Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight:

Dominant views, cognitive dissonance and climate breakdown

It can be said with reasonable confidence that few people are unaware of the disintegration of the bio-world as it has evolved since the last ice age 11,500 years ago. The response to its disintegration caused by how we have interacted with it over the centuries, and crucially since the industrial revolution, varies enormously.

The dominant view, biblical based and integral to capitalism, is that the Earth exists solely to meet the needs and wants of humankind. Other species, and natural processes deemed to have no practical use, or indeed considered impediments to furthering our perceived interests, are relocated, altered, destroyed or extinguished. An example is the building of the multi-billion pound HS2 high-speed train line from Birmingham to London in which every living thing in its path is sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. No amount of financial gain or travel time saved can ever replace felled ancient woodlands, altered river courses and the death of life forms through the loss of habitat.

Another view about the human-induced disintegration of the biosphere, one that is widely held but few admit to, is contained in the phrase ‘it’s no concern of mine’. This view is rooted in our culture of individualism which says one is primarily responsible for oneself, immediate family and close friends. Excluded are other folk, especially those we think of as outside our tribe, and other species. The ‘no concern of mine’ individualism encompasses the welfare of future generations who will have to live with our legacy, which as Pope Francis said is the “immense pile of filth” the “Earth has turned into”.

The trashing of nonhuman nature is based on another deeply rooted view which is that as it has no intrinsic value it is not deserving of our affection and concern. Thus litter, which is a serious hazard to wildlife, is tossed out of car windows, left by picnickers on beaches and dropped by walkers, cyclists and people who fish.

These views, combined with a degree of delusion, help account for the recent figures released by the UN which reveal that none of the commitments the 196 countries made to reduce global warming emissions at the climate change conference in Paris in 2015 have been met. In fact greenhouse gasses are on a trajectory to rise by 16 per cent by 2030 compared with 2020. This it is estimated will, if not reduced, raise the temperature to 2.7 degrees C by the close of the century. As the average global temperature continues to rise the commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which it is hoped will be underpinned by definite plans at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November, are seen as delusionary.

This delusion might well be due to a character trait we acquired to help us to survive. The trait induces us to say what we think others would like to hear and what we think aligns with the dominant political norms, rather than what we actually believe and are prepared to follow through on. The trait also manifests itself in people holding an idealized view of themselves markedly different from the type of person they actually are. This is particularly the case in regard to virtues including those related to living in an ecologically sustainable way. The inconsistency between belief and behaviour is known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance underpins the societal approach to making the immediate and radical changes needed to rebalance our relationship with nonhuman nature. We say that it is imperative that this be done with governments and local councils declaring a climate emergency but act with complacency. Another example is the expression of intent to avoid a sixth mass extinction without doing anything meaningful to prevent it from happening in changing our habits of consumption.

The science is clear about the behavioural changes needed to reduce our global warming emissions and protect biodiversity. At a personal level these include an immediate and steep reduction in the amount of meat and dairy the average person consumes; walking, cycling and using public transport rather than travelling by private car and restricting aviation for leisure purposes. Cognitive dissonance also comes into play when we think that these changes are for others but not us.

For good or ill, governments circumscribe our lives and the options open to us. Their job in the area of ecological breakdown is to pass and enforce legislation that ensures ecologically sustainable practices are abided by in every economic sector. For the legislation to be effective they need to educate, incentivize and deter whilst ensuring that the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized are not penalized but rather, to use the words of the UK government, given the “levelling-up” support they need. Active citizenship involves persuading government to do what we would like them to do, which should be predicated on the common good.

The question is can we, individually and collectively, close the cognitive dissonance gap and cohere around an agreed set of restrictions and innovations to prevent the temperature rising above the 1.5 degree level by 2050 as well as abruptly bringing an end to the sixth mass extinction. With the global temperature now close to 1.2 degree C and global warming emissions continuing to rise this seems highly unlikely. This tragic state of affairs does not, however, release us from our responsibility to live as good eco-citizens and love the Earth as we love ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Any behavioural change that protects our wondrous and beautiful Earth, even by a small degree, is more than worth it.

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