Why aren’t we sensitive to problems of environmental deterioration?
Wiryono , Bengkulu Tue, 04/06/2010 Opinion Jakarta Post
It has been several decades since the environmental movement began, yet environmental issues have not become the main concern for the general public, government officials or most politicians.
Throughout the day TV news channels discuss political and economic issues, but only occasionally do they discuss environmental ones.
Of course there is relatively ample news on climate change, but it is still the economy that drives most of our actions.
Despite the warning from scientists and environmentalists on the possible environmental catastrophe, we still conduct business as usual.
There is no sense of crisis, nor are we worried. We continue consuming our natural resources as if they were inexhaustible, and we keep polluting the environment as if it had an unlimited capability to purify itself.
We are not aware that our consumption rate has exceeded the capacity of the Earth to replenish the resources. Many of our biological resources — plants and animals, which are in theory renewable — have been depleted to the brink of extinction.
The amount of waste we dispose of untreated has exceeded the Earth’s capacity to process it. For example, rivers have served as waste treatment plants for millions of years, but as we have dumped too much waste into rivers, that function is now badly impaired.
Most of our rivers are no longer fit for washing or bathing in, let alone for sources of potable water.
A recent UNEP report estimated that every year 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die from water-related diseases (The Jakarta Post, March 24).
There are several reasons why we fail to detect environmental deterioration and respond accordingly. First, our nervous system is sensitive only to abrupt and dramatic changes, but less sensitive to the gradual ones.
Psychologist Robert Ornstein and environmental scientist Paul Ehrlich, from Stanford University, give an example in their book, New Word New Mind (1989), of how we can easily perceive the change from darkness to a 50-watt illuminated room, but we can hardly notice the difference between a 50-watt and 100-watt illuminated room, even though the changes in physical stimulus in both situations are the same.
We can add another example: An airplane accident killing 100 passengers will definitely catch national attention, while many traffic accidents on the roads killing thousands of people every year go unnoticed.
Ornstein and Ehrlich write that hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago our ancestors’ survival depended in large part on the ability to respond quickly to immediate, personal and palpable threats,
such as sudden cracks of a branch as it was about to give way, lightning before torrential rain and storm, and the darkening of a cave entrance indicating the approach of large animals.
However, the kind of environment where our ancestors lived has vanished. Modern man has changed the Earth more than our ancestors did over millions of years.
But the changes we have made have come too rapidly for us to adapt biological and culturally. Now we face not only immediate but also long-term threats.
Unfortunately, our nervous systems are accustomed to immediate threats and thus fail to detect long-term environmental threats such as global warming resulting from the gradual increase of greenhouse gases concentrated in the atmosphere.
Our bodies are unable to detect the gradual rising of air temperatures and it may take another century before the rising of sea levels inundates many countries.
For many of us, global warming is not a clear and real danger. The impact of another environmental problem, biodiversity decline, is even more abstract to comprehend.
Another reason is that there are optimists who believe that humankind’s ingenuity and creativity will lead to new technologies to overcome the environmental problems. After all, this is not the first time we have heard dire predictions for mankind.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus warned that the human population growth would exceed food production and we would face catastrophic famines.
But the advancement of agricultural sciences and technologies has increased food production substantially and helped support the growing population, although in some countries famines do occur annually.
In 1972, a research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a report of a computer simulation titled The Limit to Growth, in which they warned that if the population continued to grow at its current pace, we would reach a dangerous state where we exceed the Earth’s capacity to support humans.
In 1992, some of the original authors and other scientists published the sequel, Beyond Limits, in which they confirmed the conclusion of The Limit to Growth. They even concluded that our consumption of natural resources had surpassed the sustainable rate.
However, not everyone agrees with their conclusions. In fact, The Limit to Growth has been criticized by those who believe that technology can solve our resource and environmental problems.
The third reason is that there are irresponsible opportunists who take advantage of the situation and don’t care about other people or the future generation. They know the detrimental impact of their actions on the environment, but they continue doing it as long as the impacts don’t affect them directly and the public and police don’t stop them.
How can we improve our sensitivity to environmental threats and respond accordingly?
Education is the key to solving the environmental problems. Not just at schools and universities, but also in the general public, among government officials and politicians — everyone must be taught the environmental sciences.
Through education, we will gain a good understanding of how ecosystems work and what happens if we inflict damage on them. Even though we may fail to perceive environmental deterioration, we will be able to reason it.
But reason itself is not enough. Some people have good knowledge of the environment, but their values and actions go against conservation. So education must also be aimed at instilling conservation values.
Informal leaders such tribal chiefs and religious leaders must be involved. If the majority of us have good knowledge of the environment and strong conservation values, we will be able to develop sustainable societies that consume resources on a sustainable basis and keep the pollution level below the capacity of the Earth to clean it.
Through education, we will gain a good understanding of how ecosystems work and what happens if we inflict damage on them.
The writer is a lecturer at the University of Bengkulu’s Department of Forestry.