In case you thought that the Society for Neuroscience conference was the only neuroethics game in town over the last couple of weeks, think again. The closing talk of the International Peak Oil conference — held here in Denver and organized by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas — also touched on the topic, despite never using the word “neuroethics.” The talk was given by Nate Hagens, who is interested in the connection between how we make decisions and the environmental consequences of the gathering energy crisis. The problem is that we as a species are not good at properly evaluating the costs (or benefits) of punishments (or rewards) that occur in the future. Not surprisingly, we are impulsive. Such “discounting” of the future has been observed in just about every species in which it has been studied, and the phenomenon has even been examined at the level of single neurons. This discounting wasn’t a big problem for most of human history, but it is now that our decisions can fundamentally affect the future. Climate change is an important example: We drive our car to the store because it gets us what we want, fast, but we don’t consider the environmental cost of those kilometers driven.
Instead of summarizing the talk, I’ll point you to a blog post of Nate’s on the topic (but I can’t resist mentioning one interesting impulsivity statistic he pointed out: Colorado, my new home state, has the lowest incidence of obesity in the US! We’re number 1!). Fortunately Nate isn’t the only one making this brain-environment connection: the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions has been studying this as well. Even the popular press (if any press is popular, these days) is on the case: See here and here.
It’s pretty clear that many of the grave threats to our environment are man-made, and they wouldn’t have come about without the evolutionary explosion of human intelligence (no comment on the intelligence of individuals who don’t believe we pose a threat to the environment in the first place). So our big brains have gotten us into this mess, but the real question is: Can they get us out?