Photo credits: Chris Riley, November 2011

Learning from The Antarctic: The causes of climate change & conspicuous conservation

| Tags: World

The ice in the Weddle Sea is melting. It has always melted. It comes and goes. Time lapse photographs from space reveal The Antarctic as a huge white pumping heart, expanding and contracting with the seasons. As well as the annual flow and retreat we now witness a long term melting of the ice shelves. This is not disputed. The Polar Ice Caps are melting. There is no serious doubt among scientists that there is a correlation between industrial pollution, the emission of greenhouse gasses for example, and global warming. Yet, on our ship, there is skepticism. Why?

The deeper issue seems to lie not in the facts but the medium of the message. “Inconvenient Truth” achieved two things: it elevated and simplified the issue in the minds of the public. It also politicized the subject. As a politicized subject it now falls into the world of the mainstream broadcast media for whom the story has to be one of right v left wing politics. Caught up in this narrative it becomes a matter of identity: Am I the kind of person who hates the industrial economy or am I the kind of person who loves it? The facts, as usual, are of little consequence in identity politics.

This phenomenon is captured nicely and reported by NPR in a draft paper by Steven and Alison Sexton entitled: “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides“. In the paper UC Berkeley researchers show that the way we solve conservation problems is often as much an issue of what we want to say about ourselves as it is about the best way to solve the problem. In other words, we tackle difficult issues and our role in solving them through the lens of our identity and how our (consumer) behavior projects us to our world. Neighbor facing solar panels and Toyota Prius cars are not always the best solution to reducing our impact on the environment but they let everyone know we care.

What is equally interesting is that we have come a long way from the conspicuous consumption stereotypes of the eighties. In the present world we, as consumers, are very aware that there are consequences to every act. We want to project our values through the products and services we purchase. This will be one story that evolves and grows over time. The challenge will be that the facts will catch up with the storytelling. Stand by for a rethink about our priorities. One conversation on the ship was about the simple fact that consuming less is the only real solution. Especially when you take the Pacific Gyre into account.

But that’s another story.