Are Environmental Problems Real If Nobody Sees Them?
Regaining control over our environmental impacts
Posted Sep 13, 2013
As extreme as it may seem, this vignette captures something peculiar about our everyday modern lives. We constantly take actions that have repercussions around the globe. You buy processed food containing palm oil, and it contributes to deforestation in Indonesia (and the deaths of orangutans), where monoculture palm oil plantations are replacing ecologically rich rainforest. Or you turn on a light, placing demand on the electrical network. Combined with other people’s demand, it causes system operators to fire up a coal-fired power plant. Carbon dioxide, sulfur, perhaps mercury, and other pollutants gush into the atmosphere, a kind of global sewer for our gaseous wastes. The carbon dioxide intensifies global climate change, raising sea levels and causing more intense droughts and storms, which in turn can flood coastal cities such as New Orleans or New York.
Living in Two Worlds
In the twenty-first century, we live in two worlds simultaneously—the world of our immediate experiences and the world where our consequences, such as polluted landscapes and barren fisheries, play out. We hear about the latter through news media, but it remains a distant and abstract place, hard to reconcile with and respond to. Denial and despair result.
Over the past two centuries, merely a thousandth of human history, nature, like the victims of the drone strikes, has receded into the distance. It has disappeared beyond our sensory horizon, creating a kind of apartheid between our immediate sensory experiences and our environmental consequences. This schism makes modern life a very strange thing indeed.
The divide looks particularly odd from the perspective of the two hundred thousand years of human history during which people have walked the landscape engulfed in (and changing) their natural surroundings. For eons before that our ancestor species ran through brush, climbed trees, hunted and in turn were hunted and eaten, gave birth, defecated, swam, and slept in environments that they affected in mostly immediate and observable ways with their actions. If you attacked another animal, it was right there to attack you back. If you burned down a forest, there might be no wood to heat your cave and cook your food that winter. You might die.
The other truly peculiar thing about this modern world is the enormous scale of environmental damages we’ve inflicted and which are coming back to haunt us in the form of drought-stricken farms, eroded soils, collapsing biodiversity, and a growing scarcity of clean, fresh water, among other problems. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment is the most comprehensive appraisal ever undertaken of Earth’s ecological health and its implications for human well-being. It presents sobering warnings about the sum total of our environmental problems. Sixty percent of “ecosystem services” (things that nature produces and humans use) are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, wild game, fisheries, and air and water purification. Among many other problems, we’re drastically reducing global biodiversity, mainly by wiping out habitat for other species as we convert it to suburbs, farms, cities, and shopping malls.
As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill writes in his book Something New Under the Sun, what’s so new and striking in the last century is not only the severity and extent of humanity’s environmental problems, but that they’re unintended consequences of human action. We’re changing nature in ways we don’t really want to.
These two pivotal aspects of modern life—our dissociations from most of the consequences of our actions and the massive scale of environmental problems—are wholly interrelated, as I argue in my new book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment. Alienated from our consequences, we can’t quite respond to them, so environmental problems proliferate. As I’ll explain in my next post, some of the most famous experiments in all psychology show why information about harms is not quite enough.
Animal Minds in an Animal World
We’re still animals, and as such we still react mainly to stimuli in our immediate environments, such as the rewards of buying a new car and driving it everywhere we desire. Abstract knowledge of deleterious consequences remains secondary to immediate, visceral experience. Evolving in a world of immediate rewards and consequences has led our brains to work best that way.
This new blog, The Green Mind, explores how our human minds respond to these modern conditions we find ourselves living in not only by making environmentally damaging choices, but also by seeking to heal our relationship with nature and to tread more lightly on this beautiful, living, creative, fragile Earth. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I’ll bring in research from various fields—experimental psychology, ecopsychology, anthropology, ethics, environmental history—to examine what drives us to make destructive choices, what inhibits us from being more environmentally benign, how we respond emotionally to knowledge of a cycle of environmental ruin that seems out of control, and how we can re-organize society for healthier engagements with our natural environments. Throughout, I’ll take a philosophical approach that explores alternatives ways of being that are more sustainable and just for all creatures.
I hope you’ll read on. Please subscribe and check back often. I welcome your comments and questions.
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 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Program, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Series (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005).
 J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. xxii
 Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013).