Lost in the Forest

The news headlines these days could give the impression that the world is falling apart. Subtending it all is a sense that we humans have reached a tipping point in terms of our impact on the planet and on each other, due to a combination of our sheer numbers and the power of our technology, both of which have grown exponentially over the past century.

Yet the solutions we come up with to address this predicament seem, all too often, to reflect the same shortsighted thinking that got us into it. For decades, authorities in various fields have been using such terms as “unsustainable,” “limits to growth” and “unintended consequences” to warn that if we continue on our current trajectory, the disquieting trends that are slowly painting us into a corner, and that already shape so much of the daily news, will eventually overrun us. The same authorities emphasize that these trends – which range from overpopulation, to environmental degradation, to the spread of social ills – are interrelated and thus can’t be effectively addressed in isolation. Yet that’s pretty much the only way we’ve addressed them – when we’ve addressed them at all.

One reason for our indifference may be biological. In their book New World, New Mindpsychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich point out that the human brain evolved to cope with the sudden, dramatic dangers – as signaled by the roar of a predator, the smell of smoke from a wildfire, the quick motion of an enemy ambush – that constituted the principal threats to survival in prehistoric times. The result, they explain, is that we’re neurologically prewired to register the kinds of “loud” stimuli that seldom indicate a major threat today, and to ignore those of a subtler kind – such as slow but potentially lethal changes in our surroundings. Thus, we risk being slowly done in by the side effects of our own enterprises.

Fortunately, say the experts, we have the ability to overcome our perceptual shortcomings. But the first step is to become aware of them, which helps pave the way for a different mode of thinking to come into play. Part of the problem, however, is that we’ve forgotten we have the capacity for another mode of thinking – which, as a result, often lies in abeyance instead of helping us resolve or avoid the messes we keep on making. But authorities such as Ornstein (in his books The Evolution of ConsciousnessThe Psychology of Consciousness and God 4.0) have noted that the human brain does indeed have an innate ability to snap out of its everyday myopia – a “default setting” that developed to deal with immediate and limited concerns – and switch to a more comprehensive mode of thought. The key is to learn to tap into that ability and not let it get hijacked by wishfulness, fantasy and self-deception.

Even with the help of such a faculty, though, it won’t be easy to resolve a predicament that took many years to create and is, at least in part, the byproduct of a vast array of technological achievements that have brought us countless advantages. Those achievements were made possible by dividing the world into smaller, more-manageable chunks rather than looking at it whole. And while the former approach can pay off impressively in the short term, we’re coming to realize its limitations when viewed from a wider perspective. From global warming, to lifestyle diseases, to weapons that could wipe out all humankind, we seem to have fallen victim to our own cleverness at multiple turns, and to have forgotten that cleverness and wisdom are not one and the same. In forging relentlessly ahead, our main concerns have focused all too often on technological feasibility (“If it can be done, let’s do it!”) and immediate gains, with little thought as to whether a proposed course of action is in everyone’s best long-term interests.

What all of this suggests is that it’s time we started paying more attention to the forest, instead of concentrating on the individual trees. And the forest appears to be telling us, in ever-more-disturbing ways, that our dogged pursuit of growth, instant gratification and what we view as progress – without due regard for the broader context that our neglected, “higher” thinking faculty can provide – is not the road to utopia we thought it to be, but, rather, an increasingly hazardous dead-end street.