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The question of why professed environmentalists rarely act upon their beliefs by changing their lifestyles has had a central place in last week's post on Ecosophia. One of the answers put forward is peer pressure: as Helix put it in the comments:
How to make one’s way in a world that one will be out of step with if one gets serious about living in a manner more harmonious with the Earth? When your peers are out of harmony any you aren’t, then you’re out of harmony with your peers. We’re an intensely social species and our infrastructure and physical environment have been shaped by humans operating under the beliefs you have so eloquently pointed out. This does create some vexatious issues for people trying to live in a more sustainable manner.
JMG replied:
Helix, of course peer pressure and social status are among the things that have to be bucked in order to make change. People pursuing social change buck them all the time, To return to my favorite example, peer pressure and social status didn’t keep same-sex couples from pursuing the right to marry. They were willing to make the required sacrifices; why aren’t people who claim to love the planet?
I think a partial answer to this question can be found in the research of Clare W. Graves.

Graves is perhaps best known through the work of Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, who together wrote the book Spiral Dynamics, originally published in 1996, and that of Ken Wilber, who adopted a modified version of the SD system. The SD system is based on Graves' work on the "levels of existence," a theory of personality that is based on a hierarchy of values that emerge as old values prove dissatisfying.

The SD system as presented by Beck and Cowan fits very neatly with the myth of progress. In fact, it's practically soaked in it, despite some effort by the authors to avoid portraying "higher" stages as "better." So for the last few years I found myself reflexively dismissing it on that basis, though thinking there is probably something to it.

What prompted a re-assessment was my recent reading of Graves: Levels of Human Existence, a transcription of a 1970 lecture series by Clare W. Graves. (You can get the book at the Spiral Dynamics Store.) In it, Graves sets out how he came up with the system. I won't go into detail here because I intend to do a more detailed treatment in a later post. For now I'll just mention that I found it utterly compelling. I had found the pearl of wisdom that I'd been looking for.

Back to the question at hand: how does this help answer why environmentalists have such a hard time acting on their convictions? The (again, partial) answer is that environmentalism has taken root among those for whom acceptance by their peers is nearly everything. This is what Graves calls the F-S level, and what the SD system calls the "Green vMeme" (the color, by the way, is a coincidence). According to Graves, those whose values are centered at the F-S level have a core value of "sacrifice now for acceptance now."

By contrast, anti-environmentalists are often operating at the E-R ("express self in a calculating fashion") or D-Q ("sacrifice now for reward later") levels. While it can happen, care for the environment has a much harder time finding root in the E-R level, since people at that stage are generally chiefly concerned about getting a share of success and pleasure in the present, with only a modest interest in the consequences in the future (though far more than those at C-P, "express self impulsively at all costs," have).

Those at the D-Q level would be the ideal place for environmental care to take root, since they tend to be hardworking and willing to make the necessary sacrifices. The problem is that that level of being is monopolized by conservative interpretations of Christianity that tend to downplay the significance of the Earth. This isn't universal, but it is very common among those at this level, and it makes environmentalism an almost lost cause among them.

That leaves the F-S level as the bastion of environmentalism. I've already mentioned the problem with F-S: they care too much with what their peers think. Social status is almost as important to them as it is to the E-R crowd, except the point isn't to be on top, but just to keep up with everyone else. So if you're at F-S, you may at first denigrate the latest technological goo-gahs, but if all your friends start getting Apple Watches, you're going to have a hard time resisting the urge to get one yourself. (As someone with a strong F-S component myself, I know this feeling first-hand; thankfully, I talked myself out of the Apple Watch.)

That leaves the question: why is environmentalism so different from the cause of same-sex marriage in this regard? Certainly, the F-S crowd were champions of same-sex marriage. But so were the E-R crowd. The E-R crowd by and large looked around and said, "Why not?" The message, "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get one," resonated with their practicality and anti-authoritarianism, and the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to express themselves and be happier doing so resonated with their individuality. The fact that the whole thing really upset the authoritarian D-Q crowd was the icing on the cake.

So that, I think, is a partial answer to the question of why the two causes have turned out so differently. Another part is, of course, what JMG has mentioned in the original post: anthropolatry, an inflated estimation of the importance of human beings. That estimation probably aided the campaign for same-sex marriage by emphasizing the value of all human beings, but it is inhibiting the cause of re-adapting ourselves to Nature.


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James Jensen

September 2017

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