The Twitter escapades of Rep. Weiner have plenty of us wondering what in the world he was thinking. Why on earth would the man risk so much? And it’s not just the aptly named Rep. Weiner. Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, and many more have all been down that path. What were they all thinking? It seems that they weren’t. They abandoned thought, and were ruled instead by the urge of the moment. But this story is not just about powerful men letting out their inner pig. It’s part of a larger story of the many ways in which we ignore long term risks for the sake of momentary satisfaction.
Part of the problem with these misbehaving men might be attributed to biology. I’m sure that intellectually they knew what they were doing wasn’t a good idea, but nonetheless the biology of sex—even if it’s only Twitter sex—is compelling enough to sweep aside such thoughts and lead to some bad decisions. It’s why people have unprotected sex despite the risk of STDs. A few moments of feeling good right now end up outweighing heavy potential consequences in the future.
Sex is a powerful motivator, but it’s not the only one that drives us to make bad decisions today for the sake of a momentary satisfaction, even if we have a bad hangover later on. We’re wired to respond strongly to short term gains and to ignore long term costs. It’s the Tyranny of Now.
It’s the same reason why we don’t address environmental problems like climate change. We’re asked to start paying now and to change how we live to produce a more livable world in the years and decades down the road, but this is very hard because our minds and our politics are ruled by the Tyranny of Now. Despite all the talk about climate change and the mountains of data, the world is not making a dent in the rising level of greenhouse gases, with 2010’s carbon dioxide levels bouncing up to record levels. A crisis might shock us into action, but we’re not there yet.
It’s the same reason why we took out those big fat mortgages we couldn’t afford. That money from all the refinancing felt so good at the moment that it was hard to turn down, even if in the back of our mind we had our doubts and ended up regretting it a few years later. And it’s the reason why bankers gave out those loans: the momentary money was too good to pass up even if they knew it was unsustainable. People's inner Weiner got the better of them.
It’s why we eat food that isn’t good for us, or why we smoke. That cheeseburger or that cigarette felt pretty good at the moment, knocking pesky annoying logic about calories and cancer out of the way.
So as perplexing as the self-destructive sexual antics of politicians is, they’re not the only ones. Climate change, resource issues, pollution—you name it. We’re so absorbed in the satisfaction of the moment that we have no thought for what will happen later, until later arrives.
It’s not hard to imagine the people of the future, dealing with the environmental consequences of our current actions, shaking their heads and saying "What were they thinking? How could they have known what was coming and done nothing to avoid it?"
Although we seem to be wired to do the wrong thing at times, it’s not inevitable that we go down this road. We are capable of choosing another road, the better road, the one that makes sense for the long term. Hopefully when it comes to the climate and other environmental challenges we won’t wait until we have a global Weiner moment to change our behavior.
Glenn Croston is the author of "75 Green Businesses" and "Starting Green", helping businesses to start green and grow green at www.startingupgreen.com.