Monday, August 1, 2011

The tragedy of Dominic Johnson

My friend and colleague Dominic Johnson just wrote a nice essay on how psychological biases may be one of the real impediments to soloving our climate problems.  I'm reproducing it below...


The Tragedy of Cognition

July 11th, 2011
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, several reports have been published that investigated the causes of the disaster, who was to blame, and the legal obligations for compensation. Beyond these important issues, however, is a perhaps more striking fact: many of the numerous deficiencies and risks were long known and yet nothing was done to deal with them. It took a disaster of this scale to trigger a systematic rethink of priorities, rules, and regulations about offshore drilling.

President Barack Obama declared in June 2010: “In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.” It is remarkable that (just as in the case of counter-terrorism in 2001) such a disaster was necessary to stimulate such a clearly needed overhaul of planning, management, and regulation.

A psychological perspective lends insight here, because it turns out that there are good reasons to expect that humans do not, or cannot, make radical revisions to our ways of working until dramatic events or disasters shake us out of a range of biases and traps that preserve the status quo. In our recent article in Current Science, entitled “The tragedy of cognition: psychological biases and environmental inaction“, Simon Levin and I explore this problem and its implications for society’s ability to recognize, let alone act to mitigate, the impending problems of climate change, environmental destruction, and dwindling energy resources.

In an ideal world, people would tackle major crises such as global climate change as rational actors, weighing the costs, benefits and probabilities of success of alternative policies accurately and impartially. Unfortunately, human brains are far from accurate and impartial. Mounting research in experimental psychology reveals that we are all subject to systematic biases in judgement and decision-making. While such biases may have been adaptive heuristics that promoted survival and reproduction in the Pleistocene environment of our evolutionary past, in today’s world of technological sophistication, industrial power and mass societies, psychological biases can lead to disasters on an unprecedented scale. Beyond the exploding ecological and socio-economic research on climate change and how to deal with the ‘tragedy of the commons’, it is a better understanding of human psychology – ‘the tragedy of cognition’ – that may ultimately tip the balance against the seeds of our own destruction.

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