There is an underlying challenge to the sustainability movement. How can we get people to care about the environment enough to drive change? As we have seen in the recent US presidential elections, climate change, which impacts everyone on this planet, is not even on the minds of the voting public nor was it discussed by either of the candidates. Governments and businesses are not set up to be environmentally goal-oriented; it is counter to their agendas of growth and development. We need another approach.
James Miller in “Biodiversity Conservation and the Extinction of Experience,” draws our attention to our “collective ignorance that ultimately leads to our collective indifference.” As people migrate into larger and larger cities and sprawling suburbs, they reduce their exposure to natural environments. Our urban lifestyle is predominately lived inside, and children, as well as adults, spend a majority of their lives in front of computers or television instead of spending time outdoors. City dwellers also “encounter biological uniformity in their day-to-day lives,” so we grow accustomed to the lack of biodiversity without even realizing there is a problem. Our children do not develop a relationship with nature, and their children will be further removed. This increasing distance adds up to what ecologist, Robert Pyle, has termed the “extinction of experience”. To cure this, Michael Rosenzweig has called for “reconciliation ecology”, which suggests “a belief that contact with elements of the natural world would contribute to their well-being.”
This point is taken up in “Improving City Life,” (Standish, Hobbs and Miller). Communal gardening “will result in a wide variety of opportunities for city folk to interact with nature,” while potentially increasing biodiversity with native and exotic species planted by the gardeners. “Integrating people’s value systems, cultural traditions and socioeconomic activities into landscape ecology” will make them part of the solution. Developing intentional green spaces within the urban landscape, such as turning “urban wasteland” into more aesthetic—and more likely to be preserved—shared gardens, will not only build communities but increase knowledge and appreciation of ecology. Sweat equity will help people appreciate their effort to preserve and maintain green spaces, along with the flora and fauna that they become responsible for.
Turning to Lester Milbrath’s, “Psychological, Cultural, and Informational Barriers to Sustainability”, he wrote that “polls show a majority, usually a high majority, of people in most countries were aware of environmental problems and very concerned about getting them solved to ensure a decent future… [however] most people were deeply disappointed in the lack of action by their governments on these concerns.” He also detailed the results of a study that showed a high degree of awareness about ecology with students, but a significantly low degree of knowledge. Education may not be the problem, with harried teachers unable to cover the core basics and are lacking in environmental knowledge themselves. The real culprit may be the lack of contact with nature, as Miller suggested.
We, as a society, need to take it upon ourselves to reconnect with nature and build knowledge. As Milbrath pointed out, incremental changes “accumulate exponentially over time, adding up to a major environmental degradation.” We fail to see the daily impact of our consumptive lifestyle on the planet, since it does not change day to day, but over longer stretches of time. However, that same process can be turned around to a positive. If we learn to consume less resources as a society, and increase our exposure to and appreciation of nature that sustains our life, those incremental changes can begin to reverse decades of damage. Each of us is part of that solution. We need to get this message into the minds and hearts of people; it is not about austerity, but about the preservation of the richness of our lives and our long term survival.
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