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Obstacles to Learning and Action

A major barrier to public mobilization on climate and other global environmental issues is the psychological distance involved in moving from abstract environmental data (e.g., global mean temperature) to more immediate concerns about how local impacts, such as climate disruption of drought cycles in a particular area, may affect one's personal prosperity or family security.

But there is an even more important kind of distancing that helps to explain the failure to promote ecoliteracy when and where it is most needed. As the boundaries of the natural world recede in the face of rapid human development, people who are disconnected from nature have less motivation to learn more about it. The consequences are especially important for children, as suggested by recent book titles, such as Last Child in the Woods and FreeRange Kids. The psychological distance separating the urbanized places where most humans reside from the shrinking remnants of natural landscape has never been greater. As a consequence, the opportunity to connect emotionally and physically with nature and wildlife has declined steadily. And implicit in this decline is an accompanying loss of attachment to natural places and wild habitat, or what is sometimes understood as lost bioregional identity.

Precisely how much this growing separation diminishes human concern about the environment is unknown, but it is clear that people are more likely to protect the things they love and actively internalize. Distancing from nature may have some of the same emotionally debilitating effects as distancing from other people. This separation becomes even more significant in issues of climate change, where the most dramatic impacts are taking place in the Arctic and other remote areas that few people ever visit or monitor. The obstacles to clear thinking about these kinds of threats extend far beyond psychological distancing. Research on climate change communication has identified dozens of factors that serve to hinder or derail public support for timely action on climate risks, from poor framing of the issues to social media's role in diverting people's attention elsewhere. (See Table 4–1.) There are, of course, many other defense mechanisms and elaborate rationalizations that protect individuals and groups from painful assaults on their cherished values and behaviors. Most are considered deeply irrational and even dangerous by many scientists. Carl Sagan, the celebrated astrophysicist, devised a “baloney detection kit” to aid scientists in exposing the irrationality of anti-science arguments and pseudo-science views. But his kit fails to come to grips with the messy reality emerging within the science of psychology: that humans, rather than being stalwarts of reason, are more often irrational, neurochemically influenced lovers of self-serving community narratives—shared stories that reinforce our core values and cultural identities, and by extension our social and political behavior. Our brain chemistry tends to favor the suppression of critical reason in favor of emotions that support and defend the views and values we hold dear.

As Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer writes: “We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.” Shermer goes on to assert that most people will simply disregard or rationalize away claims that contradict their beliefs. Science is commonly thought to be the antidote to such delusion. But some neuroscientists suggest that scientific reasoning and objectivity are unachievable ideals, given recent discoveries about the emotional dynamics of the human brain.

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