In American author Fritz Leiber’s 1941 short story ‘Smoke Ghost’, the protagonist, the hapless advertising executive Catesby Wran, lists a number of ‘general facts’ which ‘had troubled him and from which he had tried to hide’. These ‘general facts’ where the ‘inevitability of hate and war, the diabolically timed machines that wrecked the best of human intentions, the walls of wilful misunderstanding that divided one man (sic) from another, the eternal vitality of cruelty and ignorance and greed’.
If you were to burden a modern-day Catesby Wran, you’d surely have to add climate change to this list of ‘general facts’ to hide from. Let’s face it, climate change is the wicked problem to end all wicked problems. And, according to the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change, we have only 11 years left to avert climate change catastrophe.
But you know all this already. Every time you’ve opened a newspaper, turned on the TV or radio, this wicked problem has been there in one form or another. You’ve watched this slow motion disaster unfold for years. But what have you done about it?
If we are to avert the worst impacts of climate change, how we respond to what we are seeing, and in some cases, directly experiencing, is the crucial issue.
Research from the early 1990s argued that people’s attitudes towards environmental concerns are determined by the value they place on themselves, other people and plants and animals.
More recent research from the University of Gävle in Sweden and the universities of Arizona and Texas builds on this analysis and shows that how we respond is generally determined by how self-centred we are. Survey research undertaken in both Sweden and the USA illustrates that those who are egoistic — largely concerned with themselves and their own needs — are significantly less likely to be concerned about climate change or take positive steps towards addressing it. These individuals are found to be less willing to pay higher taxes or sacrifice their standard of living to fight climate change.
Conversely, altruistic individuals, those who are concerned for others and future generations, are found to be more willing to make sacrifices, and see climate change as a moral issue.
Going one step further, the research from Arizona and Texas shows that altruistic Americans are more likely to suffer from ‘eco-anxiety’ (the stress and grief some people experience when thinking about climate change) than more egoistic Americans. However, this higher incidence of ‘eco-anxiety’ is shown to positively relate to taking action to fight against climate change. This is good news because psychologists have shown how taking actions against climate change, no-matter how insignificant they may seem, leads to a range of positive emotions that tend to encourage people to do more, to take larger steps.
While this research has its limitations, sample sizes in both Sweden and America were relatively small, and there are surely many shades of grey between egoistic and altruistic people, it nonetheless compels us to ask some very important questions. How do we position our needs relative to those of other people, whomever and wherever they are in the world? How do we position our needs relative to the environment more generally? How do we understand risks and vulnerabilities? How do we process questions of responsibility? Etc.
These, and similar questions, get to the heart of ongoing debates about Adam Smith’s “economic man” (homo economicus) hypothesis. Are we merely narrowly self-interested individuals, or are we part of something much larger, a society based on solidarity and care (homo reciprocans)?
How we answer these questions could well decide the very fate of us all. It’s probably worth giving it some thought …
Sabrina V. Helma, Amanda Pollitt, Melissa A. Barnetta, Melissa A. Currana, Zelieann R. Craiga, ‘Differentiating environmental concern in the context of psychological adaption to climate change’, Global Environmental Change, 48, 2018.
I. Knez, ‘Is Climate Change a Moral Issue? Effects of Egoism and Altruism on Pro-Environmental Behavior’, Current Urban Studies, 4, 2016.