The Joy Of Self-Delusion

Cycling around South Oxon today, in lovely but unseasonably warm weather, I found myself wondering about the distinction between us and rats.

To explain: the latest IPCC report confirms what we already knew – because of climate change, the planet faces a bleak future, and thus so do we all.

It’s that simple. This made top story in some news outlets … for a day. And that’s it. The scale of news media’s response is a good measure of how we are collectively going to respond to this looming calamity. We’re not. We know it’s coming, but it’s not going to set any meaningful national or global agendas. It’s not going to make any significant difference to how we all behave. And then, sooner or later, the problems will force themselves into our lives (if they haven’t already), and then we’ll struggle on, and cope as best we can – or not.

Perhaps some did, but none of the news reports I saw made mention of the screamingly obvious elephant in the room: population growth. If you really want to tackle both the causes of climate change and help mitigate the consequences of it, there would be a world-wide drive to discourage the human population from growing. There’s as much chance of that happening as there is of us all decamping to a new planet to live there happily ever after.

What I did see in the news reports was the inevitable clutching at straws – the mentions of ‘perhaps this report by the IPCC might be alarmist’, or ‘perhaps some crop yields will increase’ or ‘perhaps human ingenuity can come up with solutions’.

Crops in unusually warm spring weather

Perhaps all this unseasonable warmth will mean bumper crops. Perhaps.

Ignoring problems and instead clutching at straws: this isn’t surprising behaviour. It’s akin to smokers believing that they won’t get lung cancer, or the obese not believing it’s what they eat that’s the problem. (Said the over-weight ex-smoker.) There are any number of examples of how humans like to and, more importantly, are able to deceive themselves.

There’s a famous – if pretty grim – experiment from the 1950s by someone called Curt Richter. In a nutshell: if you put rats in jars of water that they can’t get out of, they’ll give up struggling fairly quickly and drown. If you set the same conditions up but take a rat out before it drowns, then put it back in again, it will struggle on for far longer, before – of course- it eventually drowns too. Such is the power of hope.

The distinction between us and rats is that the rats need an external cause to have hope – they need to be rescued (albeit briefly) before they feel they have a reason to struggle on. That is to say, they can’t fool themselves that there’s hope. Unlike rats, we can fool ourselves and have hope despite all the evidence to the contrary. Whether that makes us the superior of a rat or not, I’m not sure.