Dear Climate: You Don't Scare Us!

A Climate Change analogy to ponder over pancakes...and syrup
May 13, 2020 10:25 AM ET

This article was first published on Medium

Based on our track record, humans seem unwilling or unable to address climate change in a meaningful way. Previously I explored how both business and government have sabotaged progress but now it’s time to take a look in the mirror and ask: Does the problem lie with us? 

Why do we essentially sit back and watch the climate slowly lose its ability to provide for us? Are we a flawed species or are we just doing what nature prepared us to do?

Human evolution has conveniently provided us with a system for self preservation. A system that has been hardwired deep into our brains to protect us from immediate danger, and despite some close calls, it's what has kept our species alive since before we came down from the trees - 4-6 million years ago. So I think it’s fair to say that we’re on a pretty good run. But much of our threat response is beyond our control. Our central nervous system operates on an unconscious level and when a threat is detected our brains release a massive amount of adrenaline and cortisol to trigger action. 

But this time we’re not being chased by a sabre toothed tiger - climate change attacks us slowly. Can we engage our conscious mind to take massive and urgent action in a similar way that our unconscious mind can jolt us to respond? Or is climate change a threat that our species is simply poorly designed to overcome?

Consider this analogy...

It’s a lazy Sunday morning - you’re having pancakes with syrup. After you pour the syrup you notice that a small stream has begun to slowly fall down the side of the container. You need to wipe it down to avoid a sticky mess. While scanning the kitchen to find a towel, your gaze passes by the fridge and suddenly it occurs to you that you’re quite thirsty. You scoot over to the fridge, take out the milk, grab a glass and pour yourself a drink. Before you know it (as if your mother is standing right behind you) your brain remembers the pending “syrup emergency”. Still holding the milk container and a full glass, you quickly turn around. Luckily, the syrup has barely moved. There’s time. Your focus returns to the milk - you look down at your full hands and notice that you have a rogue drop that is racing down your glass towards your finger. 

A tiny bit of adrenaline is released as you assess this quick moving challenge. Your first instinct is to bring the glass up to your mouth and lick off the milk but unfortunately despite your best wrist contorting movements you can’t quite reach it as it’s on the other side of the glass. You quickly look around for a place to put down the milk container so that you can grab the closest hand towel. You slam it on the counter and with cat-like reflexes, you lunge for the towel, secure it, and spring into action to wipe the dripping milk that is about to reach your hand. You feel proud of your accomplishment. Meanwhile, the syrup has barely moved towards the counter - there’s no rush - there’s still time to deal with it. If you haven't guessed, the syrup is climate change.

As a species we're not scared

Thus far it appears that our ape brains are poorly configured to address a slow moving crisis with speed. Climate Change simply doesn't feel urgent - it doesn’t engage our central nervous system in the same way as a near real time COVID19. As a species we're not scared - there’s no collective release of adrenaline to trigger a change in our climate-destroying behaviours. There’s no urgency to contemplate life without all of the different conveniences and cheap products that we’ve come to enjoy.

So is this the end of the line - have our ape brains finally encountered an insurmountable threat? And if so, is it really our fault or are we just doing our best with what nature gave us? Or maybe...there’s more to it.

I will explore this idea more in my next article. Please follow me to be notified when it’s published. In the meantime - our future isn’t written - we have choices on which path to follow - despite what our unconscious mind says.



Brad Zarnett is a Canadian sustainability strategist, writer and blogger. He is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Brad writes about why Corporate Sustainability and our attempts to address Climate Change are a massive systemic failure and what to do about it. You can follow Brad on twitter: @bradzarnett, LinkedIn, Medium or via email.