Environmental Degradation and Our Will to Stop It

Why we can’t stop environmental degradation, even though we want to.

| September 2013

  • Understand the modern relationship between people and nature and the path to a more sustainable world in “Invisible Nature.”
    Cover Courtesy Prometheus Books
  • Polls routinely show that the large majority of Americans care quite a lot about environmental quality, yet they often behave as if they don’t.
    Photo By Fotolia/olly

The fragmentations of our modern lives make it difficult to follow our own values and ethics. In Invisible Nature (Prometheus Books, 2013), environmental scholar Kenneth Worthy explains why our disconnections from nature make us more destructive and shows the way to make greater contact with the nature that sustains us. In this excerpt from the introduction, see why we want to help the environment, but at the same time, continue to contribute to environmental degradation.

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Nearly every day, I see around me a strange and perplexing contradiction of modern living: people concerned about the environment making environmentally harmful choices. Polls routinely show that the large majority of Americans care quite a lot about environmental quality, yet they often behave as if they don’t. In semi-arid California, droughts are common and major rivers are diverted for consumption in homes and on farms; therefore the habitats of various aquatic species are increasingly in peril. Nevertheless, I once met a California woman who flushes each individual facial tissue down the toilet, one every few minutes or so, when she has a cold—and with the tissue, gallons of fresh, clean mountain-river water. Recently, I saw a common grocery store sight: a shopper requesting that his two one-gallon plastic milk containers each be double-bagged in plastic shopping bags—even though the jugs themselves have handles. The bags are restricted or banned in many countries and some US cities. One problem is that plastic winds up in the oceans, where it’s eaten by animals such as albatrosses and turtles who mistake it for food; they die of poisoning, suffocation, or a clogged digestive tract.

I’ve seen empty houses in the dead of winter in New England heated to tropical warmth while their owners are out; environmental scholars throwing printer paper into a trash can that sits beside a paper-recycling container; and huge car dealerships lit up like the midday sun at midnight. All around us are gas-guzzling vehicles and oversized American homes that require large amounts of energy to build and furnish (there’s embodied energy in all building materials and every product) and to heat and cool. Meanwhile, the global climate is becoming unstable from greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels, and according to most climate experts, we’re far behind where we should be to avoid various global disasters.

These strange contradictions in a society that generally cares about the environment aren’t limited to private life, either: corporations and governments, made up of people well aware of and often concerned about environmental problems, make environmentally dubious choices all the time. I frequently see all the high-power lights over the vast Port of Oakland, California, glowing in the middle of the day, requiring Pacific Gas & Electricity’s generating plants to burn more fossil fuels, thereby increasing global warming. On a recent cold, rainy winter day, I saw a sprinkler system spraying copious amounts of water over a baseball field at a university—water from over-taxed reservoirs, water that would benefit the ecology of the Mokelumne River, from which it was taken. Why do people make choices harmful to the environment even when they truly care about it and when other choices are available?

The problem runs even deeper than harmful individual choices freely made. Basically all of us moderners participate in destructive practices, intentionally or not. It’s hard to live a modern life that fully aligns with your values if you care about nature and about the people—often the poor—who bear the brunt of environmental degradation. Many people attempt to lessen the damage by using public transit, buying less meat, flying less, line-drying clothing, turning the heat down in the winter—but these choices are no panacea. I often ride my bike for transportation and try to live modestly. But ultimately I can’t avoid propagating harms around the globe because just leading a normal life in our society means, for instance, buying computers, which are made of various toxic materials; heating my home and thereby releasing global warming gases; and releasing even more such gases by flying on jets. Some people live “off grid” by disconnecting their homes from the electrical network. But just try to disconnect from all the material and energy production networks—for food, clothing, gasoline, building materials—that sustain our modern lives and that at the same time divorce us from Earth and our consequences.

Many writers have worked to get to the bottom of environmental crisis, and some have made great strides. A well-worn explanation for environmental crisis is overpopulation, made famous in 1968 by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in their book The Population Bomb. Following on the population theories of eighteenth- to nineteenth-century British counter-revolutionary economist Thomas Malthus, the Ehrlichs warned that the world’s burgeoning population would quickly outstrip food supplies and mass starvation would occur (Malthus cynically argued that the poor should not be helped because doing so only perpetuates the problem). Paul Ehrlich and others later developed the famous “IPAT” equation: environmental impact is the product of population, affluence, and technology. Because wealth and technological development are paramount modern values, things we don’t want to give up, many people focus on the remaining parameter, population.

But looking for a single cause of environmental destruction has proven fruitless. It’s better to view population, wealth, and technology as a mutually reinforcing web of causes of environmental deterioration that includes various others. For instance, poverty, combined with lack of access to education, often leads to larger family sizes in economically disadvantaged areas such as parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Insecure land rights for developing-world farmers can lead to overexploitation of soils because under such conditions they have an incentive to grow intensively for short-term gain without replenishing the soils. And larger populations have a complex relationship with environmental degradation because sometimes they generate innovations that diminish environmental degradation. So it’s simplistic to blame population size as the driver of environmental degradation.

Various other writers blame laissez-faire capitalism for environmental crisis. They point to industrial corporations exploiting natural resources all over the planet and leaving denuded landscapes, overfished oceans, and contaminated soils in their wake. In The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, the environmental lawyer James Gustave Speth blames capitalism’s dependence on growth and argues that Americans must rein in their consumption practices. True enough. But the socialist regime in the former Soviet Union was infamous for massive environmental devastation resulting from nationalist fervor, not so much from ardent capitalist-style consumption. One sad result was that in 1990, standing beside Lake Karachay in western Russia, a radioactive waste disposal site, for one hour, you would receive a lethal dose of radiation. And communist China under Chairman Mao produced the failed “Great Leap Forward” that resulted in environmental ruin across that large country, including a loss of forest cover from which China is still recovering. Attempting to give the socialist state a massive kickstart, Mao’s program urgently converted forests to farmland throughout the country and shifted farmers to regions where their farming practices weren’t well adapted and were thus ineffective and often damaging to local ecology. Tens of millions of people died of famine. Mao and his engineers and administrators were sufficiently disconnected from the ensuing tragedies to keep driving them forward. Dissociations can detrimentally influence people’s choices under both capitalism and communism, in both rich countries and poor ones.

In his 2005 book Collapse, the scientist-geographer Jared Diamond describes how various societies throughout human history created their own demise through deforestation and soil erosion, which causes farming to fail, and the resulting starvation. He uses a rational decision-making model to explain why societies take the directions they do: disastrous decisions based on failures to anticipate, perceive, and account for problems have led societies to overgraze, hunt animals to extinction, and overwork soils through intensive farming. But Diamond’s conclusions don’t seem to apply to modern situations in which environmental problems are well known and solutions often readily available. The environmental sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard studied those exact conditions. She found that denial plays a role in Norwegians’ lack of response to climate change, as she explains in her 2011 book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Social norms, emotions, and public discourse together create denial of the problem and thus inaction. Dissociations are relevant because they provide optimal conditions for denial: the more remote the problems, the easier it is to deny their reality.

The approach in this book has more in common with that of the environmental philosopher David Abram’s groundbreaking 1996 book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Abram explains the importance of phenomenal (of and related to perception and the senses) engagement with more-than-human nature. Only by being in sensuous, embodied contact with the rich, vibrant, complex realm of nature in landscapes and seascapes, with the air, soil, and water around us, can we begin to fully understand and experience nature’s needs and thus be in a reciprocal and caring relationship with it. I expand on Abram’s philosophy by tying in the history of ideas behind our separation from nature and the psychology of why our separations make us more likely to be destructive. In her landmark opus The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant also provided an excellent foundation, which I build on, for understanding how new ideas in seventeenth-century Europe excised humans from nature and reconceived the natural world as a machine ready for manipulation by humanity.

In the face of all of our efforts to understand the destructiveness of modern life, why does environmental crisis march on?

Recognizing Dissociations

We can look to overpopulation, denial, and lack of foresight for some answers, but existing explanations don’t quite get to the bottom of why corporations, governments, and you and I persist in making the environmentally destructive choices we do, even when we care about nature. For that, we must more closely consider the context in which we make everyday choices. We live with divisions in various types of relationships that matter: between us and the consequences of our actions; between us and the people and nature we affect with our actions; and between us and the processes that create the products we consume. These dissociated conditions inform, shape, and constrain our choices. So, for instance, we can buy a new car blithely unaware of all of the pollution released in its manufacture. The fragmented relationships among the important elements of life in the modern world set us in stark contrast to societies throughout virtually all of human history. Being able to recognize them is a crucial first step to understanding how they lead to problems.

Excerpted from Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment (Prometheus Books, 2013). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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