Remember the monster that lived under your bed when you were a kid? The one that would eat you if he ever caught you?
Don’t lie to make yourself look brave. You remember him. Everybody does. The monster’s exact details might vary from culture to culture and kid to kid, but every child in the world knows there’s a monster waiting in the dark. And all kids invent the same set of rules for dealing with him.
When you’re in bed and the monster’s under it you must lie completely still. Don’t move or the monster might see you!
You must be completely silent when the monster’s nearby. (This is when most kids learn how to breathe soundlessly by doing it slowly, through an open mouth.) Don’t make a sound or the monster might hear you!
And for God’s sake don’t let any part of your body, like a hand or a foot or even a fingertip, extend out over the edge of your mattress. Or the monster might grab you!
Be quiet, be still, and stay hidden. Otherwise a sharp-toothed something might eat you. That’s life for most baby animals, including our own ancestors. If there’s a predator around, chances are he has excellent hearing and can see the tiniest of movements. If you remain silent and still then maybe he won’t notice you, which is the only way a baby animal can hope to survive in the wild when a predator is nearby and Mother isn’t.
I got to thinking about the monster after reading this article in the LA Times called “If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming.”
Basically, it talks about the way we evolved to deal with immediate, short-term threats. Throw a rock at somebody and he’ll automatically duck—this isn’t a skill you need to teach him. But dealing with long-term dangers that have to be extrapolated rather than seen — that isn’t something that comes naturally to us. It takes a lot more effort. Furthermore:
Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.
Of course, the premise of this article is that global warming is a problem, and will become moreso as time goes on. If you disagree, then when you read the article you should replace the term “global warming” with whatever long-term thing you do think will be a problem, like the national debt or government encroachment on civil liberties. Like this:
The second reason why [national debt or government encroachment on civil liberties] doesn't put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn't cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.
Which is why Americans get themselves get worked up over gay marriage and flag-burning when they should be worrying about [that extremely serious issue you think might hurt us in the long term because people are too foolish to do anything about it now].
We still know how to protect ourselves from the monster under the bed, even though he doesn’t exist. Threats that do exist, or will exist — we’ll work on those later.