the myth of apathy

the conundrum

At this moment in time, there is no shortage of good ideas about how to make the world cleaner and greener.

We live in a time where there is an abundance of juicy good ideas, more awareness than ever about our ecological contexts. Information about biodiversity, creatures in the deep seas and remote corners of this planet, the fragility of our home. Information about the threats.

More information, period.

And yet, the riddle at the center of just about any sustainability effort is why more people are not taking action. People meaning “the public,” elected officials, and all in between. Even more specific: people taking the actions that we know would have a good chance of mitigating the most severe threats facing our horizon, from climate change to overfishing to toxic contamination of air, water and dirt. Actions that we know would do us all – plants, critters, humans – a lot of good.

For decades, the environmental movement has been situated as the naysayer, poised to pounce on anyone who would dare buy a battery farm chicken, buy cheap sweatshop clothes made with pesticide-saturated cotton or take a short-haul flight.Worse still, those who dare to buy and drive large gleaming SUVs or buy extravagant McMansions. Flagrant consumption of finite resources and the ignorance of where our energy comes from is a veritable sin.

However, the image of the moralizing environmentalist appears to be changing. Marketing agencies and corporations are cottoning on to the fact that if we make green sexy, hot, and profitable, more people will “buy” into it (pun intended). Green sells. Yet in the move to commodify green as quickly as possible, something fundamental is overlooked, glossed over. It is as if we can somehow suture together the rifts inherent in our consumptive-based way of life, and all that led us to this point (yes, all of it, from the first coal mines carved out of Wales to the present moment), and smooth it all into one lovely, profitable, ideologically consistent and seamless green dream.

While this vision is intensely appealing – as we generally want to avoid pain and struggle, and are drawn to comfort, ease and pleasure like bees to honey – it is psychologically retrograde, emotionally confusing, and ideologically incoherent. Most of us are embedded in the very practices, desires, goods,textures and sensations that contribute to our ecological ills.

It’s the paradox at the center of an ecological consciousness, and one that runs to the heart of why people may do nothing to help save or protect our environment, despite our best wishes, hopes, desires and dreams to do so.

Being green is attractive, desirable and profitable. However, it is also potentially frightening and threatens what many of us hold to be central to who we are – how we construct meaning in our lives. Until we incorporate the whole picture into our vision of being sustainable, we are going to be fighting a battle. Flowing against a current. When in fact, we can be flowing with the current – if we can acknowledge paradoxes, contradictions, and dilemmas these topics can bring up.

the myth of apathy

“Apathetic” is a description of a lack, a deficit, when something vital appears to be missing. We think of apathy as the central driver for public inaction in the face of serious issues, whether it is political injustice, ecological devastation or plain wrongness in the world. Apathy is a blanket term to describe what seems to almost defy description: the lack of pathos. From the Greek apatheia, it means quite literally lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern (OED, 2011). Apathy is perceived commonly as an “enemy” – of reform,political action, up-take. It can also be seen as shorthand for “selfish,” “ignorant”or “greedy” – attributes often ascribed to “the public” for not “doing enough” to protect our collective resources, fellow creatures and planet.

In order to believe in apathy, and the studies that seem to suggest people don’t really give a toss, we find some surprising assumptions about human psychology. Assumptions that require being challenged, including:

If someone believes, feels or values something, there is a necessary correlative, or “the face value myth.”

That we are aware of all of our thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and conflicts at any given time and can adequately provide them on request. This is the “transparency myth.”

Humans have the capacity to quite literally turn off their feelings, sensations or responses to the world around them, or “the robot myth.”

The “public” is largely passive, and what is required are ever more ingenious communication strategies to mobilize, inspire, cajole, threaten, frighten or force specific actions. This can also be called “the sheep myth.”

What all of these assumptions have in common is a particular conception of human psychology: that we are largely rational beings who are self-determined, transparent to ourselves and to others, and with the right levers and motivators, we can be enticed to take certain actions and avoid others. (And these levers and motivators can be in the form of a compelling campaign, reward scheme or social acceptance.) That we are ultimately self-interested and focused on self-preservation more than anything else. It’s a stunning image of human nature once you scratch the surface; and not a pretty one.

The alternative is not recourse to a Pollyanna fantasy that humans will always do what is right and just, for we know this not to be the case. A more compelling and arguably accurate conception of human nature may be one that assumes and presume contradiction, ambivalence, paradox, and dilemmas. It takes on board that with change, there is often loss. And with loss, there is often mourning and melancholia. And with grief and loss, there can be space for creative engagement, participation, care and concern.