We know we’re heading for the climate change abyss – and yet we are not doing enough to stop it. Not even frequent reports of melting glaciers, ever-increasing fossil emissions and airlines flying tens of thousands of empty flights around the world to “keep their slots” make us as a society wake up and say stop.
It is as if there is something built into the humans that do not want to accept that everything is going to hell with the planet in the long run.
And there it is, whatever it seems.
In the book “The human bug – Why our brain pushes us to destroy the planet and what we can do about it”. The striatum, the pleasure and reward organ of the brain, is the culprit in the drama. Striatum’s function is to give us quick rewards and take us from day to day, rather than planning for the future.
After all, the human brain has not been significantly updated in about 40,000 years and is still most adapted to ensure nutrient intake and survival in the next few hours.
Many are able to voluntarily save for retirement or start long educations where the pay for the effort comes only in several years? In fact, many of us are more or less paralyzed by climate change and have no problem looking into a dystopian future where all the comfort we take for granted right now is more or less out of the question.
It is not the intellect that counts our dopamine, it is the striatum that has the upper hand. Because in today’s political context, voters reward political leaders who are themselves driven by short-sightedness and quick, emotional outbursts, rather than long-term necessities.
Today’s short terms of office benefit politicians who think short-term and are dependent on quick rewards. In fact, the more power and responsibility an individual receives, the more the striatum grows and he becomes increasingly dependent on elevated doses of dopamine. Those who have a lot of power today do not have a brain adapted to spread the reward in the long run. They are too impulsive.
The brain’s tug-of-war between the will to do the right thing and the need to reward oneself can of course also be translated into the large and relatively climate-enlightened mass. Those who go out with the recycling day after day, obediently pay the congestion tax and are appalled by forest fires and who then still indulge in a winter vacation in Thailand, even though it eats up the whole year’s carbon budget in a pinch.
That this inconsistent behaviour may have a neurobiological explanation may not be good news. But it is at least a small piece of the puzzle in the complex experience of what it is like to be a human being who looks down into the abyss and yet is not gripped by panic.