Our brain not made for saving the climate

The fight for saving climate and environment is above all a fight against the neoliberal global economic system. Why climate actions proceed so awfully slow may be revealed by a closer look into the biological structure and psychological function of the human brain.

Magnetic resonance imaging of the head
Brain (Magnetic resonance imaging of the head). Wikimedia Commons
Our tragedy as humans is that we are no rational subjects. While thinking we are rational in our decisions we overlook that our brain provide us with biased answers. Of course we can overcome these biases, but that means work for our conscient brain which is much slower than the evolutionary older, but once very adapted parts of the brain. In order to work rational, our brain needs to be awake and energetic. It is nearly impossible to reach rational agreements when delegates of conferences — such as the climate summits — lack certain physiological or biological conditions like sleep and sugar. Moreover some training is needed to realise and circumvent the biases of the brain.

Many intellectuals are able to understand the interaction between the modern conscious and the older unconscious brain parts. But neither politicians nor delegates seem to belong to this group, and proposals of intellectuals are usually not considered. This is proofed by the fact that delegates and heads of states want to fly to summits. They want to see each other, because people are most interested in people. But this is an emotional thing, and thus the first bias. When just exchanging letters or hold screen conferences things would immediately become more rational.

To go deeper into this subject it may be helpful to read academic biological, psychological and brain science literature. A good and comprehensive summary give the works of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, which I really recommend 1.

Short term thinking

Thus I am not very optimistic that humankind can reach an effective climate agreement in order to stop climate change within the next 500 years or so. Humans are not made to, and used to think in time frames of 500, 1000 or more years.

For example: Solar panels and wind mills are high on the agenda to save carbon dioxide emissions. However, for the production of such toys enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted in a short time, while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is degrading on a time scale of 100 to 150 years, as long as the oceans can provide a buffer. But solar panels and wind mills will only be good for 20 or 30 years. A simple mathematical calculation reveals that it will not work to save the climate this way in the long run. Besides, both technologies need enormous amounts of precious metals and rare earths, which are often exploited under inhumane conditions and which will soon be exhausted. Another simple mathematical calculation reveals that we cannot use windmills and solar panels forever. The only solution is not to use energy at all. But that would be a catastrophe for the world’s economic system, and probably even more for the poor.

Dilemma of solutions

All solutions to save the environment and the climate are on the table. But they are not used. The basic and biggest obstacle for a change is our globalised, capitalistic, economic logic and the financial system, which are indeed more a religion than rational structures. As long as humankind will not overcome this systems, I see no solutions for saving environment and climate.

So we have to fight on two levels: Against the stupidity of politicians, heads of states and public servants as climate summit delegates, and the neoliberal and colonial economy. With the latter we are in dilemma: Millions of people will suffer after the capitalistic system has brought them a little bit out of poverty.

Nature will find its own solution

However, nature will find its own solution, even if millions of people will cease or suffer: Whatever comes first, the breakdown of economy, or increasing natural disasters as results of the climate change. Nature had always solutions for overexploitation of ecological systems. Old species become extinct or move to other places, making place for new species. Why should it be different for humans with a brain of which they can only make limited use of?

What we can do now is to save the narration of the coming disasters as a memory for future generations in 500 or 1000 years. Then maybe a tenth of the current world population may live around the south and north poles because the rest of the earth may be unliveable for humans. And hopefully these rests of humankind may have learned from our narratives.

This is developed in more detail in the findings and thoughts of Erik Assadourian in “State of the World 2013” by the Worldwatch-Institute 2.

Majority of environmental groups lack holistic approach

A statistics which I recently read in an issue of Technology Review revealed, referring to a survey by the online version of the German magazine »Der Spiegel« 3: Most flights are performed by people usually aware of ecological and climate damages and even very engaged in saving the earth, such as voters of green parties or environmental advocators. There are many examples for the ignorance for cultural and environmental values of environmentalists. Like the Greenpeace gang in Peru which invaded the Nasca lines and possibly destroyed small parts of them while demonstrating for saving the climate. Or a recent email advertisement in the EJNet mailing list from a Nepalese journalist coordinating the Seven Summits Women Team with the slogan “Together We Reach Higher” with a focus on Education, Empowerment and Environment. In my opinion such actions have more to do with destroying the environment and the climate than saving it. While business people seem to be more rational than environmentalists because they are able to make their deals and contracts without seeing each other in person.

History of idle

Well, these are my thoughts on climate policies. I am an old science journalist who studied oceanography in the 1970s. Already then it was very clear for us scientists that something dangerous was happening with the oceans and the atmosphere. I measured these changes in the North Atlantic during my research cruises and colleagues used already computer models developed in the 1960s in order to simulate the future climate. In 1972 these changes where documented in the »Limits to Growth« 4 of the Club of Rome. Nothing happened. Another 10 years later — the number of scientific publications about climate change had already doubled –, scientists warned more and more strongly leading to the foundation of the IPCC in 1988. Its reports since then always require immediate action.

And today? Nearly 27 years after the IPCC, 33 years after the Limits of Growth and 50 years after US-President’s Science Advisory board’s warning in the report »Restoring the Quality of Our Environment« 5 essentially nothing has happened. On the contrary: We emit more greenhouse gases than ever, still increasing from year to year. From these facts I derive my pessimism: Within 50 years of increasing knowledge about the climate development humankind was not able to change its way of living and of its economy, and it is still not willing to change.

Easy to see, impossible to act

I remember two sentences from my mother which she said in the 1950s, very long before climate change was a scientific and public issue. My mother was a simple woman. Referring to the second world war she said: “Maybe ever now and then a big war is needed to kill millions of people in order to keep humankind on a level which is sustainable for nature.” She did not mean it in a sarcastic way since all my family except my grandmother, mother and sister died during the war. Looking in winter at the smoking chimneys of our city, she said: “All these gases from the smoke will fill the atmosphere. It will be the end for humankind when the atmosphere is full.”

One needs not to be a scientist to see what is happening. But you need to be a politician and a climate summit delegate to ignore what is happening and to ignore the urgency to act. But as long as people are not able or not trained to use their brain avoiding integrated biases, and as long as a religious economy governs policy, I have no hope for humankind. But on the other side: Maybe it is better for the earth if humans disappear at all. It makes me happy indeed to live with the idea that nature is able emancipate itself from humans.

This article is the outcome of an e-mail interview with Ruth Aine, a journalist and blogger from Uganda who writes for »Foresight for Development«. The article appeared on her Foresight blog 6.


  1. Daniel Kahneman in Wikipedia_ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow (2015-01-02)
  2. Assadourian, Eric (2013): Building an Enduring Environmental Movement: http://www.worldwatch.org/building-enduring-environmental-movement
  3. Spiegel-Online (2014): Grünen-Wähler halten Rekord bei Flugreisen: http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/gruenen-waehler-halten-rekord-bei-flugreisen-a-1002376.html (2015-01-02, German only)
  4. Club of Rome (1972): Linits to Growth: http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Limits-to-Growth-digital-scan-version.pdf (2015-01-02)
  5. Science Advisory Board to the US-President (1965): Restoring the Quality of Our Environment: http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Caldeira%20downloads/PSAC,%201965,%20Restoring%20the%20Quality%20of%20Our%20Environment.pdf (2015-01-02)
  6. Ruth Aine: Our minds not made for saving the climate: http://www.foresightfordevelopment.org/ffd-blog/ruth-aine/our-minds-not-made-for-saving-the-climate (2015-01-02)

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