Our connection to the Earth, each other, and future generations is central in understanding many of the problems we and the earth are facing.
Facing Our Future: from denial to environmental action, Jim Cole
Facing Our Future Together: a Trainer's Guide, David McMurray
One Illness, Many Symptoms:
Prejudices and Environmental Denial
Might our difficulty with accepting diversity and our failure to respond to threatening environmental crises be related? The problem seems to be rooted in our definition of who we are in this universe. Are we a generation of people with a common language, here only for ourselves, to compete with each other and all other people and life forms for domination of this space and time? Or are we organisms that are deeply rooted in this ever-growing web of life that has been unfolding from the beginning of time? Do we dominate and exploit all those we find an advantage over, or do we accept and cherish all life forms, knowing that we are inseparable parts of this web of life?
It seems to me that to understand our situation we need to spend more time looking at who we are and how we have come to be here. We are each the product of only a few thousand years of cultural development. On North America, most of us have had only a couple hundred years of cultural history. Yet we seem to see ourselves as unrelated to those who brought us to be and gave us all that we have historically, physically and genetically. As I sit here at my computer writing, I am aware that the alphabet I am using was first developed by people in the eastern Mediterranean and that writing on paper was developed first in Northern Africa. In fact, everything that I use was developed by people, and most of the people are unknown to me and spoke languages which are also unknown to me. For their efforts and thoughtfulness, we are deeply indebted. The question now becomes, what will we do with the knowledge and resulting power that all those generations of humans left to us, and what will we leave for those who will follow us?
One could take a different direction and not look at the inventions and ideas of other people in other times, but simply look at the things we use or own and realize that we are the most interdependent species the world has ever known. People in almost every part of the world contribute to the quality of my daily life with labor and products. How can I sit here, in North America, drinking my coffee from the tropics, wearing clothes from around the world, and deny our interdependence? We humans are deeply related and mutually supportive. Even with dozens of wars going on today we are working in highly interdependent ways. Many of these interdependent human processes receive little notice until something critical happens, like a nation deciding to withhold the oil under the land they live on. For the most part, we are highly interdependent and our interdependence does not get much attention.
It seems that as our cultures have changed and evolved, those very changes have obscured our interdependence. Just as the changes have increased our reliance upon each other, these same changes have encouraged many of us to emotionally retreat to a more simple time. Perhaps the very speed with which life is changing creates anxiety that we reduce by limiting our acceptance and recognition of others.
For a moment, let us examine the speed of change that we are all experiencing. My generation is the first generation to see the world population double. The amount of information that was accumulated between biblical days and the Renaissance (about 1500 years), is now being accumulated every five and a half to six years. It is impossible to keep up with the changes, and yet we need to have some sense of security and direction in this rapidly changing world. Humans now possess the power to destroy life as we know it on the earth, and have been threatening to do this to each other for nearly fifty years.
Could it be that with so much happening, we simply deny much of what is not familiar and not comfortable? We know that people on a busy city street are less likely to respond to a person in distress than are people on a quiet street in a small community. Could it be that many of us are overloaded and thus turning off our concern for other humans and the environment? Have we lost touch with our connections and our shared roots with other people and life forms on the earth?
It seems important now that we ask ourselves who we are and to whom we are related. "Who is like me?" and "Who is different than I am?" are major questions in knowing ourselves. Are those who are different from us a threat if they are too close in proximity or similarity? Are they less of a threat if they are more different and more distant? The questions become, "With whom do we identify? With whom do we feel threatened?"
Some of us say that we will accept almost anyone as long as they are clean, yet the standards of cleanliness that we set today were unheard of by those relatively poor, relatively filthy guys who founded this nation. Some of us will accept almost anyone who is an American, yet most people have never had the choice to become Americans and most of us who are Americans did not become Americans by choice.
A few blocks from my home there lives a group of individuals who speak a different language from mine. They are similar in many ways to myself, and most of their genetic makeup (98 to 99%) is like mine, but they look different than I do. Some of the people in my culture have the ability to use the language this small group speaks, and they talk with these individuals every day. It seems that the more they talk with these individuals the more they realize our similarities. These individuals are the chimpanzees who live on the campus of Central Washington University, and they all speak American Sign Language.
These chimpanzees are never, to my knowledge, seen as a threat to our community by anyone. This could be because they are locked up, and it could be because they look so different from us. It is interesting to know that while they may seem like no threat to us and they seem to accept people pretty well, their differences may be what protects our identity and allows us to be more accepting of them. This lack of similarity in appearance is a very interesting issue. One of the elder chimpanzees of this group once visited a group of chimpanzees in another state, and when she saw them she remarked to the person with her in American Sign Language, "They are black bugs." It seems that there are three subspecies or "races" of chimpanzees and the other "races" were not acceptable to her. It sounds familiar, doesnt it?
To provide another perspective, it seems helpful to examine those who have been judged as being more emotionally stable and more effective in dealing with life than most of us. Four prestigious psychologists independently studied the most healthy personalities and developed descriptions of these highly functioning people. What these psychologists discovered that has importance here is that those who function most effectively within their own lives identify themselves as being connected to and identified with a wide proportion of humanity. They do not identify themselves as separate from others but as connected to others. They see themselves as being with others, not in opposition to others. Perhaps as we learn more about our ecological system, we will also learn that the healthiest people among us also identify with the other life forms that support us all.
It seems that as life has been changing more and more rapidly, we have lost sight of all those who have made our lives so extremely comfortable. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, we seem to have lost sight of those who have provided for us in many ways and those who will follow us. It seems that we draw dividing lines within this family of humans and other life forms and say that we identify with only a portion of life. The lines that we draw to separate ourselves and protect ourselves from other people actually reduce who we are within humanity.
We can go on debating what is happening to the environment and our society for a long time, but one serious loss has occurred already. It is the loss of hope for the future by many young people. On October 22, 1992, the local newspaper carried an article entitled "Students View of Future Gloomy, Indeed." The article by C. R. Roberts of the McClatchy News Service was an informal report of students responses to questions over a ten-year period. Roberts wrote, ". . . I gauge the students of 1992 to be the most pessimistic of any group Ive sampled."
When asked to complete the sentence "America 20 years from now, in the year 2012 will be . . ." the students responded with the following:
Destroyed; Overpopulated; Run by computers; No trees; Bad water from pollution; Lots of drugs; Destroyed; Destroyed; Disease and gangs will take over and there wont be an America; Overthrown by giant lizards from Tahiti; Ruined; Messed-up; In a deep depression caused by the 1980s; America in the year 2012 will be non-existent; It will have divided into oligarchical states; Dirty; An anarchy; Overpopulated; A land of used-to-bes and have-beens; A mess; A hell hole; Hell on earth.
C. R. Roberts did not believe the results, so he took more samples in a different city when the weather was better, and got the same sort of responses.
America will be gone; Overpopulated; Overthrown by a country with equal power; Very little food; Destroyed; Obliterated; In ruins; Run by corrupt and stupid politicians; Taken over by the rich and powerful foreigners; An economic cesspool.
Mr. Roberts concluded, "If theres any truth to what Ive been reading from these kids, were in a lot more trouble than I thought. . . . Its been a long time since I so deeply hoped I was wrong."
The local high school environmental club recently did a survey of student opinions and discovered that the overwhelming majority of students believe that the long term prospects for the economy are very bad, that the environment is being degraded, that the adults are not responding strongly enough, and that peoples respect for law and order is on a long decline. These are powerful and depressing opinions and it seems important to see how these commonly held views among young people fit into their actions and the world around them.
As a psychologist I facilitate a group for people who have lost loved ones, usually family members, to suicide. The adjustment to this traumatic event is a challenge to even the most well-adjusted individuals. A fundamental change has happened in the composition of this group and many similar groups across the nation. The majority of the members of this group are no longer people who have lost a parent or a spouse who was elderly and ill. The majority of these people have lost an adolescent child or grandchild to suicide. It has often been said that we are not supposed to bury our children, but it is happening at an increased rate all over this nation, and it is but one symptom of this major problem. Adolescent suicides have gone up 300% and violence among the youth has been climbing for a number of years.
Young people reflect who we are so honestly and also seem to reflect what the future will be, so understanding the world as they see it seems critical. In a Louis Harris poll, students were asked if they had "seen or heard racial incidents with overtones of violence" and 21% responded, "Very often," and 36% responded, "Once in a while." In a WICHE poll, students were asked what they might do if they were to discover a racial incident in progress. The survey found that 30% would participate in the racial incident and 17% would silently support the actions.
Looking at youth specifically, we find that young people are not able to deny problems as effectively as adults. With their more concrete logic and their feelings of vulnerability, many of todays youth are self-medicating with avoidance in many forms. Whether it is the overuse of video games, the use of drugs, fantasy games, or the over-involvement in sports, many youth are submersing themselves in distractions to avoid issues that are of real concern. They are avoiding these issues because of feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and frustration. The avoidance of these worrisome issues is not likely the specific cause of any adolescent suicide. However, these issues are an integral part of the background and the context where each of these life-ending decisions has been made
It seems that those with the most fundamental perspective are often the least heard. When the Titanic began to sink, the first people to feel the effects of the impending emergency were those in the third-class section of the ship. Even as the water began to rise, these people were not allowed onto the upper decks. The situation on the Titanic is not unlike what we are facing globally today. Those with the least power have the greatest information, the most immediate risk, and the fewest resources for relief.
We seem to have reached a very interesting time in the history of our species. Many of us identify who we are by what we own. We identify with things that are not alive, instead of identifying with each other or the living systems that sustain us. This is a very significant turn of events when we consider that all the major world religions warn against a drive for wealth. If we look at this issue of wealth more closely and how it impacts us, we find that as wealth increases, a concern for other people decreases. As it happens, the poor are more often people of color and so this process supports the racism that most of us have learned as children. Wealthy people tend to give proportionately less money to those in need, and wealthy people tend to be less concerned with the pending environmental problems.
Louis Harris and Associates did a survey of attitudes toward environmental issues on four continents and in 16 nations. They found that as wealth increased, people were less concerned with the issues of the environment. So, like the Titanic, those with the most critical information are the least heard.
This issue of disproportionate environmental impact was identified in this nation in 1987 by the report entitled "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States," and the problem has simply grown in the years since that report was published. In 1980, the concentration of people of color living in ZIP codes with commercial hazardous waste facilities was 25 %; by 1993, the percentage of those living in a ZIP code with a hazardous waste facility had risen to almost 31%. People of color are 47% more likely to live near a commercial hazardous waste facility than are white people.
If we look elsewhere for the effects of prejudice on health we find more factors than one can list. The intensive advertising of alcoholic beverages in communities of color has been well publicized. The exposure to lead and levels of lead in the blood are nearly twice as high for children of color than for white children across all income levels.
When we look at the high rate of hypertension among blacks in the United States we find some interesting facts. They are unlike the blacks in Africa, who have a very low rate of hypertension. This leads one to the same conclusion that James Sheeve reaches when he suggests, "The difference in life expectancy is more likely the function of racism than race."
Our youth and the poor people of this world are concerned and far more involved in these issues than are those with wealth and more age. At the same time, the leaders of our nations seem to be the least concerned. This was reported both by the Harris study in 16 nations and by a local survey of high school students, where a full 95% of the students think that our nations leaders are motivated by profit, not by doing the right thing for those they govern. This is especially disturbing because these are young people who live in a small, mostly middle-class, rural agricultural community in the Northwest. These are not children of an inner city with major crime problems or significant industrial pollution.
We have reached a time when the youth and the poor of the world are the most concerned and also feel the least empowered. This state of events leads many to act out of feelings of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness. What the youth and the poor do out of feelings of frustration and powerlessness seems to confirm the prejudices of the wealthy and the more mature. Thus, we become more divided.
With this great division of opinion about what is happening to our societies and our home planet it might be helpful to hear some expert opinions. On November 18, 1992, the world leaders and the media were presented with an unprecedented warning. Over 1,500 of the worlds leading scientists, including the majority of the living Nobel laureates and prominent scientists from 71 countries, issued the "World Scientists Warning to Humanity." They warned among other things that . . .
". . . Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about."
This warning by the majority of those with Nobel prizes in science was largely denied by both the public and the media. Time Magazine, along with Newsweek and many other news sources, totally ignored this warning. Newsweek even published a cover story three days later as a distracter. The story entitled "Doomsday Science" discussed the possibility of a comet hitting the earth. It then gave attention to one unnamed astronomer who calculated that we have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being hit by the comet Swift Tuttle in the year 2126. It is an amazing news process that ignores the direct warning of 104 Nobel laureates and instead publishes a cover story on an unnamed astronomer who calculates that we have a small risk of being hit in 134 years by a comet. (The story appeared to be much less urgent in more scientific publications.)
In the "World Scientists Warning to Humanity" the scientists agreed upon five major things that we, the people of the world, need to do in order to avoid "vast human misery."
1) We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earths systems we depend on.
2) We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.
3) We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.
4) We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.
5) We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.
As I understand it, number three, four and five are all highly related to reducing prejudice in the world and these comprise the majority of those things which "we must do. . ." according to the leading scientists in the world. These issues also seem to be the same issues which concern the poor and the youth of this world.
During the same time that the "World Scientists Warning to Humanity" was being published the American Medical Association was publishing an international study on depression. The study showed that major depression is increasing globally. While the frequency of depression varies between different sites, all locations in this international study showed dramatic increases in the diagnosis of major depression.
To deny other people seems to change who we are and we become less humane. It seems that the more we convinced other nations that we could bomb them into the stone age, the more we convinced ourselves that we are disconnected from others and we became less humane. The more we seem to devalue other people, the more we lose respect for ourselves. It seems that we continue to discover lines which will let us divide humanity and with each division we suffer a loss. Sometimes we act as if color defines us, and we are each so much more than skin pigmentation. Sometimes we act as if wealth defines us and we forget that each of us has what we have because others have provided for us. Sometimes we define ourselves as educated, and we lose sight of how many other people have supported us, and taught us, and of how very little each of us has discovered on our own that is new or original. Sometimes we define ourselves by the sex of those we find sexually attractive, yet sex is actually something that most of us spend relatively little time doing. Sometimes we define ourselves by our cultures, and we forget that we did not create nor even select our own culture.
If we are truly committed to fairness, then we will never be able to fairly judge our own culture in relationship to another culture because we will never have equal experience with another culture. It would seem that equal experiences would be required within each culture if we were going to fairly judge another culture. It would also be important that we not learn one culture at an earlier time in life than the other, if we were to judge them fairly.
The interconnection of environmental issues and the issues of prejudice seems to be overwhelming. The evidence seems to be showing that these issues are really one issue, and that issue is one of defining ourselves. We seem to know that we each came from a common beginning in Northern Africa, and yet we overlook that beginning, even as that common beginning is supported by science and many religions.
When we cut ourselves off from others and define ourselves by our differences, we lose some valuable perspective. When we see ourselves as being apart from other living things, we discover that they are part of what supports us and keeps this life system functioning. We cannot define who we are without being part of a system. We could no more do this than we could define a tree and forget to include the trees roots and the soil that holds the tree and provides the nutrition for the tree. We cannot truly define who we are without the roots that support us. Yes, we can move about and survive without being constantly and directly nurtured by other life forms, but if we leave this web of life and go into space, we must take with us what other life forms have produced to nurture us. Our survival outside this web of life is similar to how human tissue can survive outside our bodies; we are no more dependent upon the life forms around us than human tissue is dependent upon the total body.
It seems easy for us to lose the knowledge of who we really are in this system. Yet, the definition of who we are defines what we each do and how we see those around us. This definition of how we see ourselves will determine what will happen to humanity and this earth that supports our life.
Berry, Thomas, The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club, 1988
Cole, Jim, Facing Our Future: From Denial to Environmental Action, Growing Images, 1992
Combs, Arthur W., Editor, Perceiving, Behaving, Becoming, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Combs, Arthur W., and Snygg, Donald, Individual Behavior, Harper & Row, 1959
Cross-National Collaborative Group, "The Changing Rate of Major Depression: Cross-National Comparisons," Journal of American Medical Association, JAMA, December 2, 1992, Vol 268, No. 21, Pages 3098 to 3105
Greenwald, David S. & Zeitlin, Steven J., No Reason to Talk About It: Families Confront the Nuclear Taboo, Norton, 1987
Keen, Sam, Faces of The Enemy: Reflections of The Hostile Imagination, Harper & Row
Macy, Joanna, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, New Society, 1983
Maslow, Abraham H., Toward A Psychology of Being, Van Nostrand, Rev. ed. 1968
McMurray, David, Facing Our Future Together: A Trainers Guide, Growing Images, 1993
Doctor, R. M., Doctor, C. B., Dorsey, D., Torchis, M. and Jenkins, C., "Freeing College Students From Hoplessness: Preliminary Results," The Peace Psychology Bulletin, October 1992, page 23-25
Roberts, C. R. "Students View of Future Gloomy, Indeed." The Daily Record and McClatchy News Service, October 22, 1992
Rogers, Carl R., On Becoming a Person, Hughton Mifflin, 1961
Shreeve, James, "Terms of Estrangement," Discover: The World of Science, November, 1994, Vol. 15, No. 11, 57-63
United State Environmental Protection Agency, "Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk For All Communities," Vol.2 Supporting Document, Policy, Planning, and Evaluation (PM-221) EPA230-R-92-008A, June 1992
Walsh, Roger, Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival, New Science Library, 1984
World Scientist Warning To Humanity, available from the Union of Concerned Scientists, 1616 P Street NW Suite 310, Washington DC 20036, (202) 332-0900 This document is not copyrighted. One copy of this document is included with these training materials. Additional copies may be ordered from the Union of Concerned Scientists for approximately six cents each when ordered in quantities.
Public and Leadership Attitudes to The Environment in Four Continents: A Report of a Survey in 16 Countries, Conducted for: The United Nations Environment Programme, Developed by and Available from Louis Harris and Associates, Inc., 630 Fifth Ave. New York, N.Y. 10111, (212) 698-9600
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