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Environmental Justice and Virtues

A Holistic Environmental Movement

Successful environmental movements and policy changes need to take into account various factors that contribute to our current environmental problems. Both external and internal influences need to be assessed and remedied in the most appropriate way. External factors include all those things that we can observe and measure in the external environment and includes rising CO2 levels, greenhouse gases, chemical pollutants and observable climate changes. Internal influences that effect environmental policies include our belief systems and psychology as it relates to our relationship with the environment. In both the media and political bodies the term 'climate change deniers' is commonly used, and indicates that denial is a very real force in shaping our environmental discussions and policies. 

If we examine a psychological understanding of denial, we find that it is regarded as a defense-mechanism that protects the ego from threatening information and events. In psychiatry, denial is "a ego defense–mechanism by which a person unconsciously negates the existence of a disease or other stress-producing realities in his environment, by disavowing thoughts, feelings, wishes, needs, or external reality factors that are consciously intolerable."  In addition, denial is also known to protect the ego from events and conditions that would otherwise produce anxiety.

As an ego defense-mechanism, denial protects the ego from threatening information and events. In the case of climate change, denial protects the ego from the threat of looming environmental and global disasters that could occur such as drought, desertification, rising sea levels, pollution, mass extinction, food and water shortages. Confronting the potential of such threatening events is no easy task, and will certainly induce some anxiety in anyone that is paying attention and willing to admit that human induced climate change is in fact real. Imagine the anxiety that can arise when we determine that our behaviors and lifestyle are adversely effecting life as a whole on this planet. When everyday activities like driving a car, heating our homes, buying endless amounts of plastic bottles and consumables, are equated with deforestation and the death of cute little furry animals, we have lots of things we should be anxious about.

 

In confronting the role denial plays in the psychology of environmental issues it is also important to consider other psychological factors that are often related to denial. Most popularly known is the role denial plays in addiction recovery programs. Until the addict admits there is a problem, and moves from denial to admission, recovery can not proceed as the denial will refute any forward progress. Unless we stop denying climate change, change will not be made in environmental policies. 

The role of addiction in our modern lifestyle is not limited to drugs and alcohol, but also plays out in our addiction to fossil fuels, mass consumption, and other environmentally unfriendly activities. We are addicted to our cars, high energy use, petroleum costly foods, gadgets, gizmos and an assortment of other cultural and lifestyle addictions that are harming the environment. How many of us really take a clear inventory about how our daily choices weigh in on things like carbon footprints, and other assessments we could individually make about our personal effect on the environment? When does denial begin to speak its internal repressive voice and prevent us from really measuring our personal accountability in regards to environmental issues? 

When confronting the role of denial in shaping - or not shaping - environmental conscious choices, we need to also determine the role of addiction and other psychological factors such as guilt. In the addicts mind, denial is used as a defense mechanism that protects the ego from threatening or stressful information. Once denial is confronted and overcome, guilt can often arise due to feelings of regret for actions that caused harm to one's self or others. Once we stop denying how our lifestyle and policies adversely effect the environment, guilt is a natural progression of feeling when we admit that our activities have been responsible for a whole plethora of suffering. The suffering brought about through the world by poor environmental policies results in such things as air pollution and asthma in children, toxic environments and cancer, habitat loss and extinction, desertification and hunger and much more. 

To not feel guilt after admitting and recognizing the global significance of environmental degradation, would be to remove one's self from accountability, empathy and even one's very humanity. However, guilt is not a emotion we should linger on as we unravel the psychological considerations of environmentalism. Rather, let us take account of the totality of suffering that results from poor environmental policy and move to an inner state of compassion. In compassion we can be aware of suffering, yet move forward from it with heart and positive action. Compassion allows us to recognize environmental problems without denying them, be sensitive to the suffering that is resulting from environmental degradation, and feel a sense of emotion that can move bridges while coming from the heart. 

By developing, cultivating and bringing to awareness our inner psychological reactions and responses - that parallel our relationship with the environment - we will be in a much better position to make individual, cultural, corporate and governmental changes that take into account the full spectrum of what is necessary to create a holistic environmental movement. 

With love and compassion for the natural world,

Jim