What is our planet's greatest environmental problem?

The turnout for the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on Earth Day, wasn't hampered by the weather. (Planet Forward)

What is the greatest environmental problem? Is it biodiversity loss; threats to water supplies; the present and future impacts of climate change? Is it the die-off of honeybees? Is it children getting their drinking water from decaying, lead-infused pipes in places like Flint, Michigan? Is it countless other children and adults being disproportionately exposed to pollution and substandard food choices, while the privileged few enjoy “wilderness experiences,” urban green-spaces, and farmers markets?

My answer to this question is that the biggest environmental problem is polarization. It's that caring about the environment has become a politically and socially divisive issue — one among so many others. This polarization has led people on all sides to expend energy on demonizing others and validating their own positions, rather than on gaining the necessary perspective to address real issues whose impacts transcend the barriers of politics and culture.  


This sign, seen at the March for Science, tackles the issue of polarization. (Paul Hirsch/ESF)

It is polarization that has resulted in a situation where the amount of science one knows regarding an issue like climate change — as social science research shows — has little if any effect on whether one views climate change as a serious issue, which is influenced to a far greater degree by one’s social affiliation and ideological orientation.

Polarization is not difference or disagreement, which are healthy aspects of any social process. When people and groups polarize, however, they define their positions solely in terms of each other rather than either their internal systems of guidance or need to adapt to changing circumstances. Polarization in the environmental domain is a problem because it stands in the way of the best thing we have going for us in addressing problems that transcend the boundaries region, culture, and often country: our ability to talk and think together.

To paraphrase Einstein, we cannot address today's environmental issues at the same level of thinking that created them. But the level of thinking required to address biodiversity loss, climate change, environmental injustice, and the rest must be a form of brilliance that emerges not from the solitary genius but from the synergistic engagement of multiple and distinct minds, housed in multiple and distinct bodies, working and living in multiple and distinct contexts.

Our ability to think together is innate — it is what has made humanity as successful as we are, and anyone who learned to play with others as a child has the capacity to think with others as an adult. To exercise our ability to think together about the pressing and complex problems we now face involves learning to recognize the inevitable partiality of our own perspectives. With this recognition – really a form of humility — comes an increased ability to find value in alternative perspectives. This, in turn, requires learning to live with a degree of tension and ambiguity when diverse values and ways of looking at the world do not easily align.   

If we can learn to experience this tension and ambiguity as an invitation to dialogue, however, rather than an excuse for digging in our heels, then we can start thinking together and finding genuinely innovative solutions to our most pressing problems.

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