Understanding the BP Oil Tragedy: Time Blindness

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.

Joel S. Hirschhorn was a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a senior official at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association; he has authored five nonfiction books, including Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government. Read other articles by Joel.

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  1. Maien said on July 8th, 2010 at 10:03pm #

    I think maybe you haven’t hit on the actual issue and are still playing around labelling the symptoms. Well, that is good, I guess. It will create some more commercial movement.

    So many distractions in the way of seeing the real issue. But this is another way to maintain the status quo.

    How can you learn how to connect to ‘new’ anything…. when you haven’t connected to ‘self’ and the responsibility that implies. Perhaps, we westerners could be changing what causes the “time blindness” (lack of awareness of own presence) rather than dissecting the symptoms. we already know the important symptoms. Earth is renewing herself. Her human children turned into wastrel parasites. And the few who grew up, have understood and work tirelessly to inform.

  2. Don Hawkins said on July 10th, 2010 at 4:17am #

    Who will tell them? This day in old twenty ten the greatest minds in human history will tell them that’s who. Where to start well not The Who but Kiss the group have a new commercial message and I saw one man from the group on Fox new’s the other day oh dear and in there new commercial message for a soft drink what’s his name point’s at the camera and say’s am the doctor. Sorry old boy your no doctor not even an intern but must admit sold your soul to the system. Maybe the weather channel will tell them no probably not as last night in between the destruction of the first stages of climate change never mentioned silly is a good word to describe the coverage. Maybe CNN will tell them no as yesterday they went into the water of the Gulf a dive and one of the divers a girl was a forceful person and the males on the dive and in the studio seemed to have issues. Interesting to watch and did they tell us well no. I watch CNBC and will they tell them yes when hell freezes over and the new’s from them yesterday was from Sun Valley Icons and rebels I guess will they tell them probably not. On Fox New’s yesterday we saw Palin will she tell them or Bill maybe Glenn or there boss again when hell freezes over. It look’s like in a few week’s we will get more messages from the greatest minds in human history as the climate bill will come up and I read some good mind’s as I never see them on TV funny how that work’s and the climate bill is a joke on the human race again we never seem to hear that part from the greatest minds in human history. Let’s see what do they call that the new’s cycle will heck this weekend maybe a little witting to fill in the gap just might be in order. So I will start it off with;

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. Charles Dickens

    In old twenty ten what Dickens wrote was being nice as it does appear in a mad world only the mad are sane. Who will tell them?

  3. cruxpuppy said on July 10th, 2010 at 8:01pm #

    Short term solutions are not so much “time-blindness” as they are desperate measures. The sub-prime borrower is talked into a currently unaffordable mortgage on the basis of the great expectations of a rising market ( bubble ) that doesn’t rise, but falls instead. The logic of the financial system is growth, which is not a choice for participants, but a stark necessity.

    The ever increasing demand of an expanding population has the same grow or die logic. Risk taking in the procurement of crude oil or the mining of coil or any other energy extraction is a necessity imposed by financial mandates and rising demand.

    The logic of the free market is the logic of compounding interest. That is the cause of unrestrained growth. We are simply struggling to survive the inhuman and unnatural demands of compounding interest. Our decisions are made according to the economic logic of unlimited growth.

    We don’t know any other way to think and plan for the future. We are helpless before our own self-imposed grow or die outlook. It is not time-blindness, it is madness.