What You See is What You Know: How to Overcome the Grave Dangers of Human Myopia

The corollary to the first part of this essay’s title is also true: what you don’t see is what you don’t know – and often don’t care about, either. This idea is expressed by the English proverb, “Out of sight, out of mind.” In most cases, our ability to care about other things, people, and organisms is limited to the things, people, and organisms we know personally. And even this is not always sufficient to evoke our sympathy for the suffering of another person or living creature, since sympathy for others can be weakened or effaced by contempt, hatred, disgust, or indifference. In addition, the way we behave towards other people, organisms, and things is largely determined by the models of behaviour that are practised by the people in the society one lives in, and in particular those persons that we regularly associate with.

These limitations on human concern explain why centrally administered systems of authority like governments do not work well the further removed they are from the people they govern. In such situations, the administrators often do not know or care about the needs and wishes of the people they govern, and neither do they always know the effects which their policies, decisions, actions, laws, and plans have on them. This is why democracy has been adopted in many countries around the world. By allowing every adult to voice one’s needs and express one’s desires, it is – in principle, at least – more likely that the elected representatives will make decisions that will take their needs and desires into consideration. Moreover, it gives those who are elected a strong motivation to try to satisfy and pay attention to them. Democracy provides a feedback mechanism from the ruled to the rulers which is generally absent in other forms of government, whether monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, or communism.

It is for this reason that good models of behaviour are needed to check the harmful effects of human selfishness and myopia, or when these are lacking, for governments to protect those who lack power from the harmful actions of those who have power. The recent global wave of government deregulation has made it far more easy, and hence, much more common, for the economically powerful to harm, oppress, subjugate, and expropriate from those who are economically weak, due precisely to the fact that those who have power don’t see, and hence don’t know or care about, the harmful effects that their actions have on the poor and powerless.

Accountability is central to living democracy. When decisions are made by those who will bear the consequences—such as when a community democratically decides how to manage forests immediately around its homes on the watershed it depends upon for flood control and water—they are likely to give a high priority to the sustained long-term health of those forests because their own well-being and that of their children is at stake. This is not the case if the management decisions are in the hands of a foreign corporation whose directors live thousands of miles away, and furthermore, face a legal mandate to maximize short-term return to shareholders. The shareholders, in turn, may not even know they hold shares in this particular company, let alone the location of its forests. These circumstances lead directors to consider only the immediate profit that clear-cutting the trees will bring; they will neither see nor bear the costs of the flooding, mud-slides, and disruption of local water supply that this choice will inflict on others. When health, labor, and environmental standards and the rules of foreign trade and investment are shaped by corporate lobbyists in secret negotiations in distant cities, those who will profit are well represented, but those who will bear the costs are not at the table, and their interests carry no weight.[1]

Another frequent reason for failure to perceive a problem after it has arrived is distant managers, a potential issue in any large society or business. For example, the largest private landowner and timber company in Montana today is based not within that state but 400 miles away in Seattle, Washington. Not being on the scene, company executives may not realize that they have a big weed problem on their forest properties. Well-run companies avoid such surprises by periodically sending managers “into the field” to observe what is actually going on, while a tall friend of mine who was a college president regularly practiced with his school’s undergraduates on their basketball courts in order to keep abreast of student thinking. The opposite of failure due to distant managers is success due to on-the-spot managers.[2]

This principle also explains many other features of modern societies and human behaviour, such as the fact that many people who would be horrified by the thought of killing animals like cats and dogs in order to eat them, because they are in regular contact with and feel affection for them, can nevertheless engage in practices that result in the enslavement, mistreatment, and killing each year of literally billions and billions of sentient animals such as chickens, pigs, and cows. Because these activities take place far away from the sight, smell, and hearing of those who eat them, they have little or no concern for the way these animals are treated during their miserably short lives. And yet, what is the difference between a dog and a cow, a pig and a cat, or a chicken and a pet bird? From the animal’s perspective, there is no difference: each animal is capable of suffering and would prefer to live rather than be imprisoned, suffer pain, and be killed prematurely in order to be eaten. The only difference is that we cherish our pets, while many so-called sentient, compassionate, and intelligent human beings are completely indifferent to the welfare of animals that are raised for food. In other words, the only difference between these two groups of animals is our radically different feelings or attitudes towards them – the fortunate ones who are permitted to live as our cherished companions, while the unfortunate others are raised solely to satisfy our appetites as cheaply as possible, which often means employing barbaric industrial farming practices that brutalize them by treating them as unfeeling objects whose welfare does not matter, and which is less important than people’s ability to consume meat and other animal products as cheaply as possible.

Despite our human ability to imagine and construct things that don’t exist and never have existed in the world prior to our creating them, most people are very bad at imagining and understanding things they have never seen personally and know little about. In fact, our ability to imagine is liable to lead us astray in such cases, for it can make us project mistaken or fantastic ideas onto these unknown things, people, and situations. Another common mistake is to project what we know – our preferences, ideas, beliefs, and models – onto them, which again can lead to incongruous, inappropriate, or harmful results. A common example is the religious person’s desire to convert others to one’s faith, in the belief that this will undoubtedly improve the converted person’s life. Despite all the many extensions of human knowledge that have been made in the past few centuries, these widespread limitations on our understanding and sympathy still exist. Many proposals to improve society have failed precisely because they have failed to take these limitations into consideration.

During the vast part of humanity’s existence, our ancestors lived in very small groups, most of which probably contained less than a few hundred members. The result of this feature of early human societies is that, in groups that are significantly larger than this, where the acquaintance with all the other members of the group is beyond any single individual’s personal experience, there arise problems due to our species’ inherent difficulties in dealing with such large numbers of people. The results have been inequality, injustice, oppression, prejudice, tyranny of the many by the few, and class or caste divisions. All of these harmful results are due to our inability to know and care about the people and things we don’t see or experience personally on a regular basis, together with the innate tendency to scorn whatever is different from the things and people we are accustomed to seeing regularly.

The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense. We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination. . . . Why do [humans] think in this short-sighted way? The reason is simple: it is a hardwired part of our Paleolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring—even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them.[3]

The problem with the present dominant economic system, in which we often have no idea where the things we buy come from, who made them, how they were made, the manner in which they and other living organisms were treated, and how much environmental damage was caused by their production or extraction, is that it violates this simple fact about the limitations of most people’s concerns to the things, people, and places that they know from personal experience. In such a system, it is much more likely that some individuals, producers, or companies will do things that harm their customers, workers, or local inhabitants, since most of the time they have no direct contact with them. Similarly, most customers also have little allegiance to producers, preferring instead to buy whatever is cheapest, regardless of the effect this has on producers, even if it causes their financial ruin. Together with the fact that we don’t know or care about the things we don’t see, this myopic focus on price, which, according to free-market economists, is the only thing that matters, has many unfortunate and undesirable consequences.

The market therefore represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalisation of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself. It would be “uneconomic” for a wealthy seller to reduce his prices to poor customers merely because they are in need, or for a wealthy buyer to pay an extra price merely because the supplier is poor. Equally, it would be “uneconomic” for a buyer to give preference to home-produced goods if imported goods are cheaper.[4]

There is a similar danger with industrial systems and processes that enable us collectively to burn huge amounts of fossil fuels, or excavate huge amounts of earth, such as in mining, while we create vast quantities of garbage and pollution. Because these things happen out of our physical sight, we are not able to see how much harm we are doing to the Earth and its many non-human inhabitants, who, contrary to the selfishly dismissive and nonchalant attitudes of many people, have just as much a right to live as we do.

I was outraged to be told recently that in Amsterdam I put 563 kilograms of trash onto the street for collection each year. This was clearly a slander: All I do is put a couple of black bags on the street once or twice a week. They weigh only 5 kilos (I put paper and bottles in their own banks for recycling), and they don’t pile up in a huge heap; they disappear. And that’s part of the problem. My bags disappear from view, but not from the big picture.[5]

What has changed, however, is consumers’ capacity to recognize these economic benefits — largely because, in much of the industrial world, even educated consumers haven’t a clue about what energy is or what part it plays in their lives and the larger economy. Beyond having an awareness of the cost of heating oil or gasoline (a cost so extensively covered by the media that it has taken on an almost religious significance), most consumers understand very little about the energy they use. Few can say how much they consume in the course of a day or a year, or where it comes from. (The classic illustration of this is the finding that a majority of U.S. consumers believe that most of their electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, when in truth most is produced from coal-fired and nuclear power plants.) A similar ignorance surrounds virtually every element in the energy economy: ours is a culture of energy illiterates.

This is not surprising. Whereas residents of poor nations are acutely aware of every aspect of their energy use, every stick of wood, every gallon of cooking fuel, in modern, wealthy societies, where energy costs are a small fraction of overall expenses, energy is not a hot topic of conversation. We may complain about the high cost of gasoline or castigate our leaders for making war for oil. Yet the nuts and bolts of energy — what energy is, where it comes from, how much we use, and how we might use less — are scarcely discussed, covered in the news, or taught in schools. In more affluent cultures, energy has become an invisible commodity, something we vaguely understand to be important on a national and international level, yet no longer fully recognized in our daily lives.[6]

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, a scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a being from several recently-buried corpses. However, Dr. Frankenstein loses control over his creation, which begins to exhibit urges that are independent of and contrary to the desires and intentions of its creator. This story is not just a metaphor for what science has wrought on the world, for it literally describes what the scientific enterprise has begotten. Science and its twin sibling technology have created and set loose an enormous Frankensteinian monster that is wreaking havoc all over the world at constantly increasing rates.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” wrote Alexander Pope. This is true especially when we are not aware of how little we know, as well as the many potentially harmful effects that can be produced by acting only on the little we know, as if it were all that mattered. The chemist who creates a new substance is only concerned with finding uses for it, and is often indifferent to the harmful effects its use will have on living organisms; in many cases, one is not even aware of these harmful effects until after the chemical is used widely. The geologist who searches for oil or mineral deposits is focused solely on finding large quantities of these economically valuable substances, and is usually indifferent to the environmental damage and problems that their extraction frequently causes. The geneticist who alters a living organism may be indifferent to how this will affect the ecosystems of which the organism forms a living part. The medical researcher who assiduously looks for a cure for a human disease such as cancer or malaria is indifferent to the fact that achieving one’s goal will lead to an even greater increase in the human population, which already is far too numerous, and is making it increasingly difficult or impossible for many other species on the planet to survive.

The model of specialization has become the dominant model in science and other realms of human knowledge, as well as in most economic or industrial domains and endeavours. The grave problem with this widespread model of human behaviour is that, together with our inability to know, and hence, care about, the things we don’t see and know personally, it is responsible for creating many of the problems that are visible all over the world. The increasingly widespread Western educational system that is based on specialization leads to the highly perverse situation where the majority of university graduates have a partial or complete ignorance of and indifference to a great many important things. After they graduate and start working, their collective actions, like the various body parts from which Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was cobbled together, have produced a two-headed scientific-and-technological monster that is wreaking havoc all over the world.

The A-plus students, the Oxford scholars, often lead lives that are emotional disasters, but the kid who somehow has the sense not to drink and drive, marries the right person, finds work that keeps the heart full, that prudent kid keeps going and going. He or she may never be lauded for excellence in their field but will be well-rounded and successful in life.

Of course, some academics and left-brain folks get it. Survival, I mean. But this sinks in later in life. The convention is that stupid people cause trouble. Some do. They usually wind up dead or in jail. I think more trouble is caused by people who may be experts in one field but are dolts about life in general.[7]

Unlike other social organisms such as ants, bees, termites, and wasps, which work together in harmony for the good of the colony, the individual human ants that scurry and fly all over the world, in pursuit of their narrow and frequently selfish goals, often cause problems for other members of our species, as well as for many other living organisms.

Because of the important fact that we can only know and care about the things we see firsthand, it is imperative that we make constant efforts to overcome this innate human myopia. In other words, in educating ourselves and our children, we must do the opposite of specializing and narrowing our focus – while thinking this is enough because we have been told that this is what we should do – by generalizing our knowledge and expanding the range of our understanding and sympathy to include as many different organisms, people, and places as possible. In addition, there is presently a widespread belief that it is perfectly acceptable to behave selfishly, whether because of the false belief that this will produce the best of all possible societies, as many economists naively argue, or because we cannot do anything about it, as some geneticists and others argue. Of course, I am not saying we should all acquire a comprehensive scientific knowledge of all these different things, a goal that is neither possible nor desirable. I am saying that it is vital that each and every human being try to gain a first-hand, experiential knowledge of these things in a manner that is not scientific. This can be done in various ways, both directly and indirectly. Since travelling to different parts of the world requires burning copious amounts of fuel, it may be better to spend that time reading books and watching documentaries about different aspects of the world that lie outside our everyday experiences, whether of different peoples or other living species.[8]

Since it is increasingly the case that many of our actions and decisions are having unintended, harmful global effects on people, places, and organisms that we will never meet or see in person, it is absolutely imperative that we expand the range of our concerns and understanding to match these wide-ranging effects. In other words, as trade increasingly becomes global, our human awareness must also become global so that we can eliminate or minimize the many harmful effects of our actions and consumption decisions. We extremely vain human beings frequently vaunt ourselves by declaring that we are like gods. And yet, in many of our actions and decisions, we exhibit the very limited perceptual understanding of worms or flies, which cannot see beyond the narrow range of their limited concerns and the tiny part of the world they inhabit. So long as this remains the case, we should stop repeating this sort of nonsense about the exalted status of our species, since any creature that is truly worthy of being called a god would possess a more global and comprehensive vision than the great majority of human beings presently exhibit about the world we live in.

[1] Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World Is Possible, pp. 79-80. Edited by John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2004.

[2] Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition by Jared Diamond, chapter 14. Penguin, New York, 2011.

[3] Wisdom for a Livable Planet by Carl N. McDaniel, p. 226. Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas, 2005. (Excerpted from E. O. Wilson’s The Future of Life.)

[4] Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, pp. 29-30. Hartley & Marks, Point Roberts, Washington, 1999.

[5] In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World by John Thackara, p. 22. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.

[6] The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World by Paul Roberts, p. 221. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2004.

[7] Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small by Rita Mae Brown, p. 119. Ballantine Books, New York, 2009.

[8] This is the method that I have used in order to inform myself about what is going on in other parts of the world, along with gaining a greater understanding of and sympathy for the world’s many different peoples and non-human organisms.