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A loss expected to happen next year looks smaller than that same loss happening next week. Worse yet, a loss or catastrophe that may happen (indeed, is highly likely to happen) decades away is essentially invisible, unthinkable or unworthy of attention now. In other words, humans suffer from an intrinsic thinking defect best described as time blindness. It is the inability to correctly foresee and take seriously long term consequences of current actions.
No wonder that people easily spend decades eating unhealthy foods or living a sedentary lifestyle, or both, without appreciating or internalizing the inevitable negative and serious health impacts, from heart disease to all kinds of cancers, for example.
No wonder that all kinds of technologies that offer immediate rewards or benefits are embraced while long term negative impacts are easily ignored. Maybe cell phones really do cause brain cancer. Maybe deep ocean drilling for oil will fail and cause exactly what we are now witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP fiasco.
But we like cell phones and we refuse to take the many actions to rid society of its addiction to petroleum and so we willingly accept our time blindness no matter how many experts and researchers try to warn us about the terrible long term impacts. In other words, near term benefits blind us to long term costs. As economists might say, those long term costs are heavily discounted.
It is not just that individuals are time blind, but that there is collective time blindness. It is so powerful that conventional institutions we think of as protecting people and society are impotent. That’s how powerful time blindness is.
Worse yet, the really smart people know how to take advantage of mass time blindness. Think of business and corporations that create mass market products and technologies that seduce people because their negative consequences fall victim to deeply imbedded time blindness. Think of all the Ponzi schemes that have victimized so many people out of many billions of dollars. By the time that negative impacts occur it startles and amazes people as if they could not have been predicted. Wrong! In all cases of catastrophes and crises there is always a record of some people correctly forecasting them. But they are ignored. Why? Time blindness. That vision of an awful, deadly future becomes invisible because of our time blindness, or it merely is seen as fantasy, speculation or entertainment.
Want another example? Try the classic one of over population: Too many humans on planet Earth using too many resources. Those not falling prey to time blindness have been trying to warn humanity for a very long time that a lower birth rate and fewer people would actually result in high quality of life for people, with less social conflicts, wars and terrorism. Also think global warming or climate change. Though there are clear impacts now, major calamities will become future shocks because of so much time blindness.
We ignore time blindness at our peril. The real lesson of the BP oil disaster is far more significant than merely one technology or one incompetent and immoral company that wrecks havoc and pain on so many people as well as ruining so much of the natural environment. We need to spend a lot more time understanding intrinsic time blindness as a kind of mental disability, and how to teach people to avoid it. One person has been doing just that for decades. Check out the work of Jack Alpert at skil.org.