What do I mean?
In the ground-breaking study – Limits to Growth1 – published in 1972, the authors understood this to be a crucial factor in how we approach environmental and social issues. So much so, that they addressed it early in the book, with a figure similar to that below being the first in the book.
Another factor in terms of our level of concern is that we are less concerned about something if it takes a long time to play out, and highly concerned if the duration is short lived. A graph such as that below illustrates this.
When Limits to Growth was published the terms and concepts of climate change and terrorism were almost unheard of. Global warming was just beginning to be talked about. Terror attacks in Europe were still low, although they spiked in the late 1970s through groups like the Irish based IRA, the Basque ETA and the Italian Red Brigade.
Climate change and terrorism are very good examples of the psychology mentioned here. Climate change seems to many to be a series of events to come (in the future) and for many the consequences are seen in other parts of the world (from our TV screens.) Climate change is also something that evolves over a number of years. Terrorism, however, is an immediate event. One minute all is normal and serene. The next moment, a bomb explodes, or a truck slams into a crowd, and all is chaos, carnage, screams and pain.
Today, terrorism is viewed as a massive threat and nations around the world are acting (and spending huge amounts of money) to reduce the risks.
Yet, we may ask: what is the risk?
The number of terrorist attacks in Europe peaked in the late 1970s with over 1,000 attacks in 1979 and for the next two decades averaged around 10 attacks per week! Since then, the number of attacks has actually decreased. So too, have the number of deaths. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s the number of deaths in Europe because of terrorist attacks averaged around 300 per year. Over the last two decades the number of deaths has plummeted to an average of less than 100.
We know what happened in 2001 though. The US was the victim of a terror attack and suddenly terrorism is seen as a major threat on the world stage. No wonder really. The US is the home of six of the largest news media outlets in the world. And, as the saying goes: if the US sneezes, the rest of the world gets a cold.
The risk is low, yet the perception of risk is high.
Climate change, on the other hand, is often perceived as being something that takes place over a long time frame and will happen in the future. The catastrophe here is that this perception increases the risk, rather than reducing it. In the late 1980s NASA scientist, James Hansen, warned that the earth could be approaching a tipping point in its climate, and spoke of a need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm). Three weeks ago (5 March 2018) Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced that the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere reached 408.35 ppm in February.
The risk is high, yet the perception of risk is low.
The message from these two examples is that we need to become aware of how our perception of risk and actual risk can be skewed. That skewering is the real risk.
1. Meadows, Meadows, Randers, Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York, 1972.