Transforming Psychological Worldviews to Confront Climate Change: A Clearer Vision, A Different Path

Transforming Psychological Worldviews to Confront Climate Change: A Clearer Vision, A Different Path

by F. Stephan Mayer

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In the continuing debate of how to confront the challenges of climate change, individuals, advocacy groups, and political parties in the United States offer arguments and solutions based on economic and political viewpoints. But what if we are beginning from a distorted view?
In this book, F. Stephan Mayer argues that our psychological representation of the world is at the heart of the underlying causes of climate change. Mayer posits that we need to change the way we see the world if we are to effectively take a new course of action to address this threat.  Through an alternative worldview based on Aldo Leopold’s concept of land ethic, Mayer furthers the conversation by promoting a clearer vision of our relationship to nature and how it leads to a different path directed toward environmental sustainability. Based on over 20 years of psychological research examining the impact of the land ethic on pro-environmental behavior and personal well being, Mayer’s accessible tone invites readers to place their worldview within a broader framework, draw connections to their lives, and spark ideas of next steps that individuals and groups can take to transition to this alternative worldview and rectify this situation. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298453
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,231,705
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

F. Stephan Mayer is Professor of Psychology and Peace Studies at Oberlin College.

Read an Excerpt


See Better

Psychology as a Foundational Science to Confront Climate Change

William Shakespeare's King Lear is our starting point, presenting a major theme that runs throughout this book. The theme concerns sight, the accuracy of our views, and the importance of seeing clearly, for a basic premise of this book is that our distorted vision has given rise to climate change. One implication of this is that if we are to successfully navigate the environmental threat of climate change that lies ahead of us, we need to correct this distorted sight. Only in this way can we set a new course of action that will effectively confront this threat.

In Shakespeare's play, King Lear did not see clearly, and his misrepresentation of reality cost him dearly. A pivotal point in the play occurs when Lear asks his three daughters to profess their love for him. Two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, have no particular love for their father, but simply say the words he wishes to hear. The third daughter, Cordelia, genuinely loves him in her own way, but finds herself unable to engage in this public stunt. Lear, an old man who wishes to have his ego fed by the pronouncements of his daughters, misperceives the situation. He praises Goneril and Regan for their pronouncements and angrily denounces Cordelia, taking away her inheritance and banishing her from his kingdom.

From this misperception one subplot in the play unfolds. The king, once the highest of the high, becomes a lowly wanderer in the wilderness, perplexed, lost both physically and emotionally, and heartbroken. The tragedy is that all this could have been avoided had Lear been able, at the urging of his loyal attendant Kent, to see better. But Lear, owing to his own vanity and the veiled and forthright actions of those around him, could not accurately see what was before him. Consequently, in response to a misperceived reality, he acted in a manner that led to tragedy.

As in the case of Lear, tragedies can often be avoided. For example, during the maiden voyage of the Titanic, the ship's captain, despite warnings of icebergs in the vicinity, continued to proceed at nearly full speed. Whether this lack of caution was due to a sense of invulnerability, a need to keep on schedule, or failed communications, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the captain, Edward Smith, in an interview before the ship left port, reflected that he could not "imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that" (Wight 2012). A clear misperception, and the tragedy of the sinking is that the deaths of the more than 1,500 passengers who perished, out of 2,224 passengers on board, might have been avoided had the threat been acknowledged.

In general, as you'll see in subsequent chapters, we often misperceive situations, and at times these misperceptions have dire consequences. Vanity and a misjudged sense of invulnerability are just two factors that have been shown to lead to misperceptions. Hopefully, by articulating these biases, acknowledging them, and taking them into account as we confront the challenge of climate change, we'll be better able to face this challenge, see it for what it is, and effectively take action.


Climate change and the environmental challenges that stem from it are the potential tragedies we need to clearly see and confront today. The point of this book is not to debate whether climate change has occurred. Within the scientific community, there is a resounding consensus that this threat is present, affects our lives, and must be addressed before it worsens. Many articles and books are devoted to the science behind it (e.g., IPCC 2014; Hansen 2010; McKibben 2010). Given this, there is no need for me to reiterate this information. Rather, I'll simply introduce you to several challenges related to this threat and provide a few implications associated with it.

Climate change refers to what many people call global warming, climate destabilization, or climate chaos. The terms are meant to characterize thegeneral warming that has been recorded worldwide and the increasingly erratic and unpredictable nature of the climate. Given that people generally think of this issue in terms of climate change or global warming, let's consider climate destabilization and climate chaos for a moment. These terms highlight the idea that weather events are more commonly occurring in places where they have infrequently occurred before, such as tornadoes in North Carolina and hurricanes increasingly affecting the northeast. Additionally, the term climate destabilization or chaos is preferred to the term global warming, because not every region experiences an increase in temperature at each season of the year. For instance, on the one hand, the general global-warming pattern results in hot days being hotter, more intense heat waves, more intense droughts with resultant wildfires, and milder winters for many. On the other hand, eventually, if the warmer waters from the gulf stream no longer flow north toward Great Britain owing to the snowmelt from Greenland and the Artic, Europe may experience colder winters (IPCC 2014). Overall, then, the terms climate destabilization and climate chaos capture the changing climatic conditions that are leading to more erratic and intense weather events. Increasingly, this is the nature of the climate and weather that we presently face and will be dealing with in the future. When hearing the term climate change, then, keep in mind its varied impacts.

Another critical point to reflect upon is that climate change has already occurred. It is present, affecting our lives today. We cannot somehow avoid it. We cannot make it go away. Our actions have changed the atmosphere of the earth we live on, and this change — even if we stopped using all fossil fuels today, no longer emitting even a single iota of CO into the atmosphere — will remain for generations to come.

Bill McKibben (2010) states that we now live on a changed world, a world he calls "Eaarth." Human emissions of greenhouse gases have already raised Earth's temperature by .8 degrees Celsius. If we were to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions today, Earth's temperature will still rise an estimated additional .8 degrees Celsius because of the lag time between emissions and temperature rise (McKibben 2012). In other words, we have already raised Earth's temperature by approximately 1.6 degrees Celsius, and these changes will last for centuries. Our lives and the lives of future generations will be spent on this new planet, Eaarth.

Other scientists (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000), using different terminology, argue that we have transitioned from the Holocene period to the Anthropocene period, a name reflecting the impact that humans have had on the climate (anthropo- meaning "human," -cene meaning "new"). This transition is important to acknowledge because civilization emerged during the Holocene period, a time of a relatively benevolent climate that enabled humankind to flourish. A major question is whether human civilization can still flourish during this new period.

Generally, scientists agree that, if civilization is going to continue to prosper, it is imperative that Earth warms by no more than 2 degrees Celsius (McKibben 2012b). After that point, it will be increasingly likely that our ability to control the climate will become negligible. At some point after a 2-degree-Celsius increase, climate change may spiral out of control. All of our wants, wishes, and actions will be unable to rein in a climate that will have become uncontrollable. This "tipping point" concept is analogous to a person pushing a precariously perched boulder down a slope. Once it starts rolling, there's nothing that anyone can do to stop it. We have to do everything possible to avoid pushing our climate into a runaway scenario, for at that point civilization will be threatened. So, when thinking of this issue, the best we can hope for is to avoid the worst that this challenge has to offer, minimizing the difference between our old Earth and Eaarth, which we now live on.

This issue in no way means that we need not continue to focus on environmental sustainability. Sustainability is still the number one goal. Equally important, however, is the need for us to figure out how we are going to live on this new Eaarth. This issue is reflected in the increased discussion of resiliency in the environmental literature (Dodman, Ayers, and Hug 2009; Doherty and Clayton 2011; Reser and Swim 2011). Increasing the resiliency of crops to drought, and the resiliency of individuals and communities to the impact of the intensification of weather, has become the topic of that discussion. In this book, I examine the factors that contribute to personal and community resiliency.

The heat waves we experience today are like none that humans have experienced for generations. This is an example of how Eaarth is different from our old Earth. In fact, the intensity of the heat wave that gripped Europe in the summer of 2003 had not been experienced in over five hundred years, and the consequences were devastating. More than fifty-two thousand people, many of them elderly, died that summer from heat-related causes. At the peak of this heat wave, in August, over two hundred people died each day in France. Moreover, the parched landscape fueled brush and forest fires, streams and rivers ran dry, and food crops withered (Larsen 2006).

Similarly, Russia had not experienced a heat wave like it did in the summer of 2010 in over 130 years. More than 550 wildfires burned forests, grasslands, and wheat fields over some 430,000 acres. Army units were called into action to assist local fire departments in quelling these fires. Crops were damaged and destroyed by the extreme heat and by fire. A nation that had been a grain exporter placed a ban on exports (Brown 2010). This is one snapshot of Eaarth, on which we now live. The possible future in which these extreme heat waves become the norm and not the exception would be a tragedy. Indeed, these by-products of climate change could cost lives, damage the ecosystems in which we live, and jeopardize our food security.

On Eaarth today, not only are episodic heat waves more extreme, but also droughts last longer. The American plains states and the Southwest have been especially hard hit by drought. For instance, in 2011, Texas had the driest year in over 100 years (the driest since 1895, to be exact), and in 2013 California had the driest year on record. In fact, the western United States has been in a drought since the year 2000 (Rice 2014).

With increased droughts, farmers and ranchers in the West have few options but to become increasingly reliant on reservoirs of underground water. These underground reservoirs are called aquifers. The major aquifer in the Great Plains is called the Ogallala Aquifer. One of the world's largest aquifers, the Ogallala Aquifer is located under portions of eight states (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota). Many farmers and ranchers in these states rely on this water for irrigation of their crops and for cattle and other animals. Eighty-two percent of the people living over this aquifer rely on it for drinking water. This reservoir is being used up faster than it is being replenished. Drought only accelerates this problem. In fact, there are estimates that this aquifer will be dry within 25 years (BBC News 2003). This constitutes a major challenge not only to the livelihoods of farmers in this region but also to the general habitability of the region. This is a food security issue, too. We need to avoid the tragedy of the United States' breadbasket turning into a dust bowl, of megadroughts, lasting from 30 to 100 years, turning agricultural lands and ranchlands into parched deserts. In fact, megadroughts are projected for the Southwest if we do not change our present course of action (McIntee 2015).

On a related note, warming trends also lead to less snowfall in mountain regions of the world, affecting what some refer to as "reservoirs in the sky." During summer, many farmers rely on snowmelt for irrigation. Ranchers rely on this for their animals. Others rely on it for drinking water. For instance, on April 1, 2015, the snowpack reading in the Sierra Nevada was the lowest it had been in sixty years. This led the governor of California, Jerry Brown, to announce an executive order. To highlight the ongoing drought that California is facing, Brown made his announcement from a high meadow in the Sierra Nevada, beginning his speech by saying, "We're standing on dry grass. We should be standing on five feet of snow." He went on to order towns and cities across California to cut water use by 25 percent. Emphasizing that the drought might very well persist, he acknowledged that "it's a different world" we live in today, and that, accordingly, "we have to act differently" (Megerian, Stevens, and Boxall 2015).

This issue of reductions in the snowpack is far reaching. It certainly relates to the snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada that nourishes the farmlands in the Central Valley of California and towns and cities throughout the state. Similarly, the snowmelt in the Rockies feeds the Colorado River. Snowmelt from the Hindu Kush, Pamir, and Tien Shan mountains provides water to many countries in Central Asia (e.g., Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan). And snowmelt from the Himalayas feeds every major river in Asia, where half of the people in the world live.

Himalayan snowmelt feeds the Yellow River. Having less water in the Yellow River will directly affect China's wheat harvest. And if reduced snowmelt lowers the level of the Yangtze River, China's rice production will be directly affected. Similarly, if the water in the Ganges and the Indus Rivers is reduced, shortfalls in India's wheat harvest will occur, while if the Mekong River receives less water, Vietnam's rice harvest will suffer. In this Asian region that is so heavily populated and projected to have a dramatic rise in population in the coming years, food shortages would lead not only to human suffering but also to possible political instability and conflict. This is where we are heading as a human race if we don't curb climate change.

With the melting of the arctic ice, the Greenland glaciers, and the general warming of the oceans, sea-level rise will increasingly affect low-lying coastal areas. Already, some seaside communities on the Eastern Seaboard, ranging from north of Boston south to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, are experiencing the initial challenge of sea-level rise (Sallenger, Doran, and Howd 2012). Many coastal cities in the United States are expected to experience ill effects from rising sea levels later in this century (New York Times 2016). For instance, in Boston, a five-foot sea-level rise would result in parts of Logan Airport disappearing. Boston Harbor would begin to infringe on the downtown area, and the Charles River would flood much of southern Cambridge. As for Charlestown, South Carolina, the coastline is projected to move several miles inland. A similar fate is in store for the Miami area, where the sea is expected to submerge the barrier islands, Miami Beach, and much of suburban Miami. In New York, given a five-foot sea-level rise, La Guardia Airport would be threatened by the encroachment of the East River and the port complexes would be flooded. Much of Atlantic City, too, would be flooded, as would the Meadowlands. I could go on and on, but I'm sure you get the idea. The implications of this are staggering. If we do not act to prevent such damage by limiting sea-level rise, tough decisions will have to be made. Do we spend vast sums of money to protect these areas — the facilities, the airports, and the people whose homes are located in these areas — or at some point do we simply decide that these areas are no longer habitable? And if the latter decision is made, where do these people go?

Of course, this issue affects communities and nations around the globe. Millions upon millions of individuals live in coastal areas. In southeast Asia, Bangladesh, a country of 156 million people, experiences flooding each year, which covers a quarter of the country. Climate change is making flooding worse. A number of small islands, such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, and Tegua, are being threatened by sea-level rise. Many of the residents of these islands have already packed up their belongings and relocated (The Guardian 2009).

As time passes in this century, climate change will increasingly force people to relocate. In 2008 alone, some 20 million people were displaced by climate-related natural disasters (The Guardian 2009). As President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives stated in testimony to the Environmental Justice Foundation, the people in his country do not want to "trade a paradise for a climate refugee camp." Yet, if climate change goes unabated, over the next forty years an estimated 150 million climate refugees will be forced to move to other countries. This is a tragedy on a global level. We need to see that this threat never becomes a reality.


Excerpted from "Transforming Psychological Worldviews to Confront Climate Change"
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Copyright © 2019 F. Stephan Mayer.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword xv

Prologue xix

1 See Better: Psychology as a Foundational Science to Confront Climate Change

Averting a Present-Day Tragedy 2

Envisioning Psychology as a Foundational Science to Confront the Environmental Threat of Climate Change 9

The Psychology of Perception versus Reality 12

Schemas and Misperceptions 15

Cultural Worldviews, Cultural Schemas, and Unjustified Clarity Distortions 17

Do Cultural Schemas Help or Hinder Us? 19

The Issue of Critiquing Worldviews 21

The Emphasis within the Environmental Movement: Is it Severely Limited? 24

In Summary: Five Major Issues 25

Final Thoughts 26

2 The Fundamental Problem: The Psychology Behind Climate Change

Unjustified Clarity Distortions: A Further Elaboration 29

Why Critique the United States' Worldview? 33

The General Argument 34

Feelings of Separation, Distance, and Indifference 34

Cultural Striving for Superiority and Self-Enhancement 37

Articulating and Critiquing the Worldview of the United States 40

The Individualistic Cultural Lens: The Autonomous Self and Distancing 40

Feelings of Superiority: Hierarchy and Distancing 44

The Big Picture: Shifting from an Ego to an Eco Orientation 52

The Idea of Progress: Striving for Personal Success and Material Wealth 55

Analytic as Opposed to Holistic Thinking: Seeing Parts, Not Wholes 61

The Belief in a Just World: Moral Distancing and Denial of Impropriety 62

Final Thoughts 64

Seeing Clearly Means Seeing Connections 65

Looking Ahead 66

3 The Emergency of Climate Change: Why are we Failing to Take Action?

Introducing Latane and Darley's Model of Prosocial Behavior 68

The Psychology behind Pro environmental Behavior 72

Stage 1. Noticing the Event 75

Sensory Limitations 75

Our Ancient Brain 76

Urban Lifestyle/Living indoors 77

Technological Devices 78

Being Self-Absorbed 78

Lack of Place Attachment 79

Habituation 80

Escapist Activities 80

General Ignorance 80

Stage 2. Interpreting the Event as an Emergency 81

Incongruity of Pleasant Weather as Threat 81

Optimism Bias 82

Technosalvation/Suprahuman Powers 83

Discounting the Messenger/Mistrust 84

Right-Whig Political Ideology 85

Disinformation Campaigns 87

A General Atmosphere of Uncertainty 88

Social Comparison 88

Selective Exposure 89

Social Norms/Pluralistic Ignorance 90

Denial 91

Psychological Distance 92

Stage 3. Feeling Personal Responsibility and a Sense of "We" 92

Mastery-Oriented Individualistic Worldview 93

Lack of Place Attachment 94

Factors Influencing Causal Attributions 94

Diffusion of Responsibility 95

Temporal/Spatial Proximity 95

Self Enhancing Tendencies 95

Just-World Beliefs 96

Ethnocentric Beliefs 96

Magnitude of Cause and Effect 96

Stages 4 and 5. Forming an Idea of What to Do and Having the Ability to Do It 97

Feeling Overwhelmed 97

Ignorance 98

Fatalism 98

Perceived Self-Efficacy and Collective Efficacy 98

Depleted Directed Attention 99

Lack of Creativity 99

An Emphasis on Cleverness and Analytic Thinking 100

Habit/Commitment 100

Rebound Effect 101

Mistrust 101

The Overriding Cost/Benefit Analysis 101

Risks 101

Financial Investments 103

Perceived Inequity 103

System Justification 103

Conflicting Values, Goals, Aspirations 103

Tokenism 104

Final Thoughts: How Can We Overcome the Obstacles to Helping? 104

Being Realistic about the Opposition and Barriers 104

The Great Transition 106

4 The Great Transition: From Separateness to Interconnectedness

The Land Ethic Worldview 110

Measuring the Land Ethic Worldview. The Connectedness to Nature Scale 114

Other Related Measures of Connectedness to Nature 115

Final Comments on Scales 122

The Land Ethic, Self-Enhancement, and Self-Transcendence 126

The Land Ethic and Distancing Effects 127

The Issue of Materialism 129

The Land Ethic, Perspective-Taking, and Environmental Concern 130

The Land Ethic and Proenvironmental Behavior 131

Lifestyle/Consumer Practices 132

Support for and Involvement in Environmental Organizations 136

Political Activism on Behalf of the Environment 137

The Land Ethic and Well-Being 138

The Land Ethic and Problem Solving, Holistic Thinking, and Creativity 143

The Land Ethic and Spirituality 144

Final Thoughts 145

Creating Greater Harmony between Human and Environmental Systems 145

Creating Greater Harmony between People 146

The Value of Interconnectedness 147

Reflections on the Great Transition 148

A Word of Caution 149

Can It Be Done? 149

5 Actions Being Taken to Transition to the Land Ethic Worldview

The Oberlin Project 152

Transition Town Totnes 160

Everyday Transitions 164

The Children and Nature Network 165

Urban Planning 167

The Role of Churches 168

Final Thoughts 170

References 175

Index 191

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