The Diagnosis: Mass Denial
And Other Forms of Ecological Avoidance Syndrome (EAS)
One can only marvel at the sweeping paradox of our time.
We have the blessing and the curset to be living in a time in which scientists have repeatedly reported on the imminent destruction - and in many cases, collapse - of major parts of virtually all of the earth's principle ecosystems. The rate of destruction, overall, is accelerating rapidly.
In spite of the abundant and verifiable evidence, political leaders continue to be elected, both in this country and abroad, who clearly do not have protection of the environment as a high priority,
and so we drift rapidly toward further impending disasters of catastrophic dimensions. While it is politically correct to mention the importance of environmental conservation, the voting record of politicians makes their priorities clear to see. And as the saying goes, if you're not outraged, then you're not paying attention.
How on earth did we get into this mess?? And even more importantly, how do we get out of it? An examination of the psychology involved may prove crucial to ensuring that the earth is restored to being a healthy place for humans and other species, and indeed, to ensuring our very survival.
One does not need to look far to make the observation that people will usually opt for what is most comfortable and least expensive in the short term, even when their future may be made very uncomfortable and expensive by those choices. If this were not so, then the case for eating healthy foods (as one example among many) that generally cost more and are not as enticing tastewise (at first) would not need to be made by doctors. On a collective scale, we see this principle at work in the destruction of the rainforests (the mind-numbing statistic of an acre destroyed every second is still true) and in the leveling of the small remaining percentage of old growth forests around the world. This is continuing despite the fact that in doing so we are destroying the lungs of the planet, the primary converter of carbon dioxide to oxygen. What is wrong with this picture?
On the personal level, the situatioin is similar to our proclivity for deep and dramatic transformation when the doctor tells us that we have two years to live. Suddenly, we become much more aware of the importance of our relationships with family and friends, of appreciating the natural beauty in each moment, of making our lives meaningful. The trivial preoccupations that have filled our life fall away quickly, and we deepen as people, bringing out levels of feeling and expression that are very fulfilling by contrast, even with the challenges of deteriorating health. Yet we all know that we are going to die, and no matter when it happens, in truth it is not all that far away. Certainly most of those who over 50 are clear about this!. But somehow the illusion of immortality lingers, and we figure we can fritter away another 20 or 30 years before we might need to finally start thinking about what we really want to do with our lives, before we actualize becoming the person that we really want to be.
This illusion of immortality also shows up on the collective level. There is a sense of the inexorable march of civilization, the continuing unbroken evolution of life, which tends to be thought of as the evolution and superiority of the human species as opposed to that of all species. This evolution seems to bring a stream of wondrous technological breakthroughs and "improvements" to life, and a sense that life is somehow "self-sustaining." Yet the truth is that history is littered with the ghosts of many cultures, civilizations and indeed whole empires that extinguished themselves entirely through lack of foresight and through non-sustainable lifestyles and policies. In most cases, they did not have the benefit of an advance warning by being able to read about failed civilizations in history books, or learn about proven principles of working with nature and sustainable living. We, in contrast, have had this knowledge passed on to us.
We are truly on the threshold of a "tipping point" for humanity and for life as we know it on the planet. Our collective actions in the next 50 years will determine whether we - and the other key species required for eco-system health - can survive. For the first time in history, we have collectively reached the limit of virtually every important natural resource that we have been using. As a result, many types of eco-systems are in dramatic decline. Many regional eco-systems are already irreversibly damaged, such as rivers, coral reefs, forests, wetlands and topsoil. As our understanding of the complexities of eco-systems deepens, we realize that this regional system collapse is leading to the collapse of larger systems that require diversity and size. Thus, smaller isolated national parks cannot support certain species such as bears and lions that require a large roaming area, indicative of why habitat destruction is the primary cause of species extinction.
Indeed, we have now officially recognized (by a consensus of leading biologists in 1998) that we are in the Sixth Great Age of Extinctions on the planet. For the first time ever, it is caused entirely by the actions of one species (you guessed it, us), and it is happening at a rate that is faster than ever before. At the current rate, it is projected that nearly 25% of all mammal species will be extinct within the next 30 years, and a staggering 50% extinct by the end of the century. Taken as a whole, species have been in existence an average of 2 million years on the planet, and when they are extinct, they are gone forever. Imagine the arrogance to plunge ahead with "development plans" at this current reckless pace, to be part of the extermination of not just millions of living animals, but millions of entire species. Yet one rarely hears this topic of conversation, much less have this make headlines.
So what's the cause of all this? Are we all just short-sighted, selfish monsters, focused only on our immediate needs as we ride into oblivion thus getting what we deserve, much as the string quartet continued to play on the deck of the sinking Titanic? I wonder sometimes... . But at least if some of us are frantically searching for sanity - and increasingly, many of us are - then there is hope. And that hope may well come down to a series of human-induced catastrophies that finally get the full attention - and responsive intention - of a critical mass of people.
We must start with a sober assessment of how it is that we - both personally and collectively - continue to be caught in this web of myopia. Once we have diagnosed the illness, we can apply the requisite medicine and begin the healing journey.
ECOLOGICAL AVOIDANCE SYNDROMES
This is certainly the most innocent of the batch. The condition of the environment does not make the news much, although in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, there is eco-information and events everywhere you go. However, once one learns that they in fact are ignorant about the true, urgent state of the world and what is at stake, then one is faced with a choice: find out more or dive into another syndrome listed below.
Certainly there is massive denial underway, breathtaking in scope, devastating in effect. It is to be found everywhere we look: in the corporations that place making money over the impact on people, communities and nature; in the politicians who make decisions that will help the financial picture for their short tenure, but harm those who come after (sound familiar?); in the logging and fishing companies that use non-sustainable practices; and in obese people (some 30% of Americans, an historic achievement) who eat junk food and enhance the probability of diabetes, heart disease and low self-esteem.
As long as certain assumptions go unchallenged, denial can maintain itself (the Titanic is not really sinking, it must be making a banked turn). It is the illusion that if it is not in my backyard yet, then it is not really a problem - at least not for me.
"When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." And guess what - the going is getting tough, and will get tougher, and sure enough, merchants continue to make a killing. In the days following 9/11, signs appeared on shop windows proclaiming: "America: Open For Business!" with a shopping bag, as if this were the most important thing that we could now focus on. Incredible! It is still true that on average, Americans watch a whopping 4.5 hours a day of TV, and the tube is on for an average of 7 hours per home. The percentage of "meaningful and substantive" shows on TV - the kind you can actually learn and grow from - is generally about 10%. This means that Americans, on average, are watching close to 30 hours a week of mindless entertainment and fluff.
When something is upsetting, a common strategy is to stay too busy to feel it. The busy-ness may take the form of our work, our food, our shopping, or any other addiction, and as such will make us unhealthy and leave us unfulfilled.
This is the one at the root of all the others, and rightfully so: it is appropriate to be scared, given the likelihood that we will "end up where we are headed" (to quote a Chinese proverb). Facing our fear bravely is challenging but healthy, and frees us up to take appropriate action. However, if we remain in the grip of fear, then we tend to shut down and turn away from the problem (see Denial above). The US Administration is promulgating a great deal of fear with all the focus on terrorism, and always from the point of view that we must stamp out all the symptoms of it rather than look to see how our actions and policies might be inciting it in the first place.
"What passes for cynicism is a lack of courage" says Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange. Given the grim statistics and trends, not to mention the policies of the Administration, it is tempting to assume that humans ultimately do not have what it takes to turn the world predicament around (or perhaps they just don't care enough about it), or else it would have happened long ago. After all, if the people actually elected President Bush and if so many still support his policies, then it would seem hopeless.
Resignation / Apathy
Many are caught in "but I'm just one person against massive forces - whatever I do on my own won't make a dent in things, so I'm not going to bother" (and it is tempting to go here when we really know the facts). Others have a kind of fatalistic view of life, a destiny one cannot change but must simply give in to (whether it be considered positive or negative). Those who believe in the "divinely prophesized" Apocalypse are in this category. Obviously, this is anathema to taking a leadership role with respect to restoring the planet and being motivated to take the needed action. The apparent legitimacy of this position via religion makes this one difficult to change for many people.
What drives all of these reactions and keeps them in place? Certainly the media plays a key role, as we've already seen. In the US, newspapers and TV news coverage tend to focus on sensational events, not slower but more important processes of change. Thus we hear about hurricanes and floods, but not much about topsoil depletion, the large dead zones opening up in the oceans, the hole in the ozone, the death of the coral reefs, etc. Hurricanes and floods come and go, as they always have, but these new massive changes that we have set in motion are monstrous and will continue to grow and wreak devastation unless we unite and act to stop them.
How do we break through these impasses? There is no easy solution or magic pill, but we can start with insisting on honesty and passion in our communications. If we knew that there actually was a fire burning in the bow of the ship we were on, all communication would be passionate and precise, directed fully on putting out the fire. As the different fires that are burning down our eco-systems continue to rage hotter and larger, all of us will eventually feel the heat burning our faces - it will eventually be in everyone's backyard. And then, finally, we will collectively wake up to our obvious priorities and get into gear for the firefight and the subsequent recovery like never before.
The key to jumpstart the change of our current situation is a good understanding of the syndromes of inaction that are so rampant today and where we personally stand in relation to them. If we can identify and admit to our own particular strategy of avoidance, then we can take proactive steps and get involved in putting out the fires.
There are so many excellent resources on the nature of the problems and what needs to be done about them. These informative resources include websites, books, documentary videos, educational events, and best of all, travel to areas where you can directly experience the environmental degradation (although it may indeed already be evident in your neighborhood) and witness those who live without even the basics for a decent, healthy life. The good news is that there is a lot of agreement on viable solutions and the means to actualize them, though we still clearly lack the collective political will to implement these solutions.
It is also crucial to become aware of the many proposed alternative models to existing conditions. A better world is indeed possible, and an increasing number of organizations are coming up with workable designs and blueprints for a sustainable future that includes all parties.
Examples of these organizations include:
- The Earth Charter Initiative - the Earth Charter is a remarkable global doctrine for sustainability ( )
- Business Alliance for Local Living Economies - strategies for attaining healthy,sustainable economies for local communities ( )
- The International Forum on Globalization (IFG) - they have written a landmark book that defines workable economic models, Alternatives to Economic Globalization ( ).
By making a personal commitment, we can all be part of turning the tide, wherever we are, starting now. Whether it is teaching our children to take care of the things we use, or being conscientious about which companies we support through our purchases, or being passionate in our conversations, or writing letters to our Congress members, or adopting a simpler, low impact lifestyle, we can all do our part. There are a number of important campaigns being coordinated by non-profit public interest organizations that we can support with our time and money.
Examples of these organizations include:
- Global Exchange - Fair Trade products, campaign for oil independence and social justice ( )
- Rainforest Action Network (RAN) - protection of the Rainforests, campaign to require that paper companies don't buy old growth forest timber ( )
- Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) - media reform, fair and balanced news reporting ( )
We are the only species systematically destroying our own habitat, and destroying countless others with it.
Enough is enough. We are sick. We have the diagnosis. Join me in taking the medicine.
By Vinit Allen, director of the Sustainable World Coalition
Originally on the Sustainable World Coalition () Website