CHAPTER 6 – Why is Environmentalism Rejected?

This might seem like a strange question when we all would like to breathe clean air and drink or swim in clean water. One problem is that environmentalism has acquired a bad name, especially in big-consumer nations such as U.S.A. and Canada. While the combined population of our two countries makes up only 5% of the world population, our share of world consumption expenditures exceeds 31%. North Americans, accustomed to a high level of consumption, don’t want to let any of it slip away, and might even feel subliminal guilt as well as denial about it.

Another problem is that people are distracted by what they perceive to be larger problems, such as wars in the Middle East, insecurity from terrorism, an unstable economy, lack of health care, or even the health of our social security system. During the 2004 presidential election in USA, environmental issues ranked only 8th among public concerns.

A third problem is disengagement from civic involvement, especially in USA and Australia, where the rates of membership in formal organizations has fallen, as has the intensity of participation in terms of meeting attendance and willingness to take on leadership roles. Meanwhile informal social interactions – playing cards with neighbors, going on picnics, and the like – have also declined markedly in both countries, as have levels of trust among people and in institutions (1). The data on other prosperous countries are more encouraging, although early signs of social disengagement are evident. Organizational membership remains high in many European nations, but the level of involvement and of personal interaction has shown declines in some, and membership is often more transient than in the past. Even in Sweden, which appears to have strong social and community networks, signs of concern are appearing: political engagement is increasingly passive, and levels of trust in institutions are declining (1).

Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has identified three features of American society that may explain a decline in civic engagement: time limitations, residential sprawl and high rates of television viewing. All three are linked to high consumption: time pressures are often linked to the need to work long hours to support consumption habits, sprawl is a function of car dependence and the desire for larger homes and properties, and heavy television viewing helps promote consumption through exposure to advertising and programming that often romanticizes the consumer lifestyle.

Perhaps the most important reason is our programmed dedication to the spirit of free enterprise and the expansion of profits. Our way of life, including our retirement plans, is dependent on this ethic. Sooner or later the environmentally conscious individual runs across cost estimates for converting to sustainable (wind or solar) forms of energy. These numbers are so large that they numb the mind, so our encounter with environmental economics is usually very brief. However, these estimates by themselves tell only half the story. What they fail to tell us is the stimulus that alternative energy sources would provide to new sectors of the economy and the huge costs of BAU (business as usual). The latter would include: building massive dikes to protect coastal cities from tides, dealing with many diseases that will arise because of air and water pollution, and hiring extra security forces to protect the “haves” from the “have-nots”, just to name a few (3).

Lastly, a significant segment of society just doesn’t want to hear the message. They either resent being told by “environmental elitists” to change their wasteful ways, or they buy into Michael Crichton’s famous exhortation, “Let’s Stop Scaring Ourselves” (Parade, Dec. 5, 2004). In his recent novel, “State of Fear”, fear of global warming is compared with the unfounded fear, 100 years ago, of weakening of the human genome, which led to the much-discredited field of eugenics. People today are suffering from what might be called “disaster fatigue”, where global warming is far down on the list of military and economic problems, while other people, poorly educated in science, simply don ’t care and don’t want to know.

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