Selective Moral Disengagement – Hiding Behind Good Intentions by Albert Bandura

Photo by Szymon Kochanski.

Photo by Szymon Kochanski.

The Population Bomb is Still Ticking

Selective moral disengagement, with the denial it fosters, enables people to pursue harmful practices freed from the restraint of self-censure. This is achieved by investing ecologically harmful activities with worthy purposes through social or economic justifications; enlisting exonerative comparisons that make damaging practices appear righteous; using sanitized and convoluted language that disguises what is being done; reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimizing, and disputing harmful effects; dehumanizing and blaming the victims, and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news. These psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

We can disguise environmentally harmful practices and dress them up in words to help ease our consciences, but such practices will have a negative impact on the planet and the quality of life of future generations, no matter how we label them. We must stop attempting to justify our actions and switch on our environmental conscience to save the  world.

As consumers we are now bombarded with messages telling us to consider the environment and to save energy in the face of global climate change.  However, the fact is that personal economic savings on energy consumption may be offset by increased consumption of  goods and services. What may at first appear to reduce the level of ecological harm that we cause, may in effect be cancelled out and possibly lead to even greater harm.  Moreover, many of us pursue practices that are detrimental to the environment but which we justify by a kind of moral disengagement. This frees us from the constraints of self-censure and we defend our actions on the basis that such practices are somehow fulfilling worthy social, national, or economic causes and, as such, offset their harmful effects on the future of our planet.

Moral disengagement equates to switching off one’s conscience. Convoluted language helps disguise what is being done, reduces accountability, and also ignores and disputes harmful effects.  Learning about moral disengagement shines the light not only on the  malpractices of others but on ourselves.

Human conduct can be distinguished in terms of whether it falls in the realm of social custom or morality. This distinction is based, in large part, on the gravity of the  social consequences of the conduct. Harming others by one’s practices is clearly a matter  of morality. The reality today is that harm to the Earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.

We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence. They include widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising Earth temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the Earth’s life support systems. As the unrivalled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are, at an accelerating pace, wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life.

Environmental degradation of human origin stems from three major sources:  population size, the level of consumption, and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the  resources used to supply the consumable products which support an increasingly affluent lifestyle. Environmental sustainability must address all three sources of impact on ecological systems and quality of life. There are limits to the number of people the Earth can support sustainably. The world’s population was 3 billion in 1950, more than doubled to 6.5 billion in the next 50 years, and is increasing by about a billion every 15 years—toward a rise of over 9 billion by the year 2050. Adding billions of new consumers will take a heavy toll on the Earth’s finite resources and ecological system. We have already exceeded the size of the human population the Earth can sustain. Converting to clean, green technologies, renewable sources of energy, and adoption of less consumptive lifestyles will help, but adding billions more consumers will offset the  benefits of these other remedies. Lifestyle changes must, therefore, be coupled with  reduction of population growth.

Moral disengagement by indifference to harmful realities extends beyond disregarding, minimizing, or disputing their occurrence. It includes ignoring escalating  population—the root cause of environmental degradation. A view, currently in vogue,  contends that population growth is no longer an ecological problem. This erroneous view  arises from failure to consider the differential pattern of population growth across regions  of the planet, and the changing shift of populations. The population growth problem must  be addressed globally, not dismissed as a myth by selective focus on some industrialized  countries with declining birthrates.

Compare the claim that the population bomb has ‘fizzled’ with actual population growth trends. China has a population of 1.3 billion and is adding about 7 million people  annually. India has passed the 1 billion mark, and is on the brink of surpassing China as  the most populous nation in the world. At its current fertility rate their population will  double to a staggering 2 billion in 44 years.  Africa has a population of 944 million and, at its present growth rate, will swell to 2 billion in 35 years. The population in the Middle East and North Africa is about 400 million and is projected to surpass 700 million in 50 years. The USA has the highest rate of population growth among industrialized countries. Although the rate of population growth globally has slowed somewhat, it is still at a pace to add about 1 billion people every 15 years. Dismissal of global population growth cannot go on indefinitely. Mounting aversive consequences of environmental degradation will eventually force the international community to address the population problem.

There is also mass migration of people from heavily populated poor countries to more habitable or prosperous ones. Some of the people are migrating in search of a better life. Others are seeking a safe haven from internal ethnic atrocities. And still others are ‘environmental refugees’ subjected to forced migrations because of the growing  inhabitability of their environment as their once-fertile land turns into desert through   prolonged drought and inadequate water resources. The oft-repeated scenes of hordes of emaciated people struggling to survive under squalid conditions in refugee camps is more likely to depersonalize and  dehumanize them than raise social compassion. Large-scale international migration, which will swell with increasing environmental destruction, is changing the face of national populations and becoming the source of major regional upheavals that breed sectarian violence.

The population bomb is rapidly ticking away, but is being ignored as a major contributor to climate change and ecological destruction. Population  growth is an escalating global problem—not a disappearing one. In an attentional sleight of hand, soaring population growth disappears as a problem and population decline is  elevated to an alarming one that ‘haunts our future’.   Even some of the leading environmental and conservation organizations, which morphed  from active grass-roots environmentalists to cautious bureaucracies, have, in accommodating political forces, disconnected ecological damage from population growth. The population of the USA was 150 million in 1950 but grew to 300 million  in 2006 and is heading to 420 million in the next 45 years. Most of this increase stems from migration. After a grueling internal fight over the role of immigration in population growth, for fear of its racial implications, the Sierra Club jettisoned domestic population growth from their agenda as an environmental conservation issue.

Fear of alienating donors, criticism from the progressive left, and disparagement by conservative vested interests claiming that overpopulation is a ‘myth’, served as further incentives to cast off the rising global population as a factor in environmental  degradation. Population growth vanished from the agendas of other mainstream  environmental organizations that previously regarded escalating numbers as a major  environmental threat. Greenpeace announced that population “is not  an issue for us”. Friends of the Earth declared that, “it is unhelpful to enter into a debate about numbers”. The common justification for the retreat is that it is consumption not human numbers that is creating environmental problems, despite evidence that more people produce more ecological damage. To construe ecological woes as due to consumption and dismiss the number of consumers as of minor consequence overtaxes credibility.

David Brower, the inspiring founder of the Sierra Club, would have probably viewed this retreat for political reasons as a tragic irony. He put it well when he once  said, “You don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy”.  The escalating global population which already exceeds the Earth’s carrying capacity is now a much more serious ecological threat. Some prominent scientists have taken bold steps in the inhospitable political-correctness climate to break the stranglehold of the population taboo. Christopher Rapley, Director of the British Science Museum, argues that stabilizing human population at an ecologically un-sustainable level is not much of a solution. In his view, we need fewer people to curb global warming.  A few columnists and commentators are also beginning to give voice to the global consequences of willful indifference to the population aspect of the problem. Mounting ecological degradation will force renewed attention to population growth.

Population growth has become politically incorrect for a variety of reasons.   About two-thirds of the greenhouse gases are produced by the richest industrialized countries with high consumption lifestyles, but only about 3% by Africa, the poorest continent. To target poor countries that suffer the ecological harm of extravagant lifestyles spewing pollutants elsewhere is analogous to blaming the victim. Ironically, ignoring poor people’s need for help with planned childbearing and social supports that  enable them to achieve it, is victimization by benign neglect.  High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.

Immigration is a minefield in political life. On the one hand, industrial, agricultural, and service industries want cheap labor and workers to perform the dirty and low-wage jobs that their own citizens will not accept. They rely heavily on migrant workers, both legal and illegal. Using economic justification, the industries also argue that they need cheap labor to stay competitive in the global markets. They use their political clout to secure their labor needs. On the other hand, migrant groups are marginalized, denied adequate services, even human rights. Families that are better off are not about to groom their own offspring for toilsome menial jobs with paltry wages and lowly social status. So migrants are welcomed although they tend to become a disadvantaged ethnic underclass that remains largely unassimilated and is resented for its  intrusion on the prevailing cultural norms, traditions, and practices.

To complicate matters further, immigration is an emotionally charged issue with  deeply-engrained prejudices, favoritism toward certain ethnicities and occupational  stratums, and indignation over illegal entries. These conflicting forces have spawned  political correctness in both the political right and political left.  Some people exploit   this contentious issue for political purposes, but most do not want to talk about  population growth for fear of rousing the controversial specter of immigration and being  branded a racist.

Burgeoning populations also fuel civil strife with devastating humanitarian  consequences. In many underdeveloped countries a major share of the population is under 20 years of age. As previously noted, populations in many developing countries will double in 20–30 years. The added stress of deteriorating life conditions  facilitates the collapse of weak states and the rule of law. Many recent conflicts occur in countries with young populations, living in poverty, without jobs or skills, under autocratic rulers often plagued by corruption. The age structure, intense competition for sparse resources, and widespread social discontent make young men ripe for recruitment for civil wars and terrorist activities, and provide a growing threat to international security. To worsen this problem, water sources are being rapidly depleted as the demand by soaring human numbers outstrips the supply. The looming water crisis will spawn  growing regional conflicts over the allocation of water from sources crossing national borders. In the 21st century, water will be a major global issue over which people will fight.

Expanding economies fuelling consumptive growth by billions of people is  intensifying competition for the Earth’s vital resources and overwhelming efforts to  secure an environmentally and economically sustainable future. Powerful parochial  interests create tough impediments to improving living standards globally through  sustainable eco-development with economic growth which preserves the Earth’s environmental base. Employing collective practices driven by a foreshortened perspective, humans may be well on the road to outsmarting themselves into an irreversible ecological crisis.

Many people are beginning to express concern over catastrophic climate change, advocate environmental conservation in the abstract, but resist curbing their behavioral practices that degrade and destroy the life of the planet. Under troublesome life conditions people generally seek quick fixes that require no significant changes in lifestyle. Once they get wedded to rewarding lifestyles that exact a toll on the environment they devise schemes that enable them to stick with their behavioral practices without feeling bad about their adverse effects. They make cosmetic changes in their energy and resource use that make them feel like conservationists. On average, Americans consume more energy in a week than an inhabitant in India does in an entire year. Environmental conservation calls for more fundamental lifestyle changes than switching to more efficient light bulbs and  doing a bit of recycling. People remain faithful to their driving habits but seek to power  them with supposedly environmentally-friendly fuel that inflicts hardships on the less advantaged. [Think ethanol and catastrophically rising corn prices in Mexico.] They create marketplace systems that enable them to continue their consumptive ways but grant them forgiveness for their ecological sins through the purchase of carbon offsets for green projects. Through carbon cap and trade schemes, industries can spew greenhouse gases but buy carbon credits from more efficient companies with unused allowances rather than clean up their act. Going green through ecologically degrading behavior is an odd way of saving the planet.

As in the case of token remedies at the individual level, tinkering with  environmentally and economically unsustainable systems, while aggressively promoting ever-rising consumption rates with polluting technologies, will not beget a green future.  Substitutes for genuine behavior change usually accomplish too little too slowly. If we  are to preserve a habitable planet it will not be by token gestures and schemes for buying  one’s way out of wasteful and polluting practices. Rather, it will be by major lifestyle  changes with commitment to shared values linked to incentive systems that make  environmentally responsible behavior normative and personally worthy. A sustainable  future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological   degradation—population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.

Ecological systems are intricately interdependent. Global changes affect  everyone regardless of the source of the degradation. Because of this interconnectedness, lifestyle practices are a matter of morality, not just environmental sustainability. Most current human practices work against a less populated planet whose inhabitants live sustainably in balance with natural resources. Given the growing human destruction of the Earth’s environment, Paul Watson [Founder of the Sea Shepherd Society] may not have been too far off the mark when he characterized the human species as an “arrogant primate that is out of control”.  Moreover, this arrogant human is morally disengaged from his own actions. If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must  re-engage moral sanctions with lifestyle changes and ecological decision-making as we seek to build a sustainable world.

This article was taken from the academic treatise: Bandura, A. (2007)  “Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement”, International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, # 1, pp 8-35.  Reprinted with permission of the author.

Biographical note: Albert Bandura is an internationally acclaimed Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory. His landmark  book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: a Social Cognitive Theory,  provides the conceptual framework for this theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he presents the definitive exposition of the centrality of people’s beliefs in their personal and collective ability to exercise some measure of control over their self-development, adaptation and change. He was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association, and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

1 Comment

Filed under Ecological Footprint, Family Planning, Population, Sustainability

One response to “Selective Moral Disengagement – Hiding Behind Good Intentions by Albert Bandura

  1. Pingback: evolveSUSTAIN: News and innovations in global sustainability.

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