10/19/2012 03:18 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2012

Are We Out of Time?

The Stone Age traits of Homo sapiens make us a species out of our native time. I worry that certain modern perils raise the prospect of running out of time in the more familiar sense of the phrase.

Our perceptions of time, and peril, were shaped by the long sweep of our shared history. The perils that mattered most were the fangs and claws of predators. They chased us, and we fled- or fought back. It all happened fast, and then was over.

This experience is the well-known foundation for the fight-or-flight response. We all know this response is real, because we've felt it when startled. We've all experienced first hand the goad of our primitive adrenal glands saying: run away, or fight now!

This imprint of evolutionary biology is obvious to us all. Others are more recondite, obvious only to experts. But those experts have interesting tales to tell, which we can all understand.

Most decisions we have made routinely throughout our history related to food, shelter, and social interaction. Much of the time, the focus was on living out the day.

There was no estate planning in the Paleolithic. There were no retirement homes. Long-term thinking extended to seasons, not much beyond.

So we are hard wired to notice minutes, hours, days, and to some extent, weeks and months. Years are already a bit blurry, and decades were mostly beyond the limits of consideration for most of human history. Anything with effects over longer spans than decades is probably just about meaningless to us, biologically.

And our reaction to perils in the modern world remains bounded by this biology -- if we let it.

We are aroused by threats that are immediate -- although we may tend to forget them as soon as they subside. Long-term threats that don't rear up on hind limbs and wave their claws in our faces today may not only be easy for us to ignore -- they may be hard for us to take seriously. Our perspective remains the endowment of the savannah, and the simple and immediate challenges of survival. We tend to use 'short-sighted' as a pejorative term, but it is the native state of our species.

And that may count among the greatest challenges to our survival now -- because that perspective, and our Paleolithic time horizon, are obsolete.

We are choosing to do nothing about some of the health perils we can see, because we forget them as soon as the acute threat concludes. And we are managing not to see some of the health perils we might otherwise do something about. In both cases, time is conspiring against us.

Bullets are an example. Bullets fly fast, and we can readily see both cause and effect. People get shot, and often die. But the crises related to guns come and go, like those fleet predators that once stalked us, and we move on. We see the problem- but our memory is too short, and our concerns too parochial. Until we get shot, it's somebody else's problem. Once we get shot, it's too late.

Baloney -- of the figurative and literal varieties alike -- poses a problem in the other direction. In a society long since mired in epidemic obesity, 'bad' foods do more damage than bullets- but do it in slow motion. Since the causal connection between any given donut, soda, or hour spent on the couch, and bad health outcomes stretches over a span of years, we can readily overlook it. It's just a bit too slow to see the dots connect, so we ignore the big picture, year after year.

The same is true of the damage we are doing to the planet. You may already know that climate change is real, due to our activities, far advanced, and an imminent peril of the first order. If you don't know or believe any of this, consider asking yourself: what, exactly, would it take to convince you this were all true? If you can't answer the question, that tells you something; maybe there is no evidence you would accept. If you can answer the question, then ask yourself another: do you really want to be THERE before we do something to defend ourselves? Once jaws clamp shut on our throats, we're pretty much out of options.

Climate change and environmental degradation are too slow for us to take the menace seriously. It just doesn't resonate with our Stone Age perceptions. And when something acute does happen -- like the BP disaster -- our Stone Age mindset invites us to forget about it as soon as it stops biting us in the backside.

But these choices to ignore, neglect, and deny are not choices at all -- unless we make them so. We may tend to think it puts us in the driver's seat to 'choose' to ignore the threats of fast food, or climate change. But in fact, we are entirely subservient to brute biology. We are being bossed around by cavemen (and women). Or at least, by their genes.

It was brute biology that wired you (and me) to care about a timeline of minutes, hours, and days -- and, only barely, years. Brute biology and the challenges of primitive survival that invited us to be oblivious to longer time spans. To stop fretting as soon as the jaws stopped gnashing at us.

If we really want to be in the driver's seat, we need to take control of this, and CHOOSE to care about the world we give our kids and grandkids. As long as the immediate gratifications of runnin' on Dunkin and the fluctuations of the stock market define our time horizon, we are living on the modern savannah.

Do we really think our kids will thank us for bequeathing them a pile of cash along with no viable planet on which to spend it? Or for endowing them with more obesity and chronic disease at ever younger age than ever before seen in human history? I anticipate we will all be beneficiaries of the same basic eulogy: "f$@# you guys!"

Denial is not just a river in Egypt; it runs right through modern society, and the best promises of public health are buried in the muddy banks of its floodwaters. Modern perils reside substantially in the denies of the beholder. This will be so until we act on what we see, and see what requires action- with eyes adapted to modern context.

I hope it's soon- because we seem to be running out of time.


Dr. David L. Katz;

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