Is it enough that scientists only publish their findings? Or should they actively promote them? In many cases the answer is the latter. If the researcher believes the world would be a substantially better place if their research findings were implemented, they must render their results generally understandable and pass them to decision-makers and the general public and recommend they act. Scientists must advocate, not merely report. Just standing by is not good enough.
An example is the study of human decision-making. Psychology, or behavioral science, has long researched how humans make decisions, and much of this material could be used to help us decide better. Yet politicians and CEOs show little knowledge of this material. Why? Is it because nothing of substance has been found? Or is it because those engaged in decision research are so fearful of being criticized as popularist or ‘unscientific’ that they fail to re-write and popularize it, that is, they fail to make their findings accessible?
This is not a trivial matter. In the era of global warming, environmental decay, species loss, and pandemics, societal decisions must be based on (1) the best scientific evidence regarding our physical world – oceans, energy, atmosphere, plastics, etc. and, (2) processes of human decision making that are valid and effective. Each area is critically important. In each, we need scientists to reach out and teach us how it is best to act.
I have tried to do my bit. After a career as a cognitive psychologist and public health academic consulting to governments and NGOs, I have written a book on the applied science of making big decisions. It’s called ‘Einstein’s Last Message: Saving our world by changing how we think.’ It takes the scientific decision literature and analyzes it, and uses anecdotes to illustrate the points. Then it sets out lessons for avoiding bad decisions and changing them to good ones.
It’s not the last word on making our big decisions good ones, but it’s a start.
Humans soon forget what true nature is, and so risk their future. Around 260BC, the Chinese Confucian scholar Mencius observed that the woods of Ox Mountain were once beautiful but now were wholly denuded – yet people thought it had always been just grazing land for sheep and cows.
And in Australia, my father told me how in the 1930s an old lady had explained to him that the land which became the Wimmera plains was once a forestland of buloke trees – she knew, she was a child in one of the bullock wagons that entered it in 1874, one of the settlers that cut it down.
And on 25th February 2021, the Wilderness Society reported that Australia is one of the worst developed countries in the world for broadscale deforestation, killing tens of millions of native animals and wiping out endangered forests and woodlands. In addition, land clearing and native forest logging emissions across Australia produce carbon pollution equal to half of all Australian coal-fired power stations – as is increasingly recognized, wilderness loss is now threatening humankind too.
We must cease destroying our natural world, to protect its richness and diversity, and save ourselves along with it. ‘Einstein’s Last Message‘sets out what is needed to achieve this – Dr. Bob Brown, Former Leader of the Australian Greens, recently described the book as“Magnificent!… an incisive pointer to what Homo Sapiens must do to save itself and its planet from itself.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reported to have said, ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.’ We need facts to make the right decisions; the truth helps us. Conversely, mistaken beliefs are dangerous. If we are threatened, we must see the threat in all its enormity. Otherwise, we won’t act with the urgency needed to prevent it.
Unfortunately, all major religions are geared to deliver solace, to provide magical ways for avoiding fear and danger. These beliefs are valuable if they are our only source of hope – Halina Birenbaum said that when in a Nazi concentration camp, she ‘preferred any lie a hundred times, as long as it gave me hope of surviving.’ However, if action is needed to save us, beliefs that allow inaction are a curse, and leaders that subscribe to fantastic religious beliefs endanger us.
We are now in such a situation; we must act to overcome global warming. We need relentless and ongoing action to cease the use of fossil fuels and prevent all deforestation. A false sense of security is perilous indeed. Because of this, we must discard leaders, irrespective of their political party, who subscribe to beliefs that encourage them to ignore or misconceive the danger we all face. Urgency is needed. Pious hopes will not save humanity and our natural world. Decisions must be made based on the facts.
Somewhere between 2 pm and 5 pm on the 20th of May 2012, in Fremantle, Western Australia, Sweet Pea died. She was only nine months old, in magpie years, an early adolescent. A human family, who knew her well, were shocked to find her lying dead beneath a post supporting a power line, her feet burnt away. It seems she had inadvertently bridged a power and earth line, causing her catastrophic injuries and death.
Sweet Pea had those qualities and behaviors that we humans value. She was a typical adolescent, confident and annoying, but also a wonderful loving daughter. Often she would take her mother gifts of food, repaying the care and kindness both parents had shown her in her too-short life. Time will tell how her parents manage her loss. What is certain is she is greatly missed.
Many will sympathize with Sweet Pea and want to change the world to protect other young magpies – put power lines underground, for example. And justifiably so: Sweet Pea didn’t have to die; she did because the human world killed her. But there are more dangers. Human destruction of forests has meant increased carbon in the atmosphere and accelerated climate change. In 2019-20 in Australia, this meant the death through bush fires of over three billion animals (research commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature), described as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.
To safeguard wild animals, we need to understand that they are like us – then we will empathize and want to protect them. Such empathy has benefits for humans. The main path to protecting wildlife is preserving their wild habitats, which means a ban on wilderness clearing. This saving of their habitats will not just help wild creatures, it will help maintain the earth’s climate and bio-stability.
By empathizing with wild animals and preserving their habitats, we will protect ourselves too.
Thanks to Cherry Manfield for the information regarding Sweet Pea’s death and permission to reproduce her painting of a younger Sweet Pea. For more details on the need to empathize with animals, see ‘Einstein’s Last Message.’
On Thursday, February 18, 2021, the United Nations released a report on climate change and the planet’s health, “Making Peace with Nature.” In brief, it proposed that to save the earth we must alter our attitude to the natural world.
“For too long, we have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. This has caused the linked environmental crises of climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and pollution, and is reflected in measures like GDP. “We can see GDP growth when we over-fish. We are destroying nature, but we count it as increase of wealth. … We can see the GDP growth when we cut forests, and we are destroying nature, and we are destroying wealth … Economic and financial systems fail to account for the essential benefits that humanity gets from nature.” Secretary-General Guterres said we need to change how we think or we will destroy our planet.
In fact, we have treated nature in a destructive, dominating way for quite some time, although humankind has not always acted so. Once, we considered animals our equals, as many indigenous peoples still do. We need to once more treat other living things respectfully and protectively, both for moral reasons and to safeguard humankind. And caring for nature is not the only change we must make; other flaws in our thinking cause almost equal harm. ‘Einstein’s Last Message’ sets out the corrections that our thinking needs if we are to be sure of surviving.
December 7 was the anniversary of the assassination of Cicero, the Roman statesman, orator and Sceptic. He is known for maintaining that humankind keeps making the same six ‘mistakes.’ One was ‘attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do,’ and Australia’s recent emotional attacks on China bring this to mind. Despite Australia’s feelings, China’s population is likely to be mostly content with President Xi Jinping’s actions, given their association with much-improved material circumstances. The Russians were similarly satisfied in Soviet times – greater access to education, housing, and healthcare made it worth keeping one’s nose out of politics. Nor will the Chinese accept the idea that China must be contained; they will consider it their turn to enjoy the perks of being a great power, well overdue given its delay following gunboat colonization from Europe and Japan. A second Cicero ‘mistake’ is ‘neglecting development and refinement of the mind.’ The Chinese picture-cartoon of the Australian army’s shame in Afghanistan is a disturbing but justifiable comment – we can’t say it was unfair, given it was Australia’s own investigations that revealed these fundamentally immoral actions. A wiser Prime Minister would have acknowledged our shame and offered our apology, not demand one from the Chinese. It is in our interest that our leaders dwell on how a refined mind might act and suppress emotional outbursts, see ‘Einstein’s Last Message.’
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently said Australia does not wish to choose between China and the USA, and Australia will not be America’s deputy sheriff. Despite current bad relations, China will believe him if Morrison now speaks respectfully of China in Australia as well as overseas, for his followers will then mold their values to his statements. To understand a leader’s influence, read ‘Einstein’s Last Message.’
This morning an interview was broadcast on ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Commission) with Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, where he commented on the recently announced defense agreement between Australia and Japan. This he supported, and interpreted as being directed at China. All in all, he was pleased with the deal, and when asked, stated it would encourage peace between Australia and China. That the agreement will mean better relations with China is unlikely. Most Chinese will know of the ‘Rape of Nanjing,’ a massacre occurring over about six weeks from December 13, 1937, when soldiers of the Japanese army murdered an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 non-combatant Chinese. They also recall the torture of Chinese and Russians in Manchuria, and the many further abuses enacted by the Japanese state as it sought to colonize China. I once carried out a World Bank consultancy in China. During this time, I asked some of its citizens (admittedly mostly doctors) how they viewed various other nations, including Japan. I remember one older doctor’s response. When asked what he thought of Australia, he said, “Small gold mountain.” America? “Big gold mountain.” Russia? “Older brother.” And Japan? He paused. “Mass killers.” (Koreans hold similar views; one young Korean woman once commented to me that “We hate the Japanese, but we respect them”). It is unlikely that forming an alliance with a country so hated by many Chinese will help Australia-China relations. As noted in my book ‘Einstein’s Last Message,’ George Saville (1633-1695), 1st Marquess of Halifax and English statesman, once observed, “Could we know what men are most apt to remember, we might know what they are most apt to do”. This applies to China’s memories and views of Japan, and increasingly, of Australia. Personal (or national) affronts are remembered. All politics may be local, but they are also personal.