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Thinking differently

A lecture to the British Psychological Society conference on "Crisis and Consciousness" at St Anne's College, Oxford, 2 September 2011.

We all know how difficult it is to think differently. Partly through nature and even more through nurture, our brains work on the basis of ideas and patterns of behaviour drawn from the society in which we live. To change them is inevitably painful, and can even be antisocial. No wonder that we all suffer from the disease of what has been called conceptual sclerosis: in short the pain of getting out of the box.

No wonder also that to bring in ideas and patterns of behaviour from other societies or fields of knowledge may be equally painful. We may have to do more to recognize and account for the constraints imposed on us by our choice of language. We think we know what is in our box, but to bring in material from the boxes of others adds to the pain. A good example is the resentment created by Darwin's ideas of evolution by natural selection, and even more their implications for religion, the status of humans, concepts of time, and the functioning of society itself. Other more topical examples are the reception of the evidence for tectonic plate movement, and ideas on earth systems science, otherwise known as Gaia theory.

So somehow we have to be ready to get out of our boxes, and face the hazards of upsetting long standing traditions, beliefs, attitudes and the often unspoken assumptions underlying our daily lives. Without such readiness we are in no position to look into the future. A good current test is our reception of the concept of the Anthropocene, which is worth exploring in some detail.

In a few words the Anthropocene is the label for a new geological epoch to succeed the Holocene, the present warm period in the history of the Earth which began around 11,700 years ago. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution a mere 250 years ago, humans have transformed the land surface, seas and atmosphere of the Earth. Our not so little animal species has changed the character of soils, the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere, the selective breeding of species of all kinds, and their movement round the Earth to produce a world substantially different from what preceded it.

The impacts which together constitute the Anthropocene can be defined in many ways. In broad terms we are exploiting and in some respects running down the Earth's natural capital, and damaging the ecosystem services on which we wholly depend. This is hard to reconcile with our experience of the bonanza of inventiveness, exploitation and consumption since the industrial revolution. All successful species, whether bivalves, beetles or humans, multiply until they come up against the environmental stops, reach some accommodation with the rest of the environment, and willy nilly restore some balance. Are we near to those stops?

In September 2009 the magazine Nature published an article by Johan Rockstrom and others identifying nine scientific stops or boundaries which humans would cross at their peril. Three had already been crossed: climate change; loss of biodiversity; and interference with nitrogen and phosphorus levels. The other six were stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; use of fresh water; changes in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading.

But these stops, however important, are only half the story. There are six more general ones where the societal responses are critical. First we need to confront the effects of our own proliferation in all its aspects; next to work out new ways of generating energy; to manage and adapt to what is in effect climate destabilization; to give higher priority to conservation of the natural world; to create the necessary institutional means of coping with global problems; and not least to look at economics in the broadest sense and the way in which we measure things. Together these elements constitute the crisis referred to in the title of this conference. As has been well said by Lord Rees former President of the Royal Society: in the future global village we cannot afford to have too many village idiots.

A lot can be said about all these issues, but today I want to focus on economics. Much current economics is built on the assumptions of more than a hundred years ago. Resources then seemed limitless; shortages were more of labour and skills than of goods; technology could solve almost any problem: wastes could always be disposed of; the other organisms on which we depended could adapt to the demands we made on them; the good functioning of society was a product of what was called 'growth' (hence the increasing use of Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product as measuring devices); and a kind of belief (I can think of no better word) in market forces as the main if not the only drivers of health, wealth and prosperity. With this comes the belief that economics are governed by reason (often mathematically expressed) rather than by animal - herd - instincts which otherwise rule.

It may be painful but indeed we have to think again, and I am glad to say that many are already doing so. Our society, even our animal species, is in a unique situation: as the title of a recent book put it: we have Something New Under the Sun. Here are some broad propositions:

None of these points is new. Change is already under way, even if sometimes obscured by the current economic crisis, from which paradoxically good may come. In particular efforts have been made to establish new systems of measurement: for example through the Human Development Index, the work of the New Economics Foundation, the Stern Review, and the recent report of the Stiglitz Commission. There is an effort to measure GDH, or Gross Domestic Happiness, I suppose as part of the Big Society. Even notions of Buddhist economics as a route to a more spiritually oriented society have come forward. But we are still far from the changes of attitude that are required.

Supposing, as I hope, that the message does eventually become more widely received and understood, what would be the implications ? Frankly they go so wide that it is difficult to be specific. Individuals, local authorities, corporations, government at all levels would need to set very different priorities and human behaviour generally would change as a result.

A pivotal factor would be our use of energy. The flow of energy affects economics, indeed life itself, every minute. It was the uses to which we put the stored energy or sunlight known as coal, oil and gas, which directly caused the industrial revolution and the consequent transformation now labelled the Anthropocene. I take energy as an example of how we need to think differently.

First we must recognize that supplies of energy from fossil fuels are limited. Estimates vary all the time as technologies develop, but deposits of oil, gas and coal are by their nature finite, and the environmental penalties paid in their exploitation will become higher than society can eventually accept.

The second new factor is better understanding of the cumulative effects of fossil fuel use and combustion on the chemistry of the atmosphere and the environment generally. The general relationship between greenhouse gases and the surface temperature of the Earth is well established, and although strenuous debate continues on the degree of human responsibility for the current increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, many think that the consequences of our continuing dependence on fossil fuels are more serious than the prospect of their depletion.

Hence the new interest in making more effective use of what fossil fuels remain, and such measures as sequestration of carbon or global auctions of permits to emit greenhouse gases. But the main interest has been in developing alternative sources of energy. They include nuclear power, whether fission or fusion; solar energy on the ground or through geo-engineering; power from biofuels; tidal and ocean power; a return to wind and hydro power; geothermal power using the heat beneath our feet; and a range of new electrification technologies.

Of course there are many uncertainties and complexities. We can rarely identify tipping points until we have passed them. We need to do more to recognise our vulnerabilities: for example the effects of climate change on migration or even warfare. So far the societal responses have been mixed and uncertain with wide variations between countries.

The economics of the Anthropocene demand not just a new approach but a whole new methodology. Out of date economics should be recognised as a dangerous mental condition which is driving the world in an alarmingly wrong direction. In natural terms we are tiny parts of a gigantic system of life to which we are doing increasing injury. The human superorganism has to learn its place among other superorganisms.

All this raises deeper questions about evolution, itself the product of natural selection, genetic drift, symbiosis, and - not least - chance. Changes are already taking place, for example in resistance, or lack of it, to certain diseases. We are capable of manipulating or altering some genes, and can even insert extra chromosomes for a limited variety of purposes. Last year we even created a self replicatory life form inside an empty bacterial cell. Who knows what we will do next? Will the rich eventually choose the best genes for their children? And humans divide between those up above and those down below as once predicted by H G Wells?

Already it has been shown that the current electronic revolution and the daily deluge of information it has produced can have big effects on the brain, the most remarkable part of the human body. Revolutions of the past, for example the invention of writing, or measurement of times by clocks, slowly changed the way in which we stored information and made use of it. Some parts of our memory sticks (or the physical storage of memory) can empty while others fill up.

Now the problem in changing. Instead of putting information together and taking a relatively unified view, we are reacting to a multiplicity of bits of fast moving information and dealing with the bits as best we can as they come. In short we are no longer so good at seeing the wood for the trees, or even seeing the trees for the twigs. The physical functioning of our brains may already be changing; and the notorious tilt between the left and the right hemispheres with it. Consciousness may feel different. We have yet to assess the effects of the singularity in human affairs caused by the exponential development of artificial intelligence.

There has also been a tendency to think that the more we use our brains, the larger they will become, and the more intelligent we will be. It may be true that as we learn to store information in new and interesting ways outside our bodies, we will be able to use it in ways impossible for our predecessors. But the brain itself represents an extraordinary balance between its sheer size, its physical properties (neurons and axons), and the energy to drive the whole apparatus.

As is well described in a recent article on "The Limits of Intelligence" by Douglas Fox in the July edition of the Scientific American, we may be up against the physical limits of our brains. Bigger may not be better nor even more beautiful. Fox points out that a honey bee, with its milligram-size brain, can perform tasks such as navigating landscapes on a par with mammals; while elephants with their 500 million fold larger brains, need more than a hundred times longer for their signals to travel between the opposite sides of their brains, and from their brains to their feet. So mere increase in size, even if it were feasible, would not necessarily increase human intelligence. If anything our brains have shrunk in size in the last few thousand years. It would be better to follow the example of the bees. Smaller can be more beautiful after all.

For the really long term I hesitate to speculate. Tectonic plate movement will shift the relationship between land and sea. Changes in oxygen levels in the atmosphere may affect the viability of life itself. The human species may even change its shape, let alone its brains, assuming some are still there to tell the tale. For example given the evolutionary significance of our brains and the current hazards of childbirth, we might imagine a sort of human marsupial in which women gave birth earlier in the reproductive process, and developed a kind of pouch.

I sometimes wonder how long it would take for the Earth to recover from the human impact. Future visitors from outer space might well be puzzled by the fossil remains of ourselves and the agglomerations we call cities, in short the relics of the Anthropocene. They might also wonder at the fossils of the other animals and plants we have so abruptly adapted for our own purposes. In the future rats could be as big as dogs, water hyacinths could block lakes, and microorganisms could go macro. But they should know, as should we, that life itself, from the bottom of the seas to the top of the atmosphere, is so robust that the dominance of any one species could be no more than a relatively short episode in the history of life on Earth.

Above all we must recognize how small and vulnerable we are as creatures of a particular environment at a particular moment in time. Think differently, and see the future as best we can. Let us enjoy it as long as possible.

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