Sunday, December 27, 2009

The depth of our environmental concerns mimics our evolutionary heritage

(Early humans probably traveled only short distances and only worried about short intervals of time into the future.)

Last year at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association in San Diego, CA, University of Missouri professor David Konisky reported on the results of his survey of 1,000 adults regarding their environmental concerns in a paper titled "Environmental Policy Attitudes, Political Trust and Geographical Scale". “The survey’s core result is that people care about their communities and express the desire to see government action taken toward local and national issues,” said Konisky, a policy research scholar with the Institute of Public Policy. “People are hesitant to support efforts concerning global issues even though they believe that environmental quality is poorer at the global level than at the local and national level. This is surprising given the media attention that global warming has recently received and reflects the division of opinion about the severity of climate change.”

In other words, people are more concerned about what happens in their own backyard than they are about the global environment. “Americans are clearly most concerned about pollution issues that might affect their personal health, or the health of their families,” Konisky said. Global warming ranked 8th among the environmental concerns reported by the respondents.

Is this really an unexpected result? On the surface, it seems surprising that given all the media attention to the problem of global climate change (e.g., rising ocean levels, melting glaciers, demise of polar bears and penguins, mass extinctions, shifts in agriculture, etc.) that it would not rank as the number one concern among a sample of Americans. But thinking as an evolutionary biologist for a moment, something I try to do a lot, the results could be viewed exactly as expected.

Throughout the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from about 1.8 million years BP until about 11,000 years BP, humans lived in relatively small nomadic groups, or clans, of related individuals. They probably did not live much past the age of 40 and they probably did not travel long distances. The landscape must have been a dangerous place, so I have to presume that individuals went only as far as they needed to obtain the requisites of life: food, water, animal skins for clothing, wood for a fire. Occasionally there would be a dispersal event to colonize new territory, but the world you knew was only as large as the area you walked during your relatively short life. What another hominid clan did three valleys away had no effect on your life whatsoever, and it seems likely that humans living 100 miles apart never even knew of each other’s existence. What I have briefly described here is what evolutionary psychologists call the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” or EEA. That is, conditions of life during the Pleistocene were such that humans were selected to be adapted to that environment, where life was short and known distances and effects were spatially small.

But times have changed. Now, the lifestyle of Americans, or Europeans, or Chinese threatens the well-being of a Bangladeshi living on the coast through the effects of global warming and rising ocean levels. The demand for furniture in Japan made of tropical woods can eliminate the habitat and homeland for native wildlife and humans living in parts of Indonesia. Radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine resulted in resettlement of more than 300,000 people locally, but the fallout was detected in North America. And on, and on, and on.

Somehow we have to rise above our evolved concerns focused on immediate issues of time and space, but I still do not know exactly how to bring that about. We are all at least aware of how local actions can have global effects, and that is a start. And many of us pay lip service to our responsibility to future generations. But it seems to me that overcoming the "small distance-short time" dilemma is critical to solving 21st century environmental problems. The evolutionary problem is simply this: what is best for us and our family right here and right now may be harmful to others further away and not yet born. This dilemma manifests itself over and over again. Recognizing it is a first step to overcoming it.


  1. I really enjoyed this blog. We do indeed find ourselves in a conundrum and I think so much of it has to do with localized over-stimulation. We have lost our ability to discern what is important because we are overloaded with too many options. It used to be that hunting was THE solution to being hungry and you would succeed, or not. Now you can hunt, go to the store, a restaurant, fast food, so forth and so on. There are 12 news stations telling us different things which make it difficult to make sense of anything. Why worry about global warming when there are so many other world changing events such as celebrity weddings and the dramatic trade of LeBron James?? While I think all words change meaning over time, the words "important" and "significant" have lost their gravitas in normal conversation. And of all words, perhaps those two are most in need of solid meaning.

  2. Good response Robert. I don't even watch tv news, which is almost all designed to catch our attention for 10 seconds, and I still feel overwhelmed much of the time. It seems we all need a way to refocus on something tangible, on which we can actually do something. For me, it occurs while sipping a scotch and smoking a cigar. Then, I go work in the garden, see the result immediately, know that I accomplished something worthwhile to me, and it's all better until I get all loaded up again with the world's crap.

  3. Yes I agree people are proon to think only of themselves and their imediate surroundings but there are great examples where people have joined together to overcome emmense difficulties. People just have to be convinced that it is in their best economic interest as well as that of their social group they identify with. People need real world examples and not just charts and graphs. The benefits of a healthy and stable environment are clear to all but the case has to be made that global climite change eventually effects us all especially in the pocket book and in reductions in standards of living.