Monday, November 23, 2009

Environmentalism and World Domination

I wrote in my last article about one way that culture can have (what I believe are) negative effects on those under its influence, particularly when it is perceived as reflecting the underlying nature of reality rather than being recognized as something both imposed and imitated. But culture can also have (what I at least believe to be) positive effects, and so today I’d like to briefly discuss one of those.

Consider the phenomenon of environmentalism. This is a movement that seems to have gained enormous momentum over the course of the past several decades. (I say “seems to have” rather than “has,” because (1) I haven’t done the research to assess this and (2) informal perception about cultural changes over time is something I am generally inclined to distrust, mainly because a significant proportion of cultural belief systems include a whole segment describing “how things used to be and how the way things are now is different”—so that perceptions of the cultural system of the past are themselves shaped by the cultural system of the present, rather than being pure, unadulterated, comparative memories.)

In any event, I would argue that whatever rise in environmentalist behaviors (recycling, reduced consumption, green building practices, etc.) may have occurred over the past half-century, has done so as a direct result of developments in the cultural belief systems of the individuals engaging in these behaviors. Specifically, beliefs such as “the health of the planet, the happiness of future generations, and the survival of the human race depend on exercising greater care in our use of environmental resources,” or “if I don’t toss this can in the recycling bin, everyone who sees me is going to think badly of me,” are the most effective mechanisms to motivate environmentalist activities.

Where do these beliefs come from? Some have been instilled through overt cultural campaigns carefully constructed by people already convinced of their importance. For instance, as a child I remember attending mandatory school-wide assemblies, complete with catchy songs and animated cartoons, encouraging me to “Recycle, Reduce, Re-use, and Close the Loop!” and recommending five fun crafts I could try at home that would make use of my six-pack soda-rings so they didn’t end up around the neck of some poor seagull or cute little fishie.

But there are also subtler mechanisms with similar effects. The proliferation of recycling bins next to trash cans in places like the Seattle airport not only makes recycling easier—it also sends an implicit message that recycling is something everyone should be sure to do, wherever they find themselves. And I don’t know about Macs, but on my PC where there once upon a time was a trash can to which I could drag unwanted files, there is now a “Recycle Bin.” Does dragging my files to a Recycle Bin rather than a Trash Can ensure that the bits and pixels of which it was composed will be processed for re-use rather than sent to languish in a landfill? No, but it does get me in the habit of looking first for a recycle bin when I want to get rid of something cluttering up my desktop, which is likely to influence my behavior in the three-dimensional realm, as well.

Because this second category often has just as much impact on our beliefs and behaviors as the first (indeed, sometimes even more of an impact—since, as I pointed out with respect to the innocent questions we ask our children, the subtlest messages are often the hardest ones to resist), and because many of us live in societies which are responsive, both politically and commercially, to popular expectations, a feedback cycle develops wherein beliefs in the importance of environmentalism foster more beliefs in the importance of environmentalism.

That is, because politicians are out to please voters (in order to get re-elected), and because producers are out to please consumers (in order to sell more of their products), it is in their interests to respond to any preferences that a significant portion of the general population holds. If enough people consider it important to prevent dolphins from being killed when tuna fish is caught for consumption, then companies will respond by making their tuna fish “dolphin-safe” and then advertising it as such, and governments may even make laws prohibiting dolphin-killing by tuna-catchers. But also, the advertisements for dolphin-safe tuna are likely to awaken people who otherwise wouldn’t have thought to care about the impact of their tuna consumption on dolphin populations to the notion that maybe this is something about which they should be concerned, thereby increasing the number of people who make dolphin safety a priority in their tuna-purchasing decisions.

The proliferation of cultural beliefs and expectations can thus significantly impact the state of reality—and sometimes this can be for the better. Indeed, I would argue that if one wants to improve the world, it is far more effective to work to change prevailing cultural value systems in such a way that people are convinced of the importance of a given change (trusting that the people best positioned to make that change will then find it in their best interests to do so) than to attempt to enact restrictions or regulations enforcing a change which most people consider unimportant or even undesirable.

In other words, if you really want to take over the world, you may not need infinite wealth or superior military force. A convincing cultural construction might just do the trick.


  1. On the gap between environmentalism and environmental talk: the other day I saw an ad for a *green* cell phone that said it was environmentally friendly. In the fine print it said that the phone was made of 80% recyclABLE materials---NOT recyclED materials!

  2. Right! And then, of course, there's the question of whether the recycling process itself causes as much or more harm to the environment as does extracting new resources. (For instance, I've heard unsubstantiated but plausible claims that the process of recycling plastics puts all manner of terrible chemicals into the air, water, etc.) This is the danger of cultural mobilizations of environmentalism: just because something is couched in environmentalist terminology, given environmentalist justifications, and even supported by people who consider themselves to be environmentalists, does not necessarily mean the practice is actually beneficial for the environment.


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