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Why we couldn’t care less about the natural world


That didn’t take long. The public interest in the state of the natural world stimulated by the winter floods receded almost as quickly as the waters did.

A YouGov poll showed that the number of respondents placing the environment among their top three issues of concern rose from 6% in mid-January to 23% in mid-February. By early April – though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just published two massive and horrifying reports – the proportion had fallen back to 11%.

 

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Sustaining interest in this great but slow-burning crisis is a challenge no one seems to have mastered. Only when the crisis causes or exacerbates an acute disaster – such as the floods – is there a flicker of anxiety, but that quickly dies away.

Why is it so difficult to persuade people to care about our wonderful planet, the world that gave rise to us and upon which we wholly depend?

And why do you encounter a barrage of hostility and denial whenever you attempt it (and not only from the professional liars who are paid by coal and oil and timber companies to sow confusion and channel hatred)?

The first thing to note, in trying to answer this question, is that the rich anglophone countries are anomalous. In this bar chart (from the New York Times) you can see how atypical the attitudes of people in the US and the UK are. Because almost everything we read in this country is published in rich, English-speaking nations, we might get the false impression that the world doesn’t care very much.

 

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This belief is likely to be reinforced by the cherished notion that we lead the world in knowledge, sophistication and compassion. The bar chart puts me in mind of the famous quote perhaps mistakenly attributed to Gandhi. When asked by a journalist during a visit to Britain, “What do you think of western civilization?”, he’s reputed to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Our erroneous belief that we are more concerned about manmade climate change than the people of other nations informs the sentiment, often voiced by the press and politicians, that there’s no point in acting if the rest of the world won’t play its part. For example, last year the chancellor, George Osborne, remarked:

I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.

But we’re not “the only people out there in front of the rest of the world.” In fact we’re not in front at all. As this map produced by Oxford University’s Smith School suggests, we are some way behind not only some other rich nations but also a number of countries much poorer than ours.

 

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As for the US, Australia and Canada, they are ranked among the worst of all: comprehensively failing to limit their massive contribution to a global problem. We justify our foot-dragging with a mistaken premise. Our refusal to stop pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is pure selfishness.

Both the map and the bar chart overlap to some degree with the fascinating results of the Greendex survey of consumer attitudes.

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

As you can see from the following graph, the people consulted in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries, even though those impacts tend to be smaller. Of the nations surveyed, the people of Germany, the US, Australia and Britain feel the least consumer guilt; the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil the most.

 

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The more we consume, the less we feel. And maybe that doesn’t just apply to guilt.

Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise-pointless hyperconsumption: it smothers feeling. It might also be the effect of the constant bombardment of advertising and marketing. They seek to replace our attachments to people and place with attachments to objects: attachments which the next round of advertising then breaks in the hope of attaching us to a different set of objects.

The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. Even if you somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.

So what we seem to see here is the turning of a vicious circle. The more harm we do, the less concerned about it we become. And the more hyperconsumerism destroys relationships, communities and the physical fabric of the Earth, the more we try to fill the void in our lives by buying more stuff.

All this is accompanied in the rich anglophone nations with the extreme neoliberalism promoted by both press and politicians, and a great concentration of power in the hands of the financial and fossil fuel sectors, which lobby hard, in the public sphere and in private, to prevent change.

So the perennially low level of concern, which flickers upwards momentarily when disaster strikes, then slumps back into the customary stupor, is an almost inevitable result of a society that has become restructured around shopping, fashion, celebrity and an obsession with money.

How we break the circle and wake people out of this dreamworld is the question that all those who love the living planet should address. There will be no easy answers.

4 Comments

  1. avatar
    James Wilson May 12, 2014 10:36 pm 

    It’s easy to constantly reaffirm the obvious and particularly to those of us that may be on or of the left or involved in system changing activity but much much harder to convince those of other persuasions. Western lifestyles may be an act of “criminality” in some way, and many millions need to unlearn, but to where do they head.

    Constant, and in some ways arrogant lambasting of people doesn’t really help and can create feelings of depression and hopelessness that are counter to desired aims.

    I agree that Gar is doing much great work, but much more needs to be done. Most know that already existing socialism hasn’t been much help, but already existing alternative models, like Parecon, Inclusive Democracy and perhaps the embryonic ideas of the Peer2Peer community need to get more media attention. There are other Eco-socialist models but most nowhere as detailed as Parecon or Inclusive Democracy (which is not as detailed as Parecon). Ted Trainer’s A Simpler Way is another model, less coherent, but worthy of attention also.

    Differences around these models/creative possibilities or alternatives have to be set aside in order for awareness of there existence to grow and for debates and discussion around there similarities and differences to foment/ferment, build or whatever. Writers like Monbiot and others who constantly point to the cliff we are all headed towards, need to start to point to these already existing models of alternatives to market/capitalism if merely to create greater awareness. Unlearning is one thing, but doing so without knowledge or ideas of where to go makes any new learning and strategy confusing.

    If one is to spend so much time pointing out how screwed up we all are, like lemmings heading for the proverbial cliff, as Chomsky says, then spend an equal amount of time or more, in ones essay, article, book or whatever, pointing to creative possibilities so others can “learn” about new stuff and grow confidence that that there are other ways to do things. And the average citizen and working classes need and deserve such positive and confidence building ideas, otherwise many may just think, “oh, fuck it, I’ll just go over the cliff with everyone else because I’m tired and exhausted of being smashed all over by the man, and now by so many doomsayers who don’t offer much hope”.

    I don’t know if unconsciousness is a learned habit or not, the assertion sounds rather shakey to me, but I do think people are born into environments, cultures, economic and power systems that are difficult to extract oneself from. People become locked in very easily, and long term thinking beyond one’s own possibly short life, is often hard to maintain in face of so much precariousness. Unlearning takes time, and may in fact be impossible. Change and learning new things however, is.

    So what and where are these new things?

  2. Joseph Val May 12, 2014 3:39 pm 

    we overconsume because we’ve cut ourselves off mentally from the larger matrix in which we live, of which we are a part; feeling no connection except that of dominator/dominated is the basis of our market system, which requires us to overproduce in order to accumulate and exchange. In such a perspective, nature is merely an object to be used however we see fit, and has no intrinsic value except that which we grant it. Is it any wonder that any species with such an approach to living on the planet would not only not be aware of the effects of its destructive activity, but, when confronted with evidence of such either denies it outright, or feels incapable of effecting any kind of change of approach which could ameliorate such effects? Climate change is not part of our normal state of consciousness, because nature as such is not; it is different with 3rd worlders, who remain aware of the environment in which they live, upon which they are reliant. The lifestyle of every US citizen is a crime against humanity. We are the criminally gluttonous. Unconsciousness is a learned habit. Time to unlearn.

    • David Dobereiner May 12, 2014 8:40 pm 

      Excellent Joseph. Except not every US citizen pursues a criminal life style. Gar Alperovitz, and the many cooperative and community enterprises he documents and helps to foster are shining counter examples, for example.

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