Thanks, Short-Term Brains!

There’s a joke – popular among conservatives and libertarians – wherein two guys are running away from a bear. One guy asks the other if they can outrun the bear; the other says, no, but I can outrun you. (haha). I heard it again on the news a few weeks ago. It occurred to me that the joke has to feature a bear because they are often solitary hunters. The joke just doesn’t work with a pack of wolves.

The idea that you can survive by outcompeting your peers has some validity in some situations, but against more comprehensive threats cooperation is a much better survival strategy. Particularly if you have aged parents or small children that can’t even outwalk the bear.

In Politico, a Seattle entrepreneur named Nick Hanauer – a wealthy 0.1 percenter – argues for long-term thinking with The Pitchforks Are Coming For Us Plutocrats. First, he wants to pay the middle class enough to buy his products. Second, he thinks Occupy could be a lot worse next time around:

Here’s what I say to you: You’re living in a dream world. What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time. Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens. Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand. That’s the way it always happens. If inequality keeps rising as it has been, eventually it will happen. We will not be able to predict when, and it will be terrible for everybody. But especially for us.

I keep thinking back to Galápagos. In his 1985 novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator (a ghost) notes that he had thought himself to be smart because of his big primate brain, but then relates all the bad decisions he and his fellow primates made as their civilization collapsed. For example, he explains how a ship captain should have recognized a dangerous situation brewing in port, but since he had just enjoyed a good meal, and was looking forward to making love with his woman, the reptilian part of his brain instead chose to believe that the situation would work itself out. Somehow. “Thanks, big brain,” snickered Vonnegut after every poor and ultimately fatal decision.

Will the ghosts of plutocrats some day sarcastically thank their big brains as their heads are paraded on pitchforks? For a long time I was completely on board with Hanauer’s argument that we need a strong, stable middle class for both economic prosperity and political stability. In the short term, I still believe that to be true. But in the long term, it is exactly wrong.

Over a decade ago, I read arguments by Julian Darley to the effect that the earth simply doesn’t have the resources to support a large middle class with all the water and oil and meat that it consumes, and all the carbon and waste it generates. It can’t even support the US and European middle classes much longer, much less the rising middle classes of China, India, Brazil, and so on.

At about the same time I began reading The Oil Drum, and was exposed to other examples of short-term thinking. Many TOD commenters saw Peak Oil as the bear, and bragged about how they were going to get their ten acres of crops and firewood, and maybe some solar panels, but definitely plenty of rifles and ammo. They warned that they would shoot anyone that came to their door. In the short term, they recognized that cold, starving neighbors might be the initial threat. But how would they survive the local foraging gangs (the pack of wolves) that were bound to organize? Would they have neighbors that could help them with medical problems or other emergencies? And what of climate change? If you just shoot at everyone, who is going to pull your family out of a mudslide? Thanks, short-term brain!

Dmitry Orlov has looked a little further down the road and in Communities That Abide, advises us that certain groups have tended to survive through difficult times. But as I’ve mentioned before, those of us in the US middle class don’t much resemble the Amish or Roma folk that Dmitry implies we should emulate – whether by education, temperament or expectations. In such a community, to want more out of life than being expendable once you reproduce would be yet another flavor of short-term thinking. Perhaps Vonnegut was right about our big brains.

It is tremendously hard to think long-term about everything. Do Hanauer’s fellow 0.1%ers simply enjoy being rich too much to change? Or do they already know the risks they are running, but have no options? I look at myself and see that I have made small changes to my middle class life – less driving, no a/c, a smaller house – but nothing like joining an eco-village or transition town. Essentially I enjoy being middle class, and my family and friends and employers expect me to keep up appearances. Can I expect the rich to give up being rich when I don’t give up being middle-class?

We haven’t looked after our infrastructure, or provided for energy once the oil is gone. Our healthcare system is increasingly predatory. We are overfishing and overfarming. As I see it, the middle class faces a future of dwindling into relative poverty and insecurity, while the rich face a future where being rich isn’t as comfortable or secure as being middle class is now.

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