Cultural Barriers to Sustainability and Environmental Learning and Action

When I talk about cultural barriers, I mean those external and collective barriers that stem from our society's historical, religious, scientific, technological, economic, and political foundations and parameters.

I divide these into five categories.

(Numbers in square brackets refer to the References page. Feel free to contact me if you need exact page references.)

1. We Believe We're Separate from Nature

This is the "mother" of all cultural barriers.

Western societies tend to view humans as separated from Nature. "We think with a nature-disconnected process that produced and sustains industrial society," according to Michael Cohen [22]. He challenges people to consider "the profound distorted effects produced by living year after year in stories and places that separate us from and demean nature and our natural senses."

Steve Van Matre agrees, insisting that the Earth is in trouble because many people "have literally 'lost touch' with the other life of their planet.... They no longer have the necessary strong emotional attachments to sustain them in a healthy relationship with the earth" [91]. Carolyn Merchant expresses her agreement in the title of her 1980 book, The Death of Nature [61].

By contrast, Knudtson and Suzuki point out that "other, profoundly different notions of our relationship with Nature do indeed exist" [51]. According to First Nations scholar, J. D. Hughes, in North America, "the Indians saw themselves as at one with nature. All their traditions agree on this. Nature is the larger whole of which mankind is only a part. People stand within the natural world, not separate from it; and are dependent on it, not dominant over it. All living things are one, and people are joined with birds and trees, predators and prey, rocks and rain in a vast, powerful, interrelationship [47].

Chet Bowers believes that Western society is caught in an unquestioned anthropocentric world view [10]. To Cheryl Hunt, the collective mindset or world view of a society "represents the ideas we think with rather than those we think about" thereby "constricting our thoughts and actions" [48].

Carolyn Merchant explains that between the 16th and 17th centuries "the image of an organic cosmos with a living female earth at its center gave way to a mechanistic world view in which nature was reconstructed as dead and passive, to be dominated and controlled by humans" [61].

The Western world view has led to an unquestioned dominant paradigm that allows the exploitation of Nature [9; 30; 95]. John E. Mack calls this "species arrogance" [57]. Somehow, we've come to see our species as the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Knudtson and Suzuki assert that in a world "increasingly dominated by the growth imperative of global economics, [and] the infatuation with technology ... we cling to assumptions founded on the inadequate Cartesian and Newtonian worldview" [51]. Suzuki and McConnell believe that the assumptions underlying the Western world view "fail to stand up to critical analysis yet are seldom challenged or questioned" [88].

It remains a challenge to counteract the cultural barrier that this world view sets up. But we can do it, first by becoming aware of its insidiousness, and then by reconnecting ourselves and our students with the rest of Nature. (Note: not "with Nature" but "with the REST OF Nature" since we're Nature, too.)

2. We Don't Question the Root Metaphors in Our Language

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what about our unexamined root metaphors? Are they worth living by if we never check to see what purpose they're serving?

A root metaphor is one so embedded in our culture and our language that we no longer see it as metaphorical and don't realize how it colours and reinforces our world view.

Chet Bowers lists the following as root metaphors that exert a powerful influence in Western culture yet often go unquestioned:

  • a mechanistic way of understanding life processes
  • a view of changes as linear and progressive
  • a view of the individual as the basic social unit
  • an anthropocentric way of understanding human relationships with Nature
  • the view that science is the most powerful and legitimate source of knowledge [10]

For example, environmental historian Merchant notes that in the 1700s, "the institutionalization of science [became] an ideology for organizing other areas of human life" [61].

These root metaphors are embedded in our language, language that tends to separate Western cultures from Nature. Our world view shapes the root metaphors we subscribe to, and our metaphorical conceptions of Nature are then reflected in our language. Many of the metaphors we use in English-speaking cultures are violent, militaristic, devoid of Nature, or anti-Nature.

Think of the common expression, "killing two birds with one stone," or common allusions to the brain as computer, or argument as war [83]. (Try "feeding two birds from one hand" instead; the brain as a garden, and argument as a dance.)

Several authors lament the evolution in our language away from Nature-connected terminology, such as "mystery" and "wonder" [27], love for the Earth [91], and references to the Earth Mother [19]. "We in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature ... and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection," according to J. E. Mack [57].

Furthermore, at times one word can act as a barrier to learning and action. Psychotherapist Philip Sutton Chard has discovered that the derogatory meanings attached to the word "animal" can have negative emotional effects [19], making it harder for human beings to think of themselves as an animal species.

And according to Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees (of Ecological Footprint fame), the term "environment" serves to create "mental apartheid" between humans and the rest of Nature [93].

Talking and learning about "thuh environment" is not the same as experiencing and learning about ourselves as a natural part of Nature.

3. We're Brainwashed by TV and Numbed by Consumerism

Some authors point to the influence of media, specifically television, as a barrier to environmentally friendly behaviour. For example, famed environmental educator David Orr wonders why anyone would be puzzled at the inertia of young people in the face of environmental problems when the typical 18-year-old North American has watched 16,000 hours of television [68].

The resulting "apathy, moral and physical anemia" should surprise no one, he says. Orr also points out that modern young people "are increasingly shaped by the shopping mall, the freeway, the television, and the computer. They regard nature, if they see it at all, as through a rearview mirror receding in the haze" [68].

Numerous authors see the North American addiction to consumerism as a huge barrier to environmental action. Edmund O'Sullivan refers to this cultural barrier as "the wonderworld of consumer capitalism presented on the mass media" [69].

As religious historian Robert Bellah (cited in Alan Durning's How much is enough? The consumer society and the future of the Earth) writes, "That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but is preached incessantly by every American television set" [29].

Deep ecologist Bill Devall believes that "we have been colonized by advertisements" [27], at the rate of three thousand advertising messages per day, according to Brower and Leon [13]. O'Sullivan insists that "the modern state, backed by the modern school, is in the business of developing consumers of goods rather than active participatory citizens" [69].

4. Human Beings Need Immediate Feedback (and We Don't Get It)

Human beings are more responsive to current information than to long-term trends, according to Ornstein and Ehrlich [67]. Therefore, the lack of immediate feedback about long-term deleterious effects to the environment provided by fast-paced technologies and lifestyles is a cultural barrier to timely responses to environmental problems [45].

For example, Wackernagel and Rees explain that "the quiet loss of natural capital" is sometimes the only indication that humans are exceeding an ecosystem's carrying capacity. As Rachel Carson said many years ago, "it is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster" [18].

Nature writer and environmental lawyer David Boyd calls this "societal incremental amnesia" [11], caused perhaps by the fact that humans do not think in "geological time," as suggested by Jonathan Weiner [95].

Human beings simply need better and more timely feedback mechanisms to tell us what we're doing right or wrong.

5. Individualism and the Breakdown of "Community"

Numerous authors cite the breakdown of communal life, and "the cult of individualism" [27] as barriers to environmental action.

According to Carolyn Merchant, several centuries ago "the organismic, communal orientation ... was thrust aside to make way for efficiency and production in the sustained use of nature for human benefit" [61].

Michael Collins describes the present-day "neo-conservative success story" as a tale of "the merits of competitive individualism and the enthronement of market-place values at the expense of community values and collective experience" [23].

The more we put value on individualism and individuals in our society, the less, it seems, we work together for the highest good of everyone in our communities — a cultural barrier that disconnects us from each other as well as from the rest of Nature.

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