Humans are actively destroying their environment. They know the consequences, and they don't really make much of an effort to change their ways.
If an alien civilization came visiting us today, we'd need our best philosophers to convince them that we are not a bunch of idiots.
Thing is, I don't think we are idiots. So, why do we behave in that way? I've been wondering about it a lot lately and quick, dismissive answers are not cutting the chase here, only making things more difficult. So, I started looking around for explanations.
As an example, is not hard to not use plastic bottles where drinkable water comes out of a tap. But a lot of people still do it.
I found a few good articles, and a metric fuckton of low quality, clickbait titled others, but one that strucked me as particularly good is the climate change booklet, a 120 or so pages of review of the existing psychologic literature in the field. Seems like the American Psychology Association has put together a task force for global climate change. Good on them! The report looks through the available researches and is targeted to psychologists. I am not one, but content was very interesting nonetheless.
It is focused around 6 questions, which seems quite spot on. In this article I'll make a short commentary of the first two.
1: How do people understand the risks imposed by climate change?
This is crucial: if people don't feel a risk they are unlikely to act.
As I said, we are not evolved to perceive all problems. Immediate, sure, controllable risks have the highest priority. What else?
- Climate change is not something you really experience individually. You may experience bad weather, but climate is a statistical model and the task of understanding it lies more in the hand of specialists. This requires an analytical processing of data, which we are not evolved to prioritize against associative processing. The feeling of risk is, well, a feeling, and raw data doesn't punch you in the guts as the need of something right now and when the two system disagree the affective, association based system usually prevails. Cutting consumption now to avoid a further risk in a distant future doesn't fit in most people and may even generate positions of denial.
- Small probability events are underestimated. Statistically a lot of people crash in cars, but when they drive they often ignore those risks
- The cost of mitigation is often too high. In contrast with economic analysts who typically have specific algorithms to discount future and distant costs, people often apply sharp discounts to distant costs an benefits. Getting a damage now for a return in 6 years is not impactful, just think of a 50 years benefit. In the current economic system, with a very quick turnover, is unthinkable.
- Global environmental systems are perceived as beyond the control of individuals. Is very difficult to feel how not eating a steak today can save a species far away, even though you may understand that it does so
- I found very interesting how risk perception is similar to quitting the smoking habit, in some ways. Is a distant benefit for an immediate suffering, a probability game, and more (of course, it's not the same thing and is just an analogy for some parts)
Smoking is actually good for the environment: it kills humans
- Making the shift to less consumptive standard should give immediate benefits, not just costs. This is properly understood in permaculture principle obtain a yield. Cultivating your own food should give you food right now, not drinking in water bottles should make your water taste good. It actually does, and we should put the accent in that, beside of the obvious long-term climate impact
- Groups dynamics are of focal importance. People perceiving climate change risks also often share other ideas between themselves, seems. For example. Trump supporters usually don't.
If we can make the environmental idea endemic to as much cultural groups as possible, we can get leverage that group spreading.
For example: If I get my book reading club to organize dinners with food bought on regenerative agriculture, and collect small donations to send to ecological restoration projects, I have a positive impact. If the book club grows so will the beneficial impact of it, without any further work needed, as the benefits are now bundles in that community.
You can think of it as a meme into the meme pool, and if I can keep the genetic comparison, making it a memetic linkage to other characteristics
2: What are the human behavioural contributions to climate change?
This is the kind of thing that you often can't talk with people, being the ethical and moral equivalent of a minefield: birth control, consumption limitation, blocking/modulating third world development, don't get that pet. I guess that is why the third principle of permaculture got sweetened out during the years from Set limits to population and consumption to fair share
Population and impact
There is a relationship between amount of people and damage done, of course, but that's not all the story. The Green House Gases (GHG) emissions per capita are so different from country to country that you actually have more GHG emitted in demographically low (and rich) countries, like the USA. There doesn't seem to be a direct sure link between population decrease and decrease in GHG emission. Impact=Population*Consumption , and there is a balance between the last two that I didn't know of.
A work in the decrease of population is needed, nonetheless. And no, my sarcastic friend, bombs and wars may not do it. Actually, the amount of ignorance, social insecurity and rape that wars bring with them are a proven (if not evident enough) factor in the huge demographic of third world countries, where women have little say about their willingness to have kids.
Religions, cultures and traditions who don't allow for abortions of contraceptive are a great push in the wrong direction too, and that counts for all the world, so called developed or not.
So go on, get your vasectomy, but if you are really sensitive about a gracefully way down educate people too.
Batteries, production, increased usage...
eco-solutions are not always as effective as they may look
There is a way of considering consumption in terms of economy that just doesn't work for the environment. You can buy a lot of harmless stuff for high price, or spend little on very damaging things.
Now, how to quantify that is a major perception problem, and is not easily solved. That is why people often prioritize an ineffective behavior, maybe because it looks more "ecofriendly". This difficulty has been widely used by companies to attract sensible people, in a well known strategy called Greenwashing.
This is the case of buying new, more "ecological" cars, while even just disposing of the old one is usually more impactful than the benefit of the new one. There are also indirect behavior consequences. Changing an habit can bring to another one, like getting an hybrid car can push people to drive farther, neutralizing the benefit. This is known as rebound effect
Now, people consume a lot, but do they actually feel better? One of the great insight of psychology is that no, they don't. Of course, financial help is not to be underestimated, especially in the environmental issues, where investments are often to be made in order to consume less in the future (buy a fabric bag for 5 euros instead of a plastic one for 5 cents). But in general, people don't feel better when they buy stuff at least in developed countries. In poorer countries, there is a more direct correlation between income and well-being, once the basic needs are satisfied the curve gets less and less steep.
So, how that happens, and among who? I found interesting studies in this little book. The cultural values of hierarchy and mastery promotes more consumption, as the "status symbols" are expensive, and a great market niche.
So, while things don't make us happy, there are evident cultural pushes to make us believe so and, in some cases, force us to do so (for example, a car or a pc is in many cases a necessity, not a luxury). Culture has a great importance here, again.
Would you behave in the same way if plants had eyes?
So what, so we are in a deep shit, that's what.
Not only we have headaches thinking of how complicated ecological matters are, but we have many behavioural and cultural obstacles in the path to solving problems.
Some working notes anyhow:
- There is a lot of politically correctness in the matter of personal beliefs. I understand the politeness and not wanting to hurt others, but try to break taboos and have a genuine talk with others about their decisions.
- Don't stop at the surface. If someone brags about how they got a fairphone 'cause is more ecological, ask what was wrong with the old one.
- Think deeply about how much something is environmentally good. Think of how it was produced, how much resources it uses and how it's going to be disposed of. Dish-washers use less water? No, they don't, if you take in account the water used for production, for electricity and for disposal.
- The booklet cover is copyright by the American Psychological Association
- The picture "Chrysler minivan, petro-hydraulic hybrid" is By IFCAR - Own work, public domain,