Homo sapiens suffers from a cognitive defect in that we have evolved to deal with immediate and concrete threats, but not ones that happen to us slowly over time, like climate change. Those with Asperger’s syndrome see the world differently, and it is interesting to think that the rest of us might have to learn something from people disabled and often mocked.
We Earthlings of the 21st century are like the dinosaurs of 65 million years ago. We see something in the distance that can annihilate us, but we continue as if it were nothing to worry about. A meteorite put an end to the dinosaurs, destroying their species and thousands of others that succumbed to the fifth great extinction of life on the planet. Today, when the sixth extinction hits us, it will be due to something more gassy and distant: global warming.
Before California and the Amazon burst into flames, or the Caribbean succumbed to unprecedented hurricanes, climate change was the perfect blind spot for the cognitive apparatus of Homo sapiens. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing the limits of human rationality. He has written that the reason we have continued unperturbed by the climate bomb is that we evolved to pay attention to threats facing individuals, recognizable victims and immediate impacts. On the other hand, we are hopeless at anticipating abstract risks that materialize slowly. We are good at chasing or neutralizing a predator, but bad in taking action to avoid a more serious risk such as the destruction of the planet by the climate crisis.
But it turns out that we humans are cognitively diverse. Although most of us have these weaknesses and strengths – and therefore we have been classified as “normal” – there are others who perceive the world differently, and they have been relegated to discriminatory psychological categories. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, wrote the most vivid profiles of cognitively diverse people. He concluded that the supposed weaknesses of people labelled as disabled may be windows to other ways of seeing the world and solving the most pressing problems for the human species.
I say all this after reading Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire. Apart from her political proposals, what I found more interesting is her profile of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who lit the spark of the global youth movement against the climate crisis. When she was 11 and read the data and science about the climate crisis, Thunberg went into deep depression. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition in the autism spectrum.
As Greta herself has said in response to the insults of opponents who made fun of her Asperger’s, her mental condition ended up being her “superpower.” People with autism have capabilities that can draw attention to human weaknesses in the face of climate change. First, those with Asperger’s have difficulty putting conflicting data in different mental drawers, as most of us do to survive. When they see the fires in the Amazon, or people suffocating from pollution in the cities, they cannot continue to live as if nothing was happening. Second, they have a unique ability to concentrate, which allows them to insist on a subject without the distractions of us supposedly “normal” humans, who are more unfocussed than ever.
Such is life: one of the sources of hope for the world comes from a way of seeing that world that until now we have derided.
César Rodríguez-Garavito (http://cesarrodriguez.net/) is a Colombian author and regular columnist for El Espectador. His work bridges research and advocacy on human rights and environmental justice in different regions of the world. He is the Co-Director of Open Global Rights, a leading online space for debate among human rights practitioners and analysts, where he writes The Future of Human Rights blog. This article was published on 1 November 2019, and has been translated from the Spanish by Kieran Tapsell.