An Appeal to Humanity: Environmentalists Take Note

Supporters of sustainable and responsible environmental policy should stop talking about nature and start talking about humans. This statement may seem paradoxical; after all, countless studies have established that nature and humanity are intricately linked, and that human activity is contributing to the degradation of our forests, oceans, soil, and wildlife. However, despite years of discussing the tremendous impacts of anthropogenic activity on Earth’s many ecosystems, a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of American adults still do not believe that climate scientists should play a major role in making decisions about policy issues related to global climate change. Furthermore, 58 percent of Republicans polled believe that environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.  

So why have years of campaigns to save the endangered bees, bald eagles, and brown bears failed to convince millions of Americans about the need for responsible environmental policy? Recent sociological and psychological research may provide some answers. A study conducted by two sociologists from Northeastern University, Arnold Arluke and Jack Levin, found that distressed human infants evoke more empathy from human adults than distressed animal infants do, including puppies. In a separate experiment, psychologists at Georgia Regents University found that humans are greatly inconsistent in our views towards non-human species. The same people who viscerally recoil at images of dogs being abused often do not give a second thought to the 56 billion farmed animals killed each year by humans.

Burdened by innate attitude inconsistencies and a comparatively low degree of empathy, human beings simply are not capable of extending the moral obligation we feel towards other humans to the plant and animal world. Therefore, in order to most effectively sway public opinion to support sustainable environmental policy, it is imperative that environmentalists reframe the “go green” debate to clearly communicate the dangers that irresponsible environmental policy poses and will continue to pose to human communities across the globe.

One anecdote that demonstrates how a lack of responsible environmental policy affects communities is the story told by Dr. James Mestaz from Claremont McKenna College in his talk delivered in Diamond at Colby on Sept. 20. Mestaz studies the Mayo people, an indigenous group in Northern Sinaloa. The Mayo—who lived on the banks of the Rio Fuerte—viewed the river as central to both the cultural and physical survival of the group since the river was used for both religious ceremonies and community gatherings. In fact, the word “mayo” derives from a phrase meaning “river guardians.”

However, due to a lack of environmental policy to protect the river from encroachment by profit-hungry corporations, the Mayo were pushed off their land and now are only able to access the river through distant canals. The very foundation of the Mayo cultural identity shifted due to a laissez-faire approach to environmental regulation. Furthermore, thousands of Mayo people who relied on the river for its natural resources had to find new jobs to sustain themselves and their families.

In order to understand the dangers a lack of responsible environmental policy will bring in the future, it is important to examine past anecdotes such as the displacement of the Mayo people and their culture. Stories like these—which feature real human beings suffering from the consequences of the erosion of nature and the supremacy of big business—tug at the heartstrings far more than an ad for bald eagles ever will. To truly communicate the dangers of unregulated access to the environment, these tragic human stories must be shared for the world to hear.