Growth Is Change. So Is Death.

The very readable book The Wizard and the Prophet tells the story of environmental prophet William Vogt investigating the apocalypse-level deaths of guano-making birds near Peru. When he discovered the cause in the El Nino weather cycle, his policy recommendations were to do nothing to mitigate this natural cause; he instead railed against many much smaller human influences, demanding their reversal. A few years later his classic 1948 screed Road To Survival, which contained pretty much all the standard environmental advice and concepts used today, continued to warn against any but small human-caused changes to the environment, while remaining largely indifferent to even huge natural changes.

I see the same pattern when people consider long term futures. People can be quite philosophical about the extinction of humanity, as long as this is due to natural causes. Every species dies; why should humans be different? And few get bothered by humans making modest small-scale short-term modifications to their own lives or environment. We are mostly okay with people using umbrellas when it rains, moving to new towns to take new jobs, etc., digging a flood ditch after our yard floods, and so on. And the net social effect of many small changes is technological progress, economic growth, new fashions, and new social attitudes, all of which we tend to endorse in the short run.

Even regarding big human-caused changes, most don’t worry if changes happen far enough in the future. Few actually care much about the future past the lives of people they’ll meet in their own life. But for changes that happen within someone’s time horizon of caring, the bigger that changes get, and the longer they are expected to last, the more that people worry. And when we get to huge changes, such as taking apart the sun, a population of trillions, lifetimes of millennia, massive genetic modification of humans, robots replacing people, a complete loss of privacy, or revolutions in social attitudes, few are blasé, and most are quite wary.

This differing attitude regarding small local changes versus large global changes makes sense for parameters that tend to revert back to a mean. Extreme values then do justify extra caution, while changes within the usual range don’t merit much notice, and can be safely left to local choice. But many parameters of our world do not mostly revert back to a mean. They drift long distances over long times, in hard to predict ways that can be reasonably modeled as a basic trend plus a random walk.

This different attitude can also make sense for parameters that have two or more very different causes of change, one which creates frequent small changes, and another which creates rare huge changes. (Or perhaps a continuum between such extremes.) If larger sudden changes tend to cause more problems, it can make sense to be more wary of them. However, for most parameters most change results from many small changes, and even then many are quite wary of this accumulating into big change.

For people with a sharp time horizon of caring, they should be more wary of long-drifting parameters the larger the changes that would happen within their horizon time. This perspective predicts that the people who are most wary of big future changes are those with the longest time horizons, and who more expect lumpier change processes. This prediction doesn’t seem to fit well with my experience, however.

Those who most worry about big long term changes usually seem okay with small short term changes. Even when they accept that most change is small and that it accumulates into big change. This seems incoherent to me. It seems like many other near versus far incoherences, like expecting things to be simpler when you are far away from them, and more complex when you are closer. You should either become more wary of short term changes, knowing that this is how big longer term change happens, or you should be more okay with big long term change, seeing that as the legitimate result of the small short term changes you accept.

But of course few are very good at resolving their near versus far incoherences. And so the positions people take end up depending a lot on how they first framed the key issues, as in terms of short or long term changes.

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  • Robert Koslover
  • The explanation to ignoring short term incremental versus big long term change may lie in our evolved human psychology. Humans are experts at coalition politics, keeping on the good side of their in-group, and furthermore often elephant in the brain unaware of this.

    So what happens is we see views of the group evolve over time, but a certain kind of presentism makes people typically oblivious to this. For example republicans were traditionally pro-immigration (think Reagan), and Democrats against. Then that flipped recently, and in particular Democrats have radically shifted to be pro-immigrant as a in-group status marker and identifier. But…..most people are unaware of this shift. They just know what they think today, and if asked may assume these were always their views, or at least have to think hard to realize their past self had different group views.

    The point here is the gradual shifts of in-group beliefs are both natural and no big deal. Humans are built to readily do this, and forget they do this. But ultimately it is not a worry or concern.

    But radical shifts that are big, whether near or far, portend strife and conflict. Either between groups or within them. If the shift is big enough, our intuition tells us our in-group will be in a fight. Alarms go off.

    Maybe the next step in this is to think of some odd examples where small shifts would create in-group or out-group conflict. And see if people are as concerned about that as big long term shifts. If so, then the underlying psychology is about whether your in-group cohesion is threatened. In hansonian terms: futurism in not about the future, it’s about how possible future change will impact the status and cohesion of your current in-group.

  • I would think the most likely reason is they see small changes as under possible control and choice by those living under it, and potentially reversible should they change how they react, while large change suggests scales beyond our control though possibly not beyond our adaptation, but more interesting to consider how we would adapt to it. Incremental change is often viewed as progress while large scale change as disruption. Incrementally we choose a favored local direction, worry about the future, but hope for the best due to our limitations.

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  • No mention of the genuine existential threat of global warming, with massive consequences not all that far off.

  • Riothamus

    Perhaps thresholds are a simpler explanation. My confidence is high that for almost every variable, the system I’m concerned with can only withstand so much change in that variable.

    Even if I don’t know what that threshold is, a large change is much more likely to drive us over it than a small change.

  • DanielMcNeet

    One should not believe the speaker is wrong and try to prove to her or him wrong in a confrontational manner. Rather, treat the speaker as your neighbor. Have compassion, empathy, patience and understanding in discussions with your neighbors. Learn to listen. You will learn more by listening than talking. There should not be Others, but Neighbors.