Do People Really Care about the Environment?
“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”
– Chris Maser, Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest
The idea of caring for our planet may seem like self-evident common sense to the indigenous tribes of the world who live in close connection to the Earth. Likewise, for all other environmentally-aware people worldwide, including green activists and practitioners of permaculture (who are supposed to live by the ethics of care for the people, care for the planet and taking only one’s fair share). To such people, the idea that others may not actually care for the planet may seem quite perplexing! Why would they not care for the natural systems that sustain their lives?
Is this actually the true state of affairs? We may have our own beliefs about how people relate to the natural world around us, but before we jump to any assumptions, we need to objectively determine whether people actually do or don’t care about the natural environment, and their reasons why.
You will know them by their fruits – sustainable behaviour across nations
The expression “Do as I say, not as I do…” captures the pervasiveness of human hypocrisy. Actions speak louder than words, and nothing expresses the truth about people or groups of people more clearly than their actions. The concern for the planet is visibly expressed by a society’s sustainable behaviour or lack of it.
National Geographic has developed an international research approach to measure and monitor consumer progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption with its Greendex reports. A quantitative consumer study of 18,000 consumers was used to produce a scientifically derived sustainable consumption index (and detailed reports) of actual consumer behaviour and material lifestyles across 18 countries .
The 2014 Greendex Sustainable Consumption Ranking Index ranked the 18 countries studied in the following order from most to least sustainable.
– Indians – 1st
– Chinese – 2nd
– South Koreans – 3rd
– Brazilians – 4th
– Argentineans – 5th
– Mexicans – 6th
– Hungarians – 7th
– Russians – 8th
– South Africans – 9th
– Germans – 10th
– Spanish – 11th
– Swedish – 12th
– Australians – 13th
– Britons – 14th
– French – 15th
– Japanese – 16th
– Canadians – 17th
– Americans – 18th
In National Geographic’s Greendex, American consumers ranked last in regard to sustainable behaviour. The study also found that they were are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact they had on the environment, even though they scored very highly as believing that the choices individuals make could make a difference.
Conversely, Chinese and Indian consumers who rated highest in regard to sustainable behaviour felt the guiltiest about their impact on the environment, even though they had the least confidence that individual action could make a difference.
The contrast between perceptions, behaviour and the sense of responsibility to the planet across the lowest and highest rated groups is significant.
The rankings show that the USA has the worst rating in terms of sustainability, closely followed, unsurprisingly, by the other Anglo countries, Canada, Britain, and Australia, with outsiders Japan and France (who by no coincidence are nations that have also adopted US consumerist culture and values) sitting between them as the worst six nations. For anyone capable of objective critical thinking, this should immediately raise the question – what is the common element here? Is this aberrant behaviour a product of consumer capitalism, the values of modern Anglo culture, or both? That’s a philosophical question for another place and another time. Despite the facts, some may still have a few doubts about this ranking. How bad are the world’s most unsustainable nations really?
We’re definitely doing the wrong thing when we’re overconsuming, which is when we use more than our fair share of global resources per capita, and when our consumption is unsustainable. The facts and figures are irrefutable, and frankly, they paint a very shameful picture.
According to Worldwatch Institute figures, North America and Western Europe together makeup only 12% of the world’s population but account for 60% of private consumption spending. By comparison, one-third of the world’s population living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for only 3.2%. 
Americans make up only around 4.5% of the world’s population, but consume about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources – nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil and 27 % of the world’s natural gas. . Some figures put the aggregated US energy consumption at nearly 20% of the world total .
In term of resources, the US uses 30% of the world’s paper, 27% of its aluminum, and 19% of the copper while creating half of the world’s solid waste . Other figures put US consumption at 22% of the world’s fossil fuel, 33% of the world’s paper and plastic, with the production of 24% of the carbon dioxide emissions .
Americans consume twice as much fossil fuel as the average person in Great Britain and two and a half times as much as the Japanese . Part of the problem is the US fondness for motor vehicles and a reluctance to use alternative forms of transport, such as public transport. As of 2003, the US had more private cars than licensed drivers. 
From 1900 to 1989 the U.S. population tripled, while its use of raw materials increased disproportionately by a factor of 17. 
In the US, new houses in 2002 were 38 % larger than they were in 1975, even though the number of people per household on average decreased.  Australians rate much worse than the US, leading the world in floor space per capita. From 1984 to 2003, the average Australian house increased in size by 40%, from 162.2 sq. m to 227.6 sq. m, which is 10% larger than its US equivalent .
China is becoming the world’s leader in consumption of some resource such as coal and copper, but the U.S. remains the leader for per capita consumption of most resources, and consumes far more natural resources and lives much less sustainably than any other large country of the world .
Behaviour reflects attitudes, and the figures may look quite shocking, especially in respect to the USA. No country is being singled out here, it’s how the figures fall. Regrettably, US energy consumption is off the planet, literally.
If the environment is not important to people, what is?
You can never have too much evidence to hammer a point home. If there are any doubts that behaviour reflects attitudes, it’s time to clear up any doubts once and for all with more hard data. Let’s have a look at some research of people’s attitudes in the worst performing nation on National Geographic’s Greendex report, the USA to highlight the correlation between attitudes and behaviour.
Pew Research Center conducted surveys in 2013 to rate how protecting the environment ranks in the public’s priorities, and the result was that 52% of Americans believed that protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress in 2013. That’s and increase from 41% in 2009, but still lower than the 57% figure in 2006 and 2007. Before anyone gets too excited, that’s only how many people thought the environment was worth considering at all. A ‘priority’ here means nothing more than one single priority in a list of many competing priorities, and when we look at where Americans placed the environment on the list of priorities, it’s very telling.
Here’s the complete list of priorities for Americans, along with the percentage who believe each should be “a top priority” :
1. Strengthening nation’s economy – 86%
2. Improving job situation – 79%
3. Reducing budget deficit – 72%
4. Defending against terrorism – 71%
5. Securing Social Security – 70%
6. Improving education – 70%
7. Securing Medicare – 65%
8. Reducing health care costs – 63%
9. Helping poor and needy – 57%
10. Reducing crime – 55%
11. Protecting environment – 52%
12. Dealing with nation’s energy problem – 45%
13. Strengthening the military – 41%
14. Dealing with illegal immigration – 39%
15. Strengthening gun control laws – 37%
16. Dealing with global trade – 31%
17. Improving infrastructure – 30%
18. Dealing with global warming – 28%
Yes, the environment comes in as the 11th highest priority. Strengthening the economy is first (what were you expecting!), with jobs, budget deficits, terrorism, social security, education, Medicare, health costs, helping the poor and needy, and crime all rating above the environment.
The evidence does point to the fact that the countries that overconsume don’t actually care about the environment, and their behaviour clearly reflects that!
Why would people not care about the environment?
Do you really want to know the truth? When reflecting on our own culture, we often take many things for granted, as a given, with the assumption that things can be no other way. This is usually because we have no basis for comparison beyond our narrow cultural perspective. The truth is that when we look beyond our culture, we find there are many ways to live and understand the world.
When we engage in objective cultural critical analysis to identify the root causes of problems, we often find that some people personally identify with certain aspects of the culture being examined, in fact, they invest part of their personal identity in the said culture, and therefore become defensive when confronted with ‘inconvenient truths’. I’d hate to say it, but despite our modern first world pretentions at being logical and rational, and our thinly disguised sense of cultural superiority, we’re nothing of the sort, we’re not prepared to look in areas where the facts conflict with personal beliefs – if you want the evidence for that which cites actual research, see my PRI article Permaculture, Politics and Solutions Thinking.
Enough preamble, let’s dive in! What are the primary reasons why people don’t care for the environment?
There are several reasons why people do not care about the environment, all of which are deeply rooted in our cultural beliefs, values, and worldviews. Yes, that’s right, read that again if you need to – the problem arises from what we believe about our world since all of our actions begin with our thoughts… The old English expression ‘A fish rots from the head down’ is also found in many other cultures, including the Greek, an indication that many diverse cultures worldwide recognise the fact that toxic and depraved thinking leads to problems down the track.
In this article, for the sake of brevity, we can only present an overview of each of the root causes, in order to provide a general understanding. To truly do justice to the topic would need to examine each of the root causes in depth in their own separate articles, and engage in some very cutting critical cultural analysis.
So, without further ado, what are the reasons why people don’t care about the environment?
When you have a culture that promotes selfish individualism and empty materialism, elevating these distasteful attributes to the level of desirable virtues, the outcome is inevitable.
With individual greed, the act of having more and more becomes the preoccupation of the masses. The advertising industry sells the lie that people can fulfill inner psychological needs with external material objects, and that they can buy their way to true happiness (with crap that they don’t really need). The truth is that acquisition of material objects (especially ones that aren’t needed) is an inappropriate psychological coping mechanism to deal with a deep dissatisfaction in life, disempowerment, social alienation and isolation, as well as a sense of lack of meaning or purpose. These common maladies of first world countries are on the rise, as is mental illness.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression is now the leading cause of ill-health and disability worldwide. Rates of depression have risen by more than 18 percent since 2005, with 300 million people estimated to suffer from the condition.  Obviously, the overconsumption we saw documented earlier is not helping to fix people’s problems and the promise that it will is a sinister lie!
On a broader national level, money is put first and foremost before all other things as a driver for collective decision making due to the disproportionate influence of the state-sanctioned secular pseudo-religious cult known as ‘Economics’, to which all things must be sacrificed – people’s happiness, Nature and even the Earth itself. Current research shows that this economic focus creates a psychological shift in perspective that reframes the socially undesirable trait of greed as more acceptable or even desirable one. 
When individuals put all their effort into obsessively acquiring material objects to the point of unsustainable wastefulness, and nations put money and ‘economics’ above living things, something has to give, and it’s the environment and people that bear the burden of unrestrained greed.
Many people are too overburdened by their modern lifestyles to care less about anything other than their everyday wants and needs. With high housing prices, people spend most of their lives and most of their time working, trying to pay off oppressively high levels of debt to ‘maintain their lifestyles’ – which are often based around the theme of over-consumption and leisure.
The way modern industrialised societies operate, people are disconnected and abstracted from Nature and where their food ultimately comes from. People may either think that ‘saving the planet’ is someone else’s problem, or that they’re completely powerless to do anything about it anyway. Let’s be honest here, in a culture that promotes diminished personal responsibility, where people aren’t even responsible for themselves, how can we expect that they’d be responsible for their community or the planet. Being ignorant and self-absorbed doesn’t help either, and with psychological research showing growing levels of narcissism, the advent of ‘Generation Me’ and the selfie-culture, it’s obvious something is amiss!
A common assumption among scientists today is that with more knowledge, people will make the right decisions or at least better decisions, and change their behaviour. Research has shown that with both politically influenced thinking , or thinking in relation to environmental issues , this is definitely a flawed assumption and clearly not the case.
What is technological utopianism? We’ve all overheard people saying “Sometime in the future, science will cure all diseases, solve world hunger, eliminate pollution…” and all other manner of miracles. Technological utopianism is a belief that advances in science and technology (basically an increase in knowledge), will eventually bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfill one or another utopian ideal. In reality, it’s nothing more than a false belief, an irrational narrative that science and technology will solve all of our environmental issues and all of our other problems too, so, for now, we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our planet because someone else will fix the problem at some unspecified point in the future.
The logical flaw of technological utopianism lies in its basic premise that science and technology that is creating the problems will somehow also be able to solve all the problems that it creates. To quote the eminent scientist Albert Einstein on this matter – “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
It should be apparent that the narrative of technological utopianism is not only illogical, but it is also a faith-based secular belief unsupported by evidence. Critics rightfully claim that techno-utopianism wrongly equates social progress with scientific progress, and this irrational ‘belief in science’ is nothing more than the substitute pseudo-religion of scientism.
University of Alberta researcher Imre Szeman, who wrote “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster” made the comment that “Technological utopianism is a very bizarre narrative because there’s no evidence of this fact… What it shows is the extent to which we place a lot of faith in narratives of progress and technology overcoming things, despite all evidence to the contrary.” 
(Misinterpretation of) Religion
People can and do interpret religious teachings of all sorts as they choose in order to support their beliefs. It’s not a ‘religious thing’, it’s a ‘human thing’. We’ve seen with technological utopianism and scientism how allegedly ‘logical’ secular types can turn the discipline of science into a substitute religion and use it to rationalise and justify damaging the environment. Why should it be any different with any other ideology, philosophy or system of religious belief? Humans are versatile, innovative and creative, especially when it comes to denying reality to support their own views!
Now, I’ve read a lot of comparative religion and spirituality over the years, and from my understanding the allegedly religious views used to justify not caring for the environment are neither canonical nor commonly accepted, they’re there in the fringe extremes and atypical exceptions to the norm, though sometimes they’re quite prominent and vocal.
US Republican congressman John Shimkus, speaking before a House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing in March 2009, opposing the limiting of carbon emissions, quoted the Book of Genesis Chapter 8, Verse 22 to insist that we shouldn’t concerned about the planet being destroyed because God promised Noah it wouldn’t happen again after the great flood. He stated “The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.”
The congressman’s reasoning here is that global warming would cause flooding, and that can’t happen again because of a promise the Abrahamic deity gave the Jewish people approximately 2,000 years ago, so he believes that no amount of carbon emissions will destroy the planet. Reasoning within the framework of this system of belief, there’s a glaring hole in this logic – perhaps global warming can destroy the planet in ways other than flooding! According to current research, temperature rises resulting from global warming are forecast to lead to drought, crop failures and mass starvation in the tropics and subtropics. It is estimated that global food shortages will become three times more likely as a result of climate change.
In my opinion, people who believe that they’ve found a loophole in divine law and then knowingly and willingly behaving irresponsibly, acting in ways that can destroy the planet to maximise corporate and industry profits are seriously tempting fate, and pardon the pun, dicing with the Devil…
Just to show that humans can twist things around to suit them any way they like, we also have a competing fringe religious misinterpretation that natural disasters and events such as global warming are a sign of “the end times”, the Apocalypse, and that the action of environmentalists to save the planet would be working against the divine grand plan to ‘reboot’ humanity and life on the planet by delaying it.
Contrary to these opinions, as far as I can understand, the teachings in the books of Christianity or any other religion do not support trashing the planet for money, tempting fate by trying to destroy the planet to test the power of their deity, or speeding up the end of the world as we know it or assisting in the process!
It’s clear who the least sustainable nations of the planet are, and it’s worrying that they feel the least guilt about their actions and their effects on the environment. They simply don’t really care that much about the planet, in their minds they have far more important priorities which they place ahead of environmental concerns.
In our brief examination of the main reasons why people don’t care for the environment, we have seen how depraved worldviews, beliefs, and values have significant and profound consequences for the planet and its people. In terms of solutions, there’s a crucial clue here, the way to change the world is to change how people think about it!
The facts and figures clearly show that the state of affairs in respect to the environment in English-speaking ‘first world’ countries are not good. If there ever was a clear call to action for environmental activists and permaculture practitioners, if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is!
1. National Geographic, Greendex Reports 2014
2. Worldwatch Institute, “The State of Consumption Today” – Global Inequities
3. World Population Balance, “Population and Energy Consumption”
4. Scientific American, “Use It and Lose It: The Outsize Effect of U.S. Consumption on the Environment”
5. Sierra Club, “Sustainable Consumption”
6. “Why are our houses getting bigger?” Emma Sorensen, http://www.realestate.com.au/advice/is-bigger-better/
7. Pew Research Center, Protecting the Environment Ranks in the Middle of Public’s Priorities for 2013, Apr 22, 2013
8. World Health Organisation – News release 30 March 2017 | GENEVA, “Depression: let’s talk” says WHO, as depression tops list of causes of ill health
9. Long Wang, Deepak Malhotra and J. Keith Murnighan, Economics Education and Greed, doi: 10.5465/amle.2009.0185 ACAD MANAG LEARN EDU December 1, 2011 vol. 10 no. 4 643-660
10. Kahan, Dan M. and Peters, Ellen and Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Behavioural Public Policy, Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2319992 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2319992
11. University of Alberta. “People generally do not act on information on the effects of oil on the environment.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 May 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100528150833.htm
12. Szeman et al. System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster. South Atlantic Quarterly, 2007; 106 (4): 805 DOI: 10.1215/00382876-2007-047