Written by George Monbiot for The Guardian
The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become.
That didn’t take long. The public interest in the state of the natural world stimulated by the winter floods receded almost as quickly as the waters did.
A YouGov poll showed that the number of respondents placing the environment among their top three issues of concern rose from 6% in mid-January to 23% in mid-February. By early April – though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just published two massive and horrifying reports – the proportion had fallen back to 11%.
CarbonBrief has plotted the results on this graph:
Sustaining interest in this great but slow-burning crisis is a challenge no one seems to have mastered. Only when the crisis causes or exacerbates an acute disaster – such as the floods – is there a flicker of anxiety, but that quickly dies away.
Why is it so difficult to persuade people to care about our wonderful planet, the world that gave rise to us and upon which we wholly depend?
And why do you encounter a barrage of hostility and denial whenever you attempt it (and not only from the professional liars who are paid by coal and oil and timber companies to sow confusion and channel hatred)?
The first thing to note, in trying to answer this question, is that the rich anglophone countries are anomalous. In this bar chart (from the New York Times) you can see how atypical the attitudes of people in the US and the UK are. Because almost everything we read in this country is published in rich, English-speaking nations, we might get the false impression that the world doesn’t care very much.
This belief is likely to be reinforced by the cherished notion that we lead the world in knowledge, sophistication and compassion. The bar chart puts me in mind of the famous quote perhaps mistakenly attributed to Gandhi. When asked by a journalist during a visit to Britain, “What do you think of western civilization?”, he’s reputed to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”
Our erroneous belief that we are more concerned about manmade climate change than the people of other nations informs the sentiment, often voiced by the press and politicians, that there’s no point in acting if the rest of the world won’t play its part. For example, last year the chancellor, George Osborne, remarked:
I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.
But we’re not “the only people out there in front of the rest of the world.” In fact we’re not in front at all. As this map produced by Oxford University’s Smith School suggests, we are some way behind not only some other rich nations but also a number of countries much poorer than ours.
As for the US, Australia and Canada, they are ranked among the worst of all: comprehensively failing to limit their massive contribution to a global problem. We justify our foot-dragging with a mistaken premise. Our refusal to stop pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is pure selfishness.
Both the map and the bar chart overlap to some degree with the fascinating results of the Greendex survey of consumer attitudes.
For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.
As you can see from the following graph, the people consulted in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries, even though those impacts tend to be smaller. Of the nations surveyed, the people of Germany, the US, Australia and Britain feel the least consumer guilt; the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil the most.
The more we consume, the less we feel. And maybe that doesn’t just apply to guilt.
Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise-pointless hyperconsumption: it smothers feeling. It might also be the effect of the constant bombardment of advertising and marketing. They seek to replace our attachments to people and place with attachments to objects: attachments which the next round of advertising then breaks in the hope of attaching us to a different set of objects.
The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. Even if you somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.
So what we seem to see here is the turning of a vicious circle. The more harm we do, the less concerned about it we become. And the more hyperconsumerism destroys relationships, communities and the physical fabric of the Earth, the more we try to fill the void in our lives by buying more stuff.
All this is accompanied in the rich anglophone nations with the extreme neoliberalism promoted by both press and politicians, and a great concentration of power in the hands of the financial and fossil fuel sectors, which lobby hard, in the public sphere and in private, to prevent change.
So the perennially low level of concern, which flickers upwards momentarily when disaster strikes, then slumps back into the customary stupor, is an almost inevitable result of a society that has become restructured around shopping, fashion, celebrity and an obsession with money.
How we break the circle and wake people out of this dreamworld is the question that all those who love the living planet should address. There will be no easy answers.