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Understanding Versus Caring

On the basis of a focus group, David Suzuki thinks the big hurdle to taking action on climate change is that people don't understand how climate change works. After his focus group participants went through a great deal of hand-waving and confusing climate change with the ozone hole, he concludes:

People don't get it. This is a big problem, because if people don't get it, then they don't really care, so politicians and CEOs don't really care, and status quo rules the day.

This sounds very plausible, and it's become a key tenet of modern environmentalism (perhaps because environmentalism, more so than other modern social movements, is so explicitly wedded to science). The problem is that it isn't true -- plenty of research has demonstrated that increased education does not lead to increased environmental concern*. This is not to say that knowledge is unimportant, but that it plays an instrumental, rather than motivational, role -- knowledge tells you how to fix the problem, not whether you should try to fix it in the first place.

If my vague "studies have shown ..." doesn't do it for you, consider an issue that the public manifestly does care about: terrorism. It's a bit hard to maintain that understanding is a necessary prelude to political concern when half of the American public thinks Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.

Or perhaps Suzuki should look at his own focus group results. A few paragraphs earlier in his article, he says:

The majority felt that global warming was a pretty important problem and they were concerned about it.

* That is, increased education about environmental issues doesn't lead to increased environmental concern. Overall level of formal education, regardless of subject, is actually a fairly robust correlate of environmental concern (independent of income). This suggests that the driving force is not knowledge, but rather the culture of academia and the professional world. The culture of these social spheres makes environmental concern one element of what constitutes a "good person."


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