In Response: The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence

| July 10, 2016 | Leave a Comment

Doug Carmichael provides additional thoughts in response to the recently published article The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence in BioScience by Lee Ross et al. You can find the full article in the MAHB Library.


First, the stress on denial implies that people are acting  irrationally, implying that they are bad actors in the response to the climate challenge. The problem is not with consumption, which is fairly tactical and easy to change, the problem is with income. People cannot imagine what would  happen if they lost their job. We need much more awareness of the economic circumstances of most people. Their choice to not change is not denial, it is the choice of a reasonable path given the lack of meaningful alternatives for income. This is much more threatening than changes  in consumption.  You can see this when we realize that consumption changes could be legislated, but changing income? Much harder to imagine any result that could be achieved through legislation.

It is not  irrational to stay in a leaky canoe if you have no other. We must work harder to imagine the economic position people are in. Surrounded by disaster perspectives, which I think most understand quite well, in all classes of society,  from top mangers to the deeply disenfranchised unemployed, they cannot see a path forward.

At the upper end of society I think most agree our current situation is bad, but they also think it will end badly. They make the following argument: better to keep going for another fifteen or twenty years and then collapse than to try to change it now and collapse now.

Foresight intelligence is a good workable phrase, but we are off to a bad start if we assume that people lack it and are in denial. Sure, there are some such people, but we cannot expect people to shift behavior in say consumption when any local action they know does not add up to a sufficiently large scale effect, and they have to work within these given limits of their place of living, and the income they now earn. People are aware of the needed scale and can’t see how to get there. That goes for leaders as well. Reading history suggests that major changes in social structure involve huge losses, all measures of assets  basically disintegrate, wars follow quickly.

When I say consumerism is easier to change than employment I mean most consumerism is tied to jobs: computer, commuting, clothing, choice of neighborhood, education. By tactical I mean, if there was a closer job, driving goes down. A more community based workplace, clothing costs would go down, and so on.  But to suggest that a person should just change consumption, say by moving to public transportation, is to fail to empathize with or even perceive the problem of extra time and family disruption, especially if there are children. Moreover most suggested changes in consumption cost jobs, rapidly. Obviously less consumption means less producers of what is no longer consumed. We must be able to imagine such a world and then figure out how to invite  people to it, or help them  out if they are pushed to it.

Behavioral economics and the idea of irrationality are way too thin culturally and psychologically to help us far in understanding the depth of crisis and the scope of change. We need to give people credit and dignity by seeing that their choices make sense given alternatives, and that we need new alternatives and a way to get to them.


The full article by Lee Ross et al. is accessible here through the MAHB Library.

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Bill Gray

    Thank you. This is a great response to a great article.

    To be sure, we have arrived at a place where a good person living a normal life is a powerful destructive force in the environment.

    When confronted with this reality, good well meaning people ask “what can I do?” The answers that available today are either trivial (“Change your lightbulbs to LEDs”, “Run your washing machine only when it is full”, “Buy a fuel efficient car”) or they are potentially life destroying (“Stop using fossil fuel transportation”, “Stop eating food produced/delivered with fossil energy”, “Use only local solar heating to warm your home”)

    It is clear that a normal person who is part of family and has a limited budget simply does not have options that are compatible with both real sustainability and being a productive member of society. Interestingly this is true of virtually all people regardless of what normal means in their home local… unless they happen live in a hunter-gather tribe in which case they aren’t really a problem in the first place.

    What a pickle!

    My general and completely unscientific impression is that efforts to get the word out about our precarious ecological situation have actually been quite successful!

    Why don’t people changed their behavior?

    What choice do they really have?

    When pressed to decide between a slow nebulous degradation of livability over the course of 20 to 10,000 years and immediate personal self-destruction most people understandably choose the former.

    Corporate persons and nation states are in the exact same position. Yes, they are substantially richer, more powerful, and lack inherent mortality, but they are working within more or less the same constraints as everyone else.

    Real solutions to this puzzle must therefore come in the form of new viable options. Options that allow people to live better and more functional lives while also becoming more sustainable.

    Unfortunately, this is a very tall order, and funding for research in these areas is generally very limited or completely non-existent. Perhaps this is an area where messaging and political action can be more effective?

  • Vaughan Wiles

    Hello MAHB and Doug Carmichael.

    Thanks, Doug, for your very nice article, “In Response: The Climate Change Challenge.”

    It’s refreshing to read an article that manages to say that there are many sides to the planet heating problem that we need to address, and that clear global thinking, hopefully, should be encouraged.

    I often attempt to find articles written regarding consumption of resources and how meaningful alternatives might help, while at the same time leaving the economies of people, particularly in emerging countries, able to manage their lives without going broke. Some tell the world to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The reality is, this, perhaps, cannot happen for some time to come, because everything that we do on this planet involves the availability and use of fossil fuels. Your ideas for how people need income and need power that they can afford in order to lead their lives is a perception that some countries, on occasion, may overlook.

    We can solve our power needs carefully if we resist the urge to blame the power sources that have helped us build our economies for some time now and will continue to do so in the future. It would be wise to partner with power providers to build the next generation of low carbon fuels so that we can move forward with our economy in safety. The psychology of behavioral economics could be a tool to help us navigate the future of our climate without becoming overly emotional for data that we might not yet have.

    Psychologically, we may need to be aware that our focus should move away from the worry of how we might have warmed the planet, and move into solutions towards foresight in solving our planet’s heating problem.