Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Selfishness and groupthink working together to save the world

In my previous post, I ranted somewhat incoherently about balances between quality of life, economics, and the environment, closing with the line, “I’ll try to help myself for now. Saving the world, that will have to wait for later.”

In his article “Let’s dump ‘Earth Day,’” Joseph Romm takes a view that directly relates to my own sentiments.

Romm feels that we need to focus more on human life and less on the rest of the world around us. Saving the world is difficult and daunting; we need to focus more on ourselves.

Although his article begins somewhat satirically, his point becomes clear early: “If humans are special, invested with a soul by our Creator, along with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then why should we sacrifice even a minute of that pursuit worrying about the inferior species?”

The problem with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism—and the reason why so much of it is not effective—is, as Romm says, because such language creates “the misleading perception that the cause so many of us are fighting for—sharp cuts in greenhouse gases—is based on the desire to preserve something inhuman or abstract or far away.”

Romm feels that the name “Earth Day” is too broad and focuses on too esoteric of a concept. While saving the Earth and all of its flora and fauna is a noble cause, it isn’t a concept that pushes enough people to act. Romm writes:
What the day—indeed, the whole year—should be about is not creating misery upon misery for our children and their children and their children, and on and on for generations. Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves. Yes, we can't preserve ourselves if we don't preserve a livable climate, and we can't preserve a livable climate if we don't preserve the earth. But the focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering. And if enough people come to see it that way, we have a chance of avoiding the worst.
He advocates a change in the name of Earth Day to place the focus on action that is more tangible and attainable.

While many of us like to believe that we adhere to high ideals, there is a large gap between belief and action. And what actually motivates us to action is often not what we would like to believe about ourselves.

In this past Sunday’s News-Miner, Judith Kleinfeld looks at a study where doorknob hangers were placed on people’s front doors. There were four different messages hung on the doors:
1. “You save money by conserving energy”
2. “You can save the Earth’s resources by conserving energy”
3. “Socially responsible citizens conserve energy”
4. “Most of your neighbors try regularly to conserve energy”
Later, the residents were surveyed to see which ones took action to conserve energy. The winner, the one with the greatest number of residents taking action, was number 4. While this shows a disturbing presence of Orwellian groupthink, it is another example of how ideology doesn’t inspire action.

According to Kleinfeld, “If we are serious about getting people to protect the environment, we need to go beyond public information campaigns and moralistic messages.”

The answer to our problems, it seems, is a healthy level of selfishness pared with an equal dose of cultural adherence. While such a suggestion may not shine an overwhelmingly positive light on our culture, I don’t think it is surprising.

If we each take steps to save ourselves, others might see and follow. This way, my friends, we can create a movement, starting with—to steal the Army’s phrase, and the military is definitely a group that preaches its own form of cultural adherence—an army of one.

As philosopher Eric Hoffer believed, movements are started by individuals who are unhappy with themselves molding themselves after a leader, or “true believer,” and creating imaginary selves through which they achieve some level of self respect. As different individuals mold themselves in the same way, they create a group of similarly-minded imaginary selves, which can eventually become a movement based on the ideals of the imaginary selves, which through the sheer weight of belief becomes something real. Ideology is not reality, but action is.

I perhaps can’t change the world, but I can change myself. You should change yourself, as well. Everyone’s doing it, you know.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Good writing.