Climate Crisis: The Transformation of Human Evolution

May 26, 2021

The underlying cause of our collective failure to prevent the coming existential climate crisis is, ironically, the very mechanism that has led to our evolutionary success as a species: our relationship to perceived threat.  Unless we recognize and recontextualize what we perceive as threat, our actions around climate change are going to be insufficient to prevent our demise as a species.

There are two types of threats:  existential and non-existential.

When we stumble across a tiger in the forest, we are faced with an existential threat.  At that moment, the part of our brain known as the amygdala is activated.  Its job is to react to stimuli, in this case the tiger, by preparing our body to either stand and fight, or turn and run.

Non-existential threats are threats to our status, reputation, or identity; in other words, threats to our social or psychological survival.

The amygdala is the engine of our brain’s mode of thinking based on intuition and emotion.  In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman labels the mechanism behind this type of thinking “System 1.”

When the amygdala is calm, we can engage in clear reflection, concentration, and evidence-based decision-making.  Kahneman calls this “System 2” thinking.

The amygdala has been instrumental in our evolutionary development because it has allowed us to detect existential threats and respond appropriately.

However, the amygdala does not differentiate between existential and non-existential threats.

Applying this phenomenon to our failure at dealing with the climate crisis, consider there is a common, human response when we as individuals are confronted with issues that challenge our existing paradigms and ways of being.  Our response is of the nature “Don’t tell me what to do.”  Rather than a rational consideration of the issue, this more visceral response stems from the perceived challenge to our self-identity.

For example, I’ve noticed I get angry whenever someone challenges my point of view.  When I look deeper into my reaction, I see that I think that person is questioning my intelligence.  This is an automatic interpretation.  Why?  Because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always thought that I’m not smart enough.  This is a decision I made at a very early age. It faded into the background but has remained with me ever since.

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I want people to think I’m smart.  But underneath, I think I’m not smart enough.  So, I’m super sensitive to anything that triggers that irrational “truth.”

We all hold unconscious criticisms about ourselves, like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not strong enough,” and so on.  Whenever something triggers these self-criticisms, our self-identity is immediately threatened, our amygdala is activated, and our System 1 thinking kicks in.

Back to the issue of climate crisis:  When we are faced with a challenge to our existing view of the world, our self-criticisms are triggered, and the threat response of the amygdala activates our System 1.

Consider the current political issue of carbon pricing.  Some of us staunchly favour a carbon tax, and some staunchly oppose it.  Those rigid positions have nothing to do with the issue at hand, such as the carbon tax itself or the science behind it.  Those rigid positions are the responses we create to the unconscious, past-based emotional decisions about ourselves that just happened to get triggered by the challenging of our points of view.

In other words, challenges to our points of view trigger the threat response of System 1.  And in this context of threat, our System 2 responds to the challenge.  It rationalizes, and firmly establishes, our staked-out, rigid positions on the issue.  It’s a vicious circle.

So, here we are, confronting the greatest existential threat human beings have ever faced, yet we are not responding accordingly.  Collectively, our amygdala, which are busy dealing with our social and psychological survival, are not perceiving the real existential threat.

This makes sense for a few reasons.  First, the existential threat itself is not easily visible.  Yes, severe storms, hurricanes, and wildfires are all around, but unless we experience them directly, the amygdala is not activated accordingly.

Second, climate change catastrophe is still an abstract concept for most people.  It’s going to happen someday, but not now.  So, the amygdala is not activated by it because the threat is not immediate.

Collectively, the rational part of our brain, or System 2, is also not dealing with this existential threat.  Why?  Because whenever we are faced with a challenge to our social or psychological survival, the amygdala interferes with our rational, System 2 thinking of what’s in our true best interests.

Climate crisis is unique among political and social issues because it affects everyone on the planet, and requires collective action, both in mitigating it, and in preparing for it.  It requires us to operate with what’s known as enlightened self-interest, an understanding that what’s best for all of us, is also what’s best for each of us.

How can each of us start to adopt this new transformed way of being?

First, we must recognize that we all have unconscious threats to status, reputation and self-image.  We must make an honest inquiry to identify our triggers and bring them from their undistinguished background state to the foreground.  Then, as we go forward, we can notice as they come up in various day-to-day situations, the noticing of which gives us the freedom to either choose to act based on those reactions, or to let them go.  By letting them go, we give our rational, System 2 thinking an opportunity to engage free from the effects of the emotional chaos of System 1.

This is an opportunity for the moment-by-moment transformation of the evolutionary power of the amygdala.

What will this transformation make available to us?

A critical mass will begin to see that perceived threats to status and identity are not real threats.  We’ll allow ourselves to see the real, existential threat facing the entire planet, and put aside our tribalistic tendencies.  People of all stripes will come together under one common mission.

The closest historical example of an existential threat causing diverse people to put aside their differences is during times of war.  For example, Winston Churchill, who as British Prime Minister and member of the Conservative Party, appointed members of the Labour Party to key positions in his cabinet during the years of the Second World War.

How do we effectively have people see this new possibility?

One way is to introduce this transformational personal inquiry into our education system at all levels, from the earliest grades, to post secondary and beyond.  There exist pedagogical approaches to help individuals bring from the background to the foreground their perceptions of threat.  This strategy alone will soften the grip of the amygdala.

This juncture in the evolutionary adaptation of our species is no different from the other evolutionary junctures that have come before.  This time, however, our evolution needs to be of a psychological nature; a heightened awareness of ourselves.

This awareness is critical if we are going to effectively confront the greatest existential threat we’ve ever faced.


Teaser photo credit: By Charles James Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88142663

Ian Lipton

Ian Lipton is a lecturer and specialist in the fields of sustainability and climate change resilience. He is President of The Carbon Accounting Company and is a facilitator with Common Earth. He received a BA and MA in Political Science from the University of Waterloo.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, existential threat, human evolution