Humans Are Not Very Rational Beings

By Liv Gunhild Fallberg.

Humans are not very rational beings, claims philosopher and professor Arne Johan Vetlesen at the Agenda: Art and Climate seminar at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo [1]. We know that climate change is real, so why do we keep on destroying the only habitable planet we know of? Why don’t we change the way we live, and maybe save ourself? These types of questions are central in the professor’s lecture, which I will give an interpretation of in the following.

Vetlesen begins by looking back at the first big warning sign showing that there are some serious changes in the environment caused by the way we live. As early as in 1988, the now climate scientist Jim Hansen warned about climate change, and their consequences if not stopped. That was 30 years ago, but little has changed in the way we treat our planet. Vetlesen continues his lecture by asking: “Why did we do so little when we knew so much?” Lack of insight is not the answer, he explains. We had some knowledge in the 80s, and now we have even more proof that we are damaging our planet. We know that we can’t keep on releasing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, or produce as much plastic as we do. We have hard facts, detailed graphs, and concrete numbers, showing us that this will only hurt our environment. What Vetlesen is saying is that in convincing people to change their behaviour, all these facts are only useful up to a certain point. After this, we need to translate these facts and figures into another ‘language.’ If not, they will not have an effect on us, and we won’t change.

Dr. Daniel Pauly has come up with the term Shifting Baseline Syndrome [2], which Vetlesen explains in his lecture. For every new generation, people's expectations regarding the environment are lowered. Because the new generation have never experienced how things were before they were born, they see their own environmental conditions as normal. The new generation is living in the new normal. The future generation will not miss the animals, trees, or landscapes they have never known, says Vetlesen. This is why it is important to make changes while we still remember.

But as we have seen, graphs and facts are not the way to go if we want to change human behaviour. Vetlesen uses airplanes as an example. We know, and have known for a long time, that we should fly less. Despite of this, our average number of flights are actually increasing. Why is that? We know the problem, and we know the solution, so why don’t we change our behaviour? “The problem is so simple, that a seven years old understands it, but the parents do not,” he says.

Why we do more of the things we should stop doing has to do with culture, politics and society, Vetlesen suggests. In the case of travelling, we travel to see the world because we have the right to do so, we have the freedom, and no-one can stop us. No-one shall decide what we can and cannot do. Because we live in a capitalist society, there are also constraints and competition between different actors that make it seemingly impossible to stop the development in society, and change the direction we are heading in. The people that make a profit don’t intend to stop.

The future is looking rather dark for humans, according to Vetlesen. He brings up the concept eco-grief. It happens when we acknowledge that as a society, or as individuals, we have failed to act and change our behaviour regarding the climate crisis. We feel regret and grief. We tend to think that when problems become more real, people who has been in denial will ‘come around’: that people will stop taking unnecessary flights, use less plastic. But we have the knowledge and we have had it for a long time. “There is a lack of innocence,” Vetlesen suggests. Humans are a part of the problem, we are destroying our own home. Because of that, we feel guilty. But since we have invested so much of our identities in the way we live our life, we pretend that the problem is not that big anyway. As Vetlesen puts it, we will continue in the same direction, regardless the temperature. Humans are not very rational beings.

However, also participating in the Agenda seminar were artists, who may have a solution to this problem. The different ‘language’ Vetlesen talks about, could be art. Art can transform facts, graphs, and knowledge about the changing climate, into something graspable, and give us a new perspective on the consequences of our actions. Art can, in opposition to graphs, make us think and question our behaviour from within. Whether through art or not, we have to start changing our behaviour soon, or else the new normal may not be very far away.


[1] Vetlesen, Agenda: Kunst og Klima.

[2] Pauly, “Shifting baseline syndrome.”


Vetlesen, Arne Johan, Seminar- Agenda: Kunst og Klima, at Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, September 7, 2018:

Pauly, Daniel. “Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol 16, issue 4, 05.01.2018.