BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. Continue reading

The more things change…

Digging in permafrost.
Image via Wikipedia

A theory of change requires a set of assumptions about the status quo. These assumptions often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Sentences that include the words always and never are indicative of these assumptions hard at work in the background, demonstrating the unexamined existence of a worldview in which particular forms of stability are taken for granted.

The Russian leadership’s reluctance to ‘believe’ in climate change has undergone something of a shift recently because the assumptions about what is always the case or never the case in Russia have been shaken to the core by drought, massive forest fires and unprecedented (but not uncontested) melting of the permafrost. A recent article by Tony Wood in the LRB outlines these events.

One could be cynical at this point and note that a single extreme weather event is no more indicative of long term climate change than a single swallow is indicative of the arrival of Summer. For the Russian president to change his mind on climate change just because he can smell smoke in Moscow is as naïve as the previous position in which climate change was denied. Russian winters are pretty cold and anyway it’s all a plot invented by Al Gore’s business interests.

But here too the assumptions about stability which underpin our theories of change are under revision. The well established claim that you can’t read climate change from unique events is now itself being revised.

Two thirds of Russia is made up of Permafrost – vechnaya merzlota. Both in English and Russian this is ‘permanent’ or ‘eternal’. By very definition it cannot change and is therefore impervious to rising temperatures or any other supposed shift.

I am mentioning this here because the way things supposedly always are is a crucial mental category, one that organises and disorganises almost all our social relations. We take it for granted at our peril.

Can hierarchical thinking fix climate change?

A recent article about business responses to global warming highlights the extent to which hierarchical thinking can respond adequately to rapid changes in the climate. 

And it neatly illustrates the preoccupations of a hierarchical world-view, as understood by grid-group cultural theory.

The article, written by Leon Gettler, centres on the increasing role of ‘Chief Carbon Officer’ in businesses. 

‘The job of the future will be the chief carbon officer, or CCO. That’s because global warming is no longer an environmental issue.’

The author sees not only the CCO, but also new job titles like Director of Sustainability Strategy as ‘just the beginning’.

According to grid-group cultural theory, first established by anthropologist Mary Douglas, and expanded by numerous writers in several different disciplines, there are four fundamental world-views, related to social group strength and rule maintenance. The hierarchist position is ‘strong grid, strong group’. In other words it is both highly group-orientated and highly regulated. For this way of thinking, the crisis (any crisis) is less about external factors and more about who is in charge, and how the social structure is to be maintained. Continue reading