“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” In her famous statement, Native American Alanis Obomsawin jabs at the deep contradictions at the heart of our relationship with the environment. In the face of climate change, pollution, and all of their catastrophic effects, we are the rabbit in the headlights: the lorry is coming, we can all see it, and we are sitting still. What is grimly fascinating about our paralysis is that it is not born of fear, but of apathy. Such a response is profoundly illogical. Those of us who don’t subscribe to altar of Trump are well aware that, in the long and not-so-long run, human behavior is degrading and altering our environment so devastatingly that we face the most existential of threats. Applying clinical logic, our response as a species should be proportionate to the danger at hand. If humans were robots, we would decide to take whatever measures necessary to halt and reverse environmental damage to ensure our own survival. However, although we tend to nod at ‘green living’ in our daily lives when we recycle and avoid plastic bags, we fall woefully short of satisfying what logic dictates we do. Such measures are, unfortunately, but a drop in the rapidly-warming ocean. The people we label ‘environmental activists’ who populate eco-communities and have dry-flushing toilets are often considered to have made considerable personal sacrifices which contravene their interests in comfort, convenience, and social acceptance. For the inspirational protestors of the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, their advocacy for place and people was considered so radical that they were arrested and violently removed whilst protesting peacefully.
Why are those of us who invest consistent effort in living sustainably so few and far between? The scale and implications of environmental questions defy the parameters of comfortable human thinking; in the words of Professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert, such questions are “a threat to our tomorrow but not a threat to our evening.” Our brains have evolved with a fight-or-flight response to immediate danger, which has allowed us to dominate the planet but impedes us from properly responding to dangers that do not threaten us right now. The creeping onslaught of climate change bypasses our natural alarm systems, and forces us to fall back on rational decision making which has weaker pulls on us than knee-jerk instinct does. We are also inclined to accept gradual change; we grudgingly accept aging over time, but would be horrified if we transformed into an octogenarian overnight. Humans also dislike being chastised, and considering the negativity exuding from our consumption, the scale and seeming impossibility of the task at hand can be overwhelming. Crucially, we are motivated foremost by emotion. Moral outrage spurs us to psychologically invest in a ‘war on terror’, but because of an apparent lack of agency or bogeyman behind environmental threats we do not respond to them in the same terms, even though polluted air kills hundreds of thousands of people prematurely every year.
The scale and implications of environmental questions defy the parameters of comfortable human thinking
It is, however, impossible for us to evade our environment – it is the parameter of our existence and fundamentally conditions our experiences. Landscape becomes intertwined with belonging and heritage, and defines our concepts of beauty and value. In response to plans to privatise common land in Montana, one citizen opined that such a move would ‘completely diminish him as an American citizen.’ Such sentiments are fairly commonplace, but can beflight hard to square with destructive behaviour precipitated from self-interest. The Białowieża Forest, straddling Belarus and Poland, encloses Europe’s last patches of primeval forest and boasts staggering biodiversity. Despite UNESCO and government protection, it contains both a botanical research center and piles of illegally logged timber marked for commercial distribution, feeding a largely state-owned timber industry worth £1.2bn. As it’s ecosystem teeters on the brink of collapse, Baiłowieża is but one crystallization of conflict between impulses to conserve and those to commodify. Environmental changes are also subject to the standards of human societies, and thus those with power and influence will be best stocked to adapt to unpredictable flash flooding and shifting food supplies. If the U.S. or China were being submerged by rising sea levels rather than Bangladesh, global policy on climate change might read very differently indeed.
What is grimly fascinating about our paralysis is that it is not born of fear, but of apathy.
The overwhelming scale of this problem can make us feel deprived of agency to combat it. Whilst there is no denying the troubling evidence, such apathy is our fight-or-flight talking. However much our brains crave instant gratification, only conscious and consistent decisions can hope to save our place in the world. Rather than sticking-plaster policies, a reconfiguration of how we understand ourselves in relation to the environment and other species that inhabit it is demanded to reverse climate change and pollution. This need not prescribe a tree-hugging utopia, but rather requires us to adopt a more balanced reciprocal relationship from which humans cannot extract infinitely. Governments and other bodies are in a position to regulate businesses and put positive measures in place, and at the opposite end of the scale, we can act with whole-hearted awareness of our environmental impact if we choose to. If we are willing to refashion our psychological and emotional relationship with our environment and give it a place in our daily lives, addressing environmental damage is a possible task.