Post No.: 0265
The main barrier against solving a lot of human problems isn’t so much not knowing what needs to be done – but getting people to actually individually and collectively do it!
Some climate experts assert that only dramatic lifestyle changes are enough now because small changes won’t be sufficient anymore. We’ve gotten to this stage because the global warming problem has been known for many decades yet we’ve been doing too little – or we’ve continued to make things even worse – during this time. We cannot claim that this situation has just appeared ‘unexpectedly’.
Most adults have now been informed and educated about human-accelerated climate change and other human caused or accelerated environmental and biodiversity issues, yet many continue to deny these problems are real due to prior-existing political worldviews that elicit a cognitive dissonance, whereby their own immediate self-interests are taken to be the thing that must be protected at all costs (much to many children’s dismay). This results in rejecting anything that stands against the profit maximisation of businesses, such as those in the petrochemical industry, and/or anything that calls for sacrificing any luxuries in their personal lifestyles.
One cannot cognitively or morally accept human-economic-activity-related environmental damage without then believing one must do something about it, thus if one wants to morally carry on consuming at current rates, living a luxurious, energy-inefficient lifestyle and believing in the free form of capitalism one wants, then something must give – but for many people that something ends up being rejecting the belief that humans are the cause of this or any damage, or rejecting that something could be done about it anyway. (See Post No.: 0060 for more.) Some have even tried hard to rationalise that global warming would overall be a good thing for the planet.
When the scientific evidence conflicts with one’s politico-economic philosophy, the scientific evidence tends to be the thing that gets rejected rather than one’s politico-economic beliefs, with the help of one’s echo chamber, which can create and spread misinformation, such as a conspiracy theory, in an attempt to discredit the scientific consensus. So, for example, if one really believes staunchly in laissez-faire economics and doesn’t want to give any legitimate reason for governmental interference into economic activities then one is going to attempt to rationalise that everything within the laissez-faire economic model is fine and is working optimally for the present and long-term future, and maybe climate change is a hoax conjured up by some governments in an attempt to justify controlling us.
Religious beliefs and human exceptionalism (believing that humans are uniquely special in the animal kingdom or not even a part of it at all) may also be factors why some people deny an extinction risk to the human species.
Some generalise that ‘scaremongering’ doesn’t help, but some threats are real and aren’t over-stated. Many parts of the world have already felt the negative effects of global warming (e.g. longer periods of drought, more frequent, longer-lasting and more intense tropical storms, and more numerous wildfires). Now it’s hard to attribute any single event to human causes but collectively there’s been a rising trend of more extreme weather events that can be attributed to human causes. It’s like it’s hard to say that any particular kilogram of adipose/fatty tissue on one’s body is down to one’s terrible diet (because a normal, healthy adult will and should carry several kilograms of fat anyway) but collectively we can be pretty sure that if someone is obese then the total increase in their fatty weight gain is down to their diet and physical activity levels.
So ignorance is not bliss here, even though many people live their daily lives with their fuzzy heads in the sand regarding this issue. Blind hope or overconfidence can also lead people to stick their heads in the sand or otherwise carry on as usual. Yet we do need to believe that we can still do something to reverse the trend or mitigate the situation because even many of those who understand that humans are to blame would feel there’d be no hope so what’s the use? Well at the very least, the damage can be minimised if no longer completely reversible, and that’s still worth doing. Woof!
Those who want to silence the message, cast doubts or pump out anti-climate-change propaganda are those who have their own political allegiances or selfish interests to do so. The length of one’s own lifetime is virtually nothing compared to geological timescales hence serving one’s own individual best interests can easily misalign or conflict with serving the best interests of the human species as a whole; never mind the interests of other species and biodiversity. Well humans are often bad at even caring for their own future within their own lifetimes (e.g. consuming too many calories, not being physically active enough, smoking or drinking too much, not saving enough for a pension). A (relatively uncertain) cost tomorrow (e.g. cancer) is weighted less than a (pretty certain) pleasure today (e.g. another drink)… then keep repeating this intuition until it potentially becomes too late.
Politically, the economy comes before environmental concerns, hence the typical message is to consume to boost the economy rather than refrain to ease environmental costs. Corporate interests are obviously typically about promoting consumption too. People’s individual interests are typically to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in terms of material conspicuous consumption, ‘buy now and pay later’, throw away rather than fix (it’s considered too much personal effort), money, status and power-orientated motives/goals (which correlate with desiring and exhibiting materialism and consumption), ownership over stewardship, luxury or an easy life over abstinence or effort, to drive rather than walk, and other psychological limitations and attitudinal myopias of human programming that override the desire to look after the environment, biodiversity and long-term.
You’d think it’d be a triple win because it saves money, offers some physical exercise and helps the planet for consuming less, using fewer fossil fuels and wasting less – but people also have other drives, such as to have stuff, be lazy and wanting convenience. A lot of people want ‘exotic ingredients from far away tropical places’ and marketers play on this desire too.
Innate human instincts didn’t evolve to prioritise big-picture and long-term multi-generational interests over proximal and short-term interests. Change is possible but human psychology suggests that people likely won’t without force or at least nudging (e.g. increased taxes). However, political parties won’t likely try anything considered too drastic and unpopular because then they won’t get (re)elected or they’ll face a backlash if they try (e.g. a higher fuel tax revolt).
The current market of images of status and power via material acquisitions, of glamorous and luxurious lifestyles, of fast fashion, of having the latest electronic devices, are antithesis to environmental consideration – even many celebrities whom espouse environmentalist messages are sending mixed messages with their own consumptive and luxurious lifestyles. Most celebrities consume more energy and materials than the average person because they can financially afford to. So most people aren’t willing to earn less when they can earn more, or ultimately reduce the consumption or lazy waste in their lifestyles – it’s against their own individual self-interests.
And the rarer something becomes, the more valuable it becomes, and therefore the more desirable it becomes – some people will still be able to afford this higher price and will demand this exclusive commodity in order to signal their own status. Therefore scarcity will not discourage consumption in the marketplace – it’ll likely do the opposite or make no difference, until that resource completely disappears (e.g. fluffy animal species becoming rare don’t stop some rich, foreign individuals wishing to poach them!) It requires very tough regulations to preserve rare things. Unless money ever stops becoming something to brag about – people will continue to aspire to spend and consume more rather than less.
Competition (between countries, between firms and between individuals) means that we won’t voluntarily curb our production or consumption unless others do too. For example, we don’t want to be the sucker who curbs our own national economic production when other countries aren’t or aren’t trusted to when we all share the same atmosphere anyway. Or a country might intentionally try to take advantage of the efforts of other countries by not curbing its own emissions when it knows enough other countries will cut theirs. This is a free-rider problem. With public goods, like air or the atmosphere (which is the same connected, mixed and flowing air shared across the entire world), and the problem of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – an individual country can curb its own emissions and all other countries not bother, and that individual country will suffer along with everybody else on the planet anyway; or an individual country can not bother to curb its own emissions but all other countries do, and that individual country will reap the benefits anyway. This means that individualistic and selfish free-riding is incentivised, which results in a free market failure.
And how do we punish the most powerful countries in the world if they don’t cooperate? At the consumer level, people will tend to buy what’s cheapest too, and what’s cheapest will likely come from a country that produces a lot of something in particular. So unfettered consumer-level behaviour isn’t going to self-correct the problem either. Hence we’re all in a stalemate, and the default behaviour is to carry on as usual. The markets are evidently not self-regulating for the sake of the optimum long-term future when everybody is merely looking after their own individual or group’s interests.
Therefore we must do something different to merely always following our own personal desires and interests. We cannot rely on people’s rationality – wasting is irrational but humans are evidently not rational creatures (e.g. working hard for money, using that money to buy food, but then not eating that food and just throwing it in the bin). Sudden extreme hot or cold weather events kill lots of vulnerable people, which include the elderly, so even though the future is for the children, people who are much older should rationally care about the climate for their own interests too. Consumers can be more rational by applying cognitive effort, and have a much stronger record of making changes when they’re forced upon them (e.g. banning CFCs, leaded petrol).
So politics and economics, more than just education, matters (incentives, disincentives, laws and regulations). We overall haven’t been sufficiently modifying our own behaviours based on education and intrinsic motivations alone, even if attitudes have shifted. This is due to the conflict between what one knows one ought to do versus what one wants to/will do. Most people are still going to instinctively want to put short-term, materialistic interests above and before conflicting long-term, environmental interests unless there’s a cultural, reputational or other individual-level penalty for being greedy or wasteful. Economic rewards and/or punitive laws can therefore motivate people. The public may grumble at first but if introduced gradually enough, they’ll eventually get used to it.
Design matters too. Maybe if every product had a chimneystack that pumped out smoke proportional to its negative impact on the environment then people might get to intimately link everything they use with the environment?!
The situation is serious (and directly causes some people great anxiety) but we know what we must do – it’s just doing it. We need to use renewable sources of energy rather than fossil fuels, reduce consumption, reduce waste towards zero, refuse any excessiveness, and reuse, repair, re-purpose and recycle things – generally in that order of importance. We also need to restore environments and replenish resources too (e.g. reforestation because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). We should eat far less meat (red meat in particular), drive less, fly less, and heat and cool our homes in more efficient ways.
Woof! If we all do these things then we can still save our future!