A neurosurgeon explores how our tendency to prioritize short-term consumer pleasures spurs climate change, but also how the brain’s amazing capacity for flexibility can—and likely will—enable us to prioritize the long-term survival of humanity.
Increasingly politicians, activists, media figures, and the public at large agree that climate change is an urgent problem. Yet that sense of urgency rarely translates into serious remedies. If we believe the climate crisis is real, why is it so difficult to change our behavior and our consumer tendencies?
Minding the Climate investigates this problem in the neuroscience of decision-making. In particular, Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, points to the evolution of the human brain during eons of resource scarcity. Understandably, the brain adapted to prioritize short-term survival over more uncertain long-term outcomes. But the resulting behavioral architecture is poorly suited to the present, when scarcity is a lesser concern and slow-moving, novel challenges like environmental issues present the greatest danger. Duhaime details how even our acknowledged best interests are thwarted by the brain’s reward system: if a behavior isn’t perceived as immediately beneficial, we probably won’t do it—never mind that we “know” we should. This is what happens when we lament climate change while indulging the short-term consumer satisfactions that ensure the disaster will continue.
Luckily, we can sway our brains, and those of others, to alter our behaviors. Duhaime describes concrete, achievable interventions that have been shown to encourage our neurological circuits to embrace new rewards. Such small, incremental steps that individuals take, whether in their roles as consumers, in the workplace, or in leadership positions, are necessary to mitigate climate change. The more we understand how our tendencies can be overridden by our brain’s capacity to adapt, Duhaime argues, the more likely we are to have a future.