Environmental Ignorance and Apathy

Kevin Kelly constructed a quiz some 18 months ago under the premise, “At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you?” It asks about watersheds, edible plants, and whatnot.

Tyler Cowen took it about 13 months ago, did poorly, and dismissed his results as a natural consequence of the division of labor. The Other Megan stumbled upon that yesterday somehow and remarked, “I thought this was telling. So little interest in how your place works?”

Ogged tends to side with Cowen in this one, although he feels guilty about it — or at least wonders if he should.

I would have scored very poorly on the test had I not gotten bored with it after five questions or so. And I don’t feel the least bit bad about it, either. I care about the environment, not because of some quasi-religious worship of Mother Earth or a concern about the planet as an organism but because it’s my habitat.

It’s not my job to worry about watersheds and, even it I were to worry about them as a hobby, my impact is minuscule. There are people with genuine expertise in that sort of thing and they create the regulations which govern how neighborhoods are built, what sort of businesses can go where, how waste is managed, and so forth.

I don’t care where my recycling goes. I put the little blue bins out every Monday night and some guys with a truck take them wherever it is they’re supposed to go early Tuesday morning. My assumption is that the people at the other end know what they’re doing. If they don’t, there’s really not much I can do about it. (I’m not even sure whether the whole enterprise wastes more resources than they recover; to the extent that it’s not terribly inconvenient for me to throw the plastics and papers in separate bins, I just go along with the flow.)

More generally speaking, while I’m reasonably curious about the world around me and more scientifically literate than most, I have only a cursory familiarity about how even the technical environment within the natural environment in which I live operates. I don’t understand beyond a basic level how my car works, the electrical system in my house, the air conditioner, the computer on which I’m typing, the Internet onto which I’m about to publish it, or a whole lot of other things.

Certainly, what kinds of weeds whatever Indians were living here a thousand years ago ate is far down the list of things I need to worry about looking up.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Science & Technology, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a distinction between specialist knowledge and the knowledge that every citizen should have in a democracy. Mr. Kelly’s quiz includes some of each. I know that sort of stuff because I’m a generalist and have always been interested in just about everything (except professional athletics, in which I have next to no interest) but I wouldn’t expect the average, even the average well-informed citizen to know all of that stuff.

    I think we should be cautious about being too dismissive of the need to know some basic facts about how one’s habitat works. Is is possible to make an informed decision about policies in your city or town without knowing something about the mechanics of the cycle of food, water, and waste disposal that makes life in your city or town possible?

    In my view democracy requires some level of generalist behavior on the part of its citizens. That’s probably why specialists have an inclination towards technocracy.

  2. Boyd says:

    This reminds me of the old joke about the interview with the man in the street:

    “Sir, how do you feel about ignorance and apathy?”

    “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

    Which is pretty much how I feel about much of that quiz.

  3. James Joyner says:

    reminds me of the old joke

    Yeah, that’s where I got the headline. I care that people care, I guess, but other than that….

  4. I don’t think the questions are accurate in discovering how much you know about the larger picture. They’re asking how much you know about detailed elements of the larger picture.

  5. Bithead says:

    While I share your apathy for the test, I am torn. on the one hand I can’t help but wonder if this is the left trying to “raise awareness” the effects of which we have seen before, and on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if we actually knew more about the answers to those questions, would be enviro whackos be putting as much over on us as they have been, in such matters as ‘global warming”, for example.

  6. Tano says:

    “It’s not my job to worry about watersheds and, even it I were to worry about them as a hobby, my impact is minuscule.”

    So why do you care about what goes on in places like Iraq?

    “There are people with genuine expertise in that sort of thing and they create the regulations which govern how neighborhoods are built, what sort of businesses can go where, how waste is managed, and so forth.’

    Under the direction of elected officials who you have a responsibility to hire or fire.

    I really dont understand this attitude. It is not enough to simply take pride in your apathy – because clearly there things you may be apathetic about, but other things that you are not at all apathetic about. So the question is, why are you apathetic about environmental issues and not the other issues that you write about a lot – many of which are probably far less consequential to the quality of life of you and your descendants.

  7. Bithead says:

    So why do you care about what goes on in places like Iraq?

    Mostly because islamofacism constitutes an immediate threat.

  8. Andy says:

    Mostly because islamofacism constitutes an immediate threat.

    Look out, Bithead! Islamofacism is in the back seat!!!

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Right, Andy, of your car. Remember about 70 or so years ago there was a group that blamed the Jews for everything and wanted to take over the world. Many people did not think that was a threat either. Guess how many people died because they did not nip that idea in the bud?

  10. Steve Verdon says:

    I got bored within three questions and I think the quiz is actually kind of dumb. How many people can trace out the path of the electricity they use from begining to end? Not many is my guess. Heck, even I’d probably miss a couple of key points and I work in the electric industry.

    Under the direction of elected officials who you have a responsibility to hire or fire.

    I really dont understand this attitude.

    Your attitude is the one that is hard to understand? Should the manager be able to do the analysis better than the analysts he has working for him? Should he be involved in every aspect of the analysis or should he delegate to somebody whom he knows has a solid grasp of how to do the types of analysis that his group is supposed to do? Your implicit answer is that managers should be extreme micro-managers which is a huge waste, both of the managers time, the analysts’ time and probably even of the shareholder’s money.

    Now, when it comes to representative democracy…well you’ve hit upon another reason why it often isn’t such a great way of doing things. First there is rational ignorance which is what James is talking about, an second there is the irrationality of the electorate and politicians who exploit that irrationality. Case in point, George Bush and his continual use of the fear of terrorism to push through many of the things that absent that fear we’d likely not support. Another example, Al Gore and his over the top nonsense about global warming. According to good ol’ Al we’ll be living in Waterworld if we don’t listen to him.

  11. Rick DeMent says:

    Well there are a few things that one needs to know in order to understand the issues properly. I had an argument with a private property zealot once that totally revolved around her complete inability to understand how an aquifer works. As a result she could not understand why anyone had a right to regulate the amount of water she took from a well on her private land. I tried to explain that she was drawing from a source shared by all of the land owners in the region and by taking more then her share without compensation she was steeling.

    She simply thought that the water was in a big underground lake one her land and nothing was going to change her mind because she was either unable or (more probably) unwilling to understand how the water table works. But hey ignorance sometimes is not only bliss but profitable!!!

  12. […] James Joyner on environmental ignorance and apathy […]

  13. Tano says:

    “Should the manager be able to do the analysis better than the analysts he has working for him? ”

    I don’t understand your point Steve. Of course the manager wont be able to do the analysis better than the expert analyst. The type of micro-management that you accuse me of supporting is simply the opposite extreme from apathy. Its a pretty lame defense of an extreme position (apathy) to point out that there is an opposite extreme, and to accuse the critic, with no evidentiary basis, of holding that opposite extreme.

    Should a commander-in-chief be deciding specific bombing targets, or moving company-sized units around the battlefield? Obviously not. Should a commander-in-chief find matters of war boring and uninteresting and just the let the experts do whatever they think right? Obviously not either.

    Are those the only alternatives?

    “Your implicit answer is that managers should be extreme micro-managers…”

    No Steve, that is not my implicit answer. It is pure strawman argumentation on your part because, I imagine, you have no good response.

    “Now, when it comes to representative democracy…well you’ve hit upon another reason why it often isn’t such a great way of doing things.”

    Funny how some libertarians seem to ride their ideology right off the deep end. Freedom of the individual becomes freedom from the effects of living with other individuals leads to an aversion to democracy leads to …what?

  14. M1EK says:

    The problem with not understanding the environment is when you’re ALSO not willing to listen to the advice (or urgent warnings) of those who DO understand it, as with global warming (essentially all reputable climate scientists pointing the same way; 80% of Republicans still denying).