We don’t feel deaths equally


in Psychology, Rants, The environment

The January 21st issue of The Economist provides another strong example of how poorly our emotions serve us where it comes to evaluating and responding to abstract threats. They say:

NOx emissions cause the premature deaths of an estimated 72,000 Europeans a year.

This is in the context of carmakers like Volkswagen using software to cheat on NOx emissions tests for their diesel cars.

Now, if anything direct and intentional (terrorism, a criminal gang, etc) killed 72,000 people in one year in Europe it would be WWIII. The way in which we obsess about tiny direct threats from serial killers to plane hijackers while feeling little emotional impact from pollution-induced deaths and threats like climate change profoundly damages our ability to make sensible policy choices.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

alena January 26, 2017 at 3:36 pm

Maybe it is the way we are socialized.

. January 26, 2017 at 6:24 pm

The biggest study to date shows that 100 million people in developing countries will die from fossil-fuel combustion between now and 2030 – some from the effects of global warming, but more from breathing smoke. Beijing closed its schools in mid-December because the smog was too bad to go outside; in New Delhi, an estimated half of the city’s 4.4 million children now have irreversible lung damage. That’s why China and India are trying desperately to move away from fossil fuels: China’s coal consumption has begun to slide, and India has announced a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.

alena January 26, 2017 at 7:35 pm

I guess what we don’t see, we worry about less. In China and India people are dying of lung disease, cancer and other pollution related hazards. It has reached such a state that something has to be done. We are pretty blase about it in North America and with the new leader south of us, we are moving towards the absurd and tragic when it comes to the environment.

Oleh February 11, 2017 at 3:05 am

Premature deaths from poor life-style decisions do not get the headlines that are warranted. The media, which focusses on the sensational and unusual, find it much harder to cover a story that requires more effort.

. May 16, 2017 at 4:37 pm

38,000 People a Year Die Early Because of Diesel Emissions Testing Failures

Diesel cars, trucks, and other vehicles in more than 10 countries around the world produce 50 percent more nitrogen oxide emissions than lab tests show, according to a new study. The extra pollution is thought to have contributed to about 38,000 premature deaths in 2015 globally. In the study, published today in Nature, researchers compared emissions from diesel tailpipes on the road with the results of lab tests for nitrogen oxides (NOx). The countries where diesel vehicles were tested are Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S., where more than 80 percent of new diesel vehicle sales occurred in 2015. The researchers found that 5 million more tons of NOx were emitted than the lab-based 9.4 million tons, according to the Associated Press. Nitrogen oxides are released into the air from motor vehicle exhaust or the burning of coal and fossil fuels, producing tiny soot particles and smog. Breathing in all this is linked to heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, which took part in the research. Governments routinely test new diesel vehicles to check whether they meet pollution limits. The problem is that these tests fail to mimic real-life driving situations, and so they underestimate actual pollution levels. The researchers estimate that the extra pollution is linked to about 38,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2015 — mostly in the European Union, China, and India. (The U.S. saw an estimated 1,100 deaths from excess NOx.)

. June 18, 2017 at 5:14 pm

In fact, the risk is infinitesimal. The same number of people died in attacks last year as in 1950, when the population was a third of its current size. Better emergency services mean that the vast majority of today’s victims survive. Sharks may cause politicians to thrash about, but Australians run about the same risk of being killed by a bee or wasp.

. June 18, 2017 at 5:19 pm

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 660m people rely on what it calls “unimproved” water sources. A quarter of this is untreated surface water. Moreover, even water that has undergone at least some treatment may not be potable. Across the planet, 1.8bn human beings drink water contaminated with faeces. All this polluted water spreads diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Every year, more than half a million people die from waterborne diarrhoea alone.

. July 11, 2017 at 1:41 pm

It’s hard to imagine what might alarm our current leaders into action. Wallace-Wells concludes with the argument that we will wake up to this encroaching disaster because it will be too costly not to—in terms of human life, in terms of economic progress, in terms of international relations. The argument is simple, and borrows somewhat heavily from the simplest analogy out there when it comes to climate change—that of a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. Humans are the frog, the pot is the planet, and the burner is climate change. A frog might contently sit in the water while it boils without realizing it, but humans are not frogs. At some point, the heat will turn up so high that we will realize that we have to turn it down. Yes, it may come too late, and there may be some irreversible damage, but still, we’ll realize it at some point.

The problem with this assurance is that it takes as a given that to the powerful and privileged— the ones who currently have a say about what we do about climate change—all lives matter equally. That the annihilation of a certain number of people will force these people to change their minds, to take pity and to take action. But this is not the world we live in. It’s not the number of deaths that matter. It’s the type of people who die.

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