A neurosurgeon explores how our tendency to prioritize short-term consumer pleasures spurs climate change, but also how the brain's amazing capacity for flexibility can – and likely will – enable us to prioritize the long-term survival of humanity.
Increasingly politicians, activists, media figures, and the public at large agree that climate change is an urgent problem. Yet that sense of urgency rarely translates into serious remedies. If we believe the climate crisis is real, why is it so difficult to change our behaviour and our consumer tendencies?
Minding the Climate investigates this problem in the neuroscience of decision-making. In particular, Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, points to the evolution of the human brain during aeons of resource scarcity. Understandably, the brain adapted to prioritize short-term survival over more uncertain long-term outcomes. But the resulting behavioural architecture is poorly suited to the present, when scarcity is a lesser concern and slow-moving, novel challenges like environmental issues present the greatest danger. Duhaime details how even our acknowledged best interests are thwarted by the brain's reward system: if a behaviour isn't perceived as immediately beneficial, we probably won't do it – never mind that we "know" we should. This is what happens when we lament climate change while indulging the short-term consumer satisfactions that ensure the disaster will continue.
Luckily, we can sway our brains, and those of others, to alter our behaviours. Duhaime describes concrete, achievable interventions that have been shown to encourage our neurological circuits to embrace new rewards. Such small, incremental steps that individuals take, whether in their roles as consumers, in the workplace, or in leadership positions, are necessary to mitigate climate change. The more we understand how our tendencies can be overridden by our brain's capacity to adapt, Duhaime argues, the more likely we are to have a future.
Introduction: The Human Brain and Climate Change
I. Neural Origins
1. Brain Evolution and the Anthropocene
2. Brain Rewards as a Design for Learning
3. The Universe of Human Rewards
4. Biophilia and the Brain
II. The Twenty-First-Century Brain
5. An Acceleration of Consumption
6. Which Behaviors Matter Most
III. Changing the Brain
7. Behaviors That Are Easy and Hard to Change
8. Strategies for Pro-Environmental Shifts
9. The Green Children’s Hospital
Conclusion: A Sustainable Brain
Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, is a senior pediatric neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she also serves as Associate Director of the Center for the Environment and Health. In addition, she is Nicholas T. Zervas Professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and Faculty Associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
"Duhaime covers many issues in a thoughtful way, including the gap between people's stated intentions to perform pro-environmental behaviors and whether they actually do so; the limits of survey-based research about attitudes, beliefs, and behavior versus seldom-done field studies; and all the ways in which reward is pertinent for behavioral change. She succeeds in suggesting that neuroscience is indirectly relevant to understanding our current climate predicament."
– Adam R. Aron, Science
"A fascinating book. Dr. Duhaime reveals that the vexed nature of the human brain complicates our response to our greatest crisis. By linking neuroscience and environmental studies, this book offers key insight into how we might leverage our brains to fight climate change."
– Bill McKibben, author of Falter and The End of Nature
"Original, thoughtful, and inspiring. Dr. Duhaime explains how our brains seek rewards, and if we take the time to understand how and why this affects our behavior, we will be able to live healthier lives – for ourselves and for our environment."
– Peter Sterling, author of What Is Health?
"Minding the Climate provides key insights on how the physiology of the human brain shapes our capacity to address the existential threat of climate change. This work is essential if we are to have any hope of surviving as a species and preserving a habitable planet for future generations."
– Brad Campbell, President, Conservation Law Foundation
"For decades climate science has been ignored, undermined, and denounced. Dr. Duhaime takes us deep into the brain to understand why we fail to do what is in our and the planet's best interest. This is an important book."
– Rachel Kyte, Dean, Fletcher School, Tufts University
"While our brains are motivated by short-term incentives and immediate satisfaction loops, we can change the ways we think about the threat of global warming and, consequently, spark our collective sense of urgency and action. Minding the Climate presents a groundbreaking look at how to do that."
– John Judge, President and CEO, Trustees of Reservations, and author of The Outdoor Citizen
"A beautifully written look into why changing behavior in response to the climate crisis is so challenging. Like the great neurosurgeon she is, Dr. Duhaime methodically and carefully unpacks the fascinating evolutionary roots of human decision-making, why that decision-making so often falters in the face of modern threats, and how to use that understanding to guide future action. Highly recommended!"
– Howard Frumkin, Senior Vice President, Trust for Public Land
"A unique look at how to meaningfully address catastrophic climate change [...] Duhaime's original angle sets her work apart from the pack, and she easily translates complex neurology for nonspecialists. Climate-minded readers will find this full of insight."
– Publishers Weekly