Time Blindness and the BP Tragedy

By Joel S. Hirschhorn
Published July 08, 2010

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 foresee correctly and take seriously the 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 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.

Collective Blindness

It is not just that individuals are time blind; there is collective time blindness. It is so powerful that conventional institutions we think of as protecting people and society are impotent.

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 embedded 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 it.

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.

Because of our time blindness, that vision of an awful, deadly future becomes invisible or is seen merely as fantasy, speculation or entertainment.

Ignore at our Peril

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 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 wreaks 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.

Joel S. Hirschhorn, Ph.D., is the author of Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health, and Money. He can be reached through his website: www.sprawlkills.com. Check out Joel's new book at www.delusionaldemocracy.com.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2010 at 09:48:03

I don't think the BP disaster has much to do with time blindness... if it was, we'd be getting traction with the "BP disaster was caused by our lust for gas, and we should do something about that".

And we're not.

None of the measures we talk about are gaining any traction. As we speak, the city is positioning to build more sprawl, including a stadium and the aerotropolis.

I think the blindness is about distance in any direction - through time, through phases of translation, through physical distance. In general, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. If you don't directly see the impact of what you're doing in direct connection to doing it, for most people that impact doesn't exist.

There isn't a hose directly pumping crude oil out of your car and onto the nearest baby seagull... so for most people, that visceral connection does not exist. At the Jewelry store, you don't have to pry the diamonds out of hands of little dying African children. Cokeheads don't have to personally shoot Mexican politicians. Non-vegetarians don't (generally) kill their food moments before they eat it. And so on.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2010-07-08 08:48:57

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