Environmental issues have been on my mind of late. From being stranded in Tokyo by the Eyjafjallajoekull ash plume, to the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, to the vexed issue of anthropogenic climate change, it's hard to ignore. And so are the human sociological side-effects as we all try to grapple with how best to respond to these issues.
I think it's significant that there's no consensus on the larger-scale significance of environmental threats; indeed, our responses are severely polarized, as if these are debatable matters of opinion rather than ones with quantifiable facts attached. Eyjafjallajoekull can potentially continue to erupt for years, massively disrupting long haul travel across the North Atlantic (especially if Katla follows its historic behaviour pattern and blows up after the smaller Eyjafjallajoekull eruption). But there's a tension between the two available responses — look for alternatives to lots of people and cargo flying through the affected air corridors, or change the tolerated level of atmospheric particles through which flight is permitted — and partisans of one approach or the other seem loath to discuss compromise.
In the case of the Gulf spill, there's Drill, baby, drill, versus calls for increased regulation and steps to decrease reliance on energy sources that add carbon to the atmosphere. And in the case of AGW, there are not merely arguments over the degree to which climate change is anthropic in origin, but a loud body of contrarians (including a large number of astroturf shills bankrolled by the oil and coal industry) who want us to believe that no climate change is occuring, or that any climatological variation is entirely natural and there's nothing to be done about it.
I think a large part of the problem is that messages about environmental change and how to deal with it are frequently delivered not merely in unvarnished and unpleasant terms — but in a manner guaranteed to encourage an anti-environmentalist backlash, due to our in-built cognitive biases. And backlash there is, by the ton.
Cognitive biases cut both ways — firstly, among the environmentaly aware, and secondly, among the broader population when environmentalist messages are received.
Let's take the environmentalist side first. A large subset who believe that consumer capitalism is incompatible with long-term human survival. For their purposes, consumer capitalism is an unchanging and unmodifiable whirl of resource extraction trapped in a positive feedback loop such that increasing economic activity and prosperity can only be maintained by increasing the rate of resource extraction and the resulting polution and production of waste. We've known in general outline about the limits on this mode of capitalism since the 1972 Club of Rome report; we live on a finite planet with a fixed resource base, our numbers are expanding, so delivering an increased standard of living to an increasing population appears to require a geometrically increasing rate of consumption of those finite resources. When they are exhausted, we hit the buffers: everything collapses. Right?
Fortunately, capitalism doesn't work like that. Firstly, there are physical limits to demand for a large range of physical products. Demand for most physical goods isn't infinite — but increasing demand from a very low base tends to follow a sigmoid curve, and from a distance, the first half of a sigmoid demand curve looks like an exponential function. Environmental critiques of capitalism tend to focus on the supply, not on demand. Worse, they tend to ignore the labour theory of value. They also ignore intellectual property. This shouldn't be surprising. An IP-based economy can exhibit growth unconstrained by the supply of raw materials (and, in principle, barely constrained by energy); the main constraint on it is labour.
It's a no-brainer to say that we need to reduce or stop the exploitation of finite resources, and that unregulated capitalism is very dangerous. But it's a long leap from these positions to conclude that we need to abandon a growth based economy entirely. The economy can grow indefinitely without immediate environmental impact, as long as the growth takes place in sectors that don't demand energy or raw materials, such as intellectual property and personal services.
Back to those cognitive biases ....
Most of us, at a deep gut level, haven't quite gotten used to the fact that in the past century we have stopped living in rural agricultural societies where 50-90% of the population had to work the land in order to eat. (Never mind that we no longer live in an industrial society where 50% of the work force laboured in factories.) We still use the past societies we and our parents grew up in as a frame for evaluating the performance of our corner of the global economy. Consequently, when the core environmental message (that we need to reduce consumption of finite natural resources) is reformulated by people who share this background with the rest of us, the result is typically a message that we need to reduce economic growth.
That's when the second cognitive bias hits, the one on the receiving side. We have been trained to associate economic growth with improvements in our personal well-being. (More food, more living space, a bigger car: holidays in the sun.) Those at the bottom of the economic wealth distribution curve receive the message "we need to reduce economic growth" and interpret it as "you're never going to get your fair share of the pie". And when those at the top of the heap hear it, they interpret it as "your share of the pie is too big, so we're going to take a chunk of it away".
The upshot is that much environmentalist rhetoric frames an important signal (limited resources and/or the danger of pollution) in terms of a faulty or obsolete economic model to produce a warning message that offends most of the people it's meant to convince by implicitly threatening their perception of their future status.
There's a deeply embedded piece of primate behaviour, common to almost all of us: when someone shoves you, you shove right back. If you're being hammered with an unacceptable instruction, a very common response is denial or argument. And the louder the instruction is repeated, the more extreme the reaction.
For fifty years now we've been hearing warnings about pollution and resource depletion; for thirty years, about AGW and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because these messages are interpreted as carrying an unpalatable payload (stop flying, stop driving, consume less, repent, sinner!) people stop listening and shove back, hard (drill, baby, drill!).
The solution should be fairly clear, and I'm probably displaying my own cognitive biases when I say that giving up on the environment isn't an option. But if action to reduce environmental impact is desirable, then it needs to be framed in terms that don't threaten the intended audience, but promise rewards for behavioural change. Instead of us all consuming less, we're going to consume differently and make huge profits off environmental energy. Instead of being punished for dumping waste, we're going to make money from recycling. Played right, a shift to a sustainable economy should see a net increase in wealth because the wealth-producing activities shift with the demand for sustainability. Hair shirt puritanism is not only unnecessary; it's positively damaging to our future, and I wish the greens would drop it right now.