Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Is this how we got into this fix?

with 4 comments

By “this fix,” I’m referring to the current cultural values and structures of the world: we’re clearly careering toward climate catastrophe, just for starters, never mind Peak Oil (may be self-correcting over the very long term, but rather hard on humanity and its coevals). At any rate, the issue came up in the comments threaded to this post, and I wrote there:

Where it started down the road to unsustainability—a one-way street once you enter it, given how one thing leads to another—may have been the invention of agriculture and the resulting class system, or the invention of money, or whatever: cultural evolution has steered us off the cliff, a path we apparently have freely chosen.And how can people so regularly make short-term choices with obvious disastrous long-term consequences? The reason, I think, is that people self-circumscribe their thinking to consider only the short term. And the reason for this is that, once people look at the long term and think of how (ideally) they would like to see it—what losses to curb, what innovations to encourage, and the like—they must inevitably face the fact that this “ideal” future is lacking in one important aspect: they won’t be there for they must one day die.

The evolved survival instinct is both strong and basic: there’s no escaping that instinct, and the pressure to live inevitably must produce a resistance to death-related issues, up to and including death itself: absolutely certain, terrible to contemplate.

So, utilizing a psychological mechanism well-described in Daniel Goleman’s excellent Vital Lies, Simple Truths, the result is a huge blind spot on one’s own death, and that blind spot makes it hard to view the future… so people look only at the short-term, to the extent possible. We have great difficulty, at the genetic level, to consider the future in any detail: we focus on the short term to resolve that problem.

And, of course, short-term thinking is also evolutionarily reinforced: those animals that best take care of short-term needs (like getting enough to eat, avoiding danger, and getting laid) pass along that focus on the short term.

So, stymied both ways (forced to be strong on short term, and forced as well to avoid looking at long term), we (as a species) are rapidly blundering our way—ever more efficiently—to our own deaths.

Steve explained why and the discussion continues. Interesting, at least to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2011 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Daily life

4 Responses

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  1. I would add that the dominance of a short term view over a long term view is reinforced by Capitalism which does not incorporate the real cost of our short term actions. For example, if there was a real cost of polluting the planet factored into economic decisions, then optimal short term and long term decisions would emerge. In my view the Government should create an economic system in which all of the costs are made explicit so decision makers in the private sector had all of the facts before they selected short term courses of action.

    Professor Weatherwick

    29 March 2011 at 1:56 pm

  2. That’s the point I’m making: in my terms, Capitalism is structured to ignore long-term costs because of the long-term-avoidant reflex: they don’t think about it, the government won’t think about it (mostly) or do anything about it (ever). We cannot take the long term into account: seldom individually, never as a group (everything from school boards to corporations to states to nations to the species: at every level one can find plenteous examples of decisions that will clearly and obviously result in long-term disaster made in favor of short-term gain).


    29 March 2011 at 2:50 pm

  3. You go me thinking more about the topic. In essence religions have been a driving force in getting people to subvert the Ego and think beyond their own life span. By creating the concept of a God and Afterlife, religion creates a sense of future that transcends one’s mortal life. Even altruism can then be contextualized into Ego beneficial terms such as “What kind of legacy will I leave behind?”, “How will I be remembered?”, etc., as if that legacy or memory has significance for the individual because he will still somehow be aware of it in the afterlife.

    So in reality, religions despite all the harm they have caused, may well have been the most powerful force for creating a long-term view of one’s life beyond death itself. It is perhaps ironic that the decline of religion as a social force coincides with a rampant secularism that treats the earth like a consumable.

    Just a thought.


    29 March 2011 at 3:32 pm

  4. These all seem to be peripheral arguments relating to THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS. The problem obviously predates capitalism and modern religion. As to God and the afterlife, neither seems necessary to create a sense of future that transcends ones mortal life.

    WIKOPEDIA [sp?] ominously contains this quote, ” Once the stage is set in a climactic tragedy, there is no escape from the unhappy ending.” The tragedy is rooted in the fact that men are more motivated by emotion than by reason. The necessary amount of coercion to adequately change behavior is unthinkable.

    Bob Slaughter

    29 March 2011 at 7:02 pm

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