The last reason that I shall mention for irrational failure to try to solve a perceived problem is psychological denial. This is a technical term with a precisely defined meaning in individual psychology, and it has been taken over into the pop culture. If something that you perceive arouses an unbearably painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and sadness. Typical examples include refusing to think about the likelihood that your husband, wife, child, or best friend may be dying, because the thought is so painfully sad, or else blocking out a terrifying experience. For example, consider a narrow deep river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a long distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam's bursting, it's not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, when one gets within a few miles of the dam, where fear of the dam's breaking is highest, as you then get closer to the dam the concern falls off to zero! That is, the people living immediately under the dam who are certain to be drowned in a dam burst profess unconcern. That is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one's sanity while living immediately under the high dam is to deny the finite possibility that it could burst.

Psychological denial is a phenomenon well established in individual psychology. lt seems likely to apply to group psychology as well. For example, there is much evidence that, during World War Two, Jews and other groups at risk of the developing Holocaust denied the accumulating evidence that it was happening and that they were at risk, because the thought was unbearably horrible. Psychological denial may also explain why some collapsing societies fail to face up to the obvious causes of their collapse.

Finally, the last of the four items in my road map is the failure to succeed in solving a problem that one does try to solve. There are obvious possible explanations for this outcome. The problem may just be too difficult, and beyond our present capacities to solve. For example, the state of Montana loses hundreds of millions of dollars per year in attempting to combat introduced weed species, such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge. That is not because Montanans don't perceive these weeds or don't try to eliminate them, but simply because the weeds are too difficult to eliminate at present. Leafy spurge has roots 20 feet deep, too long to pull up by hand, and specific weed-control chemicals cost up to $800 per gallon.

Often, too, we fail to solve a problem because our efforts are too little, begun too late. For example, Australia has suffered tens of billions of dollars of agricultural losses, as well as the extinction or endangerment of most of its native small mammal species, because of introductions of European rabbits and foxes for which there was no close native counterpart in the Australian environment. Foxes as predators prey on lambs and chickens and kill native small marsupials and rodents. Foxes have been widespread over the Australian mainland for over a century, but until recently they were absent from the Australian island state of Tasmania, because foxes could not swim across the wide, rough seas between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. Unfortunately, two or three years ago some individuals surreptitiously and illegally released 32 foxes on the Tasmanian mainland, either for their fox-hunting pleasure or to spite environmentalists. Those foxes represent a big threat to Tasmanian lamb and chicken farmers, as well as to Tasmanian wildlife. When Tasmanian environmentalists became aware of this fox problem around March of 2002, they begged the government to exterminate the foxes quickly while it was still possible. The fox breeding season was expected to begin around July. Once those 32 foxes had produced litters and once those litters had dispersed, it would be far more difficult to eradicate 128 foxes than 32 foxes. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian government debated and delayed, and it was not until around June of 2002 that the government finally decided to commit a million dollars to eliminating foxes. By that time, there was considerable risk that the commitment of money was too little and too late, and that the Tasmanian government would find itself faced with a far more expensive and less soluble problem. I have not heard yet what happened to that fox eradication effort

Thus, human societies and smaller groups may make disastrous decisions for a whole sequence of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. All this may sound pessimistic, as if failure is the rule in human decision-making. In fact, of course that is not the case, in the environmental area as in business, academia, and other groups. Many human societies have anticipated, perceived, tried to solve, or succeeded in solving their environmental problems. For example, the Inca Empire, New Guinea Highlanders, 18th-century Japan, 19th-century Germany, and the paramount chiefdom of Tonga all recognized the risks that they faced from deforestation, and all adopted successful reforestation or forest management policies.

Thus, my reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not my desire to depress you. Instead, I hope that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right.

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