Biocultural Phenomenon: Environmental Awareness and Apathy

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Biocultural Phenomenon: Environmental Awareness and Apathy

In the U.S., polls are fairly consistent in their representation of environmental awareness being rather high, particularly in comparison to many other countries around the world; nevertheless, this awareness rarely translates into action aimed at fixing the environmental crises related to climate change. Earl J. Ritchie, an Energy Fellow at the University of Houston and lecturer in the department of construction management, notes that carpooling has declined and that there is little to no evidence of per capita growth from the use of mass transit even in lieu of significant investment in transit improvements like light rail.

“The use of environmentally friendly technologies such as solar and wind power has grown modestly, except where subsidized or mandated,” according to Ritchie. “In part, this is because they have been more expensive than their fossil fuel using counterparts. However, even as those costs approach parity, growth rates drop significantly when subsidies are removed.”

At one time, there was a pervasive belief in a rather simplistic model of the causal relationships between environmental knowledge, awareness and attitude. To an extent, this belief is still present, albeit less affective than one initially anticipated when earlier green campaigns began. The linear logic suggested that the knowledge of the state of the environment would beget a more positive attitude toward nature, and this much appears verifiably true; however, the logical model went further to assert that pro-environmental action would result from this en masse, which has yet to prove true even now.



“This has not happened consistently, either in the U.S. or Europe,” Ritchie says, alluding to countries wherein the aforementioned green campaigns were their strongest and most affective on their respective, target audiences. There was a European study, in fact, that José Manuel Ortega-Egea and two other researchers published on the very subject of which Ritchie speaks back in 2014, saying, “Over the past two decades, increased media coverage—coupled with economic incentives, subsidies, and related interventions—has substantially raised citizens’ awareness and concern about climate change, but has typically failed to induce persistent behavioral changes.”


Ritchie alludes to their work in his explanation of the root cause for this biocultural phenomenon of how human beings nationwide react to global plight of the biosphere and how it manifests counterproductively. He focuses on the fact that many have goals and ambitions that conflict with that of protecting the environment. People choose what they will do on the basis of these conflicting goals, prioritizing them such that several outrank environmental protection; moreover, a myriad of subconscious influences affect the way they prioritize, according to Ritchie.

“A large number of theories have been proposed to explain what motivates environmental behavior,” Ritchie writes in an article on the subject for Forbes. “An entire journal, the Journal of Environmental Psychology, is devoted to the topic. A model described by Steg and Vlek includes five categories,” which he proceeds to list:

Routine or habit


Estimated costs and advantages (including those nonmonetary)

Ethical and normative concerns (what people believe is right)

Contextual factors (chiefly the means ready-at-hand)

Ritchie doesn’t limit the motives for contemporary, environmental behavior to just these five categories, however. He supplements them with interstitial factors fixed between them like political orientation, education, age, and gender among others.

“Making or saving money is a powerful motivator. It is the primary reason for the rapid growth of subsidized solar energy. However, there are differences in perception and in importance of cost, as well as nonmonetary costs, such as comfort, time and convenience,” says Ritchie. He also provides a graph excerpted from a 1998 study published by Diekmann and Preisendörfer that illustrates the purported trade-off between environmental attitude and cost. One axis depicts the rising pro-environmental sentiment whereas the other represents the increasing behavioral cost.

“Things that make you feel good but require little cost, discomfort, convenience and effort, such as recycling, are likely to be done; those that have a significant number of these negatives, such as riding mass transit instead of driving, are not.” Such observations indicate the degree to which most people do or do not care about the environmental implications of their actions and the actions of those around them, and they also indicate how communal or collective people generally feel the human experience is, especially in relation to the shared experience of inhabiting a dying planet.

The crux of the matter in many cases is that many people derive all manner of pleasure from behaviors that impinge upon biospheric fortitude, and the inconvenience of protecting the environment in addition to other quotidian obligations is off-putting (e.g. stomaching the inconvenient routes of mass transit daily); furthermore, there are lots of actions that are harmful to the environment but that people never even consider changing simply because those actions are habitual, which means change never occurs to them in those contexts.“Individuals have multiple moral codes governing different situations and aspects of behavior. They may belong to multiple groups (friends, neighborhood, political party, nation) that do not have the same values. They vary in the extent to which they are influenced by group norms. They vary in the importance they place on environmentally friendly behavior. This creates not only conflict between norms, but the opportunity to rationalize away environmental actions,” Ritchie writes.


Ritchie does not, however, make any references (other than the concession of political parties providing a behavioral influence) to the pervasive, anti-scientific sentiment sweeping through conservative bases in multiple, Western nations. Many discount global warming as a “hoax” to use the term that U.S. President Donald Trump has attributed to it. Trump publicly wondered in January of 2014 how the U.S. could spend money combating a “global warming hoax,” and in October of the same year when summer yielded markedly to fall and temperatures dropped as per usual, he remarked on Twitter facetiously that he could benefit from “a big fat dose of global warming.”

During his 2016 election campaign, then-presidential candidate Trump told The Washington Post that he was “not a great believer in man-made climate change.” Many of Trump’s supporters empathize with such statements and agree with him that global warming is not a legitimate threat but, rather, a liberal agenda advanced by so-called fake news. These kinds of campaigns and counterproductive rhetoric impinge upon the environmental attitude as significantly as any of the factors Ritchie lists.



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