The scientific community is in near-universal agreement that our planet will soon be the site of unimaginable horrors due to climate change, unless we make some very, very big changes very, very soon. The environmentalist community reminds us of this fact with increasingly apocalyptic shrieks. Hurricanes devastate previously safe shorelines and persistent droughts force entire villages to relocate and low-lying island nations plead for action to slow the rising sea levels that threaten them with annihilation within the decade.
And in response, the vast majority of us politely furrow our brows, nod knowingly and carry on almost exactly as before. This phenomenon angers me, mystifies me – and also, to a greater extent than I am comfortable with, characterizes me.
Psychologists, economists, philosophers and sociologists alike have tried to explain the lack of a substantial response by society in general to the grave threat posed by climate change. The economic concept of the tragedy of the commons describes an unregulated market’s tendency to overuse and thereby degrade a public good – like clean air or regular precipitation patterns – from which people can benefit regardless of whether they have paid anything for it. Ethicists note that climate change is caused in large part by the cumulative effect of simple behaviors that, were it not for their environmental impact, would not even enter the scope of moral discussion; it therefore does not provoke the same kind of clear-cut outrage as crimes with a definite perpetrator do. Some feminist scholars point to the masculine emphasis domination and control as a feature that has shaped our stance toward non-human nature.
In part, simple denial is to blame – the predictions of climate scientists depict a world so different from the one that we see around us that our daily lives never force us to confront their reality. Or perhaps it is more insidious: We actively choose to disregard the suffering of people in faraway countries and future generations in favor of feeding our extravagant, bottomless greed.
All of these theories add important ideas to the dialogue on the problem on climate change and help inform strategies to address it in the government, in marketing campaigns and in business decisions. They are all, to a certain extent at least, useful and true. However, even after engaging with and internalizing this litany of analysis, I have encountered within myself an additional, rather unlikely culprit – the intense human desire to be good.
Contrary to the environmentalist community’s accusations of widespread apathy, information about climate change clearly troubles many people to a certain degree. The trendiness of “green” products is ubiquitous, from “natural” hand soap and cereal to the reusable cloth sacks available in the bag lunch line. It is not uncommon to see “please think of the environment before printing this message” at the bottom of an email. People have internalized messages from marketers, the media and the actions of people around them that doing such things qualifies as being environmentally-friendly. We want to do the right thing, and often when someone tells us what that is, we will conduct ourselves accordingly and we will be happy about it.
The problem is that behavioral changes like these are not just minor – they are literally completely insignificant, and, I argue, actually detrimental to efforts to muster an adequate response to climate change. Relative to the general population, I seem quite environmentally conscious because I am a vegetarian, I limit my car use and I recycle judiciously; if everyone in the country made identical adjustments, perhaps climate change would unfold at a slightly slower rate, but it would continue to unfold. Truly living in an environmentally responsible manner would require drastic changes in every facet of our lives – the way we eat, travel, dress, govern, communicate, educate and create art. This is not about whether we should drive Priuses or Hummers: This is about whether we should drive cars at all.
The environmental movement has succeeded in making many people care about how their actions contribute to climate change, but as long as people like me are able to placate their worries with well-intentioned but inadequate efforts, meaningful shifts will not occur. Despite the many societal and logistical barriers to confronting climate change, many people do earnestly want to do the right thing. We need to stop misdirecting their moral compasses by making it clear exactly what this entails.
Opinions Editor Stephanie Jones ’13 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Boulder, Colo. She majors in environmental studies and philosophy.