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The Fascinating Psychology Behind Environmental Beliefs

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by Ben Cohen

On some days, I wake up and truly believe the world as we know it is going to end. As the government funnels money upwards towards the rich, and outwards towards endless wars, it would only be logical to assume the economy is destined to fall apart. As we increase our food consumption and continue to rely on fossil fuels to provide our energy, it would only be logical to assume climate catastrophe in the near future (and there is much evidence to say we're living through it now). 

But on other days, I feel optimistic that human decency, ingenuity and survival instinct will pull us back from the brink and find a more sustainable way to live.  And occasionally, I think that our power to adapt to a changing environment means all of the above won't be as bad as many people make it out to be.

While the science seems to predict the worst, the environment is so complex and humans so unpredictable there are literally a million different outcomes possible. It is hard to know which view is the more accurate, as each are highly dependent on mood.

In a fascinating article in the Scientific American, Mark Maslin and John Adams put forward a proposal that our environmental beliefs are reliant on how individual humans respond to risk and uncertainty. They have broken down the environmental beliefs, or 'myths' that people subscribe to into four categories:

1) Nature is benign: Earth is predictable and robust, able to withstand or bounce back from any damage. This view corresponds with what they call individualists,
entrepreneurial types who don’t necessarily believe in control or
intervention from others. Maslin uses the example of self-made oil

2) Nature is ephemeral: Earth is fragile and it is in danger of collapse. And this view is held by egalitarians,
people who have strong democratic group loyalties but do not respect
externally imposed rules. Radical environmentalists might fall into
this category.

3) Nature is tolerant: Earth can handle some changes, but major excesses will send it reeling. This is a view held by hierarchists, people who know their place, and adhere to strong social structures. Scientists or soldiers might be examples.

4) Nature is capricious: Earth’s reactions are so unpredictable that we cannot predict nor accurately plan our future. This is the view of fatalists, those who feel they have little control over their lives.

Generally speaking, I feel I am a mixture of 1, 2 and a little bit of 4, although I'm sure that would change on any given day. Which one are you? Please comment or email to I'd love to hear your thoughts!