General · 7th January 2012
Behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics – even though he wasn't an economist – for showing that people do not make rational decisions about economic matters. Instead of carefully considering all factors and then deciding on the basis of a reasoned conclusion, they usually act on impulse and then seek justification later.
While this behavioural principle applies to economics, it also applies to a wide range of other issues, particularly to our relationship with the natural environment – no trivial matter considering our dawning realization that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature.
The psychological forces that guide our decisions are even more problematic when we consider that they are skewed in the direction of optimism. As Kahneman writes in his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, "We are prone to over-estimate how much we understand the world and to under-estimate the role of chance in events." The result is an "illusion of control" that causes us to take risks with unrealistic prospects for success.
But this inclination to optimism is much truer of men than women. And since men, rather than women, have been the major force shaping the economic, political and material character of modern civilization, they and their inflated sense of optimism are largely responsible for the environmental mess we are presently facing. Men, of course, deserve their share of credit for the many benefits accruing from our modern age. But the most worrisome problem of our time is the catastrophic consequences of the unfolding collision between our techno-industrial ingenuity and nature.
If men, with their inflated sense of optimism, are leading us into an uncertain age, then we should regard their sense of confidence and control with a measure of concern. If they are reluctant to ask for directions when they are obviously lost, this is a worrisome sign. If men are risk-takers functioning under the delusion of optimism, and if they are prone to under-estimate the difficulty of building, repairing or managing anything, then their assurances about being able to address our current environmental problems should be suspect.
Despite the many material and organizational benefits earned by men, our technological age does have serious problems that could have been avoided with a more realistic and cautious approach – men do not seem to be inclined toward the Precautionary Principle.
We can thank men for the Industrial Revolution, an 18th century event that created the modern world by utilizing fossil fuels – and brought us global climate change. Flush with the excitement of two world wars in the 20th century – not exactly a positive in men's résumé – the petro-chemical industry began the en masse production of pesticides and plastics, many of which have proven to be toxic, carcinogenic or hormone disrupters. Men's ingenuity has also brought us the Nuclear Age, a mixture of blessing and curse that remains an unfolding dilemma. Genetic engineering and nanotechnology are new and exciting enterprises that will undoubtedly lead to ambiguous benefits ‹ and like most of men's adventurous inventions, they, too, will come coupled with the optimism that any problems they bring can be solved. Add the corporation to the list of men's inventions, a legal entity that is the projected image of their power, control and optimism.
As men's ingenuity has increased, so has the complexity of the problems it has created. The result is an acceleration of our civilization toward uncertainty, a growing doubt that is beginning to undermine the trust given so generously to men's optimism.
How do we address the problems created by men's optimistic assurances? How do we dispose of nuclear wastes and supervise the fissionable material from bombs and reactors? How do we clear the planet's lands and oceans of the scourge of plastics and pollutants littering and contaminating soil and water? How do we end the ecological contagion created by incessant mining and the desperate drilling for oil and gas? How do we eliminate or contain the mega-tonnes of carbon produced by our ubiquitous use of fossil fuels?
If the end result of our traditional source of fossil energy is the high-risk strategy of geo-engineering to control global climate change, then the end of all men's glorious benefits will be our mandatory and perpetual management of the life-support systems once offered so generously and freely by nature. Is the end result of men's optimism and confidence eventually real enslavement to the "delusion of control", the burden of perpetually managing ecosystems to keep them from cataclysmic collapse?
The tragedy would be ironic. But the further we follow the course of men's optimism and confidence, the higher the stakes and the scarier the risks. The result is a growing cynicism that all is going to end well.
We obviously need to balance men's unrealistic character with the more grounded and nurturing counterpart in women. A hopeful sign is that women are beginning to outnumber men in universities and professions, and that they are increasing their profile in politics and business. So, having tried men's way for a while, perhaps it's time to try women's.