Our Green Brains

28 Feb 2014

I don’t know when we became a nation of statistics. But I know that the path to becoming a nation—and a community—of people is remembering the faces behind the numbers.

—Paul Neville


Take a moment to think of someone who is not like you.

It isn’t hard, is it? To conjure up an image of someone who doesn’t care as much as you, who isn’t as smart as you, who ignores or exacerbates pressing global challenges. For me, those people were climate change deniers, yobbos, rednecks with gun racks in the backs of their trucks and Christians who thought that I, as a Hindu, was going to hell.

Over the six years I lived in the middle of the United States, I learned those people were my greatest teachers—and they are just like me. I am not trying to oversimplify. Physiologically and psychologically, we are the same. Our DNA is over 99 per cent alike. And as a human species, we all seek two things: agency and communion. Agency is the desire to get ahead, achieve mastery and individuate. Communion is the desire to get along and relate to others.

Much of how we engage and experience the world happens in what I call our ‘green brain’—our consciousness about the world around us, our environment. ‘Environment’ comes from the French environer, which means to surround or encircle. My circle changed dramatically when I moved from the bustling metropolis of New York City to a small university town in north-eastern Kansas.

Kansas is known as a flyover state, meaning a state you fly over in a plane rather than visit or live in. It is a shame, because the state has vast natural gas resources and the second greatest wind capacity in the country. It is where cattle are raised and most of the wheat in the United States is grown: the country’s heartland and bread basket. But despite this connection to the land, most Kansans do not identify themselves as environmentalists—and would be surprised to learn they have been my most inspired teachers.

My greatest teacher on environmental issues is a former colleague named Cade. Cade was raised in a caravan by a single mum. He served in the US military, but has never left North America. Cade is a conservative who goes to church every Sunday; he prays before his meal and drinks milk with his dinner. I am an Indian born in Germany. My parents and I immigrated to the United States when I was a child. My father has an MD and a PhD. My sister and I grew up in a home that was modest in size, but definitely bigger than a motor home. The only milk I drink is in my morning coffee—and it is unsweetened almond milk. I am a complete left-leaning hippie—and I am just like Cade. We learned this when he shared tomatoes from his garden and we talked about our mutual appreciation of local food.

The schisms we experience across political and socioeconomic divides, race, gender and geography obscure the urgency and cooperation needed to solve our social and environmental challenges. In order to transform our world, we must transform how we engage with each other. For me, it started with that tomato.

Cade is more intimate with the sources of his food than I will ever be. He grows his own produce, hunts turkey and deer, and catches fish. Cade conserves natural resources not to save the planet, but because it makes good sense. He drives an efficient car because it saves money, and he reuses materials when renovating his home because it saves time. Despite the fact that Cade can build his own shelter and raise and forage for his own food, he would never call himself an environmentalist, because that title is reserved for left-leaning hippies like me. This disassociation is one over shared affiliations, not one over a shared desire for safe food and a healthy community. The term ‘environmentalist’ has become polarised and politicised—but our desire to conserve and protect our environment does not have to be.

Doug, the president of the local bank in Lawrence, was another unexpected teacher. He is a thoughtful, respected businessman who is unsure about human impacts on climate change. As the daughter of scientists, I did not know people could be thoughtful, respected and uncertain about human impacts on climate change until I met Doug. I learned his confusion was not only about the science, but the person delivering the message. In the United States, the dominant climate change communicators were scores of scientists speaking in climatology jargon—and former politician Al Gore. The dominant visuals were polar bears on melting ice flows, and the dominant messages were about faraway, invisible gases that, over time, would cause small islands to disappear. The information was too daunting: too far away in time and space and, for some, in worldview.

I thought that once Doug and I became friendly, I could share facts about climate change and his beliefs would change. I was mistaken. Psychologists have almost no evidence that information changes people’s decision making. We tend to exhibit ‘confirmation bias’— embracing facts that affirm our worldview and disregarding facts that don’t. It is how we make sense of the world.

Yale University psychologist Anthony Leiscerowitz asserts that the human species did not evolve to handle the complex problems of today. We are still walking around with the same brains we had 200,000 years ago. What we see and—more importantly—what we directly experience, matters. Our brains are evolved and complex but in some ways are still dull instruments. It is not that we do not care about climate change or genocide, we simply cannot fathom their magnitude. Risk researcher Paul Slovic explains that we start to desensitise after magnitudes of one, which means it is hard for us to emotionally connect to problems or tragedies that affect large numbers of people.

The reason we engage—or refrain from engaging—is not because we are stupid or lazy. It is not because we don’t care. It is because there is only so much we can process. Therefore, our challenge is to tell the stories of our most urgent social and environmental challenges in ways that connect to our 200,000-year-old green brains. When I see a snake in my garden (poisonous or not), my adrenalin rises and my entire brain lights up: I experience an immediate threat in my environment and am ready to act on it. The more insidious threat of global warming only ignites the prefrontal cortex, a small part of the brain located just behind the forehead. This is the part of the brain connected with the future, not immediate danger.

Developmental processes in the brain occur in a back-to-front pattern. The prefrontal cortex develops last. This is, in part, why we take incredible risks as teenagers. We think we are going to live forever. As we get older, we become increasingly risk averse and tend to underestimate bigger losses in order to avoid the certainty of smaller ones. So we cling to our resource-intensive lives. The imminent threat is a loss of comfort; many of us bristle at thoughts of smaller cars or eating lower on the food chain without considering what our consumption-intensive way of life could mean for the future.

Consciousness is, of course, a fluid construct. The droughts of 2006 in southern Australia ushered in water restrictions and water recycling efforts that transformed both comprehension and behaviour (Victoria experienced the driest year since 1900). These concerns continue to wax and wane. But when the droughts become more frequent, as the bushfires start earlier in the season and with more intensity, our full green brains ignite. Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that humans respond to four kinds of threats: ones that are instantaneous, imminent and personalised—or things that repulse us. All other threats fall through; we simply cannot hold on to or respond to them. The media can bombard us with images of typhoon survivors or melting icebergs. Scientists can overwhelm us with statistics on the growing number of environmental refugees or loss of biodiversity in the Amazon. We will all feel momentary grief, but then most of us will refocus on our immediate lives. Behavioral economists Patricia Linville and Gregory Fischer call these daily concerns our ‘finite pool of worry’; there is only so much we can concern ourselves with at one time. If we are to make information relevant, we must not ask people to worry about something new—especially not something far away in time or space—unless we can displace concerns in their pools of worry or frame new information in terms of existing concerns. Global challenges, and the stories we tell about them, must be close to us either emotionally or physically. We must tell these stories in ways that connect intimately to people’s lives.

We do not make sense of facts in isolation. We choose facts that connect to what we already believe in—and in which we already have faith. I use the term ‘faith’ deliberately: our stories must extend beyond data sets and bottom-line efficiencies. We are not purely rational beings; we do not always maximise value or utility. If we did, we would always buy the cheapest goods. But instead, we buy and love things because they bring us joy and because they are beautiful. We recognise that value exists beyond the balance sheet.

Social and environmental engagement is, at its essence, about relationships: our relationship to our natural world, our relationships with one other—and our relationship to ourselves and to what we hold sacred. Environer. This is what I shared with the Christian farmers from Kansas who fed me. We had very different versions of the afterlife, but in this life, on this earth, we share common purpose: to live in a way that reflects our most deeply held values.

The relationships that we have with our environment—and with each other—are messy, complex and dynamic. Our most important relationships always are. They are the ones with which we struggle—and the ones that reap the most reward. They endure. We cannot save the planet in ten easy steps, but each step we take on the longer journey is critical—and should be lauded. Personal action is the first step towards systemic change. To change the system, we have to change the way we engage. To change the way we engage, we have to tell different stories—stories that connect with our green brains: ones that are personalised and immediate, and inspire visions of the world we want now. A world that author Bryan Welch describes as ‘beautiful and abundant’.

Our green brains offer assurance that we can come together to manifest this vision. For we have a predisposition towards cooperation and helpfulness that activates when we socialise with others. When we are helpful and generous our brains’ reward circuits ignite—the same parts of the brain that light up when we make love or win a prize. This altruism is hardwired in us. It makes us happy. What also makes us happy is sharing our stories, because it is through story that we understand and love each other. We do not just tell our stories; we embody them. Doug gave a face to a climate sceptic. Cade gave a story to a hunter and conservative. Although we do not always get along, we strive to find common ground. We struggle to understand each other because we care—and because we recognise that our futures, our visions for a good and healthy life, are bound together.

Return to that image of someone who is not like you. Hold them in your mind’s eye. We cannot save the planet—we can’t solve our most pressing global problems—without you and without that person. Without us. It is difficult and uncomfortable to reach across the barriers we have constructed, but the people who are on the other side hold similar concerns in their pools of worry. They have the same DNA, the same brains, the same hearts.

A poem by African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks graces a wall in Lawrence, Kansas. Brooks was born in the state’s capital, in the era before the mandatory integration of public schools. Yet despite the bitter racism she experienced through much of her life, her art reflected a commitment to the bigger whole. In one of her last interviews she said, ‘I believe that we should all know each other, we human carriers of so many pleasurable differences. To not know is to doubt, to shrink from, sidestep or destroy’. The mural, on the wall in Lawrence, excerpts her poem Paul Robeson. It reads:

We are each other’s harvest

We are each other’s business

We are each other’s magnitude and bond.

When I took in those words, the flyover state became home.

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