Pollution and Psychology
The quest for purity begins now.
Posted Apr 30, 2017
If you are thinking about pollution, it does not mean that you have a dirty mind. ~ Anonymous
Pollution is choking the planet. Pollution takes many forms: radiation, particles in the air, chemicals in the streams, and plastic in the oceans, among others. Many people are aware of the threats to their health and the health of the planet in abstract terms, while failing to see the direct impact on themselves or their options for action. One way to approach the issue of pollution is to explore the psychological barriers to perception and action and strategies for lowering these barriers. Here, I discuss 4 barriers and 4 corresponding response strategies.
 Perception. The first barrier is that much of the present pollution is either not captured by the senses in principle or not captured because it is removed from experience. For example, we cannot feel radioactive radiation, but only its effects when it is too late. Whereas we can see smog, especially from a distance, we cannot see the smallest pollutants (particulate matter). Other pollutants, such as scraps of plastic floating in the oceans or inside the animals that ingested it might be visible in principle but they are removed from view.
The first strategy to bring pollution to awareness is to make it visible. Much progress has been made to image big data. Humans are sensitive to color, which means that degrees of pollution in a system such as the atmosphere, the oceans, or a local river, can be conveyed in color. The color red is a natural candidate for the signaling of danger. Where applicable, the sense of smell may be addressed such that pollution is associated with disgust. This is a natural association (e.g, the smell of feces), which can be generalized. For example, a carbon-dioxide alarm could involve the release of a foul odor.
 Cognition. Humans are naturally interested in the causes of things, but they may find it difficult to connect pollution with dangerous outcomes such as illness when pollution is present as a seemingly static feature of the background. In such a case (e.g., asbestos in the air), pollution is a condition instead of a recognizable effective cause.
The strategy to lower this barrier is to allow people to see variation in pollution so that they can appreciate the linkages between that variation and variation in outcomes such as health. To help this reframing from condition to cause along, one might highlight past successes in reducing pollution (as in, for example, the campaigns to lower car emissions and to remove lead from gasoline altogether).
 Agency. Inasmuch as pollution is seen as a problem affecting a large but diffuse space, from the village to the planet, individuals may either see little hope for personal intervention or feel little responsibility to intervene at a cost to themselves even if such intervention is promising. These impressions reinforce hopelessness or narrow-minded egotism or parochialism.
The strategy to lower this barrier to is to stimulate the sense of causation, once liberated, to encompass the person, the corporation, or the local or state government as influential agents. The free-rider problem, once thought to be insurmountable, can be attacked with the variety of interventions leveraging group dynamics, communication, commitment-making, and agreements regarding how to fine violators.
 Self and identity. A final barrier is the lack of psychological engagement. Some people may understand the perceptual, cognitive, and interventional issues, but simply don’t care. Pollution, be it local or global, may simply not connect with the way they see themselves.
To lower this barrier it is necessary to link pollution to core values. Personal freedom, equality before the law, loyalty to one’s family or clan are examples of core values held in many regions of the world. Moral codes and ethical norms are grafted onto such values, and most people respect them and respond when they are violated. Another core value is purity. Most cultures have some sensibility to animals, things, or actions they consider unclean, although the specifics vary widely. The common root is the emotion of disgust triggered by toxic food. Humans and other animals expel some toxic foods from their bodies if they have ingested them by mistake. Only humans have come to experience the sense of being revolted by such toxins, and culture has refined this capacity into a moral sense. In most cultures, humans find the idea of incest repugnant, for example, although there is variation in how they define incest. This final strategy, then, may involve efforts to get people and their institutions to care about pollution by making it revolting and thereby moralizing it. Moralization, in turn, enables the generation and enforcement of norms, laws, and punishments, as well as rewards. People who care about an issue such as pollution in a visceral and ego-relevant way, will not see pollution as a mere externality that will come out in the wash.