The Day the Earth Stood Still: Humans & our planet

Note: This article is my once-in-a-while exploration of human behavior and climate change. While it is in no way related to health care, it may be directly related to health.

Last weekend, we watched the critically unacclaimed remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves. While the movie left a great deal to be desired, it reminded me of the ongoing issue of human behavior and how we affect our world. This particular movie ends on a hopeful yet doubtful note that we will be able to change our behavior in time to keep climate change from destroying our species.

The American Psychological Association’s Climate Change Task Force Report has now been published in a nice booklet format. I am hopeful that the shorter, more attractive read will make the report accessible to more readers.

Section 2 of the report discusses the human behavioral contributions to climate change along with psychological and contextual components of the contributions. As is frequent in reports and studies by psychologists, ethical concerns are high on the list of issues to be considered. Since population growth and consumption of raw materials to manufacture those things which increase our perception of quality of life are two factors documented to contribute to the manner by which humans impact climate change, how we address population growth and consumption is crucial. Expecting developing nations to forego growth and consumption while the developed countries (like us) continue to consume is blatantly unjust. Many argue that expecting the developing world to forego growth is unjust even if we were to completely alter our own patterns of consumption.

Demographers have developed formulae to demonstrate the effect humans have on the environment. The basic

and widely known formula from the 1970s is I = PxAxT where I = Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence per capita and T = Technology. (APA Climate Change booklet, p 30, from Ehrlich & Holdren, 1971; Commoner, 1972; Holdren & Ehrlich, 1974)

Newer models take into account that countries with the highest per capita Gross Domestic Product plus intense consumption of goods and services requiring greenhouse gas production (environmental consumption) produce the most emissions and therefore the greatest environmental impact. These models are lovely ways to show in graphical form the impact of our reproductive and consumption choices. They do not, however, in any way address the variety of factors that contribute to growth in population (for example , individual and cultural religious beliefs; gender role beliefs; beliefs about individual vs. government control of reproduction; norms about when to start having children and how many to have; infant mortality; availability of food resources; and longevity. Population growth is a very complex phenomenon).

Consumption is an even more complex set of events and requires equally complex analysis. Each consumption behavior is multifactorially determined and requires analysis at different levels including institutional, sociocultural and physical environment context, individual factors such as demographics and psychological drivers, consumption of economic resources, consumption of environmental resources, greenhouse gases produced and emitted, and specific climate change.

The APA report discusses the need to separate consumption behaviors so we can determine which have the greatest impact on climate change. To spend significant resources researching behaviors with minimal impact will not be cost effective. To spend our time and energy learning about and affecting behaviors which have the most direct and largest impact on climate will be the best expenditure of psychological expertise.

While this report assesses what psychologists and the behavioral science community can do to impact climate change, the booklet is an articulate and readable explication of human behavior and climate change.

The question I have asked you before and will ask you again is the following: should we just sit helplessly by while the world (and our climate) changes around us, or should we learn what each of us can do in our individual and organizational lives to affect that change? What do you think?

0 thoughts on “The Day the Earth Stood Still: Humans & our planet

  • I had a comment when I first read this last week about something which has an impact on both our health and environment.

    Drive thru restaurants are one of my pet peeves. Our culture has become conditioned to simply driving to order the fast food which is killing us. Then we leave the car idling with the air conditioning running while we wait to pay for and receive our bag(s) of convenient, rarely nutritious food. By simply parking the car and walking in to order we actually get some exercise, help the environment as well as our cars, and frequently get our food more quickly than breathing in the exhaust fumes as we wait for the cars ahead of us to get theirs.

    • I could not agree more. We rarely eat fast food, so I don’t often get those fumes. There are many small behaviors we could each change that would have dramatic impact if enough of us did them. Skipping the fast food would be more impactful even than skipping the drive through, but one small step at a time is much better than none!

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