Monday, May 25, 2015
INQUISITION 9: Denial and The Tyranny of Hope
In one of the episodes of The Wire television series about drug dealing gangs and politics in Baltimore, a gang boss walks into a convenience store. The security guard recognizes him and pleads with him to avoid trouble. 'Please sir, I don't want no trouble. I am just trying to feed my family.'
The gangster looks him in the eye and says 'You'd like it to be one way, but it's the other.'
Then, the gangster takes some beef jerky and puts it in his pocket, making sure the guard can see him. The guard does not say a word.
Later the same day, the gangster sends someone around who shoots the guard.
In economics, we call it the difference between positive thinking and normative thinking. Normative thinking is when we think about what we want and positive thinking is when we think about the way things really are.
Whenever we say we have hope, it really means that we know the way things really are but we want them to be different. We want the the 'other' way.
I spent some years working with financial data trying to make accurate predictions about the future. Here's what I learned: changes are small and barely noticeable when they occur. There are very few big, dramatic changes - mostly, change is incremental.
In the 2006 film 'An Inconvenient Truth', Al Gore claimed that while global warming appears inevitable and will severely damage the ablity of the Earth to sustain life, there are several specific actions we can take to modify our lifestyles and to reach manageable temperature rises.
However, as a species we appear to be unable to modify our behavior so far. Here's how Wikipedia put it: 'Near- and long-term trends in the global energy system are inconsistent with limiting global warming at below 1.5 or 2 °C, relative to pre-industrial levels. '
Failure to limit global warming below the 1.5 or 2% threshold will lead to increasing climate change with negative consequences for us all.
For most people, The natural human reaction to such facts is to 'hope' that we will find a way to limit the effects somehow.
It appears that the likelihood of irreversible climate change is too large a concept for most people to grasp. Instead of facing the 'positive' trends, many people revert to the 'normative' hope that the problem will disappear. This is often called 'denial.'
And yet, we limit our ability to create effective responses to future trouble by 'hoping' or 'wishing' it away.
Perhaps if we can eliminate 'hope' from the problem, we can face it realistically.