When Good People Deny Human Responsibility for Climate Disruption

by Monty Hempel

As a college professor, I am painfully aware that my students often use education more to justify pre-existing opinions and worldviews than to enlighten themselves with new knowledge and ways of knowing.  This knowledge-for-justification tendency can be found in each of us and varies only by degree of application. But it can be dangerous when it leads people to deny mounting evidence that change is urgently needed, as witnessed in the current debate over climate disruption, or in historic debates about the health hazards of smoking, or the economic hazards of deregulating Wall Street.

The selective use of knowledge to rationalize human wants and behaviors has been heavily studied by social scientists.  They refer to this phenomenon by many different names, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and cultural cognition. Combined with long-studied phenomena of “groupthink” and cognitive dissonance theory, researchers have woven together a persuasive but unflattering account of human reason and its self-serving uses.

The importance of these research findings for people concerned about climate change is in understanding how to communicate better and to present scientific findings in practical tradeoff terms when they somehow threaten the dominant values and institutions of the status quo.  Most people in denial are neither evil nor stupid.  Denial may be an effective way to reduce stress and cognitive dissonance. But it may also deeply undermine their own self-interest, in the long term.

 A major barrier to public mobilization on climate and other global environmental issues is the psychological distance involved in moving from abstract environmental data (e.g., global mean temperature) to more immediate concerns about local impacts, such as disruption of drought cycles in a particular area, and how they may affect one’s personal prosperity or family security.

But there is an even more important kind of distancing that helps to explain the failure to promote eco-literacy when and where it is most needed. This kind of distancing results from the receding boundaries of the natural world in the face of rapid human development. People disconnected from nature have less motivation to learn more about it. The consequences are especially important for children, as suggested by recent book titles, such as Last Child in the Woods and Free-Range Kids. The psychological distance separating the urbanized places where most humans reside from shrinking remnants of natural landscape has never been greater. As a consequence, the opportunity to connect emotionally and physically with nature and wildlife has steadily declined. And implicit in this decline is an accompanying loss of attachment to natural places and wild habitat, or what is sometimes understood as lost bioregional identity.

 Precisely how much this growing separation diminishes human concern about the environment is unknown, but it is clear that people are more likely to protect the things they love and actively internalize. Distancing from nature may have some of the same emotionally debilitating effects as distancing from other people. This separation becomes even more significant in issues of climate change, where the most dramatic impacts are taking place in the Arctic and other remote areas that few people ever visit or monitor.

The obstacles to clear thinking about these kinds of threats extend far beyond psychological distancing. Research on climate change communication has identified dozens of factors that serve to hinder or derail public support for timely action on climate risks.  As a partial summary of many of these factors, I have developed a simple table (below) to help in examining the causal forces at work in the development and persistence of climate denial and disbelief.

Overcoming the disbelief and suspicion that currently polarize large segments of our population will require both intellectual and emotional intelligence about our common origin in the great web of life and our common future in sustaining it.

Causes of Eco-Complacency and Disbelief 

climatetableMH

 

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Sustainability Film Trailer

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/105404441″>SUSTAINABILITY TRAILER</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/blueplanetunited”>Monty Hempel</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

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SUSTAINABILITY: Changing the Operating System

Blue Planet United Unveils New Film

 
SUST_Cover1200x1600Celebrate the new year with a film that will deliver what Hollywood can’t:  a genuine inquiry into the human prospect for living sustainably within the means of Nature.

There are limits to how many explosions, car chases, and gunfights people can absorb as “entertainment” before their discernment about reality is compromised.

Why not share a copy of our new film for those who seek a deeper  understanding of life in the twenty-first century?  Share it with teachers, librarians, civic leaders, local clergy, and anyone who is searching for a better quality of life.

“SUSTAINABILITY: Changing the Operating System” is a visionary film about the integration of environmental, economic, and social action to create a future that is green, profitable, fair, and “glocal”. It examines the old “operating system” of industrial growth that has given rise to a series of interlocking crises in finance, energy, food, water, biodiversity, poverty, climate disruption, and population growth. The film calls for a new operating system that is grounded in the life of community and dedicated to the health and resilience of people, markets, and ecosystems.

Examining both the promise and limitations of sustainability, the film offers a sobering but hopeful look at life in the twenty-first century. Sustainability is presented as a process of improvement in relationships between diverse groups of people, and between people and their environment. Vital to this improvement in relationships is the human capacity for empathy and compassion, along with an understanding of interdependence and how it determines our place in the great web of life.

The filmmaker, Dr. Monty Hempel, is a national leader in sustainability thought and practice, having served as a founding board member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and as president of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. Hempel has taught university courses about sustainability for more than 20 years and has produced books and previous films about sustainability, including the award-winning video, Spirit of Place (2011).  He is also the founding president of Blue Planet United.

Film format:  NTSC 16:9, DVD-R,  running time: 47:37

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The Sustainability Challenge for Higher Education

by Monty Hempel, President, Blue Planet United

Sustainability is arguably the defining challenge of the twenty-first century ­– a challenge with profound implications for the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of every institution of higher education. Rising interest in sustainability is already helping to re-shape the vision, mission, and programs of more than one-thousand colleges and universities, as evidenced by the rapid growth of campus initiatives  inventoried by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  See, for example, the AASHE Bulletin’s annual inventory of college and university initiatives: http://www.aashe.org/publications/sustainability-review .

Sustainability is ultimately about developing and preserving opportunities in the social, economic, and ecological spheres of life.  Education for sustainability requires (1) systems thinking, (2) a concern about future generations, and (3) the integration of learning about the environment, the economy, and social equity – the 3 “E”s.  Fundamentally, sustainability is about our collective bequest:  what we leave future generations in the way of healthy ecosystems, strong economies, great art, vibrant communities, adaptive management systems, and challenges worthy of a highly educated society.

The most promising use of sustainability concepts may be in conjunction with concepts of community.  Sustainable communities do not face the widespread criticism reserved for sustainable development, viewed by some to be an oxymoron. Moreover, community ideas resonate deeply in the academic worlds of ecology, macro-economics, sociology/anthropology, ethics, and may other fields. In fact, the essence of sustainability could be defined as preserving the life of community (human and nonhuman) for purposes that include happiness, physical life-support, spiritual growth, and progress toward the realization of unfulfilled human potential,

Sustainability, as a unifying philosophy that is grounded in the life of community, might just satisfy the disparate needs of people today and those who will follow.  It warrants the serious risk taking that all big ideas demand of those who call themselves teachers and scholars.

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The Sustainability Test

By Monty Hempel, President, Blue Planet United

This test promotes sustainability as a concept and practice that transcends environmental stew­ardship. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “environmental” sustainability; only sustainability—an irreducible synergy of social justice, ecological health, and eco­nomic vitality, applied across present and future generations. Although the health of our ecological life support system is logic­ally prior to and dominant among sustainability imperatives, maintaining the health of ecosystems on a human-dominated planet requires achievements in social welfare and economic vitality that are imperatives in their own right, and not just for environ­mental protection. Hence, sustainability should be embraced as a primary concept. It cannot be reduced co­herently to environmental, social, and economic components.

In practice, however, sustainability is often used as a “sponge word” that absorbs multiple meanings and interpretations, many of which undermine its integrative power. Increasingly, it is used to market products and programs with dubious claims of efficacy or authenticity. How, then, can we determine what is truly sustainable? And for whom?

To help in this endeavor, Blue Planet United has developed The Sustainability Test for individuals and organizations who are try­ing to infuse sustainability principles into their everyday actions and decisions. While only a starting point, we invite you to try it and tell us what you think.

THE TEST

 Does an action, behavior, proposed policy, or program:

      General Objectives

–       Advance the welfare of people and ecosystems, co-evolving through time?

–       Provide economic vitality and security for those most in need?

–       Stop the export of problems to other peoples, places, or times?

–       Strike a balance between national pride, global citizenship, and local self reliance (“glocal” thinking)?

–       Reform financial incentive structures that enable greed, domination, and exploitation?

–       Promote just, participatory, prosperous, and peaceful institutions and livelihoods?

–       Reflect whole systems thinking and informed, democratic decision making?

–       Redefine progress in ways that emphasize art and learning, over technology?

–       Help build a green economy that operates with efficiency, within a culture of sufficiency?

–       Restore damaged people, communities, cultures, and natural areas to life with dignity?

–       Avoid making byproducts, waste, or pollution that exceeds Nature’s assimilative capacity?

–       Encourage glocal connections and local solutions that harness the power of diversity?

–       Recognize the resilience, and limitations of resilience, in natural systems?

–       Recognize the resilience, and limitations of resilience, in human social systems?

–       Communicate knowledge, skills, and values necessary for a sustainable way of life?

–       Leave a legacy or bequest to future generations that helps us feel good about ourselves?

–       Create opportunities and values that help us discover the purpose of our lives?

Specific Objectives

–       Increase the earth’s tree cover and enlarge and strengthen protected natural areas?

–       Champion efforts to achieve equity in gender, race, and social background?

–       Help to voluntarily stabilize human population and promote small, happy families?

–       Aid development of wholesome food production systems at appropriate scales for a stabilized population?

–       Accelerate the transition to clean and renewable energy sources and systems?

–       Support the aims of living wage and progressive tax and tax shifting reforms?

–       Secure for future generations the opportunity to experience wildlife in their native habitat?

–       Conserve and provide access to fresh water, topsoil, and other essential natural resources through land reform and protection of common property?

–       Reinvigorate participatory democracy through campaign finance reform and fair redistricting?

–       Encourage appropriate use of durable, recycled, and reusable materials?

–       Defend coral reefs and contribute to the recovery of a healthy ocean?

–       Prepare communities for adaptation to climate disruption and extreme weather events?

–       Maintain or enhance biodiversity and the value of unpriced ecosystem services?

–       Preserve wild space, open space, and the common heritage of outer space?

–       Address the concentration of wealth and power in financial institutions and industries that benefit greatly from unsustainable practices and products?

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