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Why Do Smart, Caring People Ignore Environmental Issues?

Heal yourself and help heal the planet.

Today’s New York Times warns that some of Florida’s coastal communities may be underwater within the next 100 years. This past week, there was a terrible typhoon in the Philippines that took thousands of lives. Last year, Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeast coast of the United States.

There is considerable scientific consensus regarding global warming, yet most of us (myself included) look the other way. Why is this?

Mary Pipher’s newest book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, and Tara Brach's recent podcast, Loving Life, Loving Earth, offer some reasons.

We have too many other things to worry about. We're bombarded with messages about crime, the economy, and cancer, to name a few. The human brain can handle only so many competing concerns. When doing research for her book, Pipher asked many people what they thought about global climate change. One woman, a bright and thoughtful librarian, said, "It's a mid-level worry." As a top-notch worrier myself, I can relate. I'm much more likely to worry about a sick family member or a friend who just lost her job than global warming.

We focus on immediate problems. Our brains are naturally wired to scan for danger, with a preference to focus on problems that need to be fixed right away. To use my example from above, it's easier to bring a meal to a sick person than to know what to do to fix the environment. Pipher writes," The human race is more likely to solve a problem that requires a hammer if we have a hammer at hand. For global environmental problems, we don't have a hammer."

We’re disconnected from our environment. Brach states that Americans are inside about 90 percent of the time, and of that inside time, she wonders aloud about how much is spent behind a screen. She notes that living in this “alternate reality” affects us in profound ways. We become separated from the Earth, which is an extension of our own living bodies.

We’re in a trance. Brach also believes that we’re often living in a “trance” in which we deny our true nature. We feel separate, inadequate, and unworthy. To defend against these feelings, we look outside ourselves for something to dull the pain. And our culture is all to happy to help. Buy more. Eat more. Get a bigger house, a bigger car. All of this over-consumption provides us a short-term fix (just like a drug) but causes long-term damage to our planet.

We have a knowledge deficit. Despite the fact that scientists have tried to educate Americans about our environmental chaos for a long time, it doesn't seem to be sinking in. Pipher cites a report from May 2011* that found 25 percent of Americans continue to be dismissive and doubtful about the reality of global climate change.

It doesn't hit close enough to home. For many of us, the effects of global climate change haven’t hit close to home. I look out my window and sees beautiful pine trees and I'm not thinking about the forests being lost in the Amazon. “Our global storm is invisible, unprecedented, drawn-out, and caused by us all. For most people, at least so far, it has only indirect personal impact,” writes Pipher.

We engage in faulty thinking. Thoughts such as, “the things I could do won’t really make a difference" or "the earth is too far gone already, so why bother?” are common but dangerous, leading to despair and hopelessness.

So, what can we do? Below are ideas from both Pipher and Brach.

  1. Be gentle with yourself. Thinking about our troubled earth is frightening and uncomfortable. Acknowledge your feelings. Do so in small doses if you become overwhelmed.
  2. Be willing to educate yourself. I encourage you to read Pipher's The Green Boat and watch Brach's Loving Life, Loving Earth. Pipher also recommends reading Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill Mckibben and both Brach and Pipher speak highly about the work of Joanna Macy.
  3. Consider your consumption habits. I’ve recently started reading a few blogs about adopting a more simple lifestyle. Check out Be More with Less and Becoming Minimalist.
  4. Believe you can make a difference. I love this quote from Helen Keller: "I am only one. I cannot do everything, but still, I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do."
  5. Start small. There are plenty of tiny steps you can take that really will matter. See this list of 50 ideas to get you started.
  6. Give yourself credit for the things you already do. When I looked at the list above, I found that I was already doing many of the things suggested. And the list gave me ideas for other things I could easily add to my routine.
  7. Talk with other people. Our environmental problems are not going to be solved on an individual level. Try to find others to share concerns and brainstorm possible actions.
  8. Get more involved. Check out Citizens Climate Lobby,, or System Change.
  9. Fall in love with the earth. Go outside. Hug a tree. Watch a bird. Look up. This will motivate all of us to make necessary changes. As Brach says, “We need to wake up to our loving for this world.”

*Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications, called, “Global Warming’s Six Americas in May 2011.

I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child.

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