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May 6, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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A Job for Tomorrow

We are destroying the environment. We know this, yet societies around the world continue to fail to take any real action to improve the status quo. Why is it that, when it comes to the environment, we treat these issues as an inconvenient (but wholly uninspiring) truth?

The seas are curdling and the soil is putrefying. Animals are being made extinct with clinical precision and industrial efficiency. Our forests are burning and our lakes, rivers and streams are being poisoned. Landfills choke the earth and factories belch all manner of evil into the air. It’s all very dramatic, isn’t it? The environment means a lot to people, and it should. We only really get one go at it, after all. What is perplexing is the way in which we show our concern for it. While few people would argue that the polar bears should die, you don’t see great numbers of people abandoning their cars or governments turning coal plants off. The way societies the world over deal with the onslaught of ecological problems is, when you think about it, bizarre. There is something innately odd about acknowledging the problem on one hand and dismissing doing anything about it on the other. Putting aside the (usually economic) difficulties that are often posed by environmental protection, why is this? Why do we struggle to engage with the issues relating to the environment? Our reactions do not seem to be proportionate to our knowledge of what it happening to the world, yet when the equation seems so straightforward, you’d think they should be.


Consider the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer that we in the southern hemisphere have sitting over us. It is common knowledge that there is a dirty great big hole in the ozone, much of it over New Zealand. This is why we make schoolchildren wear those ugly wide-brimmed hats and why applying sunscreen is a national pastime. Before the depletion of the ozone was a recognised problem, there was a debate about whether or not it was actually a thing that was happening. Then, quite abruptly, there was a breakthrough and the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which aimed to repair the ozone by 2050, sprung into being in what then UN Assistant Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “the single most successful international agreement to date”. In her book Ozone Discourses: Science and Politics in International Environmental Cooperation, Karen Litfin argues that at the time, the scientific evidence of the degradation of the ozone layer was far from conclusive and certainly didn’t prove that whatever was happening to the ozone was due to chlorofluorocarbons. Rather, she says, it was the transformation of the way the ozone was understood that made this high-level political action possible. The ozone ‘hole’ is really a whole set of constantly changing fluctuations and depletions of the ozone layers, but when the idea of a hole in the atmosphere started being thrown around people panicked and did something about it.

This seems rather silly. While the ozone is better understood now, and the effect of human activity on it inarguably proven, it is galling that one of the most significant and successful movements in human history toward a more environmentally responsible world came about because it had good PR. Is this the only way for environmental issues to become legitimised politically? What exactly does it take?


Greta Snyder, a Political Science and International Relations lecturer at Victoria, has a wholly depressing answer: “I think the short answer to this question is: catastrophe.” Snyder believes that ultimately the problem with environmental activism in general is that it is easy to position it in a way that is tertiary to other goals. The environment is a luxury, if you like. Everything seems like it will happen in the future. The ice caps might be melting, but they’re still there. For now.

“For any number of reasons (concerns about their career not least among them), elected representatives are reluctant to commit significant resources in the here and now to pre-empting a future problem.” In other words, investing in environmental issues isn’t usually a tangible way of proving to those who elect you that they’re getting a good investment on their vote. “Those resources should be put towards more immediate problems, they (and many of their constituents) say.”

Snyder also makes a point that many are familiar with; “with at least some environmental issues, many claim that they are not completely
convinced that there will be a problem down the line. This is the case even with issues about which there is overwhelming scientific consensus, like climate change.”

But, Snyder argues, this extends beyond merely claiming that these effects aren’t proven. Rather, the way environmental issues are discussed journalistically gives weight to considerations that it probably really needn’t. “In a new book, After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy and the New Information Environment, communications scholar Bruce Western and political scientist Michael X. Delli Carpini argue that ambiguity about environmental issues like climate change has been encouraged by the media’s commitment to the ideal of ‘balanced reporting.’ Even with regards to issues in which the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of one position, the media gives time to “the other side” (i.e. climate-change sceptics) to demonstrate objectivity. This has created the popular impression that there is less of an authoritative consensus about climate change than there actually is. And it promotes the view that maybe there isn’t a problem, in which case we would be needlessly sacrificing valuable resources. So, even when the scientific world is in agreement about something, it isn’t easy for an ordinary person to be certain about what exactly the consensus is.

Action is usually seen, therefore, when shit goes down. “These criticisms—’resources should go to more pressing issues’ and ‘this isn’t actually a problem’—are undercut when there is an environmental catastrophe that clearly and compellingly dramatises the costs (human, monetary, animal, etc.) of environmental problems. It is usually at this point that you see people in power making commitments to take political action.”


But when it comes to the layperson, what, psychologically, controls our actions—or perhaps more appropriately, inactions—when it comes to the environment? Taciano Milfont, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at Victoria, offers three main reasons for the curious apathy experienced by many when it comes to the environment. Firstly, Milfont agrees with Snyder in that of the “many psychological barriers to perceiving, understanding and acting upon environmental issues, these include a lack of perceived political action (which leads to a ‘wait-and-see’ approach), distrust in information sources, fatalism, a ‘drop in the ocean’ feeling, and the perception environmental issues like climate change are a distant threat.” In many ways, this is the effect of what Snyder has outlined for us. The mechanics of the way political prioritising and media reporting are set up innately transform the environment into this enormous, unwieldy, unfixable thing.

The second is straightforward, and is “what the Canadian environmental psychologist Robert Gifford calls ‘environmental numbness’. Robert argues that most people, most of the time, are simply thinking about other issues (work, study, friends and family, a big game) and not about environmental issues.” Especially in the case of most Western societies, the adverse effect we are having on the environment isn’t immediately clear. As such, the things that actually take up most of our time occupy more of our mental capacity.

Lastly, Milfont points to the “…fear related to change and ‘the new’. This is because solutions to environmental problems are often viewed as threatening the existing social order.” One of the most terrifying things about the environment is that it does seem at times to be a little doomsdayish, because “tackling environmental issues may require changes in values, habitual behaviours, existing institutions, and the modus vivendi of the most powerful groups worldwide.” This might be the most convincing explanation of the way societies deal with ecological concerns: they’re just afraid. These problems are big, and the potential solutions all seem big as well.


While this might all paint a picture of a world where everyone is stricken with a fatal sense of powerlessness and hopelessness so potent that all they can do is quietly lie down on the street and wait for a car to run them over, that clearly isn’t the case. People are impassioned about the environment. In New Zealand we have a strong tradition of producing people of the environmentalist persuasion. And, moreover, there are successes. Animals have been saved from extinction, national parks established, and rivers cleaned up. What, then, has engendered these successes? Why do some causes fail dismally and some succeed?

Snyder says that some of the biggest successes the environmental movement has had are the smallest ones. “The environmental movement has been incredibly successful in getting people—even people who don’t consider themselves either activists or environmentalists—to make small alterations to their everyday lives (recycling, growing their own foods, using tote bags for groceries, etc.) that have significant environmental consequences. People today seem largely to be willing to take concrete action to further environmental causes, as long as the case can be made that these actions (however small) matter.” This sort of behaviour, however, seems to be predicated on vanity more than anything else. While KeepCups might be generally very good, they exist more as a sort of guilt-cleansing thing.

Snyder points out that guilt is sometimes the sole reason people engage with the environmental issues; “it… demonstrates the normative power of environmentalism. It is clear to me from my own experience that the ‘green’ ethos is increasingly regnant in the different places I’ve lived (the US, England, New Zealand). And I’ve noticed that, at this point, even people who are sceptical of the good of recycling do so because they would be embarrassed to be seen not doing so. Social movements ‘win’ by getting peer pressure on their side.” Environmentalism seems to be pretty good at this, at least.

Milfont says that our interest in things is generally limited to the extent to which they affect our lives. “…We tend to act when we think events/threats are psychologically closer. This perceived reduced distance can occur in relation to predictability, location, time, and sociality. That is, we are more willing to act when we think a given environmental problem is certain to occur here, in the near future, and to people similar to me.” That last point is the most interesting. When we talk about environmental issues we tend to adopt one of two modes of conversation. One is reserved for those we identify with, which instills a greater propensity for action; while the other is for those we pity but don’t feel the need to take action over. When the discussion centres around, say, poor people in the Third World starving because desertification is slowly rendering their methods of food production useless, it is depicted as a very tragic thing. The conversation might just stop there. It’s a bit like when children are sternly told off for not cleaning their plates because “there are starving African children who would kill for that”. Acknowledgement is accompanied by inaction. If a similar thing happens in New Zealand, or a country analogous to it, we are more likely to think of it as a real tragedy, probably because we can see that we, too, could be affected by it one day.

Sometimes, success is dependent on putting a face to the story. “I do think that some issues are more difficult to frame than others,” Snyder says. She believes that climate change, for instance, is difficult for people to buy in to because “it is very difficult to develop a frame in which ‘severity’, ‘urgency’ and ‘efficacy’ are held in a productive balance. Some climate change frames emphasise that this is a long-term process and that we still have time to act to counter the effects of climate change—but this undermines the sense that this issue is urgent and that we are at a point at which it is a severe problem. Other frames emphasise that climate change is going to fundamentally alter our way of life (for the worse) in the very near future, but these sometimes give the suggestion that this process is so far advanced that there is no reversing it. To compound the problem, climate change is a very complicated issue, where cause and effect is difficult to establish—and so it’s difficult to see how our sacrifices ‘pay out’ in the end.” Climate change, it would seem, is interpreted and depicted in such a colourful array of ways that it’s impossible for the person on the street to really understand what is true and what isn’t.

Other issues aren’t nearly so tortured. For instance, “…deforestation and wildlife conservation are easy translated through compelling images—an adorable koala bear in the middle of the ruins of what once was a forest, for instance. Breaks your heart. Climate change is much harder to translate in those terms. We do, however, see efforts being made—I’m thinking here of images of polar bears in their melting Arctic environments.” If it’s cute, we care.

The environment is a serious issue. What’s not so great is that people aren’t well-versed in interacting with it—and why would they be? The way society is structured is seemingly incompatible with the ways we engage with anything. The problems are too big, too staggeringly enormous. Moreover, there is something inherently inescapable about human self-interest. Outside of the limits of our own narrow lives we don’t seem to be able to empathise or identify with anything strongly enough to take action, even when we acknowledge the importance of doing so. This probably isn’t sustainable going forward: the world is going to let it be. I don’t feel bad about all of this, though. My pants are compostable.

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