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Humans With Antlers

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Will we follow the Irish elk's strange evolutionary path toward extinction?

In my unending (and thus far, I have to confess, largely fruitless) attempts to figure out why Americans aren’t more alarmed about climate change, one of the more intriguing ideas I’ve heard recently was put to me by a psychologist named Andrew Shatté.

Shatté, a professor at the University of Arizona, is best known for his work on resilience -- the ability of humans to deal with adversity. His thesis on climate change, in a nutshell, is that we are hardwired for extinction. He compares us to the Irish elk, which went extinct about 11,000 years ago. The male of that species evolved to grow big antlers -- I mean really gargantuan antlers, racks up to 12 feet wide, designed for the usual reasons of aggression, defense, and sexual display. Over time, the antlers got so big that the elk couldn’t consume enough calories to sustain their growth, so instead the antlers began to feed in auto-parasitic fashion on the calcium in the animals’ bones. If galloping osteoporosis didn’t kill them, they got their antlers impossibly tangled up in the overhead branches and starved to death.

So why are we like the Irish elk? The problem is the human brain, Shatté says. Our evolutionary development has not yet caught up with the change in our circumstances. More specifically, the problem is our brain’s fear triggers. Our instincts are still paleolithic; our fear reflexes respond to all the wrong things. They lie dormant in the face of climate change, no matter how ominously scientists predict its probable consequences. But we’re programmed to pump adrenalin at the sight of spiders, snakes, and other mortal threats slithering into our caves. We still run a mile from snakes, although they only kill about five or six Americans a year. The most recent annual figure for fatalities from lightning strikes is 58, but would you go anywhere near a golf course in a storm?

For the past year or so, where climate is concerned, our human fear triggers seem to have become even more anesthetized. Some of the reasons seem obvious. The global economic crisis has shunted many other fears into the background, and the climate deniers have done a scarily effective job with all their manufactured "scandals" about the integrity of science.

But wait a second: let’s not generalize about human fear reflexes. What we’re talking about mainly is American reflexes and American deniers. Concern about climate change has diminished almost everywhere in the past year, in inverse proportion to the gravity of the warnings from mainstream scientists. But alarm in the United States remains much lower than in any other developed country. You can argue about the reasons -- the enduring belief in American exceptionalism, a cultural distrust of scientists, Rush Limbaugh, whatever. Some people explain the gap by invoking the power of the fossil fuel industry. But in that case, why haven’t the climate skeptics set up shop in Norway, where the oil business accounts for half of the country’s export earnings?

Another common argument -- and this is implicit in what Shatté says -- is that we aren’t scared by climate change because the threat seems remote and abstract. Bangladeshis may worry about sea-level rise, and Peruvians may fret about melting glaciers, but for Americans, climate change is still something that is happening only in a galaxy far, far away.

I don’t really buy that. I spend a fair amount of time in the West, which is experiencing at least three spectacularly visible impacts of global warming: prolonged drought, raging forest fires, and the destruction of forests by the mountain pine beetle. Sit on your front porch in Wyoming or Idaho and you can almost see the trees dying in front of your eyes -- and then hold your breath to see if they will burst into flames come summer. The conundrum, though, is that these states are among the reddest in the country, the most likely to distrust the science on climate change and the most hostile to any government effort to reduce carbon emissions.

So what’s the problem with Americans? (A question that occupies a good amount of bar, pub, and water cooler time in Europe.) In a widely noted comment last October, Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, pointed out that while conservative political parties in other countries have small pockets of climate deniers, the United States is the only nation in the developed world where a major political party is almost uniformly hostile to the scientific consensus. There are still a good number of skeptics in the U.K., but none of the three major parties there questions that climate change is a huge problem that demands an urgent response. European conservative leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Angela Merkel in Germany feel the same way.

All of which brings me back to Andrew Shatté’s theory of evolution. Shatté is a remarkably eloquent guy (his recent TED talk on resilience is worth a look). But in the end I wasn’t convinced. If he’s right about evolution, why are Americans so much less fazed by climate change than the rest of the world? Isn’t evolution supposed to be a uniform process in a species? Or does it happen at different rates depending on your nationality or the accidents of birth? Were the elk in the peat bogs of Killarney more unconcerned about their plight than their cousins in Donegal? However, I suppose in the end debating theories about climate change and evolution depends a lot on whether you believe in evolution in the first place. But let’s not go there. After all, this is America.

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OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19... READ MORE >
Would you be surprised if I suggested that a partial answer rests in one of the unique characteristics of our educational system -- local control. Local control can work to shield local children from big cultural changes such as the increasing awareness of global warming and all that it requires of our society. If children don't learn about issues such as this one in school they need to learn about it as adults -- a much less likely occurrence. I don't think it is the only answer but I believe it is a substantial contributor. France and Germany, I believe, both have nationalized educational systems. I'd sure like to learn about their science curriculums in K through 12 grades!
Andrew Shatte started off correctly by probing evolutionary factors, but social milieu, not fear, is the determinant. We may be hardwired for a wilderness that doesn't exist anymore, but neurological growth during the formative years gives us enough capacity to override that. However what we learn from our societies, starting from the socially evolutionary adoption of agriculture 10,000 years ago, and magnified by the development of industry, is that we can use our environment. This is the implicit foundation of today's technology and business. The lack of public response to environmental problems is from a basic structural flaw in our culture, public consensus that we are apart from nature. Until our culture deeply understands that human activities are a subset of nature we will not involuntarily limit our endeavors through values learned during childhood, but continue to run into global limits physically.
Mr. Kemnitzer has hit the nail extremely square on the head! Everything we as humans do in the so called "modern" age seems to be proof that we have tried to set ourselves apart from the natural world. Since the industrial revolution, circa mid 1800's, our human brain has been in overdrive discovering new ways for humans to "improve" our way of life. All at the expense of our relationship to the earth and its natural resources. If we are unable to come to terms with our world and its resources and learn to "balance our checkbook" environmentally we are doomed to extinction as a species and may end up taking a large part of the earth's resources with us.
Many Americans ARE alarmed about climate change, but this hasn't stopped their leaders from being influenced by very powerful lobbies. Just like here in Canada where many people are concerned, there are many of us now very unhappy that the Harper government has let us down in this area, but because of distractions like the economy, and some confusion, the people haven't rallied around this issue yet. In the US significant and repeated attempts have been put forward to make national legislation (ie Waxman-Markey bill). Due, like you said, to a majority of the Republican party, also backed by coal/oil deep pockets, being climate change deniers they've managed to block the passing of this legislation, and they were *almost* successful at blocking it in California through Proposition 23. It was put to vote and the people supported bringing in regulation in the end. And there are several other states in the Western Climate initiative or forming some sort of subnational regulation. I'd say that the American situation is more about systematic and strong lobby groups, and a program of disinformation to back it that builds on personality traits that Republicans cultivate, that has had a wham bam effect of casting doubt. Rather like people in a cult, people in groups like the tea party have to justify that they aren't crazy, so further entrench their far out views that climate change is not real, so as not to challenge their sense of self. Rather than believe themselves as inconsistent and wrong, they'd rather believe it's a communist plot to redistribute wealth and attack the "American" way. Unlike people on the Continent who have a more mature adult collective history of having gone through war, and made big bumbling mistakes, Americans are also more like teenagers who have yet to realize that they are fallible, and fragile in the end. Finally, that the US is trying to become energy independent, and has enough coal to last 200-500 years, makes it the Saudi Arabia of coal. (Check out Chapter 6 of Repetto's new book "America's Climate Problem" for a more in depth review.) Rather like the difficult situation Wilberforce faced in England ending the slave trade, which largely brought wealth to most in parliament, in the US they face trying to strip this resource from those with vested interests in this coal, and who do NOT want to give it up, for both political "national security" reasons, as well as financial ones. The only other place that has a lot of coal like this is China. It will be interesting to see how the situations in the two countries play out. My bet is that China is recognizing climate change as a real issue more than the US though, and has already done more for mitigation and adaptation than the US, and will show up the US in the end, unless the US sees this in and of itself as a challenge, and that lights a fire under their competitive rears. My two bits
The US may have a great many more climate deniers as the article sadly points out however I think the whole world is missing the point. The first and most vexing problem is over population, the cold hard truth is the world has too many people to support sustainably under any circumstances but I don't hear anyone talking about population control here or abroad, it's not politically correct in most places. Secondly, most of the world lives in an economic system that is based on growth, fast or slow they all depend on growth or they become unsustainable. Until we have economic systems that recognize that we all live in a finite world and that rewards behavior that leads to a steady state rather than ever expanding growth then human civilization is on a collision course with disaster.