2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Senior Consultant (& former Ed-in-Chief & Publishing Director) at New Scientist; Author, After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic
Homo Dilatus

Our species might well be renamed Homo Dilatus, the procrastinating ape. Somewhere in our evolution we acquired the brain circuitry to deal with sudden crises and respond with urgent action. Steady declines and slowly developing threats are quite different. "Why act now when the future is far off," is the maxim for a species designed to deal with near-term problems and not long term uncertainties. It's a handy view of humankind which everyone who uses science to change policy should keep in their mental took kit, and one that that is greatly reinforced by the endless procrastination in tacking climate change. Cancun follows Copenhagen follows Kyoto but the more we dither and no extraordinary disaster follows, the more dithering seems just fine.

Such behaviour is not unique to climate change. It took the sinking of the Titanic to put sufficient life boats on passenger ships, the huge spill from the Amoco Cadiz to set international marine pollution rules and the Exxon Valdez disaster to drive the switch to double-hulled tankers. The same pattern is seen in the oil industry, with the Gulf spill the latest chapter in the disaster first-regulations later mindset of Homo dilatus.

There are a million similar stories from human history. So many great powers and once dominant corporations slipped away as their fortunes declined without the crisis they needed to force change. Slow and steady change simply leads to habituation not action: you could walk in the British countryside now and hear only a fraction of the birdsong that would have delighted a Victorian poet but we simply cannot feel insidious loss. Only a present crisis wakes us.

So puzzling is our behaviour that the "psychology of climate change" has become a significant area of research, with efforts to find those vital messages that will turn our thinking towards the longer term and away from the concrete now. Sadly, the skull of Homo dilatus seems too thick for the tricks that are currently on offer. In the case of climate change, we might better focus on adaptation until a big crisis comes along to rivet our minds. The complete loss of the summer Arctic ice might be the first. A huge dome of shining ice, about half the size of the United States covers the top of the world in summer now. In a couple of decades it will likely be gone. Will millions of square kilometers of white ice turning to dark water feel like a crisis? If that doesn't do it then following soon after will likely be painful and persistent droughts across the United States, much of Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Then the good side of Homo dilatus may finally surface. A crisis will hopefully bring out the Bruce Willis in all of us and with luck we'll find an unexpected way to right the world before the end of the reel. Then we'll no doubt put our feet up again.