-moving series of disasters.
As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winner for his work on the psychology of decision making, said, “I am extremely skeptical that we can cope with climate change. To motivate people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract, and disputed thread just does not have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion.”
Despite the widely quoted Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2050, a more realistic projection suggests than the planet will likely overshoot this target and warm by up to 4 degrees by 2070.
Although widespread droughts and coastal flooding are predicted at such temperatures, one extremely dangerous impact on human populations would be wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C or more. A wet-bulb thermometer has a water-soaked cloth covering the bulb, and at 100% humidity, the wet-bulb temperature is the same as the air temperature.
Human bodies have a sophisticated cooling system based on skin sweat glands, which maintains the external body temperature at an average of 35°C via evaporation. The skin temperature is lower than the inner body temperature of around 36.8°C and the differential causes a heat gradient; the net effect therefore is the movement of heat outwards from the core.
However, if the wet-bulb temperature hits 35°C or more, this transfer of heat out from the core will stop as there will be no evaporation from the skin to maintain the heat gradient. The result is death for humans and most warm-blooded animals in the vicinity.
There are two things to note: (1) in reality, wet-bulb temperatures of 28°C or more may already affect humans very badly, especially older/weaker people or people with various morbidities; and (2) wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C on Earth were not expected until around 2075, but they have already been observed in coastal regions in South Asia, the Middle East, and North America last year and during the heatwaves earlier this year. Fortunately, these dangerous wet-bulb temperatures mostly lasted only a few hours.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.