I got to hear Al Gore speak today at the close of the Smith School World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment in Oxford, and I was amazed to be treated to a pop neuroscience lecture.
Rather than climate, Gore opened by talking about human psychology and physiology. Climate change, he said, is “ultimately a problem of consciousness”. He went on: “What is being tested is the proposition of whether or not the combination of an opposable thumb and a neocortex is a viable construct on this planet”.
That’s pretty deep, but Gore got deeper. Evolution, he said, had trained us to to respond quickly and viscerally to threats. But when humans are confronted with “a threat to the existence of civilization that can only be perceived in the abstract”, we don’t do so well. Citing functional magnetic resonance imaging, he said that the connecting line between amygdalae, which he described as the urgency centre of the brain, with the neocortex is a one way street: emotional emergencies can spark reasoning, but not the other way around.
Gore went on to speak about lots of other stuff: how better management of soil would be critical to solving the climate crisis. How geothermal energy had the potential for enormous development, and how existing technologies, such as coal-fired power plants had to become more efficient.
But in the end, he brought it back to human consciousness. Until the majority of citizens perceive climate change as a true crisis, he said, politicians will be sluggish to act. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that when we do decide to act, we will be able to do so more rapidly than anyone currently thinks is possible. “Just remember, when we become aware of what we have to do, and when we have the tools available to us to get the job done, it can change”, he said. “We ought to approach this challenge with a sense of joy.”
I’m not sure what it says about human consciousness, but it certainly is an interesting insight into Mr. Gore’s psychology. I’m curious to hear what neuroscientists make of his analysis.
If you want to hear the whole speech, have a listen here (audio quality isn’t brilliant, sorry about that).