The unseen patterns in human behavior are not only among the causes for racism, they also cause misinterpretation of evidence and prevent the creation and use of knowledge.
Looking at the current trends in the Earth system and the dominant role of humanity in causing these trends is alarming and should lead to immediate action. In earlier columns I pointed out that humanity has evolved into the “Anthropogenic Cataclysmic Virus” in the Earth’s life-support system: our global energy usage of about 18 Terawatts is comparable to a large volcanic eruption (like the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815) every few years. The high extinction rate is destabilizing ecosystems globally.
Feeding the people from the population explosion required a fundamental and unsustainable re-engineering of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycle. Energy dissipation from fossil fuel deposits through humanity’s metabolism into the environment and the changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the albedo of the Earth’s surface cause a rapid warming of atmosphere and ocean comparable to 5,400 billion 60 Watt light bulbs running continuously1 – roughly a light bulb on every 100 square meters everywhere on the Earth’s surface (more than 70 light bulbs on a standard soccer field!).
The additional energy stored in the Earth’s system of 320 Terawatts is about 18 times the energy actually used by humanity: the systemic changes caused by a rapidly growing population have a large “side effect.” Foresight tells us that a high-energy planet will be dynamically very different from what humanity has experienced throughout the Holocene: extremes like heat waves, storms, floods, droughts and wild res (which are already now causing increasing loss of life and property) will render much of the planet’s land surface uninhabitable for humans and make life very dif cult in the near future for those populating the Earth today and in the future. The facts are clear and the narrowing spectrum of possible and somewhat post-apocalyptic futures is frightening.
Any intelligent species with an honest desire to avoid extinction would use these facts to initiate immediate actions to transform the way we build, produce, consume, ght each other, and handle our waste. An intelligent species would understand that the rapid growth of energy use (from population of about 1.65 billion in 1900 to 7.45 billion today2) facilitated by virtually unlimited access to energy, is the underlying cause and would stop growth immediately. I wholeheartedly agree with Travis Rieder that it has become morally and ethically dif cult to justify having more than one child: As he puts it, “It’s not the childless who must justify their lifestyle. It’s the rest of us.”3
However, all this evidence and the foresight of where we are heading is not triggering the necessary decisions to avoid a post-apocalyptic future. Why is this so? Are we smart enough to create the knowledge of what is happening and why, but not intelligent enough to use the knowledge? Decisions made by human beings are not solely based on fact and rational considerations; they are heavily impacted by a number of cognitive biases 4. Importantly, the Blind-spot Bias keeps us from realizing our own biases and their severe impacts on our decisions.
Just to name a few, the Outcome Bias leads us to overvalue a positive outcome: the fact that past economic growth had many positive aspects doesn’t mean that aiming for more economic growth without having a perspective for prosperity without growth will lead to a sustainable future.
Our Overconfidence Bias lets us believe that somehow we, or someone, will find a solution without us having to do much. The Conservatism Bias (or Normalcy Bias) leads us to favor prior evidence over new evidence: the fact that climate has been extremely stable with only minuscule variations throughout the Holocene makes it difficult for us to accept the overwhelming evidence that this time of stability has come to an end.
As a result of the Bandwagon Effect, the probability of an individual adopting a belief increases with the number of people holding this belief. The Confirmation Bias makes us more open to information that confirms our preconceptions and leads many of us to ignorance of information that contradicts them. Not least, the Ostrich Effect keeps so many of us from seeing the alarming evidence and accepting the even more frightening outlook for our future, if we don’t act immediately.
Understanding the importance of overcoming the Blind-spot Bias, I developed with my colleague Michelle Heart in the English Department at my university, a course on “Decisions, Biases, and the Creation of Knowledge.” The course addresses the full spectrum of biases at individual, group, country, and cultural levels, and their impacts on the perception of evidence and risks and the decisions made to address threats. It was enlightening to watch how the reflective approach changed the students’ understanding of the impacts of biases and the creation and use of knowledge, and enabled them to extract the story embedded in the scientific evidence concerning our future on a degrading planet.
For the last of three essays, the students had to define themselves as aliens from another planet visiting Planet Earth with the mission to find out whether there is “intelligent life” on Earth. It was a pleasure for us to read these essays. The one by Katie Anderson titled “My Visit to the Blue Planet” was particularly to the point and “entertaining,” although the final decision of the aliens’ delegation was not what humans might want to see as the result of such a visit. Here I reproduce a few parts of the essay with her permission. (The full essay is available online at www.apogeospatial.com/a-look-at-earth-from-aliens-perspective).
MY VISIT TO THE BLUE PLANET
I journeyed far to nd this place; my species has long suspected that there were intelligent life forms out in the universe, and I was among the delegation selected through a complex process to be sent to the Blue Planet we believed most likely to sustain life. Among the qualifications I possess, along with the other 19 members of our crew, are the ability to make decisions grounded in fact and research, the belief that all organisms are equally worthy of respect and recognition, and the drive to attain greater knowledge for the advancement of our planet’s understanding of the world. Like everyone on my planet, all members of the delegation are required to understand the complex interplay of all systems – organic and inorganic – and pledge our lives to the good of all.
We were given two clear objectives on our journey: 1) to determine if the planet contains intelligent life forms, and 2) to determine if a long-term relationship between our planet and the Blue Planet could be sustainable. Following is what I encountered in my two-year stay on the Blue Planet, which I will here explain as well as my team’s findings on these two concerns…
When our team arrived, we landed safely in what appeared to be uninhabited land except for a few large, inorganic looking contraptions. We stepped out onto a rather barren land; the up and down motion of the contraptions captivated us, but it disturbed me greatly. For what purpose were these machines placed here, seemingly unsupervised? The heat of the place almost suffocated me… We quickly learned that the life forms on this planet (humans) are fearful of strangers, and rather than get to know the new entity rst as we would do on our home planet, their fear caused them to shackle our arms, point large weapons at us, and move us to secure lodgings rather abruptly. We were moved in large vehicles with metal shells and windows propelled with clunky motors that I noticed emitted a gas into the air behind us as we moved along the path…
Our first goal was to learn about the planet; our second was to explore the ways in which the humans interacted with the planet; our third was to discern clear answers to our two points of charge: are they intelligent and is it worth cultivating a diplomatic relationship with the planet?
Humans seem dedicated to understand- ing the life on their planet; they are desperately trying to account for all the life on the Earth. We learned, however, that part of their frenetic search for new species is a clear fear that many of them are soon to disappear. This leads me to our second discovery.
Humans are killing the life support systems on their planet at an alarmingly rapid rate. Estimates suggest that already a third of the species of animals living on the planet have become extinct…
We wondered: do the humans know what they are doing to the Earth? We read time and again about the impact of the economic practices, production practices, and lifestyle choices upon the globe, yet we saw very few instances of countries where humans were working to mitigate the coming disaster. In fact, what we saw was an abundance of information regarding the production of more and more consumer products for western markets.
INTELLIGENT LIFE ON EARTH
We read time and again concerning reports on the status of the Earth, dating back nearly half a century, yet these humans refused to act upon their knowledge. In fact, knowledge was viewed skeptically by many, and humans continued to make decisions with bias and not fact, rarely stopping to communicate with better-educated humans to ensure their decisions were the best for the broadest group of humans. We desperately wanted to believe that these creatures, capable in some instances of compassion and empathy, were intelligent, but as a result of their failure to act upon knowledge, and in many instances acting in direct opposition to their knowledge, we had to rule that they were unintelligent creatures. This lack of intelligence will lead to the ultimate ruination of the Earth, a planet that will have to rebuild itself, likely without humans upon it.
RESULTS REGARDING CONTINUING
A RELATIONSHIP WITH EARTH
This answer came to us quickly. After reading about the way in which the governments of the countries on Earth operate, we decided that a long-term relationship with these people was not possible. They are inclined to use situations to their advantage alone without considering the impact upon others. If given an opportunity to open up regular intercommunication, we feel that the humans would soon use our planet as a colonizing location, which we know to be populated to capacity in a sustainable way. If they were to come to use (and likely abuse) our resources, our planet would soon face the same devastation of the one they currently inhabit.
While we are grateful to the humans on the Earth for their assistance in our mission, we feel as though theirs is a population doomed as a result of its own inability to use facts as a primary source of decision making in addition to a failure to see all human life as worthy of consideration and protection. We hope they mitigate their impending disaster, but we have little hope for them.
It may be a long time until aliens will visit us here on the Blue Planet, and by that time, they may nd remnants of an obviously highly developed species – and, if they are like the aliens in the essay biased towards rational and evidence-based decisions, they may wonder why a species that reached such a high technological level and left a clear geological signal of a distinct epoch on the planet obviously went extinct very rapidly. They wouldn’t know, though, that we called this epoch the Anthropocene. Or, we finally might realize that our addiction to unlimited growth is suicidal and transform into the planetary stewards we need to be if we want our species to be around much longer. I am sure, in this case, alien visitors would come to a very different conclusion.
Maybe we won’t have to wait that long for such visitors: It seems like we just discovered the “Earth Next Door,” an exoplanet called Proxima Centauri b, only four light-years away from us that holds the promise of being very much like our planet.6
1. Abraham, J., 2016. Climate models are accurately predicting ocean and global warming. The Guardian, July 27, 2016. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-percent/2016/jul/27/climate-models-are-accurately-predicting-ocean-and-global-warming
3. Ludden, J., 2016. Should we be having kids in the age of climate change? NPR, August 18, 2016. Available at http://www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having- kids-in-the-age-of-climate-change%22
4. Lee, S. and Lebowitz, S., 2015. 20 cognitive biases that screw up your decisions. Business Insider, August 26, 2015. See http://www.businessinsider.com/cognitive-biases-that-affect-decisions-2015-8
5. The full essay is available at http://apogeospatial.com/a-look-at-earth-from-aliens-perspective/
6. Billings, L., 2016. The Earth Next Door. Scientific American, accessed online August 24, 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-earth-next-door/?WT.mc_id=SA_WR_20160831