Writing as catharsis

Questioning the value of symbolic action and ‘awareness’ campaigns

Posted in Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on February 10, 2012

Apparently Facebook’s excessive hoarding of personal data and past posts has its uses. I came across a debate I had in 2010 with someone on the value of Earth Hour, and whether such symbolic actions aimed at “raising awareness” have any real value or affect:

The positivity of a stunt like Earth Hour rests on the belief that such a purely symbolic exercise will somehow lead to meaningful action or a change in behaviour. I do not believe it will.

If you do believe that ‘raising awareness’ will actually lead to some meaningful impact, this belief rests on the idea that firstly, people are currently unaware of the damage being done to the environment and, secondly, that they would then act rationally to adjust their behaviour and habits accordingly for the good of the Earth after becoming ‘aware’.

I would argue that we are all plenty aware that we are destroying the Earth, and that ‘awareness’ has not demonstrably changed any of our habits for the better (and no, buying “E10 Unleaded” at Shell does not count). There are far more powerful forces behind the aggregate actions of developed societies – namely want of convenience and our indulgent selfishness.

If you’d like to speak in terms of evolution, well I would state that it is simply a function of our biological intuitions that the widespread destruction of the environment appears disproportionately unimportant when it is enacted and experienced impersonally. We have not evolved our behaviours or our biology to consider vast periods of time – nor are we able to rationally contemplate a problem as complex as the mass destruction of ecosystem and the environment.

Our concern for personal comfort and security weighs far heavier in terms of our evolution – and being a cynic, I do not see any promising signs that we are moving to an evolved mindset of “mass self-preservation” – especially when symbolism and rhetoric is often substituted for actual substance. The idea that some vague public relations campaign purporting a message of ‘positive change’ should be free from scrutiny and basically assumed to be a positive force for good in itself is quite absurd. I can quite easily see the message and it is one of empty symbolism.

I think the only way that our behaviour will change in a meaningful fashion will be when we are confronted with obvious and unmistakable signs of our planet deteriorating – or alternatively, it’ll be action forced upon us by real market prices (for example, extreme costs of oil forcing people to find and invest in alternate fuel sources). Currently all of our balance sheets are insanely skewed because business, governments and people do not factor in natural capital. Once we do, we will be forced to pay the ‘real’ cost of resources. Perhaps then things will change.

And my stance is certainly not that ‘the future is looking pretty bleak anyway so what’s the point and why go on?’. There is plenty of middle-ground between blind optimism and empty nihilism. I just do not believe that symbolic action leads to real action. I believe that symbolic action is counterproductive to real measures as it erronously placates individuals.


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