Why we don’t act on the threats facing us

Contemporary scientists could be forgiven for thinking they are modern-day Cassandras; they can foresee the perils we face, but their ‘prophecies’ go unheeded. This is currently most apparent in relation to climate change. Indeed, each new soberly-worded report of future climate disaster is relegated to a few column-centimetres deep within newspapers –ironically, often some pages after coverage of recent weather events.

Science has been critical to the dramatic improvements in material living standards in Western countries over recent centuries, but the dominant discourse in these countries is nowadays couched in economic, rather than scientific, terms. I have heard a number of scientists exclaim in frustration: “the facts are clear; why won’t the government act on them?”

If only human cognitive processes were so rational! Of course, there are vested interests inside and outside governments, and we may favour our own immediate interests over future generations’. Our values may also vary. But these does not fully explain the gap between evidence and action.  Surely the majority of us want to keep our planet habitable? We live in a democracy, and we must collectively bear some responsibility for the actions of our governments. Unfortunately, our cognitive processes are subject to a range of distortions, and those of us with a long-term concern for the health of our planet must bear these in mind.

Distortion 1: We are best at acting on very immediate threats

Some argue that one of the main reasons we fail to engage with climate change is that the threat is not sufficiently clear-cut in its presentation. The theory goes that our ancestors’ brains were attuned to detecting immediate, readily-perceptible, mortal threats: the hunting tiger or approaching hostile warriors. Climate change does not present in this way; if we look out the window, everything generally looks normal and un-alarming. Individual extreme weather events may have been made more probable by climate change, but ultimately climate change is only evidenced in trends in climate statistics, and their longer-term impacts. The world therefore goes on, our lives are not immediately threatened, and we feel reassured.

While some politicians will encourage fear and anxiety for their own needs, for some reason the deteriorating condition of our planet is generally not raised in such terms. Climate change is taking its grip on the planet, and human consumption is overshooting the earth’s productive capacity, yet our Prime Minister can brightly extol that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”. A crisis? What crisis? Let’s continue down the current path.

Distortion 2: Inadequate perspective

It is not surprising that our ancestors understood the world to be flat. Such a view seemed supported by day-to-day observation. Such an understanding is, however, untenable for astronauts, or the majority of us who have seen photographs of Earth from space. Perspective can radically change our understanding.

Using that perspective of Earth from space also makes it very obvious that our host planet and its resources are finite. It becomes clear that we cannot indefinitely increase global human consumption and pollution. Economic growth therefore must also be constrained, as it is strongly correlated with consumption and pollution. Yet, almost every national government, as well as intergovernmental groupings such as the G20, have economic growth as a key policy priority.

A further failure of perspective is that most of us have little direct experience of the impacts of our individual actions and choices on our physical environment. This is because we do not see the extraction of resources and the pollution created to produce or consumer goods. Nor do we suffer the direct consequences of those activities.

Distortion 3: Ideology

Neoliberalism has helped to shape a more self-centred, narcissistic, and fragmented society. Commercial media and advertising reinforce a highly materialistic lifestyle, whereby personal and social worth are demonstrated by material wealth. The flip-side of that is the withdrawal of the individual from the communal realm to identify as individuals, or as families. We are told, even by governments, that we are foremost consumers, rather than citizens. An apparent result of this is an increasing reluctance to sacrifice individual benefits for the broader good of the community. So, we hear statements from some Australian politicians that they would not take any measures to address climate change which would damage the Australian economy. An extraordinary approach, given that unabated climate change will devastate our economy, along with our society and environment. If such a philosophy had applied during the 1940s, the Australian government presumably would have decided that we could not afford to defend ourselves against the approaching Japanese army, so as to avoid deleterious impacts on our economy.

Another unhelpful consequence of neoliberalism has been the marginalisation of the natural environment. Possibly this is also a result of the dualism within our western societies, which separates us humans from our physical environment. In neoclassical economics, the ‘environment’ is seen as an externality, removing it from our main focus. The central contemporary narrative of politicians and the mainstream media is about economic throughput and the provision of services and goods to humans. To the extent the environment provides such goods and services, well and good, but increasingly we emphasise the goods and services provided through the ‘economy’ as a human system alienated from the ‘environment’. Unfortunately, neoclassical economics also does not recognise a range of laws of physics and those shortcomings are highlighted as we overshoot global limits to growth.

Distortion 4: Disconnection with our physical environment, and our essential reliance on it

Those seeking to raise the alarm on the environmental crisis face a related problem. Indigenous cultures generally have a very strong understanding of their dependence on a healthy natural environment. In contrast, urban dwellers in wealthy countries are increasingly removed from the natural processes that support them. So, the term ‘environment’ has become trivialised and is now primarily be seen as a source of aesthetic values. Politicians associate the ‘environment’ with ‘cute and cuddly’ threatened species and troublesome impediments to economic development. Mainstream Australian media commentary rationalises ongoing incremental loss of natural habitat as a necessary enabler of prosperity, reflective of a society which lives on digging up and selling off its natural capital. In this discourse, the notion of the physical environment as human habitat is completely lost.

Distortion 5: Tribalism

Further barriers to environmental action are raised by the belief systems of society’s modern ‘tribes’. For many, particularly conservatives, climate change and other global existential threats cannot be readily integrated with their expectations of capitalism generating ongoing rises in material living standards.  A person will take extraordinary measures to protect the core beliefs central to maintaining their identity, or ‘sense of self’. To the extent that their worldviews and identities are threatened by the existence of anthropocentric climate change, it is easier to deny the existence of that threat. In these circumstances, they will gratefully accept specious arguments that validate their positions. This is made easier, because the climate change messengers, environmentalists, are a despised tribe. Furthermore, to square their desire not to accept the science of climate change, many now also have to demonise the unimpeachable climate change scientists themselves.

Distortion 6: Implicatory Denial

Even among those who accept the science of climate change, many engage in implicatory denial; they do not accept, or do not act on, the steps needed to mitigate climate change. So we have inadequate and half-baked climate change policies to act as a political fig-leaf. We certainly have a gap between the translation of the Paris climate change agreement and current national greenhouse gas reduction policies. Anything to avoid disrupting ongoing-growth capitalism; it seems that some would sacrifice the habitability of our planet before they would disrupt contemporary models of capitalism.

We are sold the line that we can solve climate change with some technical fixes, and happily continue ‘business-as-usual’ growth economics. It won’t work. Climate change is just one planetary boundary we are breaching by annually consuming resources more quickly than Earth can produce them, and creating pollutants more quickly than Earth can remediate them. Ecological footprint analysis indicates we would need ‘1.5 planet Earths’ to support our current levels of consumption. At current global economic growth rates of 3% per annum, global consumption will increase more than tenfold by the year 2100.

There are opportunities for reducing ecological impacts through more efficient and cleaner production methods, or ‘decoupling’.  Decoupling however cannot be a sufficient redress for the impacts of economic growth, as we would need to find ongoing annual efficiencies greater than the global economic growth rate indefinitely. Decoupling is part of the broader hope for ‘techno-fixes’. Techno-fixes are a desperate hope akin to awaiting the arrival of a messiah. It is the optimistic view of Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”. In the case of climate change, such techno-fixes take the form of geoengineering, ludicrously speculative proposals with large unknown but potential huge side-effects. They are but ways of avoiding addressing the underlying cause of climate change – overconsumption and overpollution.

To create a global society that limits climate change to two degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees, will require massive changes. Those in ‘developing countries’ need to consume more to achieve basic levels of health and welfare, while those of us in the rich world will need to consume much less to limit the total global consumption. Our economy is totally reliant on the transport of goods across great distances, and this is strongly dependent on fossil fuel consumption. The great advances in food production over recent decades have also relied heavily on the availability of large amounts of cheap oil. In a future which is both carbon-constrained, and oil-constrained, all this will change, and local communities will need to be far more self-reliant.

Taking personal responsibility

For most of us, climate change is a little like death – occasionally we are reminded of our mortality, it scares us…and then we just carry on, ignoring this unpalatable reality. Some of us do try to reduce our footprint. But then we take an overseas holiday, despite the huge greenhouse gas emissions caused by air travel.  We can justify our actions by rationalising that our personal sacrifices will have minimal impact globally. Moreover, our primary concerns are often working long hours to feed, clothe and educate our families. This provides a psychological cocoon to shelter us from having to really consider the parlous future of life on Earth.

We are all implicated here. This is not a call for taking on guilt. We need to accept that merely living on this Earth, we will have impacts. We should, however, be mindful and responsible in our day-to-day choices and actions, conscious of our impacts.

The habitability of our planet will not be saved by individual actions alone; this is a conceit of libertarians and defenders of the ‘free market’. Systemic actions will be essential to creating a truly sustainable global society. But systemic action does start with the awakening of every individual. As Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

We need to give up the mind-games that allow us to validate what we know is unacceptable. We need to root out our own perceptual distortions. We then need to act as if planet Earth is what it is; the only known habitat for human and non-human life anywhere in the universe.

This post has been adapted from an article by Jonathan Miller first published by the Frank Fenner Foundation in the November 2016 edition of Nature and Society Journal.