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Earth Island News

Ecological Avoidance Syndrome

Sustainable World Coalition

Ecological Avoidance Syndrome (EAS)

We have the blessing and the curse to be living in a time in which scientists have repeatedly reported on the imminent destruction--and in many cases, collapse--of major parts of virtually all of the earth's principal ecosystems. The rate of destruction, overall, is accelerating rapidly. In spite of this abundant and verifiable evidence, political leaders continue to be elected, both in this country and abroad, who clearly do not place a high priority on protection of the environment. While it is politically correct to mention the importance of environmental conservation, the voting records of politicians make their priorities clear to see. And so we drift rapidly toward further impending disasters of catastrophic dimensions. As the saying goes, "If you're not outraged, then you're not paying attention."

How on earth did we get into this mess? And how do we get out of it? An examination of the psychology involved may prove crucial to ensuring that the Earth is restored to being a healthy place for humans and other species.

One does not need to look far to make the observation that people will usually opt for what is most comfortable and least expensive in the short term, even when their future may be made very uncomfortable and expensive by those choices. We see this principle at work in the destruction of the rainforests (the mind-numbing statistic of an acre destroyed every second is still true) and in the leveling of the small remaining percentage of old-growth forests around the world. This type of destruction continues despite the fact that we know we are destroying "the lungs of the planet."

To personalize this situation, it is similar to our proclivity for a deep and dramatic transformation if we're told that we have two years to live. Suddenly we become much more aware of the importance of our relationships with family and friends; of appreciating the natural beauty in each moment; of making our lives meaningful. Trivial preoccupations that may have filled our lives fall away quickly, and we deepen as people, bringing out levels of feeling and expression that are very fulfilling, even with the challenges of deteriorating health. Yet we all know that we are going to die eventually, and no matter when it happens, in truth it is not all that far away. But somehow the illusion of immortality lingers, and we figure we can fritter away another 20 or 30 years before we might need to finally start thinking about what we really want to do with our lives, before we actualize becoming the person that we really want to be.

This illusion of immortality also shows up on the collective level. There is a sense of the inexorable march of civilization, the continuing unbroken evolution of life, which tends to be thought of as the evolution and superiority of the human species as opposed to that of all species. This evolution seems to bring a stream of wondrous technological breakthroughs and "improvements" to life, and a sense that life is somehow "self-sustaining." Yet the truth is that history is littered with the ghosts of many cultures, civilizations, and indeed, whole empires that extinguished themselves entirely through lack of foresight and through unsustainable lifestyles and policies. In most cases, they did not have the benefit of an advance warning about failed civilizations in history books, or proven principles of working with nature and sustainable living. We, in contrast, have had this knowledge passed on to us.

We are truly on the threshold of a "tipping point" for life as we know it on the planet. For the first time in history, we have reached the limit of virtually every important natural resource. As a result, many types of ecosystems are in dramatic decline. Many regional ecosystems, such as rivers, coral reefs, forests, wetlands, and topsoil are already irreversibly damaged. This regional system collapse is leading to the collapse of larger systems that require diversity and size. Thus, smaller isolated national parks cannot support species such as bears and lions that require a large roaming area. Habitat destruction is the primary cause of species extinction.

Indeed, a consensus of leading biologists in 1998 recognizes that we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction in the planet's history. It is caused entirely by the actions of one species (you guessed it, us), and it is happening faster than ever before. At the current rate of extinction, nearly 25 percent of mammal species will be gone in the next 30 years.

So what's the cause of all this? Are we all just short-sighted, selfish monsters, focused only on our immediate needs as we ride into oblivion? At least if some of us are frantically searching for sanity--and increasingly, many of us are--then there is hope. And that hope may well come down to a series of human-induced catastrophes that finally get the full attention of a critical mass of people.

We must start with a sober assessment of how it is that we continue to be caught in this web of myopia. Once we have diagnosed the illness, we can apply the requisite medicine and begin the healing journey.

The six stages of ecological avoidance

Ignorance: This is certainly the most innocent of the batch. The condition of the environment does not make the news much, although in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, you find eco-information and events everywhere you go. However, upon learning that one is in fact ignorant about the true state of the world and what is at stake, then one is faced with a choice: Find out more or dive into the next stage.

Denial: To be found everywhere we look: in the corporations that place profit over people, communities, and nature; in the politicians who make decisions that will help the financial picture for their short tenure, but harm the environment for all who come after; and in the logging and fishing companies that use unsustainable practices.

As long as certain assumptions go unchallenged, denial can maintain itself (the Titanic can't really be sinking, it must just be making a banked turn). It is the illusion that if it is not in my backyard yet, then it is not really a problem--at least not for me.

Distraction: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." Guess what: the going is getting tough, and will get tougher, and sure enough, merchants continue to make a killing. In the days following 9/11, signs appeared on shop windows proclaiming: "America: Open For Business!" as if this were the most important thing that we could now focus on.

When something is upsetting, a common strategy is to stay too busy to feel it. The busy-ness may take the form of our work, our food, our shopping, or any other addiction, and as such will make us unhealthy and leave us unfulfilled.

Fear: This is the stage at the root of all the others, and rightfully so. It is appropriate to be scared, given the likelihood that we will "end up where we are headed." Facing our fear bravely is challenging but healthy, and frees us to take appropriate action. However, if we remain in the grip of fear, then we tend to shut down and turn away from the problem.

Cynicism: "What passes for cynicism is a lack of courage," says Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization. Given the grim statistics and trends, not to mention the policies of the current administration, it is tempting to assume that humans ultimately do not have what it takes to turn the world predicament around, or perhaps they just don't care enough to do so. This leads to:

Resignation and apathy: Many are caught in the notion that "I'm just one person against massive forces--whatever I do on my own won't make a dent in things, so I'm not going to bother." Others have a kind of fatalistic view of life as a destiny one cannot change but must simply give in to (whether it be considered positive or negative). Those who believe in the Apocalypse are in this category. Obviously, this is inimical to being motivated to take needed action to restore the planet.

What drives all of these reactions and keeps them in place? Certainly the media play a key role. In the US, newspapers and TV news coverage tend to focus on fast-paced sensational events, not slower but more important processes of change. Thus, we hear about hurricanes and floods, but not much about topsoil depletion, the large dead zones opening up in the oceans, the hole in the ozone, the death of the coral reefs, etc. Hurricanes and floods come and go, as they always have, but these new massive changes that we have set in motion are monstrous and will continue to grow and wreak devastation unless we unite and act to stop them.

The prescription

To change our current situation, we must understand these syndromes of inaction. If we can identify our personal avoidance strategies, then we can take steps to counter them.

There are many excellent resources on the nature of the problems and what needs to be done about them. These informative resources include Web sites, books, documentary videos, educational events, and visits to areas where you can directly experience environmental degradation (although it may indeed already be evident in your neighborhood) and witness those who live without even the basics for a decent, healthy life. The good news is that there is a lot of agreement on viable solutions and the means to actualize them, though we still clearly lack the collective political will to implement these solutions.

It is also crucial to become aware of the many proposed alternative models to existing conditions. A better world is indeed possible, and an increasing number of organizations are coming up with workable designs and blueprints for a sustainable future.

Examples of these organizations include:

  • The Earth Charter Initiative--The Earth Charter (www.earthcharter.org) is a remarkable global doctrine for sustainability.
  • Business Alliance for Local Living Economies--strategies for attaining healthy, sustainable economies for local communities (www.livingeconomies.org)
  • The International Forum on Globalization (IFG)--Members have written a landmark book that defines workable economic models, Alternatives to Economic Globalization (www.ifg.org).

    By making a personal commitment, we can all be part of turning the tide. Whether it is teaching our children to take care of the things we use, being conscientious about which companies we support through our purchases, being passionate in our conversations, writing letters to our Congress members, or adopting a simpler, low-impact lifestyle, we can all do our part. There are a number of important campaigns being coordinated by non-profit public interest organizations that we can support with our time and money.

    Examples of these organizations include:
  • Global Exchange--Fair Trade products, campaign for oil independence (www.globalexchange.org)
  • Rainforest Action Network (RAN)--protection of the Rainforests, campaign to require that paper companies don't buy old-growth forest timber (www.ran.org)
  • Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME)--media reform, fair and balanced news reporting (www.acmecoalition.org).

    We are the only species systematically destroying our own habitat and countless others with it. We are sick. We have the diagnosis. Let's start taking the medicine.

    -- Vinit Allen is the executive director of the Sustainable World Coalition.
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