I came across an interesting editorial today in the Los Angeles Times. Daniel Gilbert writes about how our evolutionary history and biology make it difficult for us to deal with problems like anthropogenic climate change (global warming):
Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.
(continue reading at the L. A. Times)
He lists several major reasons why it’s tough for humans to be really moved to take action against problems like this, and brings up a number of good points. He discusses reasons such as difficulty observing the slow rate of change, and the long delay before major adverse affects. This difficulty affects us in multiple ways; it’s relevant to medicine as well:
That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t.
I run into this problem with patients all the time.
Of course, one thing that tends to set us apart from other animals is our ability to remember, transmit, and record information, meaning we can decide to take steps that aren’t always consistent with our instincts or evolutionary heritage. It’s up to us to step up and solve this problem, instead of hoping it will go away on its own.