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Expired · 24th March 2010
Ray Grigg
As our environmental impact on the planet becomes increasingly dramatic, some concerned academics are shifting their attention from "What should we do?" to "Why don't we do it?". Their insights apply to every level of human society: to the global community, to nations, cities, towns and particularly to individuals. So, as you are reading this and thinking it only applies to others, you are probably wrong.

A useful place to begin this exploration is with Gregory Bateson, an important 20th century thinker. He proposed that our human behaviour evolved to favour getting what we want, whether this be finding berries, hunting for meat or procuring sex. This focussed effort or "purposiveness" clearly benefits successful individuals. But the cumulative effect of such behaviour in even small groups can damage the immediate environment sustaining them. Nomadic people have solved this problem by moving to new territory that has fresh resources. But civic cultures, unable to move because they are bound to particular localities by settlements and agriculture – or are prevented from moving by adjacent cultures – simply collapse when their purposiveness overstretches the capabilities of the place they occupy. This is the ecological explanation for the fall of many past civilizations. Our present global environmental problems are an extreme version of this same process. Seven billion humans all trying to get what they want is having a hugely disruptive effect on the planet's biosphere. And, unlike our nomadic ancestors, we cannot move to new territory.

But purposiveness does not always benefit individuals. The urge to satisfy a specific want narrows focus and perspective in proportion to the intensity of the want – the more we want something the less attention we are likely to pay to the consequences. A consumer society composed of individuals who feel compelled to buy the latest fashionable products is unlikely to consider the ecological impacts of acquiring the component raw materials, of supplying the requisite energy for manufacture and distribution, of anticipating the polluting by-products, of considering the sociological impacts, or of planning for the eventual disposal of the bought products. Purposiveness can ultimately work to our individual and collective disadvantage if it obscures our awareness of extremely negative consequences.

And some negative consequences are not as obvious as others. For precisely this reason, a growing number of psychologists think that global climate change may be the worst of all possible problems for us to solve. Writing in the Guardian Weekly (Jan. 01/10), David Fahrenthold notes that it has no "obvious villains", no "one-step solutions", and the "worst effects seem as if they'll befall somebody else at some other time" – exactly the kind of problem that is unlikely to concern the people causing it.

Reason suggests that all the warnings of impending environmental disasters should motivate us to dramatic, corrective action. That's the response we would expect. Except, says David Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University, "We are collectively irrational...." The obvious expectation is that "we should really care about the long-term wellbeing of the planet," he says. "But when we get up in the morning it's hard to motivate ourselves" (Ibid.).

We lack motivation, Fahrenthold adds, because the warnings "kick at emotional dead spots in all human brains – but especially American brains." (And Canadian brains, too.) The entire climate change issue, he contends, "is a policy problem that has 'psychological distance'; there's a sense that this is a problem for somebody else or some other time" (Ibid.).

In his search through this complex subject, Fahrenthold identifies another challenge for each of us to overcome. This is "system justification", our inclination to stay with the status quo and resist anything that alters it. As Fahrenthold points out, climate change is not like the hole in the ozone. That problem is being solved by modifications that require no adjustments to our system. Technology simply replaces hydrofluorocarbons with something less harmful while we continue to use our refrigerators, air conditioners and other cooling devices.

Another complicating factor inhibiting our corrective behaviour, psychologists point out, is that we have only a "finite pool of worry" – we can only worry about so much at one time. This explains why environmental concerns diminish as economic conditions worsen. Governments without a strong sense of leadership are likely to follow the public's reflex to fix the economy rather than the environment. Some foresighted governments are able to do both, thereby providing economic stimulation while encouraging sustainability.

So, how do we overcome this human inclination to disregard consequences? Psychologists suggest that we frame problems positively rather than negatively. Stop thinking about the disastrous consequences of climate change and start thinking that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will save, preserve and sustain the lifestyle we want to keep. Consider benefits rather than costs. Concentrate on concrete solutions to environmental problems. Think of the tidiness of recycling. Notice the efficiency of reducing energy consumption, of consuming less, of having a smaller car or driving fewer kilometres. Count local attractions and list the advantages of a holiday closer to home. Consciously distinguish between wants and needs. Rather than choosing the economic slavery of over-consumption, remember that the simple pleasures of life are the deepest and most satisfying.

Each of us can exercise this psychological trickery to redirect our purposiveness and to fool our irrational inclination to blunder into consequences we do not want.