Three hundred seventy-eight million, four thousand. Can you process that number? I know you cannot; no one can. That is approximately how many seconds we have until climate change becomes irreversible and the planet’s ecosystems start to nosedive. But we already knew that.
So why are we not panicking? Sure, most people were distressed when they heard about it (if they believed it), and the odd few might actually try to do something about it. But why did the majority go, “oh my god, that’s horrible! What are we going to do?” and then promptly do nothing and go back to daily life? Well, probably because that is all the brain can handle.
Remember that big number? Human brains cannot actually process numbers much bigger than a thousand. Sure, we realize they are a lot but envisioning the size of a million is nearly impossible. According to Daniel Ansari, researcher at the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Western University, Canada, “our cognitive systems are very much tied to our perceptions; the main obstacle is that we’re dealing with numbers that are too large for us to have experienced perceptually.” Tragedy is similar: when the scale becomes too large, our brains simply cannot comprehend. It is easy for the human brain to grieve for one person, but when the numbers rise into the hundreds the brain cannot properly process this as it has very little context for this sort of event. In fact, people often care much more about one death then they do about hundreds because they have emotional context for this sort of event. This is referred to as Psychic Numbing: “most people are caring and will exert great effort to reserve ‘the one’ whose needy plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of ‘the one’ who is one of many in a much greater problem” (Paul Slovic, PhD). The definition of Psychic Numbing is “a tendency for individuals or societies to withdraw attention from past experiences that were traumatic, or from future threats that are perceived to have massive consequences but low probability.”
Well, low probability does not sound right. We have been told this is the situation we are in, and we are told that this is happening, so how does this apply? While scientifically it may have a high probability, our brain is still receiving “death of planet earth,” or “the point of no return,” as something not real. Surely someone will do something, and this will not actually happen, right? No one grew up being told that the end of the earth was likely. It has always been perceived as unlikely, as fantasy, as a trope that is unrealistic but fun to read about or watch.
So here we are, facing one of the biggest threats we have ever faced, and a majority of people do not think about it on a daily basis. It is not that we do not care, it’s that maybe we cannot care. We cannot understand the scale of it, and here is the thing: we do not have to be able to wrap our minds around it, we just have to do something, do something, do one little thing, something you can wrap your head around.