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.
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."

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine

How were mRNA vaccines developed? Pfizer's Dr Bill Gruber explains the science behind this record-breaking achievement and how it was developed without compromising safety.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
  • Wondering how Pfizer and partner BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time without compromising safety? Dr Bill Gruber, SVP of Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, explains the process from start to finish.
  • "I told my team, at first we were inspired by hope and now we're inspired by reality," Dr Gruber said. "If you bring critical science together, talented team members together, government, academia, industry, public health officials—you can achieve what was previously the unachievable."
  • The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent COVID-19 for use in individuals 12 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorized for the duration of the emergency declaration unless ended sooner. See Fact Sheet: cvdvaccine-us.com/recipients.

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