You may have read the article with the long title in a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine. Here goes: “Why Isn’t the Brain Green? Decision scientists are trying to figure out why it’s so hard for us to get into a green mind-set. Their answers may be more crucial than any technological advance in combating environmental challenges.” (April 19, 2009)
And so we meet the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. The Center’s own environment is a windowless basement at Columbia University. The walls are cinderblock, the furnishings tables and chairs and electronic equipment. Reading the description, I was reminded of the interrogation chambers of old. In this place where little life on earth is even visible, scientists are measuring how we make decisions about risk, benefit and preserving life on earth.
Author Jon Gertner writes: “Among other things, CRED’s researchers consider global warming a singular opportunity to study how we react to long-term trade-offs, in the form of sacrifices we might make now in exchange for uncertain climate benefits far off in the future.” This builds on previous work done in the field that has discovered that human beings have a number of automatic biases – “we’re more averse to losses than we are interested in gains. . . and we make repeated errors in judgment based on our tendency to use shorthand rules to solve problems.”
I don’t need a PhD in behavioralism to tell you that the word “sacrifice” will set off alarms in the average American. Indeed, it seems to me that the answer has already been decided in the question, or, to quote Gertner again, “I began to wonder if we are just built to fail.”
Ignoring for the moment, the obvious mechanistic assumption in the verb “built,” as if human beings were any more “built” than we are “hardwired,” (unless we have a pacemaker), let us consider the leading words in this so-called research question. I’ve already mentioned that “sacrifice” is a red flag word, especially in our instant gratification world. Now, how about the second half of the “research” question: “uncertain climate benefits far off in the future?” Although this is but the tiniest phrase in a much longer article, a rhetorician need go no farther. The whole phrase is a mess. Since when can anyone predict the future with certainty? (Classical prophecy only tells you how to approach the future, not what will happen.) But note that uncertain does not modify future. It modifies benefits. Benefit is the opposite of sacrifice. By the logic of this research, to change our lives in a more planet friendly direction is to risk our benefits. Further, such uncertain benefits as this change will support will arrive in a “far off future,” implying that we will be dead if they even happen.
In the name of researching how we make environmental decisions, this research, without telling me, encourages me to hold on to what I’ve got with all my heart, and then reports the data that human beings are more afraid of loss than they are desirous of gain.
There’s lots more that I could say here. I could talk about the phrase “delayed gratification,” pointing out that it implies that gratification, whether now or later, is the focus of human existence. Not all cultures would agree with that little “truism” of “human nature.” I could pause and once more write the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which billions of living creatures were sacrificed for the gratification of an ever enlarging population of rich people, leaving us as a species more terrified of death than we ever have been. But I will assume that we all know this.
My “research” question is far simpler. Do we as a species wish to live? Do we wish to live well? Do we want to be happy? If that is the case, what is the state of mind that will get us there, and, if we are able to name that state of mind, how, if at all, will it benefit the earth?
“Be in the world, but not of it,” say the great spiritual teachers (and happiness is most certainly a spiritual question.) Abraham left the city of his father to return to the wilderness and when the choice was before him, gave the cities of the plain to his nephew Lot. Moses led the Israelites out of a very developed Egypt into the wilderness. Prince Siddhartha left his father’s palace to go live in the forest, reaching enlightenment under a great spreading tree. Seeking a path of harmony in an age of warring states, Confucius wandered. As the ethic of war escalated in the West, resulting in the doublespeak of the pax Romana, Jesus went into the wilderness and called a little community to live outside conventional social roles and historical conditioning. Mohammed retreated into the desert. In indigenous cultures, in many ways much spiritually wiser than ours, it is not just the great teachers, but young people in general who go to deserted places, forgoing food and water for four days in quest of a vision. Indigenous cultures know that the sacred resides in the land. It is spiritual, not physical knowledge that both shows us what to do and keeps us from going mad.
As teachers and vision questers know, if you want to find the Truth, you’ve got to leave the city.