Category Archives: Sustainability

New directions

mountain trailBy John Feeney:

From its first day GIM has been nothing more than an effort to reach as many people as possible with an urgent ecological message. The blog has prompted me to think through certain issues and has served as a base from which to venture out, submitting articles to larger publications. In the course of about 15 months, I’ve concluded I can reach more readers by writing mostly for other news and information sources. This means following through on plans I’ve mentioned previously and slowing all activity on GIM. This will free my time for freelance writing rather than blog maintenance.

For the time being, GIM may remain marginally active, with an occasional post or update, but will eventually become an archive, supplanted by a different sort of site featuring new articles. I’ll post an update here when I launch that site. In the meantime, I’ll update the Articles Elsewhere and Speaking/Interviews pages as appropriate.

Comments remain off. I thank all the regular commenters who have helped make GIM a lively site. But while on-site comments have real value of their own, they are for me a time sink which doesn’t play a large role in generating more readers. I do of course continue to welcome emailed comments. Stay tuned…

Evolving focus

For now, my writing focus will be narrowing. I’ll be shifting more strongly to the subject of population. Few observers appreciate the urgency of the population issue. Many are willing to accept it when environmental writers and organizations ignore, or worse, dismiss its importance.
Continue reading . . .

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.
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Raise awareness: write a letter!

Write a letter!

By John Feeney:

I received an email recently from GIM reader and occasional commenter, Alex Szczech, pointing me to his letter to the editor of his local paper. I was heartened to learn Alex had been inspired by content here to speak out on the topic of population. Now I hope more readers will be inspired by Alex.

Alex’s letter could serve as a model, in fact, for aspiring writers of letters to the editor. It’s succinct, so more people will read it. It’s factually accurate without pulling any punches or watering down its message.

It’s so easy to make a difference. These days most newspapers provide an online form or email address for letters to the editor. And depending on the paper’s circulation, a letter may reach a remarkably large numbers of readers. It’s tremendous “bang for the buck.”
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Sowing the seeds of a future society

Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.

In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.

Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:Sowing

Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.

Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.

Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
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Stuff to read and watch

I’m busy working on a difficult article which I hope to get published somewhere. In the meantime, I’ve come across several intriguing items on the Web, either in researching the article, or just poking around. Take a look:

[UPDATE: Take a look, as well, at this ongoing roundtable discussion of the question of population and climate change. In my view, Fred Meyerson, John Guillebaud, and Martin Desvaux’s comments have so far been on the money. I note that Guillebaud and Desvaux’s response to Betsy Hartmann is quite in line with my own past comments on her work.]

Cool book discovery

A book I’m amazed I hadn’t come upon until a week ago is Jeffrey K. McKee’s Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. Having just received it yesterday, I’ve only scanned it so far. But I learned elsewhere that Mckee, a physical anthropologist at Ohio State University, argues that no matter how much we lower per person consumption levels, we cannot end the current mass extinction crisis without addressing population size and growth. That’s a refreshing change from the usual insistence, “It’s all about (per capita) consumption,” so prevalent today among environmentalists. For some of McKee’s thoughts online, try this pdf.

Food for thought from Anthropik

At the Anthropik Network, rewilding advocate Jason Godesky, whose work you should know, responds to an article in The Economist which tries to debunk the “myth” that early hunter-gatherer cultures were in many ways fairly benign and livable compared to today’s civilization. Not surprisingly, Jason debunks the debunker quite handily.

The heart of rewilding from Urban Scout

Urban Scout gets to the heart of the “rewilding” movement in a video on his blog. Rewilders such as Scout and Godesky have a better handle on our ecological dilemma than just about anyone. Don’t overlook what they’re doing!

Danny Bloom’s bloomin’ polar cities

Danny Bloom, who’s commented here a few times, is trying to get people to think. It seems he’s trying to nudge us to consider how serious climate change just might be by imagining a possible future need for special communities in the polar regions for those who survive global warming. Environmental writer Stephen Leahy reports on Danny and his polar cities idea. In email, Danny told me he’s serious, but on some level is also “kidding, in a kind of guerilla theater public awareness wake-up call kind of way.” His idea is sometimes dubbed “quixotic,” but if it fosters discussion that can only be good.

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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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Wars and climate change: national interests versus global emergency

Editor’s note: Abdul Basit is an Indian expatriate living in Kuwait. In this essay he calls on the leaders at the Bali climate talks to put aside the tendency to emphasize narrow national interests, to serve instead the greater needs of humanity as we face a climate change crisis which could threaten our very future. In that context, he observes that wars fought over national interests impede our progress in addressing larger environmental issues such as climate change. We must realize we humans share one earth and that “peace is the most important component in the fight against climate change.”

I regret that I was unable to post this piece earlier in the Bali talks, but it’s message must live on long after these talks and into those to come. Many thanks to Abdul for submitting this important essay. — JF

By Abdul Basit:

This is an appeal to world leaders and the scientific community gathered in Bali, Indonesia for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

While the global community in general and certain scientists in particular are greatly concerned about the consequences of global warming and climate change in relation to the existence of humanity and habitability of earth, a few nations, like the USA, Israel and some other countries are pursuing the war agenda and preparing for a new round of encounters.Humanity before politics

As the world nations and the UN are seriously considering new regulations and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are preparing comprehensive measures to counter climate change in the UN Climate Change Summit being held in Bali, the world’s sole superpower and its allies are pondering about enforcing new sanctions against Iran and are openly discussing the prospects of World War III.

What we see in the international arena are the two extremes. On the one hand, we see the ever-increasing signs of climate change like floods, hurricanes, forest fires, inundation of coastal areas due to rising sea-levels, melting glaciers, growing poverty due to mounting climate refugees and reduced agricultural output, threat to extinction of species and biodiversity — all of which are proving a serious challenge to existence. On the other hand, as if these problems and crises are not enough, the major discussions in the international forums and among the media are about the methods to counter the threats of Iran from attaining nuclear expertise.
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