Apathetic Environmentalism: An Epidemic

In recent years, it has become more apparent that society is fatally harming the environment. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we must cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 to avoid a climate catastrophe. Despite the mounting evidence, changes in environmental policy and consumerist habits seem reluctant and tentative. Roughly three-quarters of Europeans say they see climate change as a threat, yet less than a third would accept higher taxes on fossil fuels to cut emissions. This inconsistency of rhetoric versus action is apathetic environmentalism; when someone exhibits genuine concern for the environment but makes little to no effort to make any real, fundamental change. The epitome of this was a photo of an overflowing bin uploaded to ExeHonestly after the recent climate strikes. The discrepancy between protesting the government’s handling of the climate crisis and literally littering on the street highlights an inconsistency between rhetoric and action that is becoming increasingly prevalent. So, where does this apathy come from?

Politically, apathy often stems from the reach of disinformation propaganda and campaigns. For the past 50 years big oil and energy companies in particular have funnelled money, time and effort into undermining climate science. Energy behemoth Exxon investigated their impact on global warming as early as 1978, realising that a swift change in strategy was needed to reduce their impact on the atmosphere. Regardless, in 2001 the company advised the Bush Administration to replace climate change experts with deniers on the IPCC to further their own interests and line their pockets. Furthermore, in 2007 a UCS report found that ExxonMobil had contributed nearly $16 million to 43 climate contrarian groups with the specific intent of creating confusion around global warming. These are just a few examples taken from just one company, it is not difficult to imagine how much more underhand work has gone on. Still today, major fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, MP and Shell are represented on the boards of significant committees such as API, WSPA, ALEC and even the US Chamber of Commerce. Through this they continually influence policy decisions that ensure public uncertainty over climate science. In light of this, it is understandable that so many people are sceptical or apathetic regarding the environment.

Moreover, the influence of these conglomerates makes governmental action diluted and often ineffective. Admittedly, the UK has successfully reduced our emissions to the levels they were at in the 19th century, but this was through an easy out: shutting the coal power stations (the majority of plants were closed years ago anyway). Now that they’ve exhausted that option, our government has yet to make any of the difficult changes that would reflect a prioritisation of the climate over profit and political gain. Additionally, reducing emissions within the UK may result in them being produced somewhere else. For example, Western countries would export tankers full of rubbish to Southern-Asian countries rather than wasting money on the proper disposal or recycling of it. Therefore, governmental action often provides the appearance of progress, lulling the public into a false sense of security, whilst actually very little is being done.

Secondly, our brains are fundamentally unable to compute a long-term threat. Neuroscience and psychological studies have shown that our brain functions only as a short-term decision machine. We prioritise short-term gains and overemphasise any losses because we are equipped with loss aversion and a “cognitive bias to instant gratification”, according to Tima Bansal. As Guardian journalist Leo Barasi points out, this self-sabotaging mindset is supplemented by our built-in optimism bias, meaning we tend to irrationally believe everything will turn out fine. We then reaffirm this misguided belief through confirmation bias, where we only seek information that will confirm our already-established viewpoints. So, when confronted with an issue such as climate change, our brain malfunctions and effectively ignores the problem.

Social media feeds into our confirmation bias as it provides an increasingly polarised newsfeed. We no longer digest a spectrum of political views, but instead only follow the media that we agree with. Social media also enables slacktivism, which is supporting a cause through ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’, renowned for the little effort and commitment required. Slacktivism can allow someone to feel like they have contributed to the solution without actually doing anything. Don’t get me wrong, social media can be a powerful tool when promoting a movement. However, this online form of activism only really gains traction when there is a single, united goal as seen in the Black Lives Matter campaign or the Arab Spring. This does not easily apply to climate change because there is a divergence of problems, from carbon dioxide emissions to plastic waste to overfishing.

Despite these outlined factors working against us, it is obvious that time is running out. We somehow need to pull ourselves out of inertia and face reality. So now we need to answer the question of how to solve our apathy, a much more difficult problem.

Abi Smuts 




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