Environment

Paradise Lost: How the Climate Catastrophe May Be Tied to a Fatal Flaw in Human Evolution

Evolved intelligence underpinned progress, but that progress revealed a defect in human psychology.

Photo Credit: iurii/Shutterstock.com

Humankind is facing existential environmental problems: the climate is changing and, indeed, change has become the new norm. Global temperatures are increasing, the Arctic is melting and oceans are rising. Reports of catastrophic weather events are now a regular part of the news cycle. Paradise, if not yet lost, is severely under the weather. So why are we failing to set things right? Could it be that our problems are an intrinsic consequence of the evolutionary process itself? Could evolution have an Achilles’ heel and, if so, can it be mended? 

Life has been evolving on Earth for billions of years, stretching from the first primitive cell in an unbroken thread to each and every one of us. Evolution can only tinker with whatever is available at the time, so we are the result of the millions of tiny upgrades that natural selection judged to be a good idea at the time. 

Intelligence was a defining adaptation in our evolution, but it was largely shaped by selection in the ancestral environment. Most of our evolution occurred before or during the Stone Age, and for 99 per cent of our prehistory we were hunters and gatherers. Evolved intelligence certainly underpinned progress, but progress had a fatal flaw when human psychology still carried the indelible imprint of a Stone Age past.

Cognitive shortcomings

Our capacity for foresight is limited; we tend to ignore evidence that conflicts with our view of a just world; and we assign individuals to 1 of 2 groups, ‘them’ and ‘us.’ We lack the ability to accurately gauge probability and risk, and we struggle to grasp large numbers and exponential growth. When we make decisions we draw firstly upon instinct and cultural norms, only calling upon reasoning to justify our initial response or for analytical tasks.

Our brains encourage us to compete for status, reproduce with no thought for the long-term future, and over-consume resources, come what may. This behaviour is further reinforced by social and religious norms, and the pervasive influence of memes — ideas with the power to persist and be passed on. 

Could it be that an intellect forged alongside our other inherited dispositions, over countless aeons, has bequeathed us a poisoned chalice, and indeed, could this be the inevitable outcome of evolution whenever and wherever it occurs? For here we are, the ‘paragon of animals’, rapidly degrading our only home, teetering on the edge of a precipice, whilst gazing into space and wondering about other civilizations. 

Climate change and sustainability challenge our instinctive beliefs and values, and threaten our world-view of a continuing status quo. We are the victims of shortcomings in our cognition and innate behaviour, a simple consequence of evolution’s Achilles heel – its inability to anticipate the future. As the only animal that can contemplate its origins and imagine its future we owe it to ourselves, to future generations and to the natural world to consciously seek ways of dealing with the global problems we face. Understanding the implications of living in a finite world requires intellectual reasoning, and solutions need new strategies. 

Climate change requires global solutions, but most solutions conflict with perceived self-interest. They are therefore a particular challenge to our evolved altruism, which is circumscribed by benefits to kin or expectations of reciprocal reward and an obsession with fairness. Global problems are therefore not readily addressed by the old paradigm where each country only looks after its own affairs. The strategies available to different countries for dealing with such problems depend upon their model of government. In a dictatorship, monarchy or a country led by a single-party government, action depends upon the beliefs and resolve of the leader or leadership group. We in the Western world value the institution of democracy, but it does present particular problems.

Overcoming political challenges

Modern democracies have been a successful model for government during the 20th century, providing stability and development. Representative democracy was the political system that most successfully exploited capitalism for the generation of wealth, but in recent years it has been compromised by the power of corporations through lobbying and donations, and has proved to be an unsatisfactory vehicle for generating equity and for responsiveness to long-term problems.

We are all subject to the Prisoner’s Dilemma: it may be in our best interest to take action on an issue like climate change, but it’s not in any individual country’s economic interests to act first. Even within a country, individual citizens face the same dilemma and want to see the burden shared equitably. Currently we rely on leaders to take a strong position but, in democracies, leaders compete for re-election every few years. Creating responsible policy is therefore difficult, as opposing parties tend to appeal to the instinctive self-interest of the electorate.

The first hurdle for political contenders in a democracy is to be elected. Only too aware of human nature, parties pander to the hip-pocket nerve, and put domestic and national interests above global interests. Short 3- or 4-year terms discourage planning for the long-term future, and democracy’s adversarial structure discourages consensus, rendering politics in countries like the U.S. and Australia almost unworkable in the 21st century. 

A way forward that would encourage rational decision-making and the generation of consensus for long-term issues would be to set up a multi-party committee within government, advised by non-government experts, or alternatively, an external independent body of experts. Such an independent statutory body might be seen as analogous to the Federal Reserve in the US or the Reserve Bank of Australia. In this instance, it might reasonably include scientists, economists, political scientists and social psychologists, and be charged with the task of recommending long-term policy. Government would need sound reasons for rejecting such advice. One might hope for an outcome similar to the Climate Change Act in Britain, which was enacted in 2008, and has targets out to 2050.

In Britain, the Committee on Climate Change became responsible for ongoing advice on progress toward these targets. The National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee in the US and the Climate Change Authority in Australia have responsibility for providing reviews and advice, but lack the power to create policy. 

The creation of a multi-party committee or independent body responsible for policy on climate change could be achieved by election of a party whose platform promotes such a plan, or perhaps by referendum. Either strategy might achieve significant support since most people want the government to tackle climate change but nobody wishes to be treated unfairly. Perhaps some element of participatory democracy such as citizens’ assemblies would not only increase feelings of adequate representation but help make effective policy decisions.

Tackling climate change

But is it possible for such a committee to find policies that might deliver rational solutions? Indeed, there are many ideas worthy of consideration. Such a multi-party committee could consider the merits of an emissions trading scheme, a carbon tax, natural capital accounting and ‘cradle-to-grave’ pricing — together with clever strategies like compensation or tax breaks to guide behaviour while still providing choice. This was the winning formula used by the Multiparty Committee in Australia in Julia Gillard’s government, where the Carbon Tax satisfied our desire for fairness by including incentives and disincentives. This encouraged behavioural change amongst the major polluting industries and the public, but was coupled with compensation for most citizens and some industries. 

Another possible strategy that would satisfy the self-interest test might be free home audits with subsidies to correct identified deficits, so that people benefit from savings, alongside cuts in emissions. Extra tax revenue to fund such policies, to expand green research and infrastructure, and to secure our future could come in part from resource and company profits. In Norway the Resource Super Profits Tax sits at 78% for oil, with the income going toward the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. 

Revenue could also come from increased personal taxation of extremely high salaries, the introduction of death duties on wealthy estates, and an end to negative gearing. The phenomenon of richly compensating CEOs and financiers emerged in the 1980s as a means of attracting the best candidates, but has escalated beyond the bounds of reason. Such excessive remuneration now distorts career choice and has created dynasties and enormous inequity, where a small percentage of the population holds a disproportionate amount of the wealth. This has devalued the contribution to society of other workers, including professionals in other industries, such as education, medicine, engineering, science and politics and indeed, the tradespeople and blue-collar workers who are indispensible to a functional society.

Encouraging change

Excellence in leadership and professional performance could still attract a modest bonus or be rewarded by Honours and Awards. Philanthropy and service to the community could similarly earn status. Benefit Corporations, which accept their primary responsibility to society and the environment rather than maximizing profit for owners or shareholders, could be encouraged. Co-operatives in which skill, time or goods are traded directly could continue to grow in importance. Indeed, in a finite world, governments need to move away from the use of GDP as a national indicator, and toward indicators that value national and ecological wellbeing. 

Governments might also consider reduced working hours as an optional alternative to increased salaries as a way to moderate consumption, ease unemployment, reduce inequity and increase leisure time. Happiness does not increase above a modest income, but is a product of the quality of our relationships, the opportunity to pursue our interests and our engagement with community. 

Movement toward a system where sustainability and defeating climate change are high priorities will require public education, with an important role for the media, particularly television. Advertising should be used to encourage activities that add meaning to people’s lives through responsible travel, education, hobbies and the purchase of quality goods, rather than the promotion of consumption and inbuilt obsolescence. Education within schools should include critical thinking, climate science, ecology and psychology, and should nurture a view of self that encourages compassion, so that future citizens and leaders can make informed, equitable decisions.

If most countries adopted similar policies then international action would become easier. Trust between countries could also be engendered by incremental reciprocal agreements, using reciprocal altruism to satisfy our desire for fairness. Indeed, if the proxy for relatedness that drives kin-based altruism is perceived proximity, our shrinking world might go some way to promoting altruism toward our fellow humans, offering some hope for the future. 

Governments must recognize that they carry responsibility toward those beyond their borders, as well as toward citizens of future generations. Developing nations will be the most vulnerable with respect to rising sea levels and changing climate, even though many of them have contributed little to the problem. These countries must still be supported in their quest for basic human rights such as sanitation, healthcare, adequate food and water, and access to ‘green’ electricity. Solutions to these problems will, in turn, assist in the demographic transition, helping the world move toward stable population, and reducing conflict.

We need leaders who are both aspirational and inspirational, and who recognize that the changes we need go far beyond setting emissions targets. If we are to survive as a successful civilization on Earth we must pool our intellectual resources to bring about fundamental changes in democracy and the economic system. Our genetic and cultural inheritance is a liability. We may be half-baked, but let’s hope that our goose is not cooked.

Helen Camakaris is a microbiologist and visiting scholar at the School of Biosciences at the University of Melbourne. She is currently studying and writing in interdisciplinary areas that relate to sustainability, climate change, evolution and psychology.

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