Why Money Can Never Save the Environment, But Fear Might


Richard Branson, the British
entrepreneur who owns the Virgin group of companies, today announced a $25
million dollar prize for an invention that can remove carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere. What a waste of time. $25 million can’t help the environment,
neither can $25 billion or $25 trillion. It’s a catastrophic misunderstanding
of the problem. Politicians and entrepreneurs alike tend to reduce every
problem to monetary considerations. Of course money is important but human
behaviour follows its own rules, a fact thousands of years of our history amply
We are selfish

Just look at the US as a prime
example of an advanced society in love with itself and in love with its way of
life. It is arguably the most technologically advanced society in the world and
what is the result? The invasion and destabilisation of fragile countries to
get more fuel to run more cars to create more carbon dioxide to destroy our
world. And that’s the most ‘advanced’ country. What about other countries more
desperate, whose people have far less to lose?
Let me be clear, I’m not
blaming any particular country, I’m only using the US as a prime example. Here
in the UK we’re just as bad, although as we don’t have as much influence so we
don’t cause quite as much damage. The problem is the same in every country
because human nature is the same across the world. Give people a chance and
they’ll take all they can get.
Ultimately people quite
naturally want to protect their own way of life. We have got used to travelling
around in cars, eating foods flown from the other side of the world and living
lives of which our ancestors could only have dreamed. Yes, we nod towards
environmentalism by recycling the odd empty wine bottle or newspaper, or
turning off the lights when we leave a room, but how much difference does this
really make?
Suicidal societies

This problem isn’t new. As
Jared Diamond points out in his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to
Fail or Survive, humans have been destroying their environment and paying the
consequences for millennia.

  • The inhabitants of Easter
    Island were reduced to cannibalism after depleting all their natural resources.
    They chopped down all their trees and ate all the birds and finally had to eat
    each other in a desperate struggle for survival.
  • Cannibalism was rife at the
    end for the inhabitants of Mangareva, another society that destroyed its own
    natural resources.
  • The Vikings in Greenland
    failed to learn from the native Inuit, destroyed their environment leading to
    their own extinction.
That was then, this is now
“While the tools of these
societies might have been different, the people operating the tools were
working from roughly the same set of premises as we are today…”

The examples go on and on. But
surely, you say, these people weren’t technologically advanced, they didn’t
have the tools we have now: container ships, airlines and satellites encircling
the globe, they were living in precarious places in the world, where natural
resources were scarce. While the tools of these societies might have been
different, the people operating the tools were working from roughly the same
set of premises as we are today: first survive, then make life comfortable,
then make it more comfortable, then repeat and reproduce.
Think how much more damage our
tools can do to the environment than theirs could. If humans can make an island
uninhabitable with rudimentary iron age technology, think what we can do with
all our mighty machines. We have the power in our hands to make the Easter
Islanders, Mangarevans and Norse Greenlanders look like tiny blips on the radar
of self-destruction. Where once we worried about our world going up in a
mushroom-shaped cloud, our species now faces the prospect of a more extended
demise at the end of which may lie cannibalism.

Is the destruction of our
environment an insoluble problem? Will we ever learn the lessons of history?
Can we really accept the measures that might be necessary to save the world? If
there is one thing that politicians have discovered in the 20th century it’s
that fear motivates people. If people can be put in a state of fear, their
behaviour can be changed. A fearful populace will support measures that once
seemed unimaginable. But fear is no good if it’s hovering at some distant point
in the future, as does environmental collapse. Someone needs to be holding a
weapon in your face now, the adrenaline has to be flowing.
“…it’s not your own children
at the centre of the debate, it’s everyone else’s children…”

Branson talks about how he
wants a future for his children and his children’s children. This is useless
rhetoric. Of course you’ll protect your own children, but it’s not your own
children at the centre of the debate, it’s everyone else’s children. What will
you do to save them?
In reality Branson’s $25
million is just another empty gesture everyone will have forgotten about
tomorrow when they climb back into their cars to go to work to earn the money
to afford the trinkets of a modern consumer society, like a Virgin mobile
phone, or a Virgin Atlantic airline trip.
Hope through fear

Governments, societies,
individuals; we all need to understand the problem is fundamentally human. If
we can understand this then we have a chance of making the necessary changes. Nothing
can save us but a revolution in our thinking. That revolution can only come
from fear. Fear that we won’t survive.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.