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Expired · 17th August 2009
Ray Grigg
Perhaps the most worrisome characteristic of humanity is our collective irrationality – an observation that may not come as a revelation. Too often we don't consciously know what motivates us and, in the clarity of retrospect, we discover we have behaved with questionable justification. Even worse, we pretend that we are rational and our the key strategic decisions are based on logical, evidential thought.

So, on the 40th anniversary of our landing on the moon, we should not be surprised by the news that this magnificent technological achievement was primarily motivated by America's competition for prestige with the Soviet Union. No fundamental scientific principles were to be gained by a manned flight to the moon. No eminently practical justification warranted the expenditure of the billions of dollars to get there – even had the moon been composed of the finest quality blue cheese, the cost of transporting it to market would have been prohibitively expensive. In essence, getting to the moon was the equivalent of one primate climbing to the top of the tallest tree and beating its chest the loudest.

Or consider the recent global financial crisis. Virtually none of the complex mathematical models predicted such a collapse. Barely a handful of the world's economic gurus had an inkling it was coming. This was because, in the words of Richard Bronk - his new book is called The Romantic Economist - "Standard economics assumes that economic agents are perfectly rational." In reality, writes Bronk, "We all have passions, paranoias, dreams and delusions" that guide our judgment. In retrospect, we can now see that pseudo-science, "irrational exuberance" and collective delusion built a house of cards so easily blown down by a gust of reality. Consequently, new economic models are now drawing from other disciplines such as biology and psychology to predict the outcomes of particular monetary strategies. Which is to say, concludes Larry Elliott in The Guardian Weekly (Apr. 20/09), "it is virtually impossible to say where the global economy goes from here."

This is not reassuring for the more crucial survival strategies we must adopt if we are to survive the global environmental challenges skulking toward us on the future's near horizon. For example, in a recent web poll by Maclean's magazine (July 27/09), readers were asked, "Should Canada adopt the G8's more aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?" A reassuring 55% responded that Canada's emission targets should correspond to those in the rest of the developed world, while 15% held we should have our own "made in Canada" plan. But an astounding 30% - assuming the poll was remotely accurate - still believe that climate change is a myth. Despite rising oceans, melting ice sheets, global weather anomalies, warming seas, forest fires, thawing permafrost, measurably hotter temperatures, and confirmation from an incessant barrage of peer-reviewed studies published by the most eminent scientists on the planet, nearly one-third of Canadians ‹ presumably some of the world's most informed people ‹ still think that global warming is a concoction invented by some cabal of deviants who have a nefarious plot to undermine glorious capitalism. Has anyone recently checked the membership of The Flat Earth Society?

Without rational people, what are we supposed to do about global fish stocks? They are presently being managed with an abject lack of foresight. North Sea cod are reputedly being harvested before they even have a chance to breed, reports The Guardian Weekly (June 12/09). South Pacific and American coastal stocks have almost been fished out. West African fishing communities are collapsing because foreign industrial fleets are scooping up their fish. Almost all stocks everywhere are under stress. "On the latest estimates, around a third of the world's oceans need to be closed to fishing, perhaps forever, to regenerate stocks" (Ibid.).

But we have been aware of overfishing our oceans for 50 years and of declining catches for more than 20 years. Wouldn't a rational humanity count the fish, compare these numbers with the harvest rate, anticipate the consequences, then take reasonable measures to avoid the catastrophe of oceans without fish? If our Plan B is farmed fish - many of which are carnivorous - how are we supposed to manage their feed stocks if we can't even manage the primary stocks? Do we wait for a global fish crisis before we take action? Then who will curtail desperate fleets chasing scarce fish for hungry populations? The rising stress emanating from such circumstances reduces even further our capacity for reasoned behaviour.

"Man," declared Mark Twain, "is a reasoning animal." Then, after a pause lasting long enough to let the oxymoron register, he would probably have asked, "Now I wonder who got that idea?" He would probably have asked the same question about homo sapiens meaning "wise humans".

We have been smart enough to establish our dominance on the planet. We have been wonderfully creative, inventive, resourceful and adaptive. On countless occasions - as in the empirical practice of mathematics, science and technology - our exercise of reason has been admirable. But, in certain crucial matters, when our human impulses should defer to reasoned judgment, we have suffered fatal lapses of foresight.

Few people would want us to become rational automatons. Indeed, that would ruin our humanity and the miracle that makes us into our unpredictable selves. But we are too predictably unpredictable. And we have an obligation to our successors on Earth, and to the biological integrity of the planet itself, to be more intelligent in the integration of reason into the fabric of our individual and collective conduct.

How sad if our epitaph were to read, "Here lies humanity – reasonable, but not reasonable enough."