I've just finished reading Stephen Pinker's feature article in the New York Times Magazine on the evolution and cognitive science of morality. As is often the case, I find myself reading with a mixture of admiration and envy. Pinker's science writing is clear, persuasive, and interesting and he exercises his usual knack for connecting his ideas to important current events.
I hate to quibble with what is generally a great piece if not for the grenade that he lobs at us in the penultimate paragraph:
"The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness."
In a way, he's right that any real solution to the problem of climate change must take into account the actions of people in both East and South Asia, but to suggest that these people are incapable of reining in their production of carbon or unwilling to do so is to ignore the basic fact that on a per capita basis, North Americans are at the top of the carbon consumption pyramid. Though the gap is closing, the US and Canada together consume more energy than East Asia in spite of having about one-sixth the population. So the problem with the Asias is not the consumption of energy by individuals (individual consumption in India is miniscule compared to that in North America) but the number of individuals. Admittedly still a big problem, but one of numbers in this case rather than behaviour.
But back to behaviour. After all, Pinker and I are both psychologists. I've heard this argument before that our own changes in attitude and behaviour won't amount to a hill of beans until things change overseas, but there's another basic fact that gets ignored in this argument, and that is that a good deal of the production of carbon overseas is taking place at our own behest. China, for example, has a massive export number (1.2 trillion US dollars) and one of the largest trade surpluses of any country. Much of the overseas industrial production that is responsible for emission of carbon is taking place because of demand from North American consumers. If we didn't want the stuff that's being made in China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, then there would be less carbon in the air. I'm not pretending that if that demand suddenly evaporated, that it wouldn't spell some disastrous times for those who are ekeing out a living making our computers, cellphones, big screen televisions and Barbie dolls, but if we're trying to imagine that we're not complicit in the loop whereby the production of such things causes massive carbon outputs then we're not being completely honest with ourselves. In more ways than we might like to admit, the levers that control how much carbon China, India, and the rest of Asia put into the air are firmly within our own grasp every time we go to the store to buy something we might not need.
There are no easy answers to any of this. In the short term, it's becoming abundantly clear that we will need some draconian measures both to curb carbon outputs and to deal with the carbon that is already in the air. In the longer term, though, what's needed is a set of changes in our behaviour that perhaps begin with the recognition that we're connected to remote regions of the planet. If we're going to eat up lots of energy to expand our geographic footprint, spread economic tentacles across the globe in order to prop up a certain standard of living, then we need to find ways to clear the veil from our eyes that prevents us from seeing all of the consequences of such a lifestyle.
The unique nature of our own minds makes it altogether too easy for us to forget the real size and shape of the planet and how each of us is connected to it. Our predominantly visual minds deal with our lives one vista at a time. "Out of sight, out of mind" is the mantra by which we live. I doubt we can change this in any substantial way no matter how much clever psychology we might try to use, but understanding such matters might help us to think of ways to harness the strange and clever shape of our own mentation to help us find a way out of the mess we've made for ourselves.
It isn't too late, but we'll need all shoulders to the wheel, especially those belonging to clever public intellectuals like Pinker.