Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who cares about the environment, Part II

Last week I wrote a post about why humans may be "hardwired" not to care about environmental change. This week I would like to talk about what evolutionary theory has to say about how we can get people to care, as we discussed in one of my classes.

Most environmental education programs cater to our propensity to reason about economics. They present our relationship with nature as a business exchange, meaning that we tend to focus on the depletion of valuable resources. They target our "business sense" by suggesting that the resources that we need, like coal for example, may not be as readily available to us in fifteen years as they are now if we keep using it at the rate we are. These environmental education programs then suggest that we can each make small cutbacks to offset the predicted deficiency, such as riding our bikes to school and work or purchasing locally grown produce that doesn't need to be shipped in. It is then implied that if we each make these changes, then in the future we won't face as severe of an oil shortage. This reasoning is sound. However, the truth is that environmental education programs are essentially asking individuals to make substantial sacrifices for relatively small, long term rewards. I say that they are relatively small rewards because you know that MOST people are not willing to make these sacrifices, so the payback to you will be minimal if there is any at all. (We know this inherently, see Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons for further info). To put it in more concrete terms, you may spend an extra hour each day commuting on your bike (time that could be spent studying, earning money, going on dates, etc.) but in fifty years we may be totally out of oil anyway. See for yourself, are the business-style arguments depicted in the following images convincing?

I mean, having seen these images, are you now going to make a significant change to your lifestyle to be more green? Probably not.

But there is another option, another way to convince people to change their behaviors. Instead, perhaps we can appeal to peoples' softer side. Throughout human history, the genes that have been successful in getting passed down (i.e. the genes that you and I carry) have belonged to people who favored the well-being of themselves and their family members over others (Hamilton's rule for you biologists). Said another way, we have psychological adaptations, built in by evolution, that cause us to share benefits with the people with whom we have common genes, that is, our family. Additionally, we are also inclined to form social alliances with non-kin who can provide us with benefits. (This is probably where division of labor comes from - maybe I know the best way to shape an arrowhead and you know the best way to build a stable hut so we team up and form a social alliance, since neither of us has both talents.) The professor of this class suggested that if perhaps we were to encourage people to view nature as a family member or even as a social partner rather than just a collection of resources, then people might be more inclined to treat nature with more care. We have all experienced the joys of helping out a friend or family member, and the pangs of disappointment when one of them may be in trouble. How about the following images? Observe what goes on internally for you as you view them.
These are more convincing, right? Did you notice yourself thinking or feeling something along the lines of, "Oh no!" And did you have that reaction with the first set of images? Maybe the family fleeing from their home that is being destroyed by flooding really got to you. Or the hungry child in the desert is displaying the same mannerism that your favorite nephew does. The family of worried-looking polar bears that is stranded on the few remaining icebergs might remind you of how you feel trying to support your own children in these tough economic times. Or the frogs dying in droves might bring home what we are doing to the earth we live on. Maybe these are the types of arguments that environmental education programs should be making in order to actually convince people to change their ways.

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