Are we reaching the practical limits of our intelligence as a species? Looking around at our world it seems obvious that we are making huge problems for ourselves by growing faster and more numerous than our environment can sustain. Politically and economically we appear to be functioning more and more in a “thrashing” mode, where our actions are not well-considered or coördinated, the outcomes fail to reflect lasting or meaningful improvements, and we fail to reduce the risks of big problems that are becoming more obvious every day. It seems we need to become smarter about ourselves and our world, and take a more realistic view of our global problems. But what factors are preventing us from doing this, and what improved understanding must we gain to make improvements? We can’t all be experts, but in the United States we all can vote and need to do so intelligently to ensure our leaders are capable of solving the big problems we face. Can we learn and change our thinking and voting in time to avoid ever larger problems in the future?
The inevitable exhaustion of fossil energy supplies is an example. There has been a lot of call in some quarters in the United States for increasing gas and oil extraction in North America so that dependence on foreign sources would be reduced, and the risk of short supply and rising prices with it. On this course, however, we will still run out of fuel, and sooner than if we didn’t do this, leaving us less time to transition to alternatives. This raises the question: If we remedy the energy supply problems of the United States could we do it in a way that wouldn’t increase risks for us or other groups of people? If we stretched our fossil fuel supplies wouldn’t we buy more time to transition to greater efficiencies and other energy sources? It seems clear that our thinking needs to change on a grand scale, but how?
A change in understanding, and possibly in how our brains function, is needed. It seems obvious that North American political leaders are not thinking clearly about the energy supply issue and, worse yet, are heavily influenced by corporations and billionaires who would extract short-term profits at the cost of increasing the risk to all of us, and increasing the difficulty of making necessary changes in the future. Why aren’t we thinking clearly about this situation? I believe we are coming up short in how we think about the huge systems of commerce and transport that keep us supplied. The key word here is “systems”. Unfortunately, systems are abstract and research has shown we don’t focus on them with the intensity we would if we could attach a face to them.
Understanding our world in terms of systems is critical to making good decisions. While I’m sure there are other improvements we need to make in our thinking, one I’ve written about recently in another blog is the understanding of the fundamental concept of systems. (See It Isn’t the Bad Guys, “It’s Da System” that We Need to Fix.) Systems are an abstract conception of how things around us work on a grand scale. While a system of pumps, pipes, and trucks may bring your gasoline to the local gas station, it is a larger system of markets, national governments, and corporations that actually brings the fuel to you – something a lot harder to conceive of, but which exists nonetheless and is fundamental to the problem. The problem is that a system is an abstract thing, a concept, and much harder to focus on even when it presents a serious threat to our wellbeing.
We need to get better at perceiving abstract threats. As I wrote in my article on systems thinking, when we can attach a face to a threat we find it easy to focus on it and address it. Chimpanzees and even my cat function similarly, struggling more with threats that can not be identified by a face or entity. For example, a predator will raise them to high levels of alertness and action, but a drought will not get the same level of attention. In the human case, we are finding we have the capability to create droughts on larger and larger scales by our own action, but we are still apparently not as good at focusing on them as threats and taking constructive, long-term action to avoid them. Clearly such threats will be better addressed if we change the way we think about systems and the abstract threats they present, but can we do that ourselves by thinking and learning? I hope psychologists and anthropologists somewhere are looking at this question, as I believe the answer will be critical to the future of our species, and life on the planet.
As always, I welcome your comments, and thanks for reading. — Tim