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In Review

Mind over Matter

The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction
By Rebecca Costa
334 pages, VanGuard Press, 2010

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Despite the efforts of her marketing team to compare her to famed public intellectuals like Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman, Rebecca Costa isn’t a household name. Nonetheless, the sociobiologist and former Silicon Valley marketing exec’s first book, The Watchman’s Rattle, comes close to living up to the hype.

Costa makes two simple, but insightful, points. The first is that the theory of evolution doesn’t just apply to something that happened in the past, or that happened to other species. Humans evolve too, and there’s a limit to how quickly we can do so. “In order to understand the question scholars have wrestled with for centuries – why do human beings compulsively follow the same pattern of collapse again and again and again? – we must come to terms with how we are wired to behave, irrepsective of nationality, race, intelligence, wealth, or political convenience,” she writes. “We must look to the physiological capabilities, as well as limitations, of the human organism itself.”

Costa’s other great insight is that we have created an overly complex world and, in doing so, set ourselves up for a fall. In examining the collapses of famed civilizations, from the Mayans to the Romans, Costa comes back time and again to the same point: “The intricacy and magnitude of the issues these civilizations faced during their final hours – climate change, civil unrest, food shortages, fast-spreading viruses, and a population explosion – exceeded their ability to obtain facts, analyze them, innovate, plan, and act to stop them.”

This is called reaching the cognitive threshold, Costa explains, and once a society hits that threshold, it begins passing problems on from one generation to the next. That is what pushes a civilization over the edge, and we’re clearly at that point now.

In discussing the fall of the Roman empire, Costa writes: “As systems for commerce, governance, and defense grew more complex, the ‘energy’ needed to manage them simply exceeded the capabilities of the Roman people. Then, once again, as the society encountered gridlock, beliefs began to overshadow facts and rational thinking.”

It’s hard to read that and not think of the religious fervor with which people talk about whether or not they “believe” in climate change. Or the passion with which Tea Partiers spout off senseless slogans about what it means to be American.

Just when things are looking really grim, however, Costa turns her lens to the light at the end of the tunnel. Drawing inspiration from a memorable Paul Hawken speech, she writes, “Destructive beliefs that threaten human progress are man-made and, therefore, not a permanent condition. So ‘ordinary people’ can surmount entrenched supermemes and once again restore the critical balance between knowledge and beliefs.”

Where she begins to lose the plot a bit is in arguing against short-term mitigation strategies. Using the example of drought in California, Costa points to the building of desalination plants as the only logical solution and rails againt her neighbors who encourage conservation tactics instead. “I wish it were so easy,” she says in response to suggestions that people plant drought-resistant lawns and cut their water usage. “Successful mitigation is dangerous because it can easily be confused with a permanent cure as soon as short-term symptoms ameliorate,” she writes.

True. But Costa commits the exact crime she exposes with her devotion to solutions that are equally short-sighted, and the subtle assertion that it’s an either-or decision.

Later, in proposing a strategy for dealing with the increasingly complex problems of our world, Costa is more measured, noting that while single mitigation measures are just Band-Aids, staging multiple, parallel mitigation efforts can help. Like many before her, Costa cites the US response to World War II as a key example of this, but she also delivers a new model: the venture capital community. Venture capitalists, she notes, make many more wrong decisions than right ones, and yet the industry succeeds. Why? Because they try enough different strategies that the benefits of the right decisions outweigh the risks of the wrong ones.

In some ways, one could say that’s the strategy we’ve been using to battle climate change. And so far it hasn’t worked. That, according to Costa, is where insight comes in. Calling insight “nature’s elegant solution,” she refers to this uniquely human intellectual trait as the evolutionary shift that just may save us from ourselves. Whether it happens soon enough to rescue the environment from us is another story.

—Amy Westervelt


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