Saturday, September 12, 2009

How tigers caused climate change

Imagine that you're sitting in a big grassy field with your tribe, and you notice a saber tooth tiger approaching. Immediately, without discussion or hesitation, you would alert the tribe and get everyone to safety.

This crisis reaction has served Homo Sapiens well, after all, we have survived for the past 200 000 years (since the middle paleolithic). Our crisis-management reflexes have been well honed.

It is so ingrained in us that it's hard to even notice unless it is pointed out. It goes like this:

1. Identify an imminent existential threat.

2. Take immediate decisive action to respond to the threat.

3. Endure.

If they didn't respond, they didn't survive or pass on their genes and culture. We are left with a legacy of decisive radical action in the face of perceived imminent threats.

We see this today with the sweeping power of the "Patriot Act" counterterrorism legislation after 9/11 or the speed and size of the financial bailout as a result of the global financial crisis. We are conditioned by long history to respond as if they were tigers.

It is easy for leaders to respond in crisis. Crises are difficult, sure, but everybody understands that action is needed, and that a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Mistakes are forgivable, because they are better than inaction.

So far, so good, but two hundred thousand years of human history has left us woefully underprepared for the responsibility that comes with being in charge of a planet.

Being in charge means we need to respond to stimuli that isn't so immediate. Rather than just being ready to bail out the boat, we need to look ahead. We need to see the storms, rocks, and icebergs that could sink us and set a course that avoids them.

We hardly notice these threats creep up. More immediate things demand our attention. The big problems continue to grow unabated while we are distracted.

Trying to change without a crisis is hard. People have their own agendas. If there's no tiger then they can do as they like. In a crisis, everybody sees the need for quick action. Like the proverbial frog on the stove, we don't respond to slow growing problems until it's too late.

As the alpha species we have a responsibility to watch out for everything that lives here, not just dealing with the tigers. That means taking action to avoid the long range slow growing disasters, not just dealing with the problems that blow up in our faces.

So how are the tigers responsible? They trained us to think short term. Solving this problem means working against 200 000 years of evolution and looking hard at the future. Then acting appropriately. But we've got the big brains now. It won't be easy, but we can handle it.

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