A brief outline of the modern socioecological crisis, Part 1: A “paradox of affluence”

The more I read in environmental studies, the more I realize that there seems to be a consensus among those in the field on two things: first, that we are definitely in an ecological crises, the causes of which are largely sociocultural (and within this, mainly consumerism and the modern worldview); and second, that there needs to be some sort of (at the very least, minimal) paradigm shift both outside of and within the environmental movement if we are to collectively solve any of our global problems.

In regards to this first point, in my post on Annie Leonard from a few weeks ago, I began to put together some thoughts on the effects of the disintegration of community on the environment and our current ecological crises. A quick, over-simplified recap of Leonard’s thesis is that the vast amount of consumerism in today’s (modern, Western) society contributes to ecological degradation in the form of loss of natural resources, destruction of natural habitat, and release of toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases. According to Leonard, this consumption also leads us to have increasing work hours to fund our consumption, and decreasing time for community and meaningful relationships, which means we’re not as happy as a society, though our standard of living is higher than ever.

Leonard is not alone in thinking that our overconsumption leads to environmental degradation and unhappiness. Gregg Easterbrook, in The Progress Paradox (2003), expands on the point that as a society Westerner’s (and moreover, Americans) are less happy, despite our increased standard of living. Easterbrook argues that although we (in the Western world) are for the large part getting smarter (having higher average levels of education—debate the difference between degree-level and intelligence as one may) and wealthier (at least on average, or at least until quite recently—and our purchasing power and standard of living are definitely increasing), we are not getting happier. Levels of depression and mental illness are higher now than at any point in the past, and, according to Easterbrook, polling of the US populace has indicated that people were happier in our parents generations than in our own.

In addition to the paradox of affluence, disconnect from the environment has also been sited as a root cause of unhappiness. Journalist Richard Louv writes in his book, The Last Child in the Woods (2005), that a decline in awareness of the natural world—a sort of ecological intelligence—has accompanied population growth and the need for larger houses, yards and vacation homes that spurs urban sprawl and soaks up natural spaces in previously rural communities. Louv goes on to write that the loss of these “wild spaces” and of opportunities for children and adults alike to be out in nature has resulted not only in a largely ecologically illiterate population, but also individuals that are more stressed and less happy than during past times and in places where access to nature is more available. Environmental sociologists call this the so-called “paradox of affluence,” whereby individuals feel worse and worse, though they are supposedly “better off.”

Likewise, local Fox River Valley historian Gregory Summers, in Consuming Nature: The Rise of Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley 1850-1950 (2006), claims the rise of consumer society both contributed to a growing disconnect between society and the nature and natural resources upon which it relies, as well as allowed for the increased use of the natural environment for recreational activities. “Consumption served as a filter in people’s interactions with the material world, screening out nature’s unpleasant realities while at the same time creating new attachments to its recreational and aesthetic charms,” Summers writes (p8). As society became more and more market-oriented during industrialization, people’s direct interactions with the environment became much more limited than they had been under subsistence modes of production. Concurrently, however, as people became more affluent, opportunities to enjoy nature for recreation became more common and available to individuals (particularly those of the middle- and upper-class). Other environmental historians, such as Carolyn Merchant, concur with Summer’s view.

This increasing disconnect society faces between the natural world that sustains us and our day to day activities brings me to the second point of this essay: that there must be a paradigm shift both within and outside the environmental movement in order to solve our environmental crisis. If we as a society continue to think as we do in regards to the earth and each other, we will not be able to successfully move out of the current ecological crisis into a sustainable world.

A professor of mine at Lawrence University, Professor Stewart Purkey, in teaching the class Environment, Community and Education, puts it this way: The environmental crisis is essentially a sociocultural crisis, and all the technical or scientific changes or advancements in the world will not make a difference, unless we change the underlying paradigms within which we see the environment and the natural world. I believe this is true: unless people begin to see things differently, the way we interact as humans—consumers, deforesters, resource-users—in the world will not change.

I’ve long thought that the biggest environmental problem facing the planet is education—that enough people do not recognize or acknowledge that our planet is in peril, nor do enough people know what they can do to help. However, it’s only been recently that I’ve become aware of the cause of this apparent lack of environmental education and awareness.

David Orr, in his groundbreaking book of essays in the field of environmental sociology, Earth in Mind (1994), states that all education is environmental education of some form or another. Either directly or indirectly, the modern educational system teaches us how to interact with the planet: as economically-minded consumers, as recreational tourists seeking exotic nature, as eco-conscious buyers of organic vegetables. More often than not, however, it is what our education does not teach us, claims Orr, that impacts the way we view the environment. For the large part, we do not see the connections between what we consume and how we live, and the environment. People do not recognize that the ability to turn on a light with the flip of a switch comes from the burning of coal at a power plant and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We do not realize that the growing of our food via conventional agriculture in the US results in the runoff of fertilizer into the water of the Mississippi and thus in the eutrophic “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless, Orr continues, we somehow retool the educational system to teach our children holistically about the environment—how we affect it and how it affects us, and how all educational disciplines are interrelated—we will never be successful at creating a society of individuals capable of constructing a sustainable world.

Author and education professor Paul Theobald expands on the thoughts outlined above in his 1997 book, Teaching the Commons, furthering that the disconnect between humanity and the environment originated with the degradation of community—particularly rural community— that correlates with the rise of modernity over the past 500 or so years. This piece of theory is likely the root of the cultural crisis mentioned above. As society moved from collective, interdependent, communities of connectedness to individualistic, independent, modern corporate society (for a variety of reasons; see Teaching the Commons for a deeper explanation), the “ethic of care” for one another and for the earth was lost. Thus, environmental degradation is a casualty of modernization. If we could get back to a society that was more community-minded, more responsible for one another, more decentralized and participatory, more locally-oriented, says Theobald, we could hopefully create a healthier and more sustainable society.

All the things I’ve been talking about fit together. With a society that is more community-oriented and environmentally-aware, possessing an “ethic of care” for the environment and each other, we may have the paradigm shift we need to solve the disconnect inherent in modern, consumer, possessively-individualistic society, making us a healthier, happier, more sustainable society living with the natural world. The question, then, becomes how to inspire this new paradigm.

(To be continued in Part 2: A New Environmentalism)


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