Insidious change


I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, in general, we humans don’t like change. Patterns and predictability are safe, and a deviation from that represents risk. I absolutely understand why it is that we don’t like change. But lately I’ve been thinking about our responses to change. With most changes, the response is to try and make things the way they were before. Or to at least mitigate the risk that a change represents. So why is it that some changes elicit a response while others do not?

It seems to me that there are three factors at work here.

1. Time frame.  Rapid change generates an equally rapid response. It’s jarring, and our response is almost reflexive. But what about changes that occur more slowly? These changes seem to be more insidious because we are less likely to extrapolate their cumulative effects into the future and it’s easier to ignore them.  This applies to many subjects. Matters of health, for instance. Weight gain is a prime example. When we see morbidly obese people, we often wonder “How did they let themselves get that way?” The answer is because most people don’t gain 150 lbs overnight, or even over a few months.

Weight gain is one of those insidious changes. You pack on a pound here, a pound there–over the course of a few months you might not even notice a physical change. A few more months go by and you notice a slight physical change–easy to shrug off or make excuses for, easy to promise that you’ll start exercising. But the snowball effect has already started. As you keep gaining weight, it becomes harder to lose it, and eventually the task becomes a daunting undertaking all because you let it sneak up on you.

This can extend to scientific principles like evolution. I often hear people say things like, “Well how come I’ve never seen evolution happen?” Well, you do see it happen. But the guiding principle of evolution is that it takes place over vast stretches of time. It’s like watching a movie that’s been slowed down by a factor of 1,000,000–obviously you aren’t going to see any meaningful changes soon. Or, if you’d prefer another film analogy, it would be like taking a reel of film and looking at each frame individually. The changes between frames are minute and probably hard to perceive, but when you add them all up they do show a significant change. And it’s because of this large time frame that people don’t change their response to available evidence–it doesn’t occur in a time frame that they can handle.

Climate change also falls into this category. So the temperature goes up 0.1 of a degree. Big deal. We probably wouldn’t even be able to perceive that in our day to day lives. And if each year the average temperature goes up by 0.1 a degree, maybe we can acclimatize for a bit and again we don’t notice it. Until it actually does disrupt our lives. Just like the fellow with hypertension who can’t actually feel his blood pressure increasing until he gets incredible headaches. Whether you believe in climate change or not, and whether you believe it’s due to man’s activities or not, the numbers are inescapable, and they show a trend of increasing temperature. Just take a look at the data:


2. Geography. Out of sight, out of mind. That old saying probably does have a ring of truth to it. Ice sheets the world over are shrinking? So what? I can’t see that. It doesn’t affect my day to day life if it’s happening half a world away. We lost an inch of coastline this year? Doesn’t matter, I live inland. It’s very easy to trivialize, rationalize, or plain ignore something when it isn’t staring at you directly in the face or when it’s happening to other people.

3. Loss. Sometimes we do know that something needs to be done about a change, but we just aren’t willing to do that something because it represents an immediate loss for us. There are giant islands of plastic floating in the pacific ocean. We know this. We could change this by reducing use of plastic and/or increasing efforts to recycle. But we don’t do that because it would result in a loss of profit, it would require more of a time investment for John Q Public, and quite frankly people like the convenience of disposable plastic things.

Over-fishing is another example. More than 70% of the world’s fisheries are either over-exploited or depleted. Seems like a pretty easy fix, doesn’t it? Just stop eating so much fish. Increase hatchery activities. Decimating a significant player in the food chain of the largest ecosystem on the planet also seems like a bad idea on paper that most rational people would agree with. But what do you think fish consumption around the world looks like? Here, too, this is a problem that we can’t actually see.

Apparently we just can’t give up the tuna

You can apply these principles everywhere. To economics with inflation and wage stagnation, to scientific principles, to medicine and health, social issues, etc. The dangers of changes that take place out of sight or very slowly are very real, and our responses to them are fully within our control. We have the ability to recognize and understand these processes which means we can overcome them, ultimately.


4 thoughts on “Insidious change

  1. Nice post. In one of bio classes (might have been Evolution and Ecology actually… I took a lot of classes) my professor devoted an entire lecture to overfishing. Really huge problem that many people seem surprised to learn.

    1. Thanks!

      I think part of the problem is that we’ve been conditioned by our economy to consume. Whenever issues about the environment pop up, politicians are always the first ones to scream, “But what about the jobs?!” Of course that wins them elections, but it’s remarkably shortsighted.

      Quite frankly I don’t give two shits if 10,000 fisherman get to keep their jobs if it means we’re going to destroy the whole ocean. I don’t give a flying fuck about 5,000 coal miners in WV if eliminating those jobs means everyone has clean drinking water. It’s not like those people are never going to find work again. And it isn’t like they can’t be retrained.

      I live in Oregon, where the forest industry was huge and logging made up a sizable check of the economy and jobs. We passed a lot of tough conservation laws that all but killed the industry, and there was an awkward period of transition, but now our economy is doing great, better than the national average in terms of job growth. You can protect the environment and still have a booming economy.

      But this endless consumption that capitalism pushes is unsustainable. There simply isn’t an infinite amount of things to consume.

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