Environmental Ignorance is Not Bliss

Guest post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology

There are tons of diets and ways to lose weight. We all know of people who appear to have won the weight loss battle only to put the weight back on, ending up heavier than they were before (I was one of them). Long term weight loss will only be successful if a person is clear about their reasons for losing weight in the first place, and they don’t put off taking action needed to achieve their goal. Most importantly, they must acknowledge that the changes necessary to achieve the goal are permanent, because if they go back to their old ways it is likely they will end up back in the same position they started in – or worse.  

It’s similar when thinking about addressing environmental issues and making the behavioural changes that are truly needed. The modern way of life and divorce from nature is causing huge problems such as climate change amongst others – but I don’t need to tell you this. You are reading this article because Happy Eco news means something to you and you already care about the environment and the future of the planet. I am pretty sure you have made adjustments to combat or address the issues. But is it for the long term? Is it enough?  

Recently the world has become suddenly awake to the consequences of our unhealthy behaviours and if feels like it has realised we are all part of a bigger system where it is no longer justified to not take action about the harm we are causing. Conservationists, environmentalists, and others who love and respect nature have been warning about nature being destroyed to feed our modern way of life for decades. Despite this, the norm has been to largely ignore and dismiss the issues, or violence has been used to silence those shouting about environmental injustices. The devastating effects on nature seem to have just gotten worse and worse.

Some people do care and have addressed behaviour that contributes to the problem, some have fought and made a difference and contributed to positive changes. Why haven’t most people made the necessary changes to adapt to living on Earth with a healthy relationship with all other lifeforms? Why have we let consumerism annihilate the natural world to the extent that we have? How did we get into this state? Why do we only make small changes, or pretend climate change isn’t happening to the extent it is? Unless these questions are answered honestly our systems may not fully recover and function as they have the potential to do because we are not really dealing with the problems causing it. 

Social scientist Kari Marie Norgaard has spent years researching this issue and has found people have on the whole have ignored environmental issues due to a “socially constructed silence.”  This form of denial is a coping strategy which allows society to avoid having to deal with unpleasant feelings or emotions. Ignoring environmental issues is a social defence which enables a comfortable way of life to continue without fear and guilt getting in the way. Ultimately it is not a healthy strategy because the environmental problem is not addressed or solved with a loss of well-being for us and nature.  

But how should the human race deal with this and make the long term behavioural changes needed or solve the problems when we are not dealing with what exactly is causing it?  How do we as individuals deal with something that is very complicated, or we believe others are far more at fault than we are? One simple and effective way is to take a deep breath and take a hard look at ourselves and answer honestly why each of us has not taken action when perhaps we could have, and answer what it is that we have contributed to get to this place we are all in?  We must then be prepared to make hard decisions for long term change. A bit of recycling here and there isn’t enough to restore any significant balance and relationship with all of the other beings and plants who we share the planet with.   

Take a look at everything you do, use, or buy and ask yourself; am I causing harm to any living thing, including myself? Can I stop or minimise the damage in any way? Where does what you buy come from? What harm was caused to nature to get it to you for your convenience?  Find out. If you don’t want to ask, are you worried about what you might find out? Is convenience more important to you than the healthy future of the planet?  You can try and stay comfortable and in denial by ignoring the impact to the environment for that product you quite like, but this behaviour quite simply isn’t working for us anymore.  

Change can happen and further damage can be minimised if responsibility is taken by everyone. Environmentally unfriendly and unethical businesses only survive because we chose to buy from and trade with them. Don’t blame anything or anyone else until you have done your own inventory. Be honest. Have you given yourself a moral license because you took your own cup to the coffee shop to buy your Latte so that is all you need to do for the rest of the day? What else could you do? Honestly? 

Take responsibility for what you can. Are you ignoring causing any harm to nature and the environment?  Can you stop this action?  If the answer is no – why not?  Honestly? Can you minimise it? And if yes – then minimise. Take action now. If you/we don’t – the unhealthy behaviour and destruction of the environment will prevail when actually we have the choices and opportunity to change if we want to.  

We all need healthy ecosystems in order to live regardless of what our perspective is. The reality is that the way we are living our lives is destroying nature. How do we address this if we haven’t addressed our deteriorating relationship with nature, or if we don’t even know what the relationship is anymore?  

In the 21st century we want easy, quick fixes, and black and white solutions. Recently the media reported on fungi that could solve the plastic waste problem. It’s a really great discovery but it’s not going to address the behaviour involved in producing, consuming, and discarding plastic, it might even encourage more of it. The solution to the plastic problem will only be solved if we address our behaviour, change our habits, and come up with more than what feels a little like a crash diet. And just like after a crash diet, if we have quick fixes but ultimately nothing in our behaviour has really changed we will have an even larger environmental “waste-line” and the prospect of an early death which could have been prevented.

One of the biggest challenges is changing our perspective on nature. We must have the needs of nature met, and the environments’ as well, because they are suffering. Not only do we depend on them for our own ultimate survival, but we share the planet with other life which we have badly used and abused. We live within an ecosystem and are interconnected with everything whether we like it or not. We need to look after it a lot better than we have in a much more honest and healthy way.  

How do we make the much needed long-term necessary changes?  The first step is to acknowledge the challenges ahead and that a lot of people don’t like the idea of hard work, or change. Just like making healthy diet improvements, changes involve being mindful of what we are consuming and why, and being mindful of how our decisions are going to affect us and our goals. It’s about getting into the habit of healthy eating/living and looking after ourselves. Good habits enable us to become stronger at what we are doing so we are more likely to reach our goals and stick to them. Being conscious of bad habits and exploring why we have them is important too. What exactly are we ignoring and why don’t we change when we really need to?  Can this newly acquired information help us address a problem so we can move forwards?

Are we so utterly fearful of the consequences of climate change and the loss of nature, that we feel too overwhelmed to take the proper action on the scale we need for lasting, permanent, and healthy change?  If the answer is yes – Ok then, let’s talk about it and deal with this. What else is stopping us?  Let’s deal with and talk about that too.

Imagine what the world would be like if we got into the habit of always being aware that we are interconnected with nature, and if we asked ourselves what harm am I causing to the environment with everything we do? In being more mindful, what other healthier choices could we make instead? If your choice was to live by causing no harm RIGHT NOW, how would you live?  What will have changed?  What has to change in your life to get there?  How are we going to get there?  What needs to change for us to stay there once we have reached our goal?

Imagine the health benefits and possibilities for growth and repair with our environment if we all did this, even with just a little bit more consciousness than what we already have of the impact of our choices on nature, and ultimately ourselves?  

Norgaard, K. M. (2011). Living in denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge: The MIT Press.

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