When I was 24 and a graduate student at the University of Virginia, I wrote a master’s thesis entitled “Environmental Rhetoric and the Ecology Movement: A Study of Attitudinal Origins, Rhetorical Evolution, and the Impact on Societal Values”. Much of the paper explored the recurring patterns of belief and behavior that led to our tenuous relationship with our planet.
Throughout the ages, much of mankind has developed a cultural set of attitudes—nurtured by previous confrontations with nature as well as by religious beliefs—that the environment represented an opposing force that had to be conquered and tamed. Many religious and social doctrines minimized man’s direct contact with the ‘savage’ wilderness, preventing a truer understanding and appreciation of the benefits of ecological balance.
In the United States, there has been perhaps no greater impact on the establishment of ingrained psycholinguistic patterns involving our attitudes toward nature than the period of our “conquest of the continent” in the 19th Century. Coupled with earlier Christian beliefs that God put us on this planet with resources that are inexhaustible, supporters of a ‘divine destiny’ proclaimed American exceptionalism when compared to other nations. In our divine existence, we have control over our environment. Our destiny for economic and overall societal progress requires us to exploit these natural resources, and to reap the benefits that God has so generously provided us, as the belief system developed.
Fast-forward to today, and there are still so many of us who think our maker provided us with a planet that we can plunder, harvest and/or ‘control.’ If your belief system states that our natural resources are inexhaustible, what’s the worry? And certainly, let’s acknowledge the impact that religious beliefs have on all of this. Half of the people in the United States believes the planet Earth is less than 10,000 years old. A huge part of the world thinks they are going to Heaven to be rewarded. This belief affects people while they’re on Earth, that in effect it is of little or no consequence whether this world survives or not in the next few hundred years.
Interestingly, the closer you are to the outdoors and have your senses aware of what is going on around you, the more you see the reality of what’s happening—change. The truth is that you can’t go to Alaska or Argentina and see how the glaciers are receding, or go to many parts of the country and see how long droughts have persisted and how they have created serious water supply issues and not accept that things are changing, and changing fast.
Denying global climate change is a great example of ingrained belief systems that keep so many of us disconnected with nature. A big part of that belief system involves resisting change at all costs, no matter how much it makes one look like an idiot. People who won’t acknowledge that the world’s climate is changing at an alarming rate are just like the people who insisted in the 1960s and 1970s that cigarette smoking didn’t cause lung cancer.
Rusinow, Jeff (2011-06-29). What I Really Think: The Deep End Chapters. ETR Publishing Group, LLC. Kindle Edition.
But with infinite more eloquence, Roy Scranton’s has his own view on how we deal with climate change, in Sunday’s NYT:
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