Why we toss it. The paradox of polluting our own environment.

Colin Ellard, of the University of Waterloo, spoke to  Scientific American‘s Gareth Cook in 2009 about his book You Are Here.  He talked about getting lost and speculated on its implications for our tendency to not see the consequences of polluting the environment:

“ELLARD: …We have this tremendous ability to cast ourselves mentally through space and time. What I mean by that is just that it is very easy for us to imagine other spaces, places, and times. This ability to project ourselves mentally from one place and time to another is very powerful. For one thing, it helps us to plan ahead and remember our past experiences.

But I also think that this ability is connected in an interesting way with one of our crowning cerebral accomplishments — self-consciousness. I think that to be aware of oneself as a causal agent in the world, one has to have this kind of ability to imagine other spaces and other times.

COOK: So, you are arguing that our propensity for getting lost is the flip side of this powerful set of mental abilities. But beyond getting lost, what deeper problems come with this ability to “cast ourselves mentally through space and time”?

ELLARD: In the second half of my book, I try to walk through all of the implications of how human beings connect (or don’t) with space, and I think there are many.

When we think about how we engage with built spaces at every scale — from the insides of our homes to the urban scale spaces of our cities, I think that what works and what doesn’t work is conditioned by the way our minds understand spaces. This can have a tangible impact on everything from how we interact with other members of our family or our co-workers in a building to how best to organize rapid transit systems in large cities or how to build great public spaces.

Towards the end of my book, though, I also talk about my fear that some of our basic inabilities to understand how spaces are connected to one another and how we fit into the picture is a part of what is responsible for our failure to protect our environment. How is it that an animal with such a magnificent mind as ours has been unable to do what’s necessary to protect our own planetary home?

Many have said that an important part of the root cause is that we fail to connect our actions with their consequences, and I think there’s much truth to this. What I would add to this argument is that we may fail to make those connections in ways that are explicitly spatial. It’s difficult to understand at a gut level, for example, that when we allow our car to idle for a long time, we’re making a contribution to climate change that will have many geographically remote effects. The intellectual argument is not that hard to understand, but we don’t feel the connection in part because of our fragmented understanding of space. The great evolutionary biologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould said “we will not save what we do not love.” But if, in our insular city spaces we don’t feel a connection to the rest of the planet, it can be a supreme effort to feel the kind of love that Gould was talking about.”

I wager that it is the task of the social networks in which we live is to stand in for and make us mindful of consequences we cannot comprehend on the basis of our individual neuropsychological processes.  Tools such as social norms, morals and taboos would be the basis for stabilizing a collective ecological relationship, and building up habits and institutions that extend these norms across multiple communities and across time and space.

Rob Shields, University of Alberta