Nature: Destroying What We Love

Invisible Nature by UC Santa Cruz's Kenneth Worthy examines the fascinating question of why we continually make environmentally destructive choices (gas guzzling cars, disposable goods, toxic products) even when we truly care about nature and the environment. In this thought-provoking but ultimately frustrating book, which I review in the August 1 issue of Nature (preview only for non-subscribers), Worthy points to the psychology of dissociation and modern man's disconnection from nature as the culprits.

The author puts an environmental spin on the controversial 1960s experiments of Stanley Milgram of Yale University, who sought to understand the "destructive obedience" of soldiers in Nazi death camps. Milgram’s subjects were asked to administer a series of increasingly powerful electrical shocks to students to punish wrong answers and encourage learning, with a lab director -- the "authority figure" -- urging them on. The test subjects could hear (but not see) their victims in an adjacent room grunt with pain and, later, scream in agony. Yet 80 percent of the test subjects continued administering shocks past the point of pleas to be released (which were feigned – these were actors pretending to be shocked). The numbers drop if the victims and shockers are put in the same room. Milgram's verdict: People will do terrible things they would never do on their own if the damage remains out of sight and if a trusted authority figure assures them it's the right thing to do.

Invisible Nature argues that  the same psychology lays behind our everyday environmentally destructive choice: the consequences of waste and pollution remain out of view of most consumers, and an array of authorities urges us on in our choices, from politicians to business leaders to pervasive advertising and marketing messages.

Worthy's analysis brings to mind a perfect example of this sort of behavior that I used in my own book, Garbology -- a quote from J. Gordon Lippincott, the father of corporate branding. In 1947 Lippincott summed up the core philosophy of modern consumerism as a wasteful, resource-hogging, nature-destroying force that nonetheless must be sustained at all costs:
Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history… It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even through it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.
We've been living that way ever since. Now there's some dissociation for you -- and one of the most environmentally destructive philosophies in history.