Why Your Brain May Not Be Green

In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, author Jon Gertner theorizes why, despite pretty good information available to us all, we generally continue as a species making decisions that are fairly bad for the planet's environment, and generally unable to slow climate change. It turns out to be simple, and at the same time fantastically complex: our brains just aren't green! Plus why a carbon tax could be a good idea (as long as we don't call it that).

Note: Green brain photo Gaetan Lee via flickr.How social science relates to climate change
Every year, a small amount of research money is spent on the social science aspects of climate change - studying "how perceptions of risk and uncertainty shape our responses to climate change and other weather phenomena like hurricanes and droughts" according to the article. Why do we need this type of research? For the simple reason that the widespread support needed for policies that would shift us into a low-carbon economy are dependent on millions of individual and communal decisions. And guess what? We're a little slow to respond. Changing human behavior when the threat isn't directly on the doorstep is now understood to be a complex issue.

Why we don't have green brains
What Gertner finds from reviewing some of the social science studies done around decision making and even climate decision making is that we, as humans, have different decision-making modes. In one, the more analytical, we carefully try to weigh pros and cons to make a decision. The other mode is more primitive and emotional, and is a reaction to sensed immediate danger. In analytical mode, unfortunately, we are unlikely to make decisions based on future green outcomes - in other words, we might do a less bad thing that costs less and delivers now than a much greater green thing that costs more and stretches benefits into the future.

Emotional decisions have their downside, too. We might react to some stimulus and decide to do something now - say, get rid or our car. Yet since we can rarely hold the threat of future climate change in our brain for long as more immediate worries take its place, we might take that action, losing the car, and then consider our task done. When groups try to make decisions, group members can flip back and forth between the analytical and the emotional modes.

Some good news about our non-green brains
Even though we may be hard-wired to perceive distant dangers as well, distant, and thus not make good long-term decisions, we do tend to have a huddle mentality. Gertner found in the experiments of Elke Weber from Columbia's business school some evidence that might help form a blueprint for how to make collective decisions with environmental benefit - simply by considering distant benefits first! Groups, Weber observed, can be more patient about the future benefits than individuals. Basically, community pays - not only at the individual level, but in making better "common good" decisions.

Community is the green 'nudge'
Nudges, according to Gerter's article, are a way to "structure choices so that our natural cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err." Ideally, they push us in directions ultimately good for us - like saving for retirement, installing electric-use measuring meters, starting our own gardens. The potential for more "environmental nudges" getting us to do right by earth is huge, says author of the book Nudge and behavioral economist Richard Thaler in the article.

A carbon tax by any other name
The end of Gertner's article discusses a carbon tax versus a cap-and-trade system for lowering emissions. While the view in Washington may be leaning toward cap-and-trade, thus far experience in the real world hasn't show cap and trade carbon systems to do much good. In fact, some on the fringes see that the only way to meaningfully lower global emissions is for a global carbon tax to be initiated. But that word "tax" is a powerful deterrent for our non-green brains. Yet if it's framed as a global personal carbon offset? Well, it could be just the nudge we need. Via: New York Times Magazine

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Carbon Taxes

Best of TreeHugger