- Nov 2021
Fundamental features of human psychology can constrain the perceived personal relevance and importance of climate change, limiting both action and internalization of the problem. Cognitive shortcuts developed over millennia make us ill-suited in many ways to perceiving and responding to climate change (152), including a tendency to place less emphasis on time-delayed and physically remote risks and to selectively downplay information that is at odds with our identity or worldview (153). Risk perception relies on intuition and direct perceptual signals (e.g., an immediate, tangible threat), whereas for most high-emitting households in the Global North, climate change does not present itself in these terms, except in the case of local experiences of extreme weather events. Where strong concern does exist, this tends to be linked to care for others (154) combined with knowledge about the causes and possible consequences of climate change (155).
This is indeed a problematic feature of human evolution. It has given rise to what Timothy Morton refers to as "hyperobjects", objects of such vastness in space and time that it defeats human mechanisms of perception at local scale: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/hyperobjects https://hyp.is/xROjpD_jEey4a6-Urbh4_Q/www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/timothy-mortons-hyper-pandemic
This psychological constraint is worth demonstrating to individuals to illustrate how we construct our values and responses. These constraints can be demonstrated in a vivid way within the context of Deep Humanity open source praxis BEing journeys.
As in the New Yorker interview with Morton, we can take Deep Humanity participants on BEing journeys, walkabouts to identify hyperobjects.
Hyperobjects are also cognitive and highly abstract in nature. This is a clue to another idea that could be enlightening to understanding the problematic context of appreciating hyperobjects such as climate change, and that is the idea of Jakob Von Uexkull's Umwelt:
"Uexküll was particularly interested in how living beings perceive their environment(s). He argued that organisms experience life in terms of species-specific, spatio-temporal, 'self-in-world' subjective reference frames that he called Umwelt (translated as surrounding-world, phenomenal world, self-world, environment - lit. German environment). These Umwelten (plural of Umwelt) are distinctive from what Uexküll termed the "Umgebung" which would be the living being's surroundings as seen from the likewise peculiar perspective or Umwelt of the human observer. Umwelt may thus be defined as the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as a subject. By studying how the senses of various organisms like ticks, sea urchins, amoebae, jellyfish and sea worms work, he was able to build theories of how they experience the world. Because all organisms perceive and react to sensory data as signs, Uexküll argued that they were to be considered as living subjects. This argument was the basis for his biological theory in which the characteristics of biological existence ("life") could not simply be described as a sum of its non-organic parts, but had to be described as subject and a part of a sign system.
The biosemiotic turn in Jakob von Uexküll's analysis occurs in his discussion of the animal's relationship with its environment. The Umwelt is for him an environment-world which is (according to Giorgio Agamben), "constituted by a more or less broad series of elements [called] "carriers of significance" or "marks" which are the only things that interest the animal". Agamben goes on to paraphrase one example from Uexküll's discussion of a tick, saying,
"...this eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpoint [at the top of a tall blade of grass] with the help of only its skin’s general sensitivity to light. The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post (on top of the blade of grass/bush) and fall blindly downward toward her prey. If she is fortunate enough to fall on something warm (which she perceives by means of an organ sensible to a precise temperature) then she has attained her prey, the warm-blooded animal, and thereafter needs only the help of her sense of touch to find the least hairy spot possible and embed herself up to her head in the cutaneous tissue of her prey. She can now slowly suck up a stream of warm blood."
Thus, for the tick, the Umwelt is reduced to only three (biosemiotic) carriers of significance: (1) The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, (2) The temperature of 37 degrees Celsius (corresponding to the blood of all mammals), (3) The hairiness of mammals." ( From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_Johann_von_Uexk%C3%BCll)
The human umwelt limits us to a relatively small range of sensed signs. CO2 particles is not one of them. We rely on scientific narratives but these are far removed from direct sensing, into the field of conceptualization and abstraction. We have evolved to respond to danger that is sensed, less so to danger that is conceptualized.