‘This is the place on earth where there is the most significant formation of glaciers. But even here, they are receding. Climate change, temperatures increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world, the data gathering can’t keep up. I ask you all to think about what you can do to change things.”

As our “nature guide” presented us with these realities of the situation before us, our ship turned gradually to port and slipped through the water to the next glacier. The irony of our collective situation may have been lost on many of the 2,000 passengers on board. Here we were, enjoying spectacular scenery in one of the last remaining wildernesses, while actively contributing, by our very presence there, to environmental degradation. A real conundrum – or cognitive dissonance in scientific terminology.

Many of us travel to discover more about unfamiliar places, their people, traditions, geography and current politics. It gives us a sense of perspective. On a recent trip to Alaska, I learned not only about the effects of climate change, but about the indigenous Tlingit people. Despite setbacks, sadness and losses incurred with Western expansion, their culture is being renewed and traditions are being restored. There is a sense of revival. Through greater awareness, sensitivity and acknowledgement by others, their future may be preserved. Travelling brings recognition of our inevitable interdependence in a fragile world.

Crucial to the Tlingit people is their sense of identity, passed on in oral history and traditions. Identity is crucial for all of us in fact, much more than perhaps we realise. And yet identity may be one of the facets of our humanity that threatens us most. In his ground-breaking book, Embodied Conflict, the US mediator Tim Hicks describes how our brains are designed to promote tribal activity, with its concomitant inclusion of some and exclusion of others.

Hicks tells us that, for our psychological survival, we seek a coherent and relatively consistent understanding of the world. Yet, in doing this, we can become so attached to ideas, beliefs and knowledge that seem integral to our identity that, whether accurate or not, we will go to extraordinary lengths to defend them. This often leads us to form or join groups – and to ostracise or isolate others. It causes us to take up positions and seek to preserve them, often at all costs.

All we know comes from our five senses, and our interaction with the world. That is where we derive all of our “meaning”. We are constantly assessing our environment, responding to and evaluating incoming stimuli to maximise our survival. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty, the unfamiliar, contradictions and paradoxes. We try to fit everything into our familiar picture of the world – or simply deny, dismiss or ignore inconsistent information. All of this leads to construction of a world with meanings that are fraught with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and mistaken biases.

Hicks’s insights seem to lie at the heart of many of our current experiences in contemporary politics and social affairs. They also lie at the core of the work of many lawyers who advise clients about how best to resolve disputes or solve problems. Clients will often present with fixed, “correct” views. To what extent do we try to probe under the surface rather than simply reinforcing and supporting that one correct view? How well do we consider the underlying issues of identity when we advise or assist clients? How far do we go to challenge a world view which can only ever be partial?

Understanding the physiology of the brain, and its relationship to perception, the conscious and unconscious mind and our identity will help us (and others) to respond better to differences and disputes. The “new frontier” of neuroscience is the key to this understanding.

Having offered real insight into how we might more effectively understand, prevent and manage conflict, Hicks brings us back to climate change. It is all the same stuff. Both climate change and destructive conflict confront us with ourselves, he says. Both are symptoms of our psychologies, products of millennia of our species’ evolution. Both ask us to reflect on our relationships, with each other and with the environment – and on our future trajectory.

On Monday 10 June, Tim Hicks will discuss his work at a special seminar hosted by Core at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Originally published in The Scotsman on 3 June 2019

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