2013 : WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

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Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons
The Anthropocebo Effect

Humans are today something we have never been before: a global geologic force. This epoch, which begins around 1800, has been called the Anthropocene and is characterized by steep line graphs that look like Mount Everest sliced in half: human population, water use, biodiversity loss, nitrogen run off, atmospheric carbon dioxide, etc.

The data irrefutably establish humans as the dominant driver of environmental change, which is something that should worry us all. But we should also be worried that framing humans as the dominant driver of change will lead to further negative change, which I am calling the "Anthropocebo Effect".

The effects of cultural framing are everywhere. The Placebo Effect (experiencing the positive effects of an inert pill) occurs only in cultures that believe taking a pill can cure an illness. The even stranger Nocebo Effect, where just mentioning the side effects makes them more likely to occur, shows the power of the mind. 

The Anthropocebo Effect is then a psychological condition that exacerbates human-induced damage—a certain pessimism that makes us accept human destruction as inevitable.

Science helps shape how we see ourselves. Words also matter to perception, and perception matters to behavior.  Consider what the theory of natural selection did to our view of humans in the biological world.  We should be worried about the new era of Anthropocene—not only as a geological phenomenon, but also as a cultural frame.