Should we blame biology for our biosphere-bashing behavior?

Determining whether human nature is short-sighted when it comes to survival-necessary situations

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
  • Do you know what evidence supposedly supports the claim that "human nature" is short sighted?
  • Can our abstract math help us weigh the "utility," or value, of cupcakes against burning the biosphere?
  • By mixing moral or survival-needed items with trinkets, this math seduces many into calling "rational" what we know will logically lead to collective doom.


Do you believe human nature is inherently short-sighted? Do we naturally prioritize the present above the future? That's often asserted, and taught, but readily refuted. Let's review the relevant logic to see if you can spot the flaws. They reveal that what now passes for "rational" often resembles rationalization, and can dangerously discount basic logic and moral clarity.

Consider Nathaniel Rich's New York Times article on the climate crisis. "Human nature has brought us to this." Our main way-of-life-organizing ideas presume we're "incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations." Rich explains "Economics… prices the future at a discount; the farther out… the cheaper the consequences." But should we rationally model everything as like a depreciating corporate asset? Is everything that matters like machinery whose utility and value diminishes over time?

Rich has the correct culprit: economics (abetted by bad pop science). But he fails to present readily-available counter-evidence from history, anthropology and daily life. Don't many parents (likely including Rich's) routinely trade current conveniences to give their kids good educations? Haven't wars meant sacrifice for future generations? And many people and cultures are known to put a premium on protecting resources they know will be needed in the future (you don't eat your seed corn if you want your kids, or way of life, to survive). Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-work in economics documents how sustainable groups do this — sadly, this isn't influential enough even in economics.

Can we delay gratification?

Still, many economists, and other expert "rationalists," believe that "marshmallow test" experiments have shown that future discounting is baked into our biology. This test offers kids one treat now, or two later to assess ability to delay gratification. Steven Pinker says "a rational agent ought to discount the future," indeed that's "wired into our nervous systems." Versions of the test have been done on pigeons (pecking for pellets) and enough other species, for Pinker to say "all organisms" discount. Further details don't matter; the signature flaws are already visible. We needn't worry about different discounting types, iffy methods, or that contra Pinker's "wired-in-ness," this varies by culture (for example Cameroonian kids beat Germans by a huge margin), and context, and group norms (see Bina Venkataraman's The Optimist's Telescope).

A deeper flaw surfaces if we ask, are measurable marshmallow or pigeon-pellet preferences good proxies for every decision? For moral choices? Or life-or-death decisions like:

a) 2 cupcakes now but increased suffering and shorter lives for your kids, or
b) 1 cupcake now with less suffering and more life for your kids.

Cast in concrete and moral terms, who'd choose option a)? Yet camouflaged as consumer-choice, or under abstractions like market utility, we often do exactly that.

Is it rational or moral to knowingly increase suffering? Including that of your own descendants? To even reduce their chances of survival? Can a way-of-life logic that ignores "preferences" for survival and their rationally required resource constraints last long? Our current global-markets marshmallow test of this isn't going well.

Do we value the future?

Even those not educated into erroneous rationalizations — like the bird-brained tendency to discount breathable air for their kids — collaborate in this systemic shortsightedness. Markets and companies discount damaging our survival-needs as just the cost of doing business. But that's baked into recent market norms, not our biology.

Rich notes "any economist" can tell you how little humans value the future. I'd suggest they're projecting, and rationalizing, their own, atypical, preferences. Seduced by shiny sums they rush to "the" numbers that seemingly allow anything to be compared and "rationally" chosen by converting it to utility.

But to rightly recast their pursuit of evermore economic growth in moral terms is like asking how many marshmallows justify worse lives for your kids? Always cast costs and benefits concretely, and factor in who is impacted. Otherwise, you run the risk of math-masked moral errors.

Abstractly mixing moral and survival-necessary items with frills is far from smart. We can't let inapt abstraction, inept generalizations, and logic-losing numbers continue to corral us into collectively self-destructive "growth."

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