Monday, March 15, 2010

The Mismatch Hypothesis: An Allegory

Our brains—and thus our behavioral tendencies—have evolved in response to very specific environmental and social conditions.  Many of those environmental and social conditions no longer exist.  There is an enormous mismatch between our present-day circumstances (life in modern post-industrial society) and the kind of world our physical and psychological systems have evolved to deal with.  Many if not all of our most pressing physical and mental health problems can be traced to this mismatch.

A reworking of an allegory that I read in one of Scott Nearing’s books a long time ago:

There is a small town by a large rock outcropping at the base of a tall hill, right below where a minor highway makes a hairpin turn.  Several times a year, a car will miss the turn, careen down the hill, and smash into the rocks.  The nearest hospital is twenty miles away, and the town has but a single beat-up ambulance that is always breaking down.  So even when there are crash survivors, they often die en route to the hospital.  One day the town receives a windfall from a rich benefactor.  The townsfolk all agree they are going to spend the money to fix the problem of people dying as a result of the highway situation.  Immediately the town cleaves into three factions.  One faction wants to buy a new ambulance and pay for a professional driver so that survivors can get to the hospital more quickly.  Another group wants to put high-tech water-filled crash bumpers at the base of the hill as a buffer; they argue that this would greatly reduce the seriousness of the injuries to the point that trips to the hospital would be exceedingly rare.  But there is a third group that wants to find out why the cars are missing the turn in the first place.  Once we understand the problem with the highway, they argue, we will know the best course of action to take to prevent the accidents before they occur—maybe all that is needed is to install a small guardrail at the top of the hill, or a warning sign, or both.  

In terms of dealing with the mental health problems that result from the mismatch, the ambulance advocates represent social workers and charity organizations; the bumper advocates represent psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and the medical community in general, with its emphasis on pharmacological “treatments”; and the third group represents experimental psychologists and other empirically grounded social scientists.

This allegory can be applied to general political postures as well.  The ambulance advocates are socialists.  The bumper advocates are corporate capitalists.  The third group represents the delusional progressive stance.

There is, of course, a fourth approach to the allegorical situation, one that finds its clearest expression in the anarcho-primitivist perspective: let’s remove the need to drive; let’s fashion a lifestyle that makes automobiles superfluous—or the more politically germane variant of that approach: let’s blow up the highway and sabotage the machinery (both bureaucratic and metallic) that could be used to rebuild it.

Note that only one of those approaches can guarantee that there will be no more deadly car crashes on that particular stretch of road.

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