Psychic Numbing and the Environment


By Andrew Quist

On May 6, an intergovernmental body created by the United Nations released a report on humanity’s impact on biodiversity and natural resources, and its conclusions are significant and worrying. One million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Many of the threatened species have insufficient habitat for long-term survival and will become extinct if their habitats are not restored. In a press conference, the authors of the report warned that nature is declining at unprecedented rates and that changes in the environment will put people at risk.

Unfortunately, in a media landscape that prizes sensationalism over helpful, important information, this landmark report has not gotten the attention it deserves. According to the news site EcoWatch, the day the report was released “Out of 26 total prime-time news programs on the networks, only three reported on the UN assessment.”

One likely reason network news ignored the report is because statistics about damage to the environment do not evoke an emotional response on behalf of the audience. Psychic numbing is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to ignore large-scale challenges. Because we evolved to be concerned with our immediate surroundings, our feelings are not engaged by concepts like “1 million out of 8 million total species are at risk of extinction.” We care about what we can see and hear in front of us. The number 1 million evokes little emotion in us, while a picture of sympathetic looking dog housed in a shelter pulls on our heart strings.

What does it really mean that greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, or that 300–400 millions of tons of industrial waste are dumped into the ocean each year? Our emotions do not respond to these statistics. If we are to motivate ourselves to protect biodiversity, we must use reason instead.

The IPBES report states, “Goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political, and technological factors.” We must overcome our numbing to threats to biodiversity and enact new policies if we want to allow future generations to benefit from a healthy environment, including an abundance of natural resources and the mental and spiritual wellbeing nature can provide.

Photograph by Flickr user mpfl CC BY 2.0