Why and How Do We Avoid Addressing Global Warming and Similar Problems?

A brilliant article opened my eyes about how and why we keep ducking our biggest problems. I recently came across an article by Dr. Albert Bandura that is simply a brilliant analysis of human behavior as relates to the need for sustainability, and I put it in my sidebar of favorite links.  Since then what I read has kept coming back to me, as I think his paper explains a great deal about why we are where we are today.  I have long been perplexed that the main stream media almost never brings up overpopulation as a problem, and only global warming has gotten anywhere near the attention such problems deserve (though energy shortages are an up-and-coming second, and water shortages not far behind).  Dr. Bandura’s article is deep and scientific, and not the easiest to read for a variety reasons, perhaps more than anything because it describes us, but also because it is written in the language of psychology.  For that reason I have written this entry to try to break down into simpler language what is going on.  Why do people keep doing things we know are bad for our future, and why do they ignore or dispute the facts?

Why and how do we resist doing the right things for our world? We have a lot of facts presented to us every day which, if we think about them, tell us that we have some big challenges today and in the near future, centered around overpopulation, excessive energy use, depletion of natural resources, and pollution.  Like you and many others, I have wondered why we just can’t seem to face these challenges very effectively (or in some cases acknowledge them much at all) and begin to give them the serious attention they deserve, and why we suffer endless bickering and name calling, between “tree huggers” and “deniers”, for example.  The answer is spelled out in excruciating detail in Dr. Bandura’s paper: people suspend parts of their consciences and morals when facing the facts is inconvenient, unpleasant, or just too frightening. 

Essentially, we are denying we have problems. I have tried to paraphrase the key elements of Dr. Bandura’s paper here to make it easier to understand and to entice you to read the paper yourself.  I believe that if we understand why we are behaving the way we are, we have a better chance to change for the better and meet the challenges before us.  The truth is sometimes hard to face and address, but shouldn’t we each be doing that?

Like most great pieces of knowledge, the facts are amazingly simple. Societies have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet, and being part of society makes those obligations ours, personally, as well. We are witnessing widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising earth’s temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life support systems.It is also a well known fact that humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace.

Three simple factors are at the root of our problems. The three main causes of our biggest current and future problems are population size, the level of consumption; and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the technologies we use. To achieve a sustainable future we must address all three causes. Population growth, at the root of our problems, must be stopped.We can become much “greener” in our lifestyles, but that will never be enough in the face of our exploding population.

Why are we ducking the issues? We each have learned what is right and wrong, and follow them because doing what’s right makes us feel good about ourselves, while doing what we know is bad makes us think less of ourselves, and is emotionally painful.  We generally know what is right and what is wrong, but we have ways of ducking the issues that are clever and hard to pin down, and we may not even be aware we are ducking.  So how do we duck the issues?

We cite a higher authority. One way we duck the issues is to act in the name of a religious, political, social, or economic doctrine.  As the old Milgram experiment showed, we can do bad things if we believe we are being ordered or expected to by someone in authority, perhaps because we then can think what we do is the fault of the person giving the orders.  (Note that it is still our actions causing the harm, however.)

We don’t think too much or look too far ahead. We can do bad things if they make us feel good or do us good now, and if the effects are remote in space and time.  At times the bad results may be unknown to us. Unfortunately they will also sometimes be irreversible.  Essentially we put on blinders and focus only on what is immediately around us. Business behavior, driven by short-term results, provides good examples, and competition further blinds us to the full effects of our actions. The main stream media make money from ratings boosted more by immediate crises than by long-term but potentially much more important problems.  In essence we are like the person who jumps off the Empire State Building and, as they pass the 68th floor, says “So far, so good.”

We defer judgment – we’ll do what is right for us now and think about it later. When we face a conflict between what is good for us now and what it will do to others or to us in the future, we are capable of ducking the issue by just not making a judgment. Of course, as we learned as children, ignoring problems rarely makes them go away, and in most cases makes them worse.

In his paper, Dr. Bandura reveals eight ways we duck the issues.  The first three are the most powerful, and directly affect our behavior.  They are as follows:

1. We believe (convince ourselves) we have a good reason for what we are doing. This occurs when we say we are doing something for a good and moral reason.  This has the added benefit of allowing us to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we are doing.

2. We believe (convince ourselves) that what we are doing is better than other, worse alternatives. This occurs when we say that what we are doing is better than something worse we could be doing.  It is likely that we aren’t looking at all the alternatives, or the downstream effects of our actions, when we do this.

3. We label things to make them sound OK. The government does this when it sets rules that permit increased clear cutting of forests and calls it the “Healthy Forests Initiative”, or changes rules to allow more air pollution by industry and calls it the “Clear Skies Initiative.”

4. We minimize or argue with the consequences of our actions. Much argument has surrounded many environmental issues, generally asserting things like “it’s not that bad”, “the measurements are wrong”, or “we don’t know enough to say that for sure.” Other responses we carry out include “shooting the messenger” by discrediting those who reveal the truth about what we’ve done or are doing, and we put down those who are working to prevent and/or repair the damage, in part by labeling them negatively.

5. We dehumanize the victims. This is achieved by labeling the people who are suffering to separate them from ourselves – “They’re just a bunch of poor (insert adjective or name)”.  If we can make ourselves seem different enough from them we can avoid feeling responsible for their suffering, or at least that’s the idea.

6. We say the bad things that happen are the victims’ own fault. If we can deflect responsibility away from ourselves then we don’t have to endure the emotional pain of feeling responsible or the inconvenience of changing what we are doing.

7. We blame the problems on someone else. We can say that our acid rain is the result of coal-fired Chinese power plants, which have been much in the news, even though our own coal burning plants are a major contributor.

8. We diffuse the responsibility to a larger group. This is the classic teenage explanation – “Everyone was doing it.” It holds no more water for us as adults than it did when we were teenagers.  We are still each responsible for what we do and say, no matter how painful it is to face up to it.

Each of these mechanisms enables bad behavior, but we usually combine them. Any of these actions can allow us to avoid acting responsibly and go on overpopulating the world, exhausting our resources, and polluting the environment, but we usually use them in combination to clear both ourselves and the groups to which we belong of responsibility (or so we think).  The important assumption behind them is often that we are separate from others, that we are an island, or living on one, that is unaffected by the problems occurring elsewhere out of our immediate view and experience.  The truth is sobering, however: we are all related and essentially in the same boat.  Globalization only brings that truth home more effectively.  We are in a time when a problem on the other side of the world can affect us negatively, possibly severely, and we all need to think of ourselves as citizens of a world community, not just of people, but including all of the interdependent species.

Your spiritual or religious beliefs don’t matter in the face of our global problems. If we were made by a god or gods, they certainly had a grand plan in mind, and far too many of us are failing to understand our position in it.  For all we know such a grand plan may have included the scenario before us.  If, on the other hand, we evolved, as science has determined, then we need to take charge of our lives and the life of our planet.  In either case we need to show how intelligent we are by doing the right things to control our futures and ensure a good life for ourselves and our descendants.  It only seems right that doing so would be to honor one’s god(s) and spiritual traditions, as it is an expression of our powerful human survival instinct, wherever you believe that originates.

Understanding how we think about and deal with big problems is a key. Behind Dr. Bandura’s work is the realization that we need to understand and work against or with our psychological defense mechanisms in order to preserve the motivation to do the right things for our future, even if those actions are not easy.  This is an understanding needed by every person on the planet, whether they know it or not.  Perhaps the best and first thing we can do is educate ourselves, as then we can act on what we learn, communicate and collaborate with others, and “move the needle” inexorably, but quickly as possible, in the direction of a sustainable future.  I respectfully request that you do this, and also encourage you to read Dr. Bandura’s article, as I found it inspiring.

As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim


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