Ecological Footprint creator William Rees on ‘Why We’re in Denial’  

From The Extra-Environmentalist:

Dr. William Rees is a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and former director of the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP). He is the originator of the "ecological footprint" concept and co-developer of the method… We ask Bill about the reasons we’re in denial and how we could start adapting to our ecological challenges through a new cultural narrative.

… the think tanks and institutes that deny the reality or severity of climate change, or promote distrust of climate science, do so out of self-interest, ideological conviction or both. Some groups, like the fossil fuel industry, have an obvious self-interest in the continued use of fossil fuels. Others fear that if we accept the reality of climate change, we will be forced to acknowledge the failures of free-market capitalism. Still others worry that if we allow the government to intervene in the marketplace to stop climate change, it will lead to further expansion of government power that will threaten our broader freedoms.

But most Americans do not work for the fossil fuel industry, and most Americans accept that there is an appropriate role for government to protect human and environmental health. So why has the denial of climate change achieved so much traction?

In my travels, I have met many, many people who have told me that they are not in denial about climate change; they simply don’t know enough to decide. It strikes me that these people aren’t unlike my fellow jurors at the start of jury selection. They are trying to keep an open mind, something that we are routinely enjoined to do in many other aspects of daily life.

But just as open-mindedness can be the wrong answer in jurisprudence, it can also be the wrong answer in science and public policy. Since the mid-1990s, there has been clear-cut evidence that the climate is changing because of human activities: burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. For the last decade or so it has been increasingly clear that these changes are accelerating, and worrisome.

Yet many Americans cling to the idea that it is reasonable to maintain an open mind. It isn’t, at least not to scientists who study the matter. They have been saying for some time that the case for the reality and gravity of climate change has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But there’s the rub. The public seems to view scientists as the equivalent of the prosecuting attorney trying to prove a case. The think tanks, institutes and fossil fuel corporations take on the mantle of the defense.

We have to get over that flawed notion. Scientists don’t play the role of prosecutor trying to prove a case. Rather, they are the jury trying to evaluate the evidence. And they have rendered their verdict. The problem is not that scientists have become advocates, as some have claimed. The problem is that there is no judge, no recognized authority giving us instructions we accept, and no recognized authority to accept the scientists’ verdict and declare it final.

A healthy bite of Naomi Oreskes' recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, 'The Verdict is in on Climate Change'. Oreskes is a science historian, professor at the University of California San Diego, and author ('Merchants of Doubt'). If you’re interested, you can check out a couple of her recent presentations here and here

(Graphic credit: NASA

When considering the consequences of peak oil, no everyday experiences and only few historical parallels are at hand. It is therefore difficult to imagine how significant the effects of being gradually deprived of one of our civilization’s most important energy sources will be. Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusing to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable.

~ A quote from the recently translated Peak Oil analysis written by the German Military (via ASPO). You can read a summary of the report over at Energy Bulletin.

(Image credit: Johns Hopkins Public Health)

Free Download: ‘Culture and Behavior: The Human Nature of Unsustainability’
Over the last year or so the Post Carbon Institute has been releasing individual chapters of its best-selling Post Carbon Reader as free downloads. I picked up a copy in the spring and have since found it to be a great resource for learning more about the many complex and interconnected dimensions (e.g. food, climate, energy, cities, water, economics) of our global sustainability crisis. 
Today, the PCI recently released a new chapter, 'Culture and Behavior: The Human Nature of Unsustainability', written by ecological footprint co-inventor William Rees. Here’s an excerpt:

Humans may pride themselves as being the best evidence for intelligent life on Earth, but an alien observer would record that the (un)sustainability conundrum has the global community floundering in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial… Indeed, our alien friend might go so far as to ask why our reasonably intelligent species seems unable to recognize the crisis for what it is and respond accordingly. 
To begin answering this question, we need to look beyond conventional explanations—scientific uncertainty, societal inertia, lack of political will, resistance by vested interests, and so on — to what may well be the root cause of the conundrum: human nature itself.

You can download the chapter here and previously released chapters here. 
Finally, for those interested in the relationship between culture and sustainability you may want to check out the following resources:
'Are we trapped in a cultural mythology that undermines sustainable development?' by Arish Dastur (World Bank blog)
‘Finding cultural values that can transform the climate change debate’ by Tom Crompton (Solutions Journal)
'Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions and technologies' (PDF) by Beddoe et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Free Download: ‘Culture and Behavior: The Human Nature of Unsustainability’

Over the last year or so the Post Carbon Institute has been releasing individual chapters of its best-selling Post Carbon Reader as free downloads. I picked up a copy in the spring and have since found it to be a great resource for learning more about the many complex and interconnected dimensions (e.g. food, climate, energy, cities, water, economics) of our global sustainability crisis. 

Today, the PCI recently released a new chapter, 'Culture and Behavior: The Human Nature of Unsustainability', written by ecological footprint co-inventor William Rees. Here’s an excerpt:

Humans may pride themselves as being the best evidence for intelligent life on Earth, but an alien observer would record that the (un)sustainability conundrum has the global community floundering in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial… Indeed, our alien friend might go so far as to ask why our reasonably intelligent species seems unable to recognize the crisis for what it is and respond accordingly. 

To begin answering this question, we need to look beyond conventional explanations—scientific uncertainty, societal inertia, lack of political will, resistance by vested interests, and so on — to what may well be the root cause of the conundrum: human nature itself.

You can download the chapter here and previously released chapters here.

Finally, for those interested in the relationship between culture and sustainability you may want to check out the following resources:

  1. 'Are we trapped in a cultural mythology that undermines sustainable development?' by Arish Dastur (World Bank blog)
  2. Finding cultural values that can transform the climate change debate’ by Tom Crompton (Solutions Journal)
  3. 'Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions and technologies' (PDF) by Beddoe et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Jeremy Rifkin on ‘The Empathic Civilization’

From RSA Animate:

Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society. 

You may also want to check out Rifkin’s 2009 talk, ‘The Economy of Energy for Cities’, at the Global Urban Summit in Rotterdam.

Risk expert David Ropeik’s new post in the Huffington Post takes a look at a newly published study, ‘Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change Among Conservative White Males in the United States’.

The research found that:

… conservative white males (CWMs) are more likely than any other segment of the population to deny the overwhelming body of science that anthropogenic climate change is underway, and a serious threat to the biosphere and everything in it, including human beings.

For example, the study found that:

  • 14% of the general public doesn’t worry about climate change at all, but among CWMs the percentage jumps to 39%.

  • 32% of adults deny there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but 59% of CWMs deny what the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists have said.

  • Three adults in 10 don’t believe recent global temperature increases are primarily caused by human activity. Twice that many — six CWMs out of every 10 — feel that way

But, why CWMs?:

… partly because they’re WMs, and partly because they are Cs. The so-called “White Male Effect” in risk perception has found that white males between ages 18-59 are generally less afraid of things than white women or people of color of either gender. A famous “White Male Effect” paper suggested "Perhaps white males see less risk in the world because they create, manage, control, and benefit from so much of it. Perhaps women and non-white men see the world as more dangerous because in many ways they are more vulnerable, because they benefit less from many of its technologies and institutions, and because they have less power and control." That’s consistent with general theory about risk perception, which finds that for all of us, the more control we have the less afraid we are, and the more benefit we get from something, the less scary it is.

But what about the conservative part? Why would people who are politically conservative be more likely to deny the evidence about climate change? Well, conservatives are generally what Cultural Cognition theory calls Hierarchists. They like clear and fixed hierarchies of class and race and social structure, a rigid predictable ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ status quo. They don’t like government butting in trying to change things, and leveling the playing field, and taking from the haves who have earned it and giving to the have-nots who haven’t. Well, the solutions to climate change are going to take all kinds of government ‘butting in’, all sorts of adjustments to the economic status quo, interventions that will mean new winners and losers, changes to who’s where on the economic and power ladder, and to a hierarchist (i.e. conservative), that means somebody else’s sort of society - the society of Egalitarians who want things flexible and fair, not rigid and bound by class and hierarchy — is going to prevail.

That’s really threatening, way down deep in the psyche of the social human animal that depends on the tribe for welfare and even survival. If our tribe is on top, we feel safer. If our tribe is losing out, we feel threatened. If society is operating the way we want, we feel safer. If somebody else’s rules prevail, we feel threatened. So Cs — conservatives — who tend to be Hierarchical, feel threatened not by the facts of climate change but by what the solutions to climate change might do to the way society operates. They cherry pick the facts to support a view that will preserve the social order they prefer, and defend that view fiercely, because it’s about way more than climate change. It’s about protecting their identities, the tribe, their safety. Powerful stuff.

So, what does this mean for the rest of us? 

What is valuable about this study is what it says not just about conservative white men, but about all of us. This research confirms that who we are as people, at really fundamental levels, has a lot more to do with the way we see things than just the facts. All of us, not just CWMs. And not just on climate change. And what that means is that arguing issues based just on the facts isn’t going to get us very far, since the facts aren’t really what we’re arguing about in the first place.

Hmm… How are we going to get beyond denial and onto advancing climate solutions then?

The solution is obvious, though hardly easy. We have stop making climate change a zero sum if-you-win-I-lose battle. We have to frame the issue in ways that work within everybody’s underlying cultural/tribal perspectives. We have to realize that answers are more likely to be found, and solutions are more likely to be reached, if the goal is finding common ground, to one of the most serious threats humans - all of us - have ever faced. 

Check out the rest of the article here. P.S. If you’re interested in another worthwhile read on conservatives and climate denial check out Jonathan Kay’s, Bad science: Global-warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause’.   

(Photo credit: Huffington Post)