A Pavlovian process for the environment

by norith on February 9, 2009

in Environment

The back story is that my cat has developed a kidney condition which requires daily subcutaneous fluid drips. It didn’t take long before she started recognizing the signs: “He’s about to stick a needle in me and I don’t like that!”. The end result is a chase which always results in a stressed cat and a frazzled caregiver. That got me thinking: “Is this a conditioned reflex on her part?”

So taking a walk down the anthropomorphic laneway, I outlined the mental steps that my cat might have gone through the first several times I gave her the subcutaneous drip. By associating my preparations to the insertion of the needle each day she may have thought each day in turn:

  1. No association
  2. Huh?
  3. Interesting.
  4. I wonder if…
  5. Could it be?
  6. Anticipation! (or more appropriately: Fear!)

Your kilometrage may vary, and you might choose to rename the steps but it’s likely that a similar pattern will be followed in most conditioning situations.

Of course some may argue that an animal can’t “think” through these steps like a human can; that my cat is exhibiting a purely conditioned relex: an instinctual reaction. My response is that the burden of proof is on those who insist on creating an artificial separation between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. If you wish to elevate yourself based on ego, my response will be: “the id will prevail”. But any such differentiation is a human concept, a human conceit. And in turn, as we have experienced, an environmental disaster.

By separating ourselves from the environment around us we are no longer capable of understanding the consequences of our actions. Apparently, to a large number of humans, even the idea of an ‘environmental system’ that we are a part of is an abomination. We have been bequeathed unlimited control with no responsibility. Not unlike an addiction, this ideological high will have a painful rehabilitation.

For most of human history we’ve likely been at stage 1 in our ability to understand the association of our actions to their larger environmental outcomes. By the late 1800’s there were a few that had moved to stage 2 or stage 3 but they were hidden in a society proud of the concept of ‘progress‘. In the 1960’s there was a movement by a select group past stage 3 to sometimes stage 6. But the larger part of western society is still stuck at stage 2 despite the last 15 years of educational outreach, and at that I’m being overly generous.

Politicians, I would suggest, are in general at stage 3; or more likely they’ve relabelled it “sounds very expensive”. Where the word ‘expense’ comes to play, our society brings with it a cacophony of economic memes that our society has engendered. All of them are over simplified models that ignore the fact that we exist in a context, a context that is a complex adaptive system. The collapse of the world’s economic systems in 2008 reminds us that the idea of getting something for nothing is a childish, perhaps churlish, fantasy.

If a resource is a one time only resource then it cannot be renewed. If it can’t be renewed then, if we are lucky, it can only be reused. And economic growth can only happen if there remains expansion room in the system. As we start hitting our head on the limits to expansion, and the reactions of the system to our actions then each of us will in turn, move along these Pavlovian conditioning steps. Unfortunately, as my cat experiences daily, the last step can be labelled ‘Fear’.

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