Human systems of transportation and energy, construction and commerce, a scientific consensus tells us, are degrading the global systems that support life on our planet. This damage poses a massive long-term threat to life as we know it. And yet these changes are too macro or micro to be noticed directly. The amygdala tunes out.
That indifference to danger bespeaks a blindspot built into the brain. Our neural system for threat was attuned to dangers of the Pleistocene: the rustling in the thicket that might signal a predator lurking. But we have no perceptual apparatus, nor circuitry for alarm, that tunes us to the dangers we now face as a species.
The brain's perceptual mis-alignment in recognizing dangers has reached an historic danger point. The human gene pool was robust enough to survive the failure of people in the Middle Ages to see the dangers in rats and fleas as vectors for the Black Plague. But today our collective blindspot has set in motion long-term dynamics in geophysical systems like the carbon cycle that will have devastating impacts not just on humans, but on the survival of countless other species—and will take hundreds of years to reverse.
Much of the ongoing damage stems from systemic side-effects of our industrial platforms. For instance, we make concrete, bricks, glass and steel by heating ingredients at very high temperatures for long periods—a technology with roots in the Bronze Age. When these methods were developed no one saw the coming of the current Anthropocene Age, where human activity pushes systems like the nitrogen and carbon cycles toward the brink.
Now that we can conceptualize the dangers we face, ideally we would put on the brakes. The failure of global meetings at Kyoto and Copenhagen to come to international agreements on slowing global is but one symptom of our blindspot at play. But a purely intellectual understanding of a danger does not mobilize our motivational systems that well.
I happened to attend a closed-door meeting of the heads of sustainability for more than two dozen global companies. Each made a report of what they were doing in their supply chains to combat global warming—a surprisingly encouraging list. But all were agreed that there was a common obstacle to pushing much further: customers do not care.
To be sure, there are more and more signs that clever ways around our blindspot can be found. For instance, an industrial ecologist at the Harvard School of Public Health has developed "handprints." Instead of tracking all the bad news about our carbon footprint, Handprinter puts a positive spin on our environmental impacts, tracking all the good we do. The program lets you measure every action you take that lowers your carbon footprint, and encourages you to keep growing that number.
A proposed handprinter mobile app would allow you "to interpret your positive impacts in terms of the number of hours or days in which you are living net-positively; use your phone to see the actions other users are taking; you and your friends will be able to keep track of the impact you're having as a group. What's the total collective handprint of your family, neighborhood or school?"
Recently I browsed an upscale magazine that touts life's luxuries. The Christmas issue featured 21 "ultimate gifts," including a personally designed fountain pen for $275,000, and a custom-built backyard theme park, including a full-size steel roller coaster, for $20 million plus upkeep.
That same week saw the failure of Handprinter to raise funds for that mobile app on the website Kickstarter. Price: $30,000.
Albert Einstein once said that the unleashed power of the atom "has changed everything" save our modes of thinking, "and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
Effective worrying focuses our attention on a genuine threat and leads to anticipating solutions and implementing them. Neurotic worrying just loops into repetitive angst.
I'll dial down my worry the day Handprinter not only gets funded, but goes viral—and that backyard theme park gets recycled.