Eco-debates: why do we withdraw?

Are we too confused to care? Photo: (cc) geralt_.

I don’t want to lie to you.

I may write for an environmental publication (Smog, how I do love thee) but even I cannot be absolved the guilt of mindfully withdrawing from many an eco-debate. Older age groups would reason my oft-sporadic detachment from ‘green’ discussion as being a mere ‘characteristic’ of my generation (tellingly dubbed ‘generation Y bother’ and ‘ generation me’), but as of recently, I’ve come to appreciate it as part of a much greater, more pervasive societal issue.

Upon thinking about my own detachment from some important environmental issues, I found it interesting to firstly consider the process of withdrawal, in and of itself. Why exactly, I pondered, do human beings withdraw?

When I considered my own personal reasons for mental withdrawal – whether from relationships, study or overwhelming emotion – I found that the cause consistently seemed to stem from feelings of difficulty, or a perception that something was “too hard” to resolve. This mental withdrawal often occurs when I’m stressed or busy. I feel like I don’t have time to understand or persevere. I bet it’s a commonality shared by many of us – sometimes it’s simply easier to disengage.

In terms of environmental issues, presentation in the public sphere is dually puzzling and polarizing. Often highly politicized (especially in an Australian context), topical eco-matters tend to get lost in a sea of rhetoric. Today more so than ever it seems that critical ideas about environmental affairs are communicated in just one of two ways: be that overly scientific or radically political.

This poses a fundamental problem for those of us who find science hard to comprehend, and for those of us who aren’t so politically inclined.

It’s a fine line; a difficult dichotomy, and we fluctuate between being intellectually isolated by scientific jargon and polarized by a political opinion we just don’t share. It can become all too difficult for the average human trying to navigate the trials and tribulations of daily life and thus, we retreat.

We put up all the walls and we withdraw.

Let’s take, for example, the topic of climate change. In the political arena, it has been used as a way to gather votes, garner publicity and establish a moral high ground of sorts. It has also actively separated people into ‘ believers’ and ‘non-believers’ – a notion that invariably removes focus from the environment and places it on the people. This is not about us, and shouldn’t be about us. It’s about the earth. Our earth.

“People are so used to being fed the extreme line on it that they just switch off after a while” – Brett Keeping

Tellingly, data collected over the past year by the Federal Government’s Climate Commission found that many people felt bereft of actual information regarding climate change. Although the Commission noted that many Australians were keen to get involved and instigate change, there seems to remain a distinct grey area around the issue that is preventing people from doing so. In this Sydney Morning Herald story, chief climate commissioner, Tim Flannery, is quoted as saying “there is a lot of confusion out there about the science of climate change, about the carbon price and other policies, but generally people have been very keen to find out more and find out what they . . . can do.”

What I find deeply troubling about this information is not the knowledge that people are confused – it’s that the concern to help is outweighed by an inability to understand. As my mother sees it, the desire to know should not be superseded by the effort it takes to fulfill that desire to know. She guiltily admits to me that it’s not only that she does not comprehend – or that she is incapable of understanding at all – it’s that she simply does not have massive amounts of time and energy to spend deciphering the real crux of climate change, amid all the scientific gobbledygook and political propaganda.

In saying this, we cannot liberate the media from the role they play in contributing to the confusion that causes us to withdraw. Although I don’t want to focus too exclusively on climate change (the problem is far broader than just that), media portrayals of such a topic tend to contribute to a warped perception of what it is and how exactly it is affecting our world.

Just earlier this year I was working on a story about how climate change was causing grapes to ripen prematurely, based on a study released by the CSIRO. Without properly understanding, the angle I immediately took was how this was going to adversely impact and potentially irreversibly damage the Hunter Valley wine industry.

Before even speaking to my sources I had assumed an alarmist perspective on the issue. One of my interviewees – a viticulturist named Brett Keeping – related his own encounters with misrepresentation and the press. After working on a highly positive study about the Hunter Valley and climate change, even he began to feel disillusioned when it was reported in a decidedly fatalistic manner. His reasoning for a lack of societal engagement was simple: “People are so used to being fed the extreme line on it that they just switch off after a while.”

And switch off we do. Having said that, I’m not trying to relieve myself (or my generation) of guilt by emphasizing everything that is wrong with the way environmental issues are presented: I’m well aware it takes two to tango. Laziness is definitely still a mitigating factor in terms of lack of community action. This aside, the problem of indolence is only exacerbated by convoluted information – there is undoubtedly a vital need for prevalent eco-matters to be presented in a way that is balanced, informative and accessible to all. The future of our involvement depends on somewhat of a plain English approach (free from alarmist add ons, preachy politics and scientific swag). Something, or someone, is needed to withhold the withdrawal.

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