Easy or not

Meercat taking it easyIn his book ‘Hot, flat and crowded’ Thomas L. Friedman rails against the glorification of easy. His main complaint is that anything we do to support ourselves in an increasingly hot and crowded world is not going to be easy. And those who say there is an easy way are just kidding themselves.

Humans are notoriously hard to motivate without some form of reward. Most of what we need to do to keep producing natural resources and accommodate climate change when there are so many of us will require some sacrifice. The only reward will be the hope that we have done the right thing. Saying it will be easy is at best naive and at worst irresponsible.

To illustrate his point Friedman quotes Michael Maniates of Allegheny College.

Maniates makes the following assertions about what we ask of ourselves and one another:

  • we should look for easy, cost-effective things to do in our private lives as consumers because
  • if we all do them the cumulative effect will be a safe planet, because
  • by nature, we aren’t terribly interested in doing anything that isn’t private, individualistic, cost-effective and, above all, easy.

I reckon Maniates is on the money.

In default mode we are lazy. We would rather not sacrifice but if we have to then please can we do it from the couch. Please do not ask us to actively sacrifice.

Friedman’s frustration is understandable because it was this lazy default mode that has seen us consume with abandon and take ourselves to the edge of the resource use precipice.

In his book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ Daniel Kahneman even has an explanation for why lazy is the default.

Cognitive research seems to be telling us that we think in a couple of different ways. We intuit most things. This action is easy and fast and works well for the bulk of our everyday decisions.

Only our intuition is not very good at complex thought, especially where we need to analyse for or calculate a result. For this we have to engage the thinking brain. The only problem is that this type of thinking takes work – real physical work apparently – and we find it difficult.

Our environmental challenges are very new and not in the default program. Our intuition has evolved for us to know that food, water and shelter are either here now, or just around the corner. We are not used to thinking about where these things are going to come from; yet we are forced more and more to think analytically about the basics. Indeed we have to think twice: first to tell us that we have a problem and second to figure out some solutions.

Friedman suggests it is irresponsible to say that our environmental challenges are easy to solve when, in fact, they are hard. Potentially more challenging than the problems themselves is that we prefer to solve things in our default mode. We prefer to intuit answers because it is a lot easier that way. Thinking is just too hard.

Take a moment to recall your experiences in the workplace or at home. Ask yourself what proportion of your time and that of your colleagues and family members is spent in default mode

Yep, we prefer not to have to think hard. No surprise that we glorify easy.

Only there is a reason why talking up easy is so common. My guess is that any call to think hard about anything will fall on deaf ears.

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