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A New Look at Global Ecology

On Wednesday, March 28, Barnard College will host the interdisciplinary panel “A New Look at Global Ecology.” Filmmaker Nora Bateson and Greenpeace cofounder Rex Weyler will join Barnard faculty members Stephanie Pfirman, Hirschorn Professor of Environmental and Applied Sciences, and Barbara Woike, associate professor of psychology, for a conversation about how human perception can contribute to—and possibly help solve—complex environmental problems.

On Tuesday, March 27, there will an on-campus screening of Nora Bateson’s film, An Ecology of Mind, a documentary portrait of her father Gregory Bateson, the celebrated anthropologist, philosopher, author, naturalist, systems theorist, and filmmaker. Watch the trailer!

Below, Prof. Woike answers questions about the ways that people detach psychologically from the environment and other issues that will be discussed at this event.

What is an example of an environmental issue where solutions are hindered by human perception?

We live in a society where the utmost importance is placed upon economic expansion and constant striving for more – achieving, winning and being the best are highly valued and dominate our definitions of quality or success. However, we are learning the hard way that the environment does not and cannot support endless economic expansion.  This is an example of what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called a double-bind: stimulating the economy leads to more depletion of global resources, while lack of economic growth leads to hardship for millions who are already living in poverty.

What interests you most about the connections between human thinking and environmental issues?

In my research, I look at how people perceive separation (differences) and connection (similarities) in their social environment, and the consequences of those perceptions. What is truly striking to me is that for most people, perceiving differences is far easier than perceiving similarities. In thinking about large-scale global problems, this means that people are able to distance themselves from feeling vulnerable by focusing on the problem “out there,” so to speak. By maintaining this sense of separation they can also act on the environment in a very detached way that does not take into account the consequences of their actions—think of cranking up the air conditioning, leaving the lights on, grabbing a to-go cup of coffee.

Any biologist or physicist will tell you that this perception of separation is an illusion and that in fact, we are part of everything and cannot separate our wellbeing from our environment. Biologically we are dependent on clean air, water, and nutritious food, and the giving off what for us are waste products. From a physics perspective, we are fundamentally matter and energy that is in flux, like all matter and energy.

Which environmental issues do you think are most susceptible to flawed perceptions about our own involvement?

Global warming and the depletion of natural resources are both issues threatening the sustainability of our planet in fundamental ways. Political discussions often focus on climate change and resource management within an average person’s lifetime, but the impacts we are experiencing and the resources we are quickly using up have developed over thousands and in some cases millions of years. We really need to be talking about the long-term sustainability of life on earth on that type of scale, rather than in the shortsighted context of this particular moment in time.

How do these perceptions impact problem-solving and planning for the future of the issues?

Einstein said that no problem can be solved by the same thinking that created it. Many of our current global problems are a result of not really understanding how nature works and from seeing nature as somehow different or separate from ourselves as humans.

Recently politician Rick Santorum accused President Obama of “elevating the earth above man,” as though there is a choice to make between our basic needs and comforts as human beings, and those of the earth. The earth is actually our host—and we are entirely dependent on it for survival. This is extreme example of perceiving the earth and humans are separate and opposing. It sets up a false and dangerous dichotomy from which solutions must be derived in “either/or” and “win/lose” terms.

Why is it important to educate people about the connections between their own thinking and the environment? 

Gregory Bateson said, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” Too often, we do not understand or have the language to really describe and know how nature works.

Without the sensitivity to realize the extent and the complexity of our impact on the environment, we are like the proverbial bull in the china shop—lack of awareness can destroy the intricate relationships that our environment depends upon.