Originally I didn’t want to start these 2 weeks talking about people’s apathy about the environment, since this is a bit of a downer. From personal experience, and I’m sure many of you have experienced this as well, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as hearing people either deny or simply not care about an issue that’s so obviously huge and important. From politicians to everyday people, there seems to be a massive and influential crowd that simply doesn’t care about the state of the environment, or just works to avoid or minimize the issue as much as possible. And while I hate to generalize, this unfortunately is the case around the world, with the environment often falling to the background while other issues take precedent, both in political spheres and on a more personal level as well.
The interesting question I want to discuss today is why. Why do so many people acknowledge but simply don’t care or act about the environment despite the potentially disastrous consequences? The answer lies with psychology and the way human brains are structured. From an evolutionary standpoint, the human brain is simply not wired to deal with slow, distant threats since this does not aid in day-to-day survival. Rather, we deal well with the here and now – immediate threats that either happen in the present or in the very near future. But climate change and the environment simply don’t fit this mould. These are issues that while globally are getting worse and more severe, are not visible on a day-to-day basis for most people, who consequently are not driven to deal with a problem that appears to just linger on the horizon. While our brains have evolved over many thousands of years (although the current political world may indicate otherwise), our ability to plan ahead and delay short-term reward for the long-term has not kept up with the rate of climate change (and the consequent need to deal with it in a fairly short time frame). This way of thinking - short-term as opposed to long-term - has also been engrained in our economy and social institutions, which in turn makes it very difficult to make fundamental changes to industry.
In my mind, what it comes down on a more personal level is a sense of disconnect. For most people, and especially in a country like Canada, there is no imminent threat of environmental disaster. It might be in our day-to-day thoughts, but at the end of the day, there is no direct conscious link between our actions and their consequences. This results in us throwing out that coffee cup instead of finding a way to recycle it, or using plastic bags instead of reusable ones, in other words, doing things for short-term convenience simply because we do not see the long-term benefits of going out of our way to do some good. And this isn't meant to be an accusation – it’s simply a social fact that without a direct consequence in front of them, people will ignore abstract long-term consequences (after all, it's hard to imagine how recycling one small thing can impact the environment positively, or also how one small piece of litter can do significant damage). Likewise, only when environmental degradation reaches such a critical point that it affects everyone's daily lives will the entire population fully begin to cooperate and begin acting responsibly.
With all that mildly depressing stuff out of the way, I think it’s definitely worth noting that things are improving, with more and more people becoming aware of simple things they can do to make a small difference (the awesomely detailed recycling systems on parts of the U of A campus being an example). Setting a good example and engraining a sense of environmental duty, as well as facilitating this in societal institutions, is vital in making our society more mindful and sustainable. And while we've all seen those who litter and don't care, there are many who are mindful and refuse to be apathetic about this issue. We may not ever get to the point where everyone stands behind the need to act about climate change, but I like to believe we're getting there. Slowly.