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Leopard in the Tree

Another way our stress response betrays us

Why are we so rotten at mobilising against a threat? Why are we still not taking action to stop most of us dying of Global Heating in ten years’ time?

Yes, most of us. Mainly from every day extreme weather events, fires, floods, hurricanes, mudslides and of course famine and disease as the bread baskets of the world dry up and blow away.

Why aren’t we working right now to take the subsidies away from the fossil fuel companies and industrial agriculture and give them to renewables, nuclear power and regenerative agriculture? Why are we still pottering around giving up meat and not driving cars when what’s really needed is a massive global political effort? Why aren’t we doing the simple but radical things we know we need to do if we’re to have a prayer of rescuing ourselves from extinction?

A lot of people like to tell stories about Man the Hunter-Gatherer. We tell each other that when we’re stressed out because of our jobs or even worry about Climate Change, this is bad for us because we’re evolved for the acute stress of a saber-toothed tiger jumping out at us as we walk across the African Savannah. Our cortisol and adrenaline is there to help us to fight or flee: our muscles get more blood, our prefrontal lobes get less blood, our intestines stop working, we are perfectly adapted to fight the enemy or run away from it. Action! That’s what the stress response is helping us with.

And of course, when the saber-toothed tiger is actually the pudgy figure of your hated boss who doesn’t kill you but does stress you out daily – our stress response is not very well adapted for life in the 21st century.

But it’s worse than that. Our stress response includes “freeze” along with the better publicised “fight or flight.”

And that takes us back to an earlier time, when we were not mighty Man the Hunter Gatherer. We were scavengers. We ate anything we could: most animals prefer the same food all the time – cows and horses eat grass, carnivores eat meat. We eat a wide variety of foods because scavengers can’t be choosy.

And as the few bones from that time attest, we were frequently eaten, especially by large cats.

When you spot your cat looking at you and thinking “My ancestors ate your ancestors”, she’s absolutely right.

Children were particularly vulnerable. I suspect one reason why children still like climbing trees is because it was one of the few ways to get away from predators on the savannah if you couldn’t run fast.

Except that some predators – like leopards – are good climbers.

So you’re a small scavenging hominid and the drumming and shouting from the adults tell you a predator is coming. All of you get up into the tree as fast as you can.

Only the leopard climbs the tree as well.

What do you do?

You freeze. There’s good reason to do it, because the predator’s nose is being overwhelmed by the delicious smell of hot hominid, and its eyesight sees what’s moving. It finds it harder to see something that’s still.

You stay as still as you can. You don’t breathe much, you stay quiet, you are absolutely frozen in place – and maybe the leopard in the tree won’t catch any of you. Or maybe it bites and jumps down from the tree holding your friend in its teeth.

We aren’t just the descendants of Man the Hunter Gatherer. We’re also the descendants of scavengers who didn’t turn into a leopard’s lunch. The ones who could stay the stillest.

And now we’re sitting in a metaphorical tree, watching the Leopard of Global Heating getting closer and closer and we still think, right in our reptilian hindbrain, that if we stay absolutely still and do nothing at all, maybe, just maybe the Leopard of Global Heating won’t get us.

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