All posts by Helen Camakaris

Wanted: leader with a vision for a sustainable future

A sustainable future remains within our grasp but – thanks to the way human brains work – only governments can implement many of the necessary strategies. Our political leaders have a unique responsibility.

Consensus politics and compromise may well be the only way that we can deal with existential threats such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and the social disruption that would inevitably follow.  If the current election campaign is anything to go by, these concepts do not come easily to Australia’s political leaders. But perhaps that will change.

Humanity’s approach to these problems is limited by the way our brains have evolved. Climate change presents a challenge to our evolved altruism, which is circumscribed by expectations of benefit to kin or reciprocal reward and an obsession with fairness.

Similarly, our drives to seek status and consume goods are largely instinctive; our evolved intelligence has simply taken them to a higher level. Unfortunately contemplating the long-term future is not on our radar. That is why good government is so important.

So can our current political leaders guide us toward a safer world?

We need leaders who are prepared to put forward long-term plans for decades, even centuries, something which does not come naturally since we evolved to live in the present, and our instincts encourage us to discount the future and underestimate risk. They must resist the temptation to appeal only to immediate self-interest, a shortcoming of our current adversarial democracy and short election cycles where leaders appeal constantly to the hip-pocket nerve.

Consensus on intractable problems could be achieved by a commitment to multi-party committees. Bi-partisan think tanks that include Members of Parliament and independent experts can help circumvent parochial attitudes, and foster rational decision-making for the long-term future. Indeed, a party that commits to such a model for helping to formulate policy for intractable problems might well win support in the electorate.

Governments must extend the use of incentives and disincentives to satisfy our desire for fairness. Where policy to promote long-term sustainability conflicts with immediate self-interest, clever strategies can guide behaviour while still providing choice. In Australia, the carbon tax was coupled with compensation for most citizens and some industries, making the personal cost minimal.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Party’s Direct Action Plan fails to offer any incentive to individuals to decrease fossil fuel energy use. It would also fail to deliver the minimum 5% cut by 2020 without an injection of a further $4 billion. It would be necessary to either increase taxes or decrease services and, since paying for a secure future does not come naturally, there is a significant risk that Australia would abandon its pledge.

The Direct Action Plan also demonstrates our genetic predisposition to live in the present. There would be no mechanism for Australia to achieve the necessary further cuts beyond 2020. In contrast, Labor’s emissions trading scheme links our efforts to global action, and the introduction of a cap would ensure that we meet future obligations.

The government must also recognise our responsibility toward citizens of future generations, and those beyond our borders who will be affected by our actions. Such attitudes are not instinctive because of the origins of altruism, but they are morally equitable. The disadvantaged in developing nations have a right to move toward a reasonable standard of living. Sanitation, health care, and adequate food and water are basic human rights, and the simple comforts of life could all be provided by green electricity with support from the developed world.

Stewardship of Earth must be seen as a government responsibility. Currently both parties promote growth but continuing growth is impossible on a finite planet, a fact that is not intuitively apparent to many people. Might we able to able to move toward the goal of sustainability if the government incorporated gradual changes that move us in the right direction?

The developed world must ultimately move toward a steady state economy. Many countries already have a growth rate of per capita GDP that is close to zero (including France and the U.S.) – such a situation could be normalised and still provide a good quality of life. There are a number of strategies that would move us in this direction.

Gradually introduced cradle-to-grave pricing incorporating social and environmental costs would decrease consumption and moderate growth, and might be a more acceptable way to increase government revenue than an across-the-board increase in GST.

Reduced working hours as an optional alternative to increased salaries would also moderate consumption, ease unemployment, reduce inequity and increase leisure time, and would undoubtedly be popular with sections of the electorate. Research has shown that happiness does not increase above a modest income, but is a product of the quality of our relationships, our engagement with community, and time for pursuing our interests.

Runaway growth is also fed by the salary “arms race”. The instinctive drive to demonstrate status is then made visible by the purchase of inordinately expensive homes and prestige cars, driving conspicuous consumption. Instead status could be recognised by relative salaries maintained within limits by regulation or taxation, complemented by honours and significant privileges.

The rush to exploit our natural resources should also be slowed down to provide for the future, again something we instinctively tend to ignore. A significant tax on mining profits that creates a healthy future fund would leave more resources in the ground, provide income for new industries for the future, and decrease the extraordinary incomes and extravagant lifestyles that flow to the lucky few through happenstance.

We must frame this debate in the context of leaving a habitable world for future generations, and highlighting humanity’s common heritage. The world desperately needs countries that will lead: there’s no reason why ours shouldn’t be one of them.

This post is a slightly updated version on an earlier article on

Don’t trust your Stone Age brain: it’s unsustainable

Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling we have when we know we should invest in solar panels but the 46″ wide screen TV wins out; we know we should catch the bus but we take the car anyway. It’s that sense of discord that arises when emotion and reason don’t get along. And unfortunately, it’s alive and well, sabotaging the climate change debate.

We’ve evolved to feel a single sense of self, but our minds consist of multiple voices. Our emotional brain has first go at making sense of our world, instantly telling us how to behave and what to believe, based on instincts reinforced by upbringing. Sometimes our rational brain is then called upon to endorse our intuitions, which then become beliefs. Problems that are unusually difficult or surprising will recruit our rational brain, but reasoning takes effort and we avoid it when we can.

Unfortunately our emotional brain is encouraging us to pursue perceived self-interest even if that means trashing the planet. This leaves our rational brain to try to justify our actions, even while the walls come tumbling down and the temperatures keep rising.

If we are to have any chance of a future we need to understand why our intuitions are so poor, and how we might temper them by engaging our ability to reason.

We haven’t evolved to be successful in the modern world. Civilisation arose only 12,000 years ago; in evolutionary terms that’s just the blink of an eye. Ninety-nine per cent of human evolution occurred during the Stone Age, so our evolved instincts, personality traits, and even some of our cognitive “short-cuts” are much better suited to this Pleistocene world.

Evolution didn’t care about the future; it was simply driven by those who survived and left the most descendants. So our ancestors were the ones who were best at competing for food and status, securing mates and having babies. They were materialistic, living very much in the present and rarely constrained by sustainability. They ate a broad range of foods, and if resources became depleted they could expand their territories or move on, behaviour that led to the extinction of many animals and to extensive migration.

A level of altruism did evolve, but it was circumscribed by benefits to kin, expectations of reciprocal reward, and an obsession with fairness. Altruism can often therefore be trumped by self-interest.

We might expect that intelligence and language would have been game-changers; they were, but not necessarily for the better. We learnt to tame nature and harvest its bounty, to build great cities, and to harness the laws of physics and chemistry. We may celebrate the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of modern civilisation, but it also ushered in burgeoning overpopulation, resource exploitation, pollution and climate change.

So if we evolved to exploit nature, and to be blind to the consequences, what now? Our only chance is to wrest control away from our emotional brain, and construct a new reality where our rational brain can take control.

We need to design a new kind of democracy where many government decisions are made cooperatively, with multi-party representation and the input of experts. Such think tanks must have strategies in place to promote critical self-analysis and to “frame” policy to reflect the long-term reality. The cost of climate change mitigation can then be shown to be minute compared to the cost of inaction.

If we value a sustainable world, the GDP must be replaced by a measure of a country’s wealth, including resources, social capital and the cost of pollution. Costs should reflect the inclusive cradle-to-grave value of products and services, so that choices reflect out true long-term interests. Conspicuous consumption might be curbed further by offering workers the choice of more leisure rather than a salary increase, and by rewarding excellence with honours and privileges, rather than fat pay packets and obscene bonuses.

Education must produce adults who can think critically and understand what’s at stake and why our judgement is flawed. To counter self-interest, the government should use incentives and disincentives to guide public behaviour. We need to encourage altruism by instituting reciprocal, incremental improvements, and by showing leadership.

We are at the crossroads. Unless we recognise the less-adaptive aspects of human nature and devise ways of keeping them in check, the world we bequeath to our children will be a diminished one. We have the means to do this, but do we have the will? Evolution may have made us the most intelligent animal on Earth, but it makes no promise that we will be survivors.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.