By Hulsey, Timothy L.
Phi Kappa Phi Forum , Vol. 91, No. 2
Despite record global temperatures, rapidly retreating Arctic ice, and climate-related disasters, we continue to live beyond our ecological means. The "natural debt crisis," as Time magazine's Bryan Walsh called it in February, is a crisis of consumption. (1) And, since it is humans who are doing the consuming, it is humans who must change their habits.
At the website of Climate Central, a nonprofit climate news and research organization based in Princeton, N.J., climate scientist Alyson Kenward noted in February that "recent human activity, beginning about 250 years ago, is having such a significant environmental impact on the Earth's climate, geography, and biological composition that we have actually entered into a new period of geologic time." (2) The Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen dubbed this new age the "Anthropocene" era. It is defined by "our own massive impact on the planet," explained Elizabeth Kolbert, in a March article in National Geographic. "That mark," Kolbert warned, "will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled." (3)
In his series of Reith Lectures for BBC radio in 2009, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel argued that changing patterns of energy use--the core dilemma in confronting global climate change--cannot succeed solely through governmental interventions like carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes. Rather, "real change will depend on changing people's attitudes toward nature, and rethinking our responsibilities toward the planet we share. This is a moral and spiritual project, not only an economic one." (4)
Of course, living sustainably requires individual beliefs and actions to change. Psychology & Global Climate Change, a 2009 report (5) by the American Psychological Association (APA), underscores the opportunities and challenges of changing personal beliefs about the environmental effects of human behaviors:
Long-term climate [change] is a phenomenon not easily detected by personal experience, yet one that invites personal observation and evaluation. Concern about adverse consequences of climate change (e.g., extreme weather events like droughts or floods) is low on average in places such as the United States, in part because small probability events tend to be underestimated in decisions based on personal experience, unless they have recently occurred, in which case they are vastly overestimated.
The report continues:
Many people are taking action in response to the risks of climate change, but many others are unaware of the problem, unsure of the facts or what to do, do not trust experts or believe their conclusions, think the problem is elsewhere, are fixed in their ways, believe that others should act, or believe that their actions will make no difference or are unimportant compared to those of others. They may be engaged in token actions or actions they believe are helpful but objectively are not.
Environmental concerns, including but not limited to climate change, are usually considered policy issues; the vast scope of the problem pushes it beyond the role of the individual, requiring redress by governments and multinational corporations. …