If environmental problems are so serious, if we are really threatened by global ecological collapse, why is no one doing anything about it?
Before I explain why, it is important to state that:
1) Ecosystems do not react linearly to change, but abruptly switch states (Scheffer, 2001).
2) That the global biosphere or global network of ecosystems, is threatening to shift states, if just 7% more ecosystems shift states (collapse at 50% and we are currently at 43%) (Barnosky, 2012).
3) Managers, planners, and politicians are not coordinating with scientists or experts (Staudinger: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment, 2012).
4) Evolution is far less likely than extinction (Schwartz, 2006).
5) The speed at which species are dying out is approximately 1000 times higher than background extinction rates (Pimm et al, 2014)
6) Surviving populations of animals are dropping extremely fast with an average loss of 52% (72% for fresh water species) in 40 years (Living Planet Report, 2014)
So, why is no one doing anything about the very real issues threatening long term human survival? I think it is safe to qualify the situation as an emergency, and thus we should look at research into how people react in emergencies, or why they do not.
There is a 5 step process for helping an emergency first characterized by Darley and Latane in 1968.
The 1st step is to notice the emergency itself, which can be hindered by distractions or preoccupation.
The 2nd step is to classify it as an emergency, meaning to recognize what is really going on, and this can be hindered by pluralistic ignorance -when a group of people do not notice an emergency because those around them are simultaneously not noticing or reacting to the emergency: it is thus assumed there is no emergency-.
The 3rd step is to take responsibility in the emergency. Studies show that the more people present at an emergency, the lower the chance is that someone will help. This is known as the bystander effect and creates a diffusion of responsibility, which leads the individuals to feeling less responsible for what is going on: “not my problem”. This means that a lone individual is far more likely to help you than that same person within a group.
The 4th step is to know what to do, and the 5th step is to do it. But, even after taking responsibility and knowing what to do, it is possible someone will not help due to social inhibition. This is where the social context, or social norms, prevent or dissuade helping in the situation.
Most people are busy: they do not have time to think about world problems, let alone world problems which have yet to materialise. Most people do not realize how serious environmental problems are: they think the only problem facing us is global warming, and picture this as it becoming a little warmer in the summers. Most people feel like a faceless member of humanity with no reason to help solve these problems, and refrain from taking responsibility, even if they know what is going on.
Many people who know what is going on and have taken responsibility for helping, do not know what to do. They do not realize that even communicating with others about these problems, helping making others aware, taking the time to discuss this with people experiencing dissonance makes quite a difference.
When just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, then it quickly spreads to almost everyone (Szymanski, 2011). If people understood what was going on then there would be more people taking responsibility, more people brainstorming over solutions, and more work being done to avoid global ecological collapse.
The only step left is to do it. So talk to others about these issues, learn about them yourself, and start taking steps towards solving problems. Taking steps towards preventing our own demise, taking steps towards pulling our collective head out of the sand.
1) Scheffer, Marten. 2001. “Catastrophic shift in ecosystem states”. Nature Publishing Group.
2) Barnosky et al. 2012. “Approaching a state shift in Earth´s biosphere.” Nature Publishing Group
3) Schwartz. 2006. “Sudden Origins: A General Mechanism of Evolution Based on Stress Protein Concentration and Rapid Environmental Change”
4) Staudinger, Michelle D et al. 2012. „Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Cooperative Report to the 2013 National Climate Assessment”.
5) Darley, J.M., Latané, B. (1968a). “Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215-221.
6) Syzmanski. 2011. “Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas”
7) Pimm et al. 2014. The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction,distribution, and protection.
8) Living Planet Report (WWF, London Zoological Society). 2014