The Ostrich Problem

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

In a wide-ranging article in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, Stanford University professor Albert Bandura discusses various means by which societies provide moral cover for acts that, collectively, result in substantial and irreversible environmental harm. Recalling the work of Lakoff and others, Bandura describes how environmental degradation is perpetuated through the emergent phenomenon of moral disengagement, in which individual exoneration is facilitated by careful framing, myopia, and the scale-associated disconnects between actions and consequences.

Bountiful immediate rewards of consumptive lifestyles can easily override distant adverse effects, especially if slowly cumulative. Many of those effects are often unanticipated and, to make matters worse, some are irreversible. The incentive systems of business organisations are strongly oriented toward practices that bring profits in the short term. Intense competition for natural resources and a good share of the market in the global marketplace create further pressure to do whatever is needed to succeed. To ensure their political survival, politicians cater to parochial interests and lobby for local projects that are not always environmentally friendly. The media tend to focus on crises of the day rather than on policy initiatives designed to avert future trouble.

This issue is exacerbated by deliberate attempts to divert the public’s attention. Characterizing environmental activists and regulatory authorities as having questionable motives, as being somehow opposed to personal liberty and the entrepreneurial spirit, or as creating pretexts for a renewed colonialism, rationalize harmful practices. In some instances, collectively detrimental practices are made to seem righteous, as in when developing nations seek exemption from environmental standards due to the comparatively high contribution of wealthy nations, while wealthy nations resisted any agreement that would place them at a competitive disadvantage. Moral self-sanctions are also reduced by cloaking harmful activities in the type of Orwellian doublespeak that gave rise to the Bush administrations “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” initiatives. And scientists are disparaged as a self-appointed elite prone to tantrums when not given their due.

A major focus of Bandura’s paper was on the short shrift given the issue of over-population.

Social, economic, political, and religious justifications are offered for the seemingly paradoxical practice of raising birthrates in the midst of an escalating global population that already exceeds the planet’s carrying capacity.

However, in some quarters and media accounts, which thrive on controversy, the emerging alarm over the rise in heat-trapping emissions is peculiarly disembodied from the growing multitude of consumers as a problem requiring attention. More people consuming more resources, produce more environmental damage, and generate more greenhouse gas emissions. This relation underscores the influential role played by population growth in climate change.

This looming Malthusian crisis is largely ignored as a contributing factor to global climate change and environmental degradation, even though “to construe ecological woes as due to consumption and dismiss the number of consumers as of minor consequence overtaxes credibility.” Political pressures on both the left and right contribute to this situation, where the root cause of our looming environmental catastrophe is patently ignored. Conservative religious opposition to family planning (e.g. contraception, sex education, and abortion), and fear of being adjudged guilty by association with otherwise liberal environmental activists largely removes the right from the debate, while the specter of immigration control and concomitant accusations of racism render the issue too hot for organizations on the political left.

If we are to preserve a habitable planet it will not be by token gestures and schemes for buying one’s way out of wasteful and polluting practices. Rather, it will be by major lifestyle changes with commitment to shared values linked to incentive systems that make environmentally responsible behaviour normative and personally worthy. A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.

The full-text of Bandura’s paper (in PDF format) is available here. A Science Daily story on this paper is available here. Well worth reading. The ravenous bugblatter beast is afoot.

A tip of the hat to The Situationist for bringing this to light.

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16 December 2007

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