why do people act too late to prevent disasters?

As Prof Nigel MacLennan, Leadership Coach and Investor keeps asking this question, (https://www.psychreg.org/climate-inertia-psychology-acting-too-late/) I have finally got around to answering it.

In the research for my latest book about Famine in the British empire, I discovered that many people affected were unwilling to change their diet, their work practices or their abode, even though any of these would have mitigated or even avoided the problem. I struggled to understand why this might be so, until I watched a TED talk in which the presenter mentioned that in any situation requiring change, only 7% of humans will adapt. In other words, although we often claim that human success (in population or biomass terms) is due to our adaptability, in fact it is only a small minority of humans who do adapt, the rest merely benefiting from their actions, or dying.

Most human behaviour is driven by genes, upbringing and peer pressure, not by rational decision-making. Freud was the first person to posit this as a kind of scientific theory, but it has since been proven. In practice, people start to carry out a new action and only later use their brains to justify their actions. Best-selling books pander to the idea of Homo sapiens, but there is just no evidence to support the idea that most humans are rational creatures. The vast majority will do what they have always done, and if they are going to change their behaviour, they will just follow the crowd. No amount of intelligent reasoning will make them adopt a course of action that is not approved of by their previous experience or by those around them.

Leaders in hierarchical organisations are even less likely to succeed by appealing to intellectual arguments. Hierarchical organisations encourage sycophancy, not open discussion and rational thought. Those highest in the structure are also those least likely to have the time to investigate any specific thing, and those least likely to have as advisors people who want the best for the planet, the human population or the organisation they work for – they are only interested in getting the promotion to the top job when the old codger hoofers it – and if they aren’t, if they have just one ounce of empathy for others, then they won’t get the promotion. 

In my research on human behaviour, I conclude that there is little that leaders can do to prevent disaster. There is no example of a successful empire over many years; they all succumb to disasters, almost always caused by ever-increasing taxation. Commercial enterprises are no different. Some exceptionally strong leaders may have sufficient knowledge or advice to adopt a good strategy, but they can rarely maintain their focus for long enough in a large organisation to keep it effective. Perhaps the only way is to avoid the democratic process, and maintain a ruthless focus on communicating the right message. Warren Buffet manages this as a majority shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway, but also because as a leader, he sends out only one message every year or two, and that is focused solely on the need to ensure perfect and ethical behaviour by every employee in every subsidiary. He is unlikely to be followed by a leader of equal stature or power.  Most leaders have some kind of ethical message, but they drown it in endless, contradictory and often pointless messages that absorb time, effort and resources to manage and dilute the important message to avoid the disaster.

Disasters may be disastrous for those directly involved, but the majority of people avoid such outcomes; risky behaviour is rarely punished. The RMS Titanic sank due to risky behaviour by the ship’s captain, and 1500+ died as a result. But most ships at that time sailed fast, far too fast to avoid the odd accident. Most of them survived, and their owners made more profit as a result, ran more services, and provided greater benefit to their customers. Human technological improvement has been a constant throughout recorded history, as have endless disasters, both natural and man-made. The Second World War probably counts as the greatest man-made disaster (so far), yet in a century that saw 100 Million dead from war, the human population grew by many billions.

Anthropogenic climate change may affect a small number of people (relative to the world’s population) negatively, but the most likely outcome is that a far greater number will benefit from it, and it is a fact that far more people are alive today directly due to the fossil fuels that are burnt for energy, converted into plastics and other materials, or into agricultural fertiliser, without which half the human population would die.

In any case, the 7% of the human species that are the most adaptable are also those most entrepreneurial, most willing to try something new, and highly suspicious about any attempt to restrict their behaviour. If climate catastrophe promoters really want the mass population to adopt different behaviours, they only need to promote them as new behaviours. The Tesla Plaid (0-60mph in under 2s) will convert more people to electric vehicles than banning petrol engined cars. The other 93% will simply follow the herd, mindlessly repeating what they have heard, four legs good, two legs bad. So, the critical job for leaders is to stimulate the 7%, and the 93% will follow.

Instead, most political or industrial leaders force the 93% to obey restrictive practices, and then charge the 7% with not obeying.

Unfortunately, human behaviour, especially that of those higher up the hierarchy, is aimed at enforcing acts of homage rather than encouraging any beneficial behaviour. These acts need to be as useless as possible to be acts of homage, rather as obeisance to a sovereign or a deity is a kind of ritual humiliation. As most humans share these traits, the most common examples are those which it is easiest to enforce. It wasn’t just the police that enforced stay-at-home orders and obligatory mask-wearing – neighbours and shopkeepers joined in, and even children ratted on their parents, just like their counterparts in Stalinist Russia. While Covid behaviours were easy to identify, and the deaths led to legal (often found later to be illegal) enforcement of restrictions, it is harder to see how climate traits can tap into the human psyche. Al Gore sets a fine example, flying in a private jet to Davos, where he stays in a superheated hotel. It is difficult for anyone to take his claims seriously.  Local and national governments will succeed in restricting driving speeds, banning certain kinds of engine, but only economic factors will affect human behaviour long-term and across the planet.

What will happen is a growth in greenwashing, with every polluting activity given a rationalisation to make it acceptable to the environmental elite. The worst disaster so far is the conversion of Drax, the Bond-villain-named worst polluter in Europe, from cheap but smoky Polish brown coal, to American wood pellets, even more polluting and now coming from the largest deforestation in the northern hemisphere. Marketing departments will spawn many more large and small examples of what will become a far greater industry than renewable energy, sustainable living or circular industry. Four legs good, two legs better.

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