Social Division and the Environment
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
There are few classes which really transform your perception of reality, but when I took Environmental Science in high school, it somehow did the trick. Never before had I considered or grappled with population growth, pollution, industrial waste, roles of business or government, CO2 emissions, ozone, etc.
The unique quality of this information was the sense of urgency which accompanied discovery after discovery. Under each rock we overturned, there was something ongoing and disconcerting, but beyond reach. I began to change habits and became more concerned about my impact. However, the political discourse and social dimensions of all this remained beyond my grasp until the prevailing dialogue reared its head in recent years in new and imaginative ways. I didn't notice how widespread this rhetoric was until much more recently.
Something in the past ten years or so has changed in the way we talk about these things. Our daily dialogue has changed ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly in the past decade. Our own ideas are shaped and transformed by not just what we read and listen to, but the underlying assumptions which shape these articles, podcasts, shows, documentaries, and their conversations.
In approaching our own education and interest on a divided field, do we ever ask ourselves -
How do we choose our sides?
Our political and social spheres have become more starkly polarized. I didn't know where it all came from. The questions which this boils down to are very close to our identities, which is one reason perhaps why the prevailing dialogue has become very intense. These questions involve:
How is our worldview shaped?
What do we hold on to and what do we discard?
To what or whom do we give authority in the development of our ideas?
Are we even aware of how our ideas and values and worldview are shaped?
The purpose of this piece is not to provide evidence or a convincing argument in favor of environmental concern, climate change, or conservation. It is to look at the environment, not as a natural phenomenon, but as an idea.
In Why we Disagree About Climate Change, Mike Hulme states, "Climate change has become an idea that now travels well beyond its origins in the natural sciences ... and as this idea meets new cultures on its travels and encounters the worlds of politics, economics, popular culture, commerce, and religion - often through the interposing role of the media – climate change takes on new meanings and serves new purposes."
He continues, "If we are to understand climate change, we must first hear and understand these discordant voices, these multifarious human beliefs, values, attitudes, aspirations, and behaviors."
As we have seen and maybe experienced lately, these beliefs, attitudes and behaviors can turn violent and emotionally charged, particularly as our identity is closely related or interwoven with these elusive elements. So, how did we get here?
To understand this, we have to take a look at the platform upon which our beliefs, attitudes, and values are shared and shaped. This inevitably takes us to the world of media, social media, and popular culture.
Social media platforms and data companies have been receiving a great deal of scrutiny in recent years due to their passive and active roles contributing to the rise of violent speech and actions within the United States and around the world.
On July 23rd, 2020, BuzzFeed News published an article about employees of facebook who reckon with the social network they've built. Talking about how facebook has become pivotal in the dissemination of political information and values, an employee states, "... the unifying force here really is that active push towards the political person and away from the social person ... but the [social person] is who we need to serve. We are failing, and what's worse, we have enshrined that failure into our policies."
This employee posted a video on facebook's internal discussion board as he was leaving his position at facebook after being with the company for seven years. Another employee of facebook who's been with the company for four years stated in a note, "Social media has enough power to damage the fabric of our society. If you think that's an overstatement, you aren't paying attention."
To understand on a deeper level the 'how did we get here?' one would have to look into the tools which facebook and other social media companies use in order to cater a personalized experience to each user. When we face this personalized experience for hours each day, its content can begin to influence the way we see the world. After we watch a string of depressing news or urgent calls to action, we are more likely to become less hopeful about the future and/or more impatient about something which needs to be done. Most, if not all of us, have experienced this after a serial news or social media binge.
Social media and constant news cycles have become sources of gravity for our attention and awareness. They have the influence to alter and shape our worldview, who or what we perceive as authoritative, and define our bubbles of reality. What we then have are billions of bubbles, each of us with our unique predispositions, our own assumptions which are reinforced daily by our interactions with social media and online content.
It isn't just social media and it isn't just one bad actor.
The cover of the May 6th, 2017 edition of the Economist featured some of the largest data companies in the world – google (alphabet), amazon, facebook, microsoft, uber, and tesla as off-shore oil rigs mining data. The headline reads: "The world's most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data."
So what does this have to do with the environment or our perception of the world around us?
In the 2019 Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, Brittany Kaiser, an ex-Cambridge Analytica employee likened the phenomenon of data's influence to a boomerang. Every time we interact with technology, we give it information. Everything we search for, everything we purchase online or with a credit/debit card, everything we post or like or watch – it is all data which is collected, stored, processed, and boomeranged back to us. In this manner, it can be predicted what we'll search for, when we're ready to buy something. It can predict our values and who we are likely to vote for. It can predict our relationship to science and our attitudes towards the environment.
Data creates the technological ocean in which we swim. It influences our social and political environment. It is that invisible something in the room, something scary, something close and far away, something we can't quite understand.
For me though, I'm quite happy that I've finally stumbled across all this and assembled some of the pieces. Before, I was intensely confused about what was happening as our dialogue and actions turned violent and dangerous. Like a boomerang, it came back home and now many of us have old friends and family members that we don't talk to anymore. Our relationship dynamics and social interactions have shifted in subtle, incremental, and almost imperceptible ways.
These slight alterations in values, beliefs, and behavior have had enormous consequences around the world and at home. This phenomenon has wedged our partisan values and beliefs further apart. This is what has concerned me most of all in presenting educational material on the environment, climate, and sustainability.
Who will I bring into the conversation by my assumptions?
Who will I push away?
In what ways have I been conditioned to perceive these topics and issues?
Can I be impartial in my attempt to reveal and share potentially controversial information?
This really gets at the roots of our scientific tradition. We examine reality. Science is a method by which we examine reality to understand it better. We encounter this reality, not to change it or shape it to our own preconceived notions. We examine it to understand it exactly how it is. We examine our own judgments and innate assumptions of the world around us. We allow these judgments and assumptions to dissolve. We let them go because our own narratives are incomplete and often inaccurate. To see clearly, we let the world around us to be exactly how it is.
So, as we participate in this natural world, we can encounter our fears and seek to understand them at a deeper level.
In my own understanding of climate and the environment, these are not abstract scientific notions which need a solution. Climate change is not something to solve. This attitude reduces our lives and perceptions into a tunnel-like vision. This vision assumes that there is some imaginary end point when our lives will be solved and everything will be fixed and perfect.
The environment and its climate are unfixed. They are things to experience, things to live in. They are things to encounter and participate in. They are imperfect. We as Americans have this strange drive to fix things and make them artificially perfect. We can allow things to be imperfect. It allows us to see with greater clarity and comprehend that there are different paths, different options.
Even though our solutions to environmental concerns play out on this stage of policy, government, popular culture, working life, recreation, and economic priorities; it is important to remember that the natural world is broader than politics and policy. It is broader than economies, fixed concepts of nations, and our own lives even.
Some questions to ask yourself:
In what context do you normally place our environment – to you is it scientific, political, economic, social, religious or spiritual?
To what or whom do you give authority in shaping your perspective?
Sources and Further Reading:
Why We Disagree About Climate, Mike Hulme, Cambridge University Press, 2009
The Great Hack, Netflix Documentary
The Social Dilemma, Netflix Documentary
About the Author
Daniel serves as the education coordinator for the Energy & Community team in Des Moines, IA. In this capacity, he is interested in the history of our relationship with the natural world and how our perceptions change over time. He co-hosts of the Green Iowa Pod, which is Green Iowa AmeriCorps' platform for environmental education material. Previously, he studied biomedical engineering and served in the Peace Corps as a high school teacher in Cameroon.