Belief and Eco-Humanism

Although this article was written 16 years ago, it remains – sadly – very relevant today. Progress can, perhaps, be seen in some areas but clearly our response is too little and too slow.

Although this article was written 16 years ago, it remains – sadly – very relevant today. Progress can, perhaps, be seen in some areas but clearly our response is too little and too slow.

This editorial was published in Humanist Perspectives Issue 163, 2007-08

Our beliefs about the world shape our perceptions, influence our memories and guide our behaviours. At times, beliefs fly in the face of logic and science: homeopathy, astrology, and a host of other belief systems would not persist were it not so. Such beliefs are sometimes simply the result of ignorance, while at other times they arise from a need to reduce anxiety, provide meaning or confer feelings of self-importance. While these irrational beliefs often promote irrational action, it is to be noted that, just as there are sins of commission and sins of omission, so are there irrational beliefs that lead to irrational inaction. For example, non-compliance with a treatment regimen is reported to be a leading cause of glaucoma-induced blindness. Many people stop taking the medication and then deny to themselves that they have glaucoma because neither the risks of not taking the treatment nor the benefits of taking it are apparent in the short run. Similarly, we can avoid taking action on environmental threats if we can embrace the belief that there is not really a threat, or the belief that there is nothing that we can do about it in any case. Again, such beliefs are sometimes based in lack of knowledge, but they too often serve certain needs – for example, avoidance of anxiety. So, while some citizens do their best to reduce, reuse, recycle, and to leave only the smallest environmental footprint, many others continue in prodigal fashion to exploit and abuse the environment. Most governments, too, are very lax when it comes to addressing environmental threats, and in some cases, they even attempt to persuade their citizens that the threat is actually minimal. This should be a matter for humanists, for a humanistic concern about the quality of life of human beings cannot be separated from concern about the quality and sustainability of the environment that must support those human beings.


Human beings are not stupid on the whole. Our species has visited the moon, put world-wide communication satellites into orbit, learned how to transplant vital organs, cured polio and harnessed the power of the atom. So why is it that we find ourselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century living in an increasingly despoiled and resource-depleted world, facing looming environmental catastrophes such as global warming, air and water pollution, and environmentally-induced cancers to name but a few? And how do we explain the continuing popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs, throw-away packaging, or energy waste through incessant air conditioning even when there is no one home? We need to come to understand this if we are to promote better management of the environment and protect and enhance the quality of life of human beings. Some of the reasons that people fail to step up to the environmental plate include the following:

Inadequate information – How do we know that environmental disasters are looming? How do we know that the globe is warming at an alarming rate, that the glaciers are melting, that fresh water is becoming scarcer and that other resources are running out? We know because we believe others who tell us so, for very few of us have the means to gather evidence on our own. But who are these “others,” these people we trust to be able to inform us properly? Our choice of reliable source will have a very significant effect on the body of information that we take in. If we follow the pronouncements of scientists who warn of global warming, we are likely to become very concerned. If, instead, we reject those sources as misleading and propagandistic, and choose to believe the (now) very few scientists who argue that it is not a problem, then it is not surprising that we come to share their conclusion.

Internal consistency and anxiety reduction – We generally feel uncomfortable when we are aware of significant inconsistencies amongst our beliefs, emotions and actions, and this discomfort motivates us to change some of those beliefs or actions in order to bring about consistency. A smoker who is aware of the serious health risks associated with smoking can produce consistency either by giving up smoking or by self-persuasion that the stated risks are actually minimal. That individual is likely to avoid reading articles that speak to the dangers of smoking, for they would heighten anxiety. However, anything that suggests possible benefits of smoking or that downplays the health risks is more likely to receive rapt attention. Similarly, in regard to the environment, it is anxiety-arousing to contemplate the predicted effects of global warming, and one may have to part with desired objects or invest time and money to respond appropriately to the apparent threat. None of this is necessary if one can rationalize that there is no threat. And then there are people who acknowledge the risk, but then become so anxious about what they have learned, and feel so helpless in terms of doing anything really effective, that they avoid the issue and do nothing.

Delayed consequences – Our brains and nervous systems do not automatically make associations between events that are long-separated in time. If smoking cigarettes produced cancer within days or weeks, there would be no smokers today, for the association would be obvious to all. However, serious health problems only appear a long time after one starts smoking, and so the connection between the two is never personally obvious. Indeed, it took modern medical science quite some time before it could actually demonstrate a causal link between smoking and heart disease and cancer. Environmental problems involve a similar difficulty, for one’s actions today, even if they are bad for the environment, do not for the most part bring about immediate negative consequences. Air pollution takes some time to kill; gradual reductions in water tables do not lead to an immediate lack of drinking water; the effects of cutting down the forests are not instantaneous. Given the long timeframe, anxiety can be reduced and avoided, and internal consistency can be promoted, by the belief that there is nothing to worry about at present, and even if there is a problem on the horizon we will be able to deal with it at some time in the future when a solution presents itself in a more obvious way.

The many-one problem – Even when people do recognize the existence of environmental threats, it is often difficult to motivate them to take appropriate action. Part of the reason for this is the so-called “collective dilemma,” sometimes known as the “many-one” problem. The dilemma exists because actions that are rational for a collection of people are often irrational on an individual, self-serving level. For example, suppose you are a cottager, and your small lake is becoming polluted with effluent from the hundred or so cottages that now border it. No one has a septic tank, and installing a septic tank is an expensive proposition. If you are an economically rational individual, you reason that if you alone put in a septic tank, it will have virtually no effect on the quality of the water, because all the other cottagers are still polluting it. In purely economic terms, then, it would be irrational to put up the costs of a septic tank. However, if you are confident that the majority of people are going to install septic tanks, then the lake is going to be cleaned up whether you do anything or not. Why spend your money if the outcome is virtually independent of what you do? And yet, the dilemma: if most people think and act in this way, then all will continue to suffer from a polluted lake.

Thus, one of the central problems in dealing with the environment is that behaviours that are not particularly harmful on an individual level become very harmful if practiced collectively. One factory ship or one dragger boat will not exhaust the Grand Banks cod fishery. Before it became illegal to sell leaded gas, one vehicle alone using leaded gas would not have a detectable effect on the environment. A million such vehicles of course would. Yet, a million cars less one, because you have stopped using leaded gas, will continue to wreak havoc on air quality, despite your increased fuel bill and your good intentions.

Of course, there is more than simple economic rationality involved for some people. Acting consistently with their own principles, or trying to be a good role model in order to influence others, may give these individuals considerable personal reward. Instilling environmental sensitivity in school children leads to values that guide environment-friendly behaviour later in life.


To promote environment-friendly behaviour, there are several interrelated beliefs that need to be accepted:

Belief that there is a serious environmental problem – In the quest to persuade people, it is vital to build up authoritative sources of information that can be trusted not to be manipulative or unnecessarily alarmist. It is also important to avoid preaching, for that alienates the intended audience. One must also avoid inducing too much fear, for information campaigns based on inducing fear do not usually work very well. In order to reduce anxiety, people either avoid a fear-inducing message or reinterpret it in a less threatening way, for example, as extremist propaganda. Here, the role of environmental and other organizations is important, for such groups provide not only direction to their individual members, but they also create a sense of collective power. Moreover, such groups can establish themselves as reliable authorities regarding such issues, just as Médicins Sans Frontières, the International Red Cross and Amnesty International have done in their respective areas of interest. As well, being part of a movement is much more appealing to most individuals than is trying to change the world on one’s own.

Belief that the problem is imminent – In light of the delayed consequences aspect of the problem, we must sensitize people to the realization that something has to be done now, not next year or next decade.

Belief that solutions exist – Suppose that an asteroid, headed toward our planet, was going to destroy it sometime next week. There would be nothing we could do – as individuals or as nations – to prevent it. Some may collapse into paroxysms of tears, while others might run around frantically trying to enjoy all the guilty pleasures that they never found time to enjoy when life stretched out long ahead of them. It makes no difference to the asteroid. Thus, even if people come to recognize a threat, before their behaviours will change they have to believe that the situation is reversible and that they have the means to do something about it. They need realistic advice about reasonable actions that they can take without being overwhelmed either by cost or time or effort.

Belief that our contribution to the solution is significant – This belief is necessary even if our own contribution itself does not produce a measurable effect. Enough others must be committed to working to protect the environment that the collective contribution will be significant. Often social coercion is necessary here, which is why we must work for laws that disadvantage those who do not want to change their ways despite the risk to us all. Laws can bring about change in behaviour, and such change often brings attitude change – internal consistency again. With time, the laws become less and less necessary because of changed attitudes.

Providing accurate information about environmental dangers will not by itself modify beliefs. While we must depend on science to inform us of the problems and to seek effective remedies, we cannot rely on science alone. We must also work to change the beliefs of those who ignore or downplay environmental threats, and this is not an easy task. For us to survive in the face of growing environmental threats, however, it is a task at which we must succeed.