Earth to Humans: Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? Ideologies
Climate change will keep advancing unless we slay the dragons of inaction.
Posted Jun 22, 2015
What explains our inaction in the face of severe and growing climate change and other environmental problems? In previous post, here, I set out to discuss all seven categories of psychological causes of inertia assembled by the environmental psychologist Robert Gifford in his article, “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.”
These dragons must be SLAIN if we are to transition to a healthier, more sustainable world. Here’s the second group of dragons.
“Ideologies and worldviews…that embody beliefs which clash with climate change mitigation and other forms of pro-environmental action are very strong barriers to behavior change,” writes Gifford. I wrote about some of these in a post last year.
Worldviews. Worshipping the gods of free-market capitalism is a main cause of climate change denial and thus inaction. Many of the people who have benefitted most from free-market capitalism fear transition to any other system. Today, many people are materially wealthy from the capitalist system, but capitalism carries with it values of growth and accumulation that conflict with the real planet, which is finite—producing, for instance, a finite amount of biomass every year, and containing a basically finite amount of various minerals.
Action: A first step is to realize that free-market capitalism is not the only possibility, and indeed variations of capitalism exist throughout the globe—with varying levels of regulation and constraint—that a pure capitalism is mainly the province of abstract theory anyway. A “steady state economy”—one that doesn’t need to keep growing and instead seeks a more constant, ecologically rational throughput of materials—is a real possibility advocated by many, including the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Come on—we can get more thoughtful than simply believing in the “invisible hand” of the market, right?
Suprahuman powers. Other people believe that a deity or Mother Nature will protect them or carry out its (His) wishes regardless of what we lowly humans do. One group of Pacific Islanders has been purchasing higher ground in Australia. But another trusts that God will comply with His biblical promise not to flood the Earth again after the time of Noah. Either belief—that a higher power will protect or will run roughshod over humanity—condones inaction.
Action: Come back to Earth! It’s hard to argue when people believe there is a God who micromanages reality on the planet and will step in and somehow make everything OK. But everything is already not OK. Climate change is already killing perhaps almost half a million people per year. You may not want participation in that on your conscience. On the other hand, the notion that “Mother Nature” will do whatever she wishes regardless of what human society does is about equally misguided. Our environmental damages are diminishing nature’s ability to respond, making it (her?) less resilient. Sure, nature, seen as the whole natural world and cosmos, precedes humanity by far and will persist long after humanity and all of its traces. But that doesn’t mean we should degrade nature that’s here now, that we and all other people depend on.
Technosalvation. In modern society, technology, the fulcrum of the story of progress, has achieved the status nearly of a deity. Many of our heroes are the bosses of technology companies. While some people believe appropriate technologies will help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, others place all their faith that technology, believing that it alone will save us. Proponents of geoengineering believe that artificial trees that take in carbon dioxide, mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from Earth, or dumping iron into the oceans to stimulate plankton growth will allow engineers to stop or even reverse anthropogenic climate change. But major, haunting ethical, technical, and political problems surround such solutions. How can we safely store all the carbon captured by artificial trees to keep it out of the atmosphere? If we can gain control of the atmosphere’s temperature, who (or what nation) will control the “thermostat”? What if something goes horribly wrong (as often happens with large-scale, complex technologies, particularly in their early manifestations)?
Action: To believe technology will save us is to give up our responsibility and ethical agency as human beings participating in and shaping the society in which we live. It’s time to realize that, as important as technology is, there’s far more to society than the implements we invent and manufacture. Politics, ethics, the arts…these are core elements of society and to participate in them intentionally and thoughtfully is to become an active player in society rather than a passive consumer. Acquiescence to whatever technology that comes down the pike—from weapon-mounted drones to nanotech particles that can get in your bloodstream—is to give up full citizenship because technology so obviously determines a great part of our lives and existence. Don’t simply trust—find out the facts, and realize that not all technologies are being used for positive purposes.
System justification. There’s a strong tendency among people to justify and defend the current societal status quo. This tendency is particularly strong among those who have a comfortable, secure lifestyle, as most of us in the more industrialized countries currently do (though as I write here and here, you might not want to get too comfortable with your comfort!). But it’s important to understand that the world is changing due to our continued environmental damages, and we can either watch the sustainability and security of our society continue to erode in slow motion, or we can begin to take some control of these changes and get on top of the situation.
Solutions. It may help for people to begin to think of climate change mitigation and adaptation as part of the system itself—how society works—rather than something alien, imposed upon, or contrary to what the society system justifiers know and want to defend. One study quoted by Gifford (p. 293) showed that system justifiers do respond better when they believe the adjustments are part of the system rather than something introduced to overthrow it. But it’s also important to remember that the modern, global political and economic order under which we live, with all its benefits and detriments, is not something that sprung fully formed from nature. No, it was created by people. And something better can take its place. Indeed, the modern notion of linear progress requires it.
My book: Invisible Nature
My environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature
Read more of my posts: The Green Mind
 Robert Gifford, “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” American Psychologist, May – June 2011, pp. 290–302.
 DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, “Climate Vulnerability Monitor, 2nd Edition: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet” (Madrid: DARA International, 2012), pp. 17, 157.