Category Archives: Consumption

Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement

Update: As an extra, here is a link to a video in which Dr. Bandura discusses the development and use of serial dramas, originated by Miguel Sabido and used by organizations such as the Population Media Center.

Editor’s note: It is my honor to feature an article by Albert Bandura. Dr. Bandura is one of the most influential psychologists of our time. Long a professor in the psychology department of Stanford University, he conducted landmark studies on social modeling, transforming the behaviorally based social learning theory to one in which cognition played a central role. This challenged the behaviorists’ view that human development was a one way process, dictated solely by reward and punishment deriving from external influences. In time, he developed a “social cognitive theory” of human functioning which emphasizes the reciprocal interaction of behavioral, personal, and environmental factors. I remember well being impressed, in my graduate studies some years ago, by the clarity and incisiveness of Dr. Bandura’s work. For much more information see this website maintained by Emory University psychologist, Frank Pajares.

Bandura has received many awards for his work and is a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Presenting his ideas with precise logic, Bandura continues today to refine and find applications for his theory. The article below is not his first venture into ecological sustainability-related subjects. He has written, for instance (PDF), on the effects on population growth of the kinds of serial dramatizations originated by Miguel Sabido and used by the Population Media Center on whose program advisory board Bandura sits. Such dramatizations, a crucial component of today’s work to address population growth, rest on a foundation of social cognitive theory.

In the article below, Bandura details an array of mechanisms used by those engaged in environmentally destructive practices to avoid the moral self-censure which would otherwise govern their behavior. From considerations of social and moral justification to our uses of euphemistic language to disguise the truth of our actions, it is a remarkably insightful examination of many facets of environmental politics including the games played by climate change and population deniers. Regarding the latter, Bandura writes, “High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.”

“We must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices,” writes Bandura. After all, “A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.”

This is a long article for a blog posting, but is well worth reading to the end. I suspect most readers here will find themselves increasingly fascinated as they progress through it.

This article appeared originally in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development (IJISD). It can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1, 2007, published by Inderscience Publishers which retains the copyright. My sincere thanks to Dr. Bandura and Inderscience for permission to reprint it here

Included at the end of the article is Inderscience’s press release which serves as a nice summary of the content. — JF

Albert Bandura
By Albert Bandura:

Abstract: The present paper documents the influential role played by selective moral disengagement for social practices that cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment. Disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure. This is achieved by investing ecologically harmful practices with worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications; enlisting exonerative comparisons that render the practices righteous; use of sanitising and convoluting language that disguises what is being done; reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news. These psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

Keywords: consumptive lifestyles; collective efficacy; environmental ethics; moral agency; moral disengagement; population growth; psychosocial change; self-efficacy; token gestures.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Bandura, A. (2007) ‘Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement’, Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 8–35.

Biographical notes: Albert Bandura is David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory, which is rooted in an agentic perspective. His landmark book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: a Social Cognitive Theory, provides the conceptual framework for this theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he presents the definitive exposition of the centrality of people’s beliefs in their personal and collective efficacy in exercising some measure of control over their self-development, adaptation and change. He was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

1 Introduction

The present paper examines the selective disengagement of moral self-sanctions as an impediment to collective action designed to stabilise and reverse the ecological degradation. Human conduct can be distinguished in terms of whether it falls in the realm of social custom or morality. This distinction is based, in large part, on the gravity of the social consequences of the conduct. Harming others by one’s practices becomes a matter of morality. The harm to the earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.

We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence. They include widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising earth’s temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life support systems. As the unrivalled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace (Wilson, 2006).

Environmental degradation of human origin stems from three major sources: population size, the level of consumption; and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the technologies used to supply the consumable products and to support a given lifestyle (Ehrlich et al., 1995). A comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability must address all three resources of impact on ecological systems and quality of life. There are limits to the number of people the earth can support sustainably. The world’s population was 3 billion in 1950, more than doubled to 6.5 billion in the next 50 years, and is increasing by about a billion every 15 years toward a rise of over 9 billion in the year 2050. Adding billions of consumers will take a heavy toll on the earth’s finite resources and ecological system. The diverse forms of environmental degradation suggest that we have already exceeded the size of the human population the earth can sustain. Clean, green technologies, renewable sources of energy, and adoption of less consumptive lifestyles will help. But adding billions more consumers will offset the benefits of these other remedies. Lifestyle changes must, therefore, be coupled with reduction of population growth.

2 Mechanisms of moral disengagement

In the development of moral agency, individuals construct standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for harmful practices. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standard because such conduct will bring self-condemnation. It is through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-sanctions that moral conduct is motivated and regulated. Adoption of moral standards is only half of the story and, in many respects, the less challenging half. Moral standards do not create an immutable internal moral control system. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not operate unless they are activated and there are many psychosocial manoeuvres by which moral self-sanctions can be selectively disengaged from harmful practices (Bandura, 1999). Indeed, large-scale inhumanities are often perpetrated by people who can be considerate and compassionate in other areas of their lives. They act in the name of religious, political, social, and economic doctrines (Bandura, 2004; Reich, 1990; Zimbardo, 2007). Moreover, people can be ruthless and humane simultaneously toward different individuals depending on whom they exclude from their category of humanity.
Continue reading . . .

Watch for this error

factors and products

By John Feeney:

Update #1: See Brishen Hoff’s, Paul Chefurka’s, and Graham Strouts’s critiques of the Monbiot article as well.

Update #2: For a correct, non-deceptive comparison of population growth and consumption growth, click here for a recent example from former AAAS president, John Holdren.

Sometimes I read something, such as a recent article by George Monbiot (whose work I’ve often admired, by the way), and realize the basics bear repeating.

Environmental and other writers speak often about resource consumption. On occasion they write something about population growth. Once in a while they tackle the whole package – population and consumption. When they do, they often make a simple error and come to the wrong conclusion.

Typically, it goes something like this: “Yes, population growth is a problem. But growth in consumption is occurring faster, so it’s an even bigger problem.”

Usually, they’re talking about total consumption of one or another or a combination of resources. And the comparison is an error.

Total resource consumption (of one or all resources) is the product of population size and average per person consumption. Naturally, we would expect the growth of the product to exceed that of either of two growing factors driving it! As an example, 2*2=4 and 4*4=16. Here the factors have increased by the same amount; they’ve doubled. But the product has quadrupled. A factor and the product are not comparable elements.

The more appropriate comparison is between the factors, population and per person consumption. There the data tell us the differences are not so pronounced, and it’s clear we cannot prioritize and say it is more urgent to address one than the other.

It’s the same error if you see a comparison suggesting economic growth far outweighs population growth as an environmental problem. Economic growth can, after all, be understood (PDF) as closely overlapping total consumption. It’s held to be driven by population multiplied by per person consumption. George Monbiot certainly sees it that way as he equates economic growth and total consumption in his fourth paragraph.
Continue reading . . .

Interviews: Bartlett and Ehrlich

Below are two interviews worth a listen. The first is with Al Bartlett. The second features Paul Ehrlich. Each is, of course, a leading thinker and writer on a variety of topics in sustainability. (Both, by the way, will appear in Dave Gardner’s film, Hooked On Growth.) You can find other interviews with each, but these are fairly recent as well as engaging. They range across topic including population, economic sustainability, politics, and energy. The Bartlett interview is 72 minutes long while Ehrlich’s is just 19 minutes:

Al Bartlett interview

Paul Ehrlich interview

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Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…

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Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis

By John Feeney:

[Original version published at The Oil Drum; Revised here for clarity – 11/12/07, 11/17/07, 5/31/08, 8/12/08]


Some of us who examine and discuss environmental matters are constantly puzzled and frustrated by the seeming inability of elected officials, environmental organizations, and environmental and political writers to “get” the nature of our ecological plight. Could it be they’re simply unaware of the ecological principles which enable one to understand it?

Since some undoubtedly are, and in light of the warnings in the UN’s latest report on the state of the global environment, here is a brief list of axioms and observations from population ecology with which everyone should be familiar. Most are taught in introductory level ecology and environmental science classes. They appear sequentially, so the reader can step logically through a progression which should make clear some of the fundamental elements of the global ecological challenge before us: (more…)

The folly, egoism and dangers of climate geo-engineering

Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature a guest essay by Glen Barry. Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark and A conservation biologist and political ecologist, he writes impassioned, thought provoking essays from an uncompromising ecological point of view. They appear regularly on his blog, Earth Meanders, where this one originated.

In this essay, Dr. Barry takes a strong stance against geo-engineered solutions to climate change. This is a contentious topic on which respected scientists and environmentalists hold a wide range of opinions. Glen’s essay prompts us to think hard about fundamental questions such a topic raises, questions concerning the role of humans in the global ecology. My thanks to Glen for making it available. — JF

By Glen Barry:

Is humanity so resistant to change that we will tamper with the biosphere’s workings to construct a “Frankensphere” rather than reducing population, consumption and emissions?

phytoplankton bloomIt is being widely suggested that humanity can “geo-engineer” a global solution to climate change; that is, modify the Earth’s biosphere at a planetary scale. Many methods are proposed. Most include either reflecting additional solar radiation away from the Earth, or using the ocean to store more carbon.

Reactionary geo-engineering proposals emerge largely from a sense of desperation as the world fails to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, and an unwillingness to make necessary societal and personal changes in response to deadly climate change. To some the extreme action of taking the Earth’s ecological systems into techno-human hands seems sensible given indications that global heating is proceeding more rapidly than thought, as shown by unexpectedly quick melting of Arctic sea ice.

Risky climate geo-engineering schemes include giant vertical pipes in the ocean to increase ocean circulation and thus marine carbon sequestration, similarly growing vast blooms of ocean plankton by fertilizing with iron, erecting giant mirrors above the earth to reflect the sun’s energy, and dropping sulfur particles from balloons at high altitude to do the same.

Two rogue US companies are moving forward with plans to fertilize the ocean with iron to create plankton blooms to suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They are motivated by profits from the growing carbon credit market, rising public demands for action, and politicians eager to avoid painful reductions in emissions. There is little that can be done to stop them, as no applicable laws or treaties exist. (more…)

Earth Needs Renewed Attention to Human Population Growth

Note: The article below, which appeared recently in a number of online publications, was written for a general audience. It should nevertheless be of interest to GIM readers as an effort to spread awareness of the population issue and to dispel a couple of the many erroneous notions surrounding this controversial topic. This version contains a small revision or two but is largely the same as the version which first appeared at Online Journal.

Continued study of our global ecological challenge has meant for me a gradual evolution in my thinking about its dynamics. Population stabilization and reduction are arguably the single most powerful and cost effective means of moving toward ecological sustainability. Yet in just the few months since I wrote this article I’ve become increasingly concerned about the possibility that we’ve missed our chance to avert collapse. (See, for example, in my introduction to Ken Smail’s article on population reduction, Ken’s comment concerning the “temporal problem” with which we’re faced. Or for a detailed discussion, see Paul Chefurka’s analysis of the relationship between energy depletion and population. [10/21/07 – Edit: Note, however, Paul’s reassessment of some of the basis of his analysis.] Or see Jason Godesky’s argument that collapse is inevitable.) If so, reducing fertility rates would serve not as a solution per se, but as a means of softening the landing by sparing future lives. It remains, in any event, the most effective, sensible, humane response to our ecological crisis. — JF


Concern over US population sizeBy John Feeney:

There’s a simple theme in today’s environmental writing. It shows up in titles like “Cut Your Consumption by Switching to Fluorescent Light Bulbs,” “Lawmakers Developing Fuel Economy Plan,” and “Is Wind Power Right for You?”

The trend is to promote reduced personal resource consumption. And it’s a crucial part of the solution to our energy and ecological woes.

But it’s only half the solution. The other half has faded from prominence in recent years. It’s the need to end global population growth. At a time when scientists tell us we’ve outgrown our earth, it deserves our renewed attention.

Population growth received a good deal of press in the 1960s and 1970s, but since then it’s become a taboo subject. China’s draconian one child policy and political pressure from social justice groups who saw the population issue as a distraction from their preferred causes saw to that. Indeed, some writers today even question the contribution of population growth to ecological degradation. (more…)