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How to combat global warming -- by overcoming evolution

How to combat global warming -- by overcoming evolution

Posting in Environment

An expert on resilience describes how we can beat back genetic pulls and work toward curbing climate change.

Andrew Shatte blames evolution for our slow response to global warming. An expert on resilience, Shatte sites our mixed up fear sensors (terrified of spiders, but not heart disease?) and our slow-to-evolve senses (can't smell carbon dioxide, but we can spot a lion in the grass!) as among the evolutionary reasons why we've yet to take global warming seriously. He outlined that view in my post yesterday.

Today, I'm highlighting Shatte's solutions. When we spoke last week, he described several ways we can beat back those genetic pulls and work toward curbing climate change.

Tune in our frontal lobes: "That part of the brain -- just behind the forehead -- really separates us from other primates. It gives us the ability to problem solve, to foresee, [to have] empathy. It's the rational part. It has the ability to overwhelm some of the earlier wiring in our brain. That frontal lobe that can steer us in another direction... I may be wired to fear snakes and spiders, but I can also say to myself, "The biggest threat to me is not a spider or a snake, it's cardiovascular disease. So I'm going to eat more healthfully." People do that everyday, but it only happens when you're consciously aware of limitations. Then we can potentially rise above the tyranny of our genes."

Add more car pool lanes: "We're basically selfish, we don't like to cooperate. [But] what we should do is have three car pool lanes and only one single vehicle lane. We'll give up that right in order to curb our carbon dioxide emissions from our vehicles. That takes an enormous amount of social will. Carpooling just doesn't come naturally to us. In order to curb our natural tendencies, we need to institute policies that will force us to do that. That gets really tricky, saying to people, 'You surrender your rights to some sort of central body.' But I think that's what going to be required."

Put global warming front and center: "Maybe [we could have] a visual billboard that shows us the effect of global warming in parts of the world where we're not. If we were confronted with that everyday, our sensory system might be a little different."

Shift our spending: "Each year, we spend $50 billion on cosmetics and beauty products. That's a hard-wired evolutionary pull to do that. We want to look attractive because that attracts a mate. If we were to curb that kind of spending and funnel it to global warming, we may have a fighting chance."

Use our memes to overwhelm our genes: "Humans are unique in that we have a culture. These cultural ideas which [Richard Dawkins] called "memes" replicate through the culture just like genes do. It's the most successful ideas that get transferred down the generations. A meme can overwhelm a gene. A concept that we have in our minds can affect our behavior and short-circuit the hard wiring in our genetics, if we allow it to. When memes change, our behavior changes."

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Shatte

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure