Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mind the gap

One common mistake made by the environmental movement is to believe that people do not recognize the seriousness of the environmental crisis and, if only they had more information, they would automatically endorse environmentalist ethics. Yet, numerous theoretical frameworks have been developed to explain the gap between the possession of environmental knowledge and the lack of pro-environmental behaviour. What is still missing from these frameworks is the realization that the more acute the environmental crisis becomes, the more extreme will our response have to be in order to actually bring about sustainability. What would have been possible had the world taken the first warning signs about anthropogenic climate change seriously some thirty years ago is simply not possible anymore due to the cumulative nature of emissions and the risk of entering runaway states. This holds true for both lifestyle changes and the kind of bold investments in breakthrough R&D that I often advocate.

As a consequence, we can expect the political resistance to lifestyle changes to become even fiercer should it become known exactly how radical such changes would have to be to be effective in a world of seven-billion-plus people, not to mention the immense temptations of free-riding that such changes, if implemented in the most ecologically conscious countries, would give rise to among those less convinced. In addition, if such far-reaching lifestyle changes were ever to be implemented through government mandates (such as prohibitive taxes on meat consumption) rather than inner psychological change, it is not difficult to imagine that they would give rise to an enormous anti-environmentalism backlash or even trigger waves of economic migration. Thus, it may be that instead of meaningful action towards sustainability, we end up in a cultural war and increasingly intractable conflicts over identity.



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