Climate Change Daily Repost Urban Environmentalist

Wired for survival, not climate change (Part 1)

Humans possess genetic wiring attuned to survival. Before our distant ancestors’ ascendancy over the natural environment, daily survival was the key theme of life. Humans adapted themselves to the seasons because hunting, and later farming, depended on planning, lest they starve during the winters. Less energy was devoted to wondering what would happen in 100 years because surviving the day, and then the upcoming year, was a full-time challenge. Because we are wired for survival, our human instincts focus on responding to the near-term, so how do we recognize an existential threat that is centuries away. 

Anthropogenic climate change poses such a threat, yet much of the world either turns away and denies the unfolding disaster, or passively accepts it, but doesn’t act. However, the real threat is not climate change, but apathy. Our inability to collectively work together and find solutions is a barrier to balancing today’s needs with the welfare of future generations. 

We are wired for survival, but not necessarily for the survival of the species. Yes, we are biologically predisposed to reproduce, so the species survives. But if population growth and associated resource demands destroy the ecosystems where we live, we don’t necessarily have the genetic circuitry that says, “stop reproducing.” Even though we can see the threat, there is a reluctance to act because the fall-out from climate change will unfold on a time scale that exceeds our individual lives. Profiting today at the expense of the future environment is a reasonable proposition for many. 

More is better

Human wiring also focuses on security. Our ancestors found that more food stored over the winter staves off starvation. Stronger walls keep out unwanted strangers. Both of these things bring increased safety and are thus desirable. If horses are essential to your society, then owning a herd of horses provides you with extra security. 

Today’s struggle for greater wealth is an extension of this need for security. Wealth equates to security, and more is better. The harsh way to express this is that greed is integral to the human condition. But where does this lead us, when populations explode, and everyone is on the path towards more wealth and security. Only when the link between wealth and security disappears can we focus our full attention on the future.

Cheap, accessible energy provided giant leaps in lifestyle and security for many, but not all, over the last 100 years, and the global standard of living advanced. However, cheap energy also flooded the skies with greenhouse gases, kick-starting climate change and global warming.  It would be unfair for me to point the finger at big industry alone and say, “Look at what they have done.” Consumers, like me, also don’t want to give up cheap energy. 

Energy access and prosperity

Improvements in average living standards over the past century in countries like the USA resulted mainly from cheap and plentiful energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas were the primary energy building blocks. Accessible energy drives commerce and manufacturing, thus creating jobs and wealth. This process is a standard model playing out today in many underdeveloped countries. 

However, cheap energy and innovation have done more than provide money; they have also made that money go farther. When consumers buy a cheap plastic mixing bowl from Wal-Mart, they pay their share of a production chain that starts with pumping oil from the ground as a raw product. Factories then transform the oil into plastic feedstock and send it to another plant that produces mixing bowls. Then trucks, burning fossil fuels, transport the finished bowls to a store where consumers buy them.

Virtually every item in our stores has a carbon footprint. Therefore, the more we buy, the larger the carbon footprint. The link between wealth, energy usage, and carbon emissions is clear. Larger homes, more cars, frequent air travel, and rampant consumption all cost money, and increase our carbon footprints. 

Wealth and the environment

Wealth intimately ties to resource use. As average living standards rise, the demand for more resources inevitably follows. At some point, increasing wealth runs up against resource availability, because the human desire for “more” has resource limitations. Mitigating climate change is about reducing carbon footprints, which will prove challenging because most people will need to live with less.  

A cleaner environment only comes at a cost. For example, a movement towards clean, carbon-free energy incurs costs, stressing people’s finances and security. Consumers may lose their enthusiasm for lowering emissions if it means a move towards less wealth. Remember that, against the background of flat income, rising prices result in decreased wealth. Such decreases represent a move towards less security. Food, shelter, healthcare, and education in most countries relate directly to the level of financial security an individual enjoys. 

This situation presents a climate change conundrum. We desire a clean, livable environment, but we also want security. The tension between these two aspirations creates a quandary because we must sacrifice security today, so future generations can enjoy a healthy environment tomorrow. 

(Part 2 )


Net-zero emissions – But no cooling down without Negative Emissions Technology (Source: ArcheanWeb) – Also:

Electrical power, a climate change puzzle (Source: ArcheanWeb) –


Patchbay wiring (Modified) – By Gael Mace – Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0,

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.

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