Resident on Earth

6/4/14: The procrastination deficit

By Mike Johnson

You might have heard the story of the donkey who died of starvation because he couldn’t decide which bale of hay was the biggest. We all know what it’s like to put things off, to procrastinate. I mean, you guys. Me? I can’t make up my mind if I’m a procrastinator or not. I’m just an ordinary carrot and stick kind of person, not a big player in the procrastination stakes.

But the politicians are. We pay them to procrastinate for us. Maybe we think they are the only ones who pay the price, and the price just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.

Readers may be familiar, not too familiar I hope, with the inexorable logic of the IRD and money lenders of all kinds. A small debt can turn into a big one. Before you can say ‘compound interest’, which calculates the interest on all the previous unpaid interest plus the original amount, your home is gone as well as the shirt on your back. We can call that ballooning interest a positive feedback effect. The greater the debt the greater the interest owed, and so the greater the debt. A win-win-win-win for the money lenders and a lose-lose-lose-lose for good old broke you.

The longer you put off paying the worse the problem gets.

It is not surprising that Nicholas Stern, Britain’s top Banker, was the man to apply the term procrastination penalty to our response to global warming. The longer we put it off, the more we have to pay, and the more impossible it comes to pay. Positive feeback effects work here too, like compound interest. The more the arctic ice melts the more open water there is to absorb rather than reflect sunlight and so the more the ice melts. It’s not the banker or money lender who comes to take away your house but the flood, the drought, the mudslide, emissaries of climate change.

We cultivate doubt in order to bolster procrastination. Not doing something in the face of a crisis, or a need to act, is actually quite difficult, requiring considerable mental agility.

The newly released IPCC report on climate change drives the point home. This document, the product of 800 authors, over 1500 researchers involving scientific institutions world-wide represents the state of our knowledge. While remaining clear about the consequences of global warming, the document also puts some emphasis on ‘adaption and mitigation’.

Since warming is here to stay, we’d better try to get used to it.

This is realistic, but it is also full of pitfalls. We could waste a lot of time doing the wrong things for misguided reasons.

Culturally we seemed trapped in our own positive feedback cycle. The more we procrastinate the worse the problem gets so the more we procrastinate. Maybe that’s why there is such a gap between the scientific consensus and the political perception, beautifully illustrated by this graphic from Climate Progress.

Energy commentator Michael T Klare,   in an excellent article in The Nation,   says, in a comment on America’s fracked-up hopes to become ‘Saudi America’

Energy commentator Michael T Klare, in an excellent article in The Nation, says, in a comment on America’s fracked-up hopes to become ‘Saudi America’

For anyone familiar with addictive behavior, this sort of delusional thinking would be a sign of an advanced stage of fossil fuel addiction. As the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality evaporates, the addict persists in the belief that relief for all problems lies just ahead—when, in fact, the very opposite is true. Michael T Klare

Maybe that’s the real secret of procrastination. It’s our addiction that paralyses us.