May 21, 2011 by sgoobie
Some may say, what does it matter to the urgent state of the planet how people think — it only matters what they choose to do, whether they damage and destroy, or preserve and create. Of course, in the end, these assertions seem correct; in the end, through human actions species are driven extinct, forests demolished and native soils poisoned.
Nevertheless, thought becomes paramount if we truly wish to resolve our ecological crises far into the future. How then might thought connect to action? How might a particular thoughtprint result in a corresponding footprint? Note: This connection is probably neither linear nor simple.
Consider a supposedly simpler phenomenon: the illegal downloading of music online. Most people in most societies would agree that abiding by the law is right and that stealing is wrong. “Thou shalt not steal” is a precept embedded in most cultures and most major religions, typically extending from some form of the so-called Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most people wouldn’t shoplift from a store, let alone rob a bank. Many would even acknowledge that illegal downloading is wrong, akin to stealing. They might have inner pinges of guilt upon thinking of partaking in this activity. Why then is illegal downloading and copyright infringement so widespread? (Admit it, we’ve probably all done it at some point!)
The reality is that either before and/or after we engage in any course of action, we create a justification for our particular choice. We rationalize our course of action to ourselves and to others, to convince ourselves that we are doing the “right” thing. This often means we “trick” ourselves into ignoring our inner intuition or past learnings about right and wrong. Whether this sense of morality is built-in or culturally learned, through rationalization we are able to override our guiding ethics. This conflict between our actions and our moral compass is sometimes called cognitive dissonance — a feeling of a battle between a choice of “going with our gut” or convincing ourselves that trusting our intuition is not the most desirable option. This may be depicted in the famous characature of a guiding angel on one shoulder and a tempting devil on the other.
A person illegally downloading music online may justify her actions through some of the following common rationalizations:
- Everyone is doing it.
- No one will find out.
- Some one I trust told me it is okay.
- No one will get hurt.
- The music corporations already make enough money.
- It’s just one song.
- I’m not going to sell it or give it to anyone. I’m just going to listen to it and enjoy it.
- I don’t have enough money.
- I didn’t know it was illegal.
- The artist won’t mind and will be happy I’m a fan.
This process applies in all sorts of situations. How did European slave traders — presumably faithful Christians who subscribed to the benevolent teachings of Jesus — permit the exploitation and kidnapping of millions of indigenous Africans from their homelands? How did these people rationalize their apparent racial superiority and the supreme importance of their financial and political gain? Similarly, how do meat-eaters in North America permit the large-scale industrial factory farm practices which provide flesh for consumption? How does a wealthy individual walk past a homeless person without a second glance?
People make mistakes, sometimes as the result of ignorance or a narrow focus on immediate personal needs. Isolated actions may not always be explained through justification. But repeated and organized collective behaviours, such as clear cutting of forests or the discharge of toxins into waterways, can find close relation to this premise. People engaged in such activities and those who make influencial decisions find solace in their justifications. The logging company CEO may sleep at night not because he is a terrible person who hates Nature, because he is soothed by a particular rationale that, conveniently, permits the company’s operation. People find comfort in the belief that what they are doing is waranted. But without rationals that hold personal and social validity, it quickly becomes difficult to maintain any particular course of action.
The power of rationalization of actions brings both discouragement and hope as we consider the fate of the Planet. Yes, individuals, governments and industries will make excuses for destructive behaviour according to the justifications most readily available. When these rationales are commonly accepted within a particular mass culture, few will raise objections.
However, we can equip people with powerful new rationales — delivered through new ways of thinking — to support needed behaviour changes. Somehow, we need to help people match their actions to their intuitive or learned sense of ethics; for example, as is now done, by pointing out that illegally downloading music is no different than stealing a CD from a music store — creating a clearer, stronger sense of cognitive dissonance. By helping people understand where in history ecologically problematic justifications come from and how they operate, there is hope that these destructive excuses can be challenged, ultimately freeing societies to find new justifications or provoke populations to match their actions to what they know in their hearts is right for the Planet. (What is right for the planet, of course, is always a matter of debate.)
The impact of thought is complex, more complex than such measurable activities as driving habits and production of consumer goods. We should not run away from thought because of its complexity. Rather, this is a sign that we need to spend more time thinking about thought and exploring the questions related to why we act in particular ways toward the forests, rivers, and skies. Much is at stake.