Avoiding Environmental Collapse: A cultural perspective

In December 2017, 25 years after the first call, over 15,000 scientists from 184 countries published “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A second notice.” Their message is straightforward: If we do not dramatically change our present trajectory, we will experience catastrophic biodiversity loss and widespread human misery. Meanwhile, as expressed by Pölzler (2015), “we consume as much as we always did, drive as much as we always did, and eat as much meat as we always did.” Most citizens recognise climate change and sustainability as important issues but very few are ready to engage in any form of ameliorative action (European Commission, 2009). In fact, research into climate inaction reveals that belief and concern about climate change is a weak predictor of efforts to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviour (Fu et al., 2015; European Commission, 2009; Gifford & Chen, 2016). Structural changes are important in addressing the climate crisis, but individuals’ lifestyle choices and political engagement determine to a large extent the cost and degree of climate mitigation (Gifford & Chen, 2016). In light of this, why are individuals reluctant to respond appropriately while being aware of such a threat? Understanding this is crucial in order to develop measures and drive climate action.

Graph displaying rising number of dead zones as well as severe biodiversity loss and overfishing (left to right). Source: William et al., 2017

Psychological research has shown that performing actions prescribed by moral judgements, in spite of conflicting non-moral motives (e.g. convenience, personal pleasure, safety) and mental maladies (e.g. depression, weakness of will, emotional exhaustion) often requires an affective motive (Pölzler, 2015). Affective motivation comes from intuitive emotions associated with a situation (Tangney & Mashek, 2007). For example, empathy and compassion compel us to act out of concern for another’s well-being. Feelings of disgust in response to murder or other violations motivate us to risk our own well-being to prevent it.

In a recent review, Gifford (2011) classifies psychological barriers to climate action into seven categories; limited cognition about the problem, ideological world-views that collide with pro-environmental behaviour, comparisons with other people, sunk costs and behavioural momentum, disbelief or mistrust toward experts and authorities, perceived risks of change, and positive but insufficient behaviour change. Whilst some of these psychological barriers can be attributed to inherent properties of the human psyche, in my mind it is misguided to interpret them in isolation. If we are to help people remove them, we must examine the cultural context in which they arise.

Culture can be regarded as “an amalgam of values, meanings, conventions and artefacts that constitute daily social realities” (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Recent advances in neuroscience studies reveal that cultural influence stretches from emotion and motivation to attention, arithmetic processing, and visual perception (Han et al., 2016). The cross-cultural difference in self-conception, that between individualistic and collectivist, has been shown to shape emotional and cognitive processes which in turn determine individual attitudes and behaviours (Han et al., 2016; Moorman et al., 1995). In the context of climate change, these divergent views of the self appear to profoundly influence the ways in which people relate to the planet and take climate-friendly action; namely, individuals with individualistic orientations were: less inclined to believe that human activities cause environmental problems, assume a low-carbon lifestyle, and engage in pro-environmental action (Mccarty & Shrum, 2001; Semenova, 2015). A cornerstone of Western culture is its individualism; the self is defined as an independent entity with little to no connectedness with other selves. Success is measured much more by personal achievement and standing out from the crowd than by establishing a harmonious relationship with others and nature. These cultural values produce individuals that prioritise pursuit of personal goals, and are unwilling to give up harmful habits and self-serving financial investments. Is it really any wonder that in a society where self-orientation and a “why should I change if they don’t?” attitude is the norm, social comparison obstructs positive change?

To accompany our culture of the self comes our individualistic economic philosophy, broadly referred to as Neoliberalism. Its ideological foundation promotes income inequality by rewarding those who are already wealthy and reducing the welfare state. Most of us cannot fathom the ins and outs of the global financial system, yet we are aware of its unpredictability. The 2008 financial crisis gave insight into the of the dangers of an economy based on fictitious capital and the dream of future growth. This system, based on economic theory, is legitimised because of its rational ‘scientific’ foundation. It is of course logically flawed to infer that this implies that all rationally justified systems and philosophies are precarious and unfair, and that scientists and policymakers are untrustworthy. Individual emotion and motivation is certainly important in determining the extent to which fear and skepticism limit environmental support. However, mistrust of experts and authorities and high-risk perceptions must be understood in the context of a society of cut-throat competition if we are to stop them from standing in the way of climate action.

“If man lives under conditions which are contrary to his nature and to the basic requirements for human growth and sanity, he cannot help reacting; he must either deteriorate and perish or bring about conditions which are more in accordance with his needs.”

Eric Fromm, The Sane Society

The World Health Organisation notes that by 2020, depression will be the second leading disease in the world (World Health Organisation, 2017). In Western industrialised societies, the rate of depression has doubled with each successive generational cohort and the average age of onset is now 14 compared to 30 three decades ago (Hidaka, 2012). The low success rate of antidepressants is indicative that brain chemistry alone does not suffice to explain this epidemic. Individualistic models of mind have led to the medicalisation of disorders of social origin; in this case it seems highly plausible that it is society–not serotonin–that is responsible for this widespread melancholy. Consumerist culture creates false expectations of happiness and fulfilment through unrestricted material consumption. In the meantime, social ties have eroded, and community support, levels of trust, and meaningful relationships have plummeted (Hidaka, 2012). Human needs for relatedness, belonging and transcendence are neglected, and to some the world simply loses credibility. What research into climate inaction identifies as “discredance,” “environmental numbness,” and “low perceived-self efficacy” are plainly manifestations of a prevalent sentiment of powerlessness and apathy.

Image of consumerism depicted in artistic critique. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/30751209926073356/

According to Lycan (1986) humans have an inherent disposition to morality and only a ‘steady diet of hard drugs, or some other very powerful alienating force’ could silence our moral intuitions. From my point of view it is our culture that, by putting the individual self at the front and center of our consciousness, alienates us from one another and from nature, thereby inhibiting our affective motive to protect our environment and those that will be affected by its degradation.  Thus, in order to effectively mitigate climate change, we need more than technological innovation, sustainable businesses, and competitive advantages of the circular economy. We must restructure our economic system, shift away from individualism and a culture based on competition and consumerist values, and perpetuate changes towards one that promotes equity and cooperation. This would encourage us to value our attendance to societal and environmental duties, as well as personal achievement and self-expression.


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