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.