“The world is running out of options to hit climate goals, U.N. report shows” Is this headline from the WaPo (April 4, 2022) correct? I do not believe so. This old “joke” may help understand why.
A policeman goes to help a drunk searching for something under a streetlight and asks what he has lost. He says his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes, the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, “No, I lost them in the park.” The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”
This old “joke” is no joke at all. Virtually all attention to the issue of global warming has been limited to the streetlamp of technology, not to where the keys to restoring the health of the planet might be.
The options implied in the headline predominantly entail some form of technology, mostly alternatives to current fossil fuel use or to geo-engineering to offset the greenhouse effect. Neither is promising as a fundamental solution. They exemplify the error that Einstein is said to have pointed out, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To get beyond this barrier, the focus must shift first to the proximate cause of the problem, the metabolism of the Planetary system, including both natural and human processes. The proper question to ask is, “Why is the metabolism disrupting what has been a stable condition for eons?”
The cause can be traced, ultimately, to the way humans behave and to the cognitive processes that guide that behavior. Humans have inhabited the planet for millennia without destabilizing major natural systems. What has changed? Part of the answer is that there are now more people on Earth than the metabolism can handle. A second rarely considered key lies in the nature and source of human behavior. We treat the planet, both human and non-human components, as resources for whatever we do. We fail to take care of it except when it sends a message that it is hurting and may not be available for use. Like right now.
If humans are self-interested beings, as economists ever since Adam Smith claim, our options are indeed limited. According to them, we are always acting, with occasional exceptions, to satisfy our inner desires, using whatever resources are available. If so, we do need to put our bets on some form of technology. But perhaps Smith and others are wrong. The work of Iain McGilchrist, a British psychiatrist and philosopher, argues that they are, indeed, wrong. In two stunning books, McGilchrist argues that each hemisphere of our brain attends to the world differently, producing two fundamentally distinct patterns of behavior.
One is the familiar self-interested way, but the other is empathetic and caring. Economists conflate the two arguing that caring acts are driven by the same utilitarian calculus, but happens, in these cases, to place a high value on the target, not the actor. The divided-brain-model of McGilchrist holds that the two modes are distinct, and that the behavioral character depends on which hemisphere is dominant. Most critically, he argues that the left hemisphere has dominated our actions throughout the modern era. The left hemisphere creates a self-contained, internal world of facts and beliefs, constructed from pieces it has abstracted from the actual experienced world presented to it by the right side. Actions controlled by the left exhibit a reduced understanding of that real world and, consequently, tend to produce unintended consequences, like global change.
The right hemisphere connects us to the real world of people and nature. When it is in charge, actions fit the situation more closely, reflecting the needs of the recipient (human and non-human) rather than those of the selfish left-brain. Returning to the opening headline, the real option left is to re-design our institutions to return the right-brain to its natural position as master. Not easy, but possible as the brain can be re-structured. This is the only option that can avoid Einstein’s admonition. The divided-brain-model is a new paradigm, an entirely new way of thinking about the brain and, as such, is bound to appear strange and forbidding. More flesh is put on the bones in the writings of the author of this essay and the works of McGilchrist. If you are put off or unconvinced, remember that once we “knew” the Earth was flat. Think how the world might be if we cared for it instead of using it up.