The ostrich syndrome

The ostrich syndrome is scarily common. It is the peculiarly human trait of avoiding issues we find difficult [ostriches don’t actually do it, we just blamed it on them]. 

We have become especially adept at this when it comes to environmental issues. But first we need some backstory.

Gatherer-hunter times

Convention has it that we were once at one with the environment as we walked, gathered and occasionally ran after a speared antelope on the African savannas. We did this for many thousands of generations eventually spreading around the world to do similar things on every continent except Antarctica.

We still believe that first peoples have this oneness.

We also have the notion that this hunter-gatherer lifestyle was idyllic, carefully ignoring the blood, guts, gore and inevitable cruelty that come with the instinct to survive.

Even if we admit the hardship that kept life expectancy below 30 years, the world was sparsely populated and there were seemingly endless forests, rivers, lakes and the bounty of the seas. There were places to gather food as far as could be imagined. 

If resources ran out people simply moved on with spears at the ready in case there was anyone else in the next valley. There was no notion of pollution or natural capital or resource depletion or natural resource management.

Then, much, much later, agriculture was invented.

The game changing invention

Agriculture changed everything. 

Admittedly the change was slow and localized at first but within a few hundred generations it spread far and wide. Soon the importance of agriculture was unavoidable for people stayed put. They did this partly to protect their fields and livestock but also because they could. Life was easier tending fields than it was chasing tubers. 

But there was a downside. When resources were depleted or the environment threw in a drought, cyclone or flood the issue was serious. 

Disturbances to agricultural production caused societies to crash. This happened enough times to keep modern day archaeologists and anthropologists in research material for generations.  

Except that these were localized events. Although the collapses captivate the imagination [think Inca, Aztec, Great Zimbabwe and Easter Island], these were small by today’s standards, a few million people at most. 

The environmental issues that caused most of the losses passed with the people. 

Later on

Despite the spectacular failures, overall agriculture was a huge success. People had far more calories than before and they converted them into more people. Global population growth had arrived.

Villages became permanent and some of them grew into towns. A few people could feed the many allowing for new systems of commerce and governance. Priests, poets and politicians became full-time positions. As societies developed so did the demand for resources.

Around the villages and towns trees were cut and used for fuel and construction and the cleared land for crops. Water was diverted and channeled. The Greeks even managed to drain swamps to rid themselves of mosquitos and observed that without the water the local climate changed.

For the first time environmental issues became acute.

Parts of the world remained sparsely populated but in places — northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Easter Island — people and their agricultural practices changed the landscape.

Shortages were common and sometimes resources simply ran out… 

…and nobody knew why.

Victorian England

The importance of agriculture was well established by the time the Victorian gentleman sat down for his dinner in a tuxedo. His generation had overseen the start of the industrial revolution that not only created capitalism it also mechanized agriculture.

First coal and later oil provided an energy subsidy into human economies that allowed for industry, commerce, mechanized war and global conquest. It is a little trite to condense such happenings into a sentence but the brevity helps.

What actually happened was that the developed world, first Europe and later the US, gained the tools to use natural resources at will. And not just at home. It was possible to secure wealth from a host of commodities; Ceylon tea, Indian spices, African ivory and any number of others from all around the world.

The assumption at the time, so matter of fact in Alfred Russell Wallace’s classic book of travel and natural history, The Malay Archipelago, was that the world was still endless, that riches were there for the taking and no amount of gentlemanly impact could make it otherwise.

Nobody even considered there would be a shortage of anything.

This was naivety born of arrogance more than the ostrich syndrome but the effect was the same.

Vast areas were exploited during the colonial era changing the natural capital and the capacity to exploit it further.

Today’s ostriches

Today there are many individuals and organizations that are only too well aware of major environmental issues. 

Environmentalism is an avenue for passionate advocates and there are also many milder ways to create awareness.  

Science has grown in capacity and technology so that we can observe and measure the environment accurately and at scale. Satellites constantly observe our world and computational power means we can analyse and model almost any natural process from global atmospheric circulation to the biochemistry of photosynthesis in a plant cell. 

In short we know what’s going on.  

So how do we explain why…

And a host of other ignored challenges that make the list of environmental issues

The answer is the ostrich syndrome — ignore them and they will go away and allow us to focus uninterrupted on the activities we are good at…

Converting natural capital into more humans. 

The ultimate ostrich

There are some people around who love to peer into the future.

Obviously they can’t see what is there, they can only speculate. Ask your granddad if he every believed there would be such a device as a wallet sized smartphone and he would laugh. Much of our psychology is shaped by the fact that we are blind to the future.

Except one of the best examples of the ostrich syndrome came from a futurist’s blog. The premise was that we needn’t worry about using resources now because in the future we will all be cyborgs, our brain capacity downloaded to chips and our bodily functions replaced by robotics. No more need for all that food, fuel and shelter.

This is a great example of the ostrich syndrome.

As the British say he must have been ‘having a laugh’ for a robotic arm takes all the fun out of playing golf.


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