It is one thing to speak of environmental apathy in an abstract sense, to make sweeping generalizations about an oil-addicted America that thrives on excessive consumerism, and quite another to confront it in the mirror every morning after a long 20-minute shower or while driving to a grocery store that is only five blocks away. Few would argue that the current rates of resource consumption in the U.S. are sustainable. According to a new TIME magazine/ABC News/Stanford University poll, the majority of Americans (85%) now acknowledge that global warming is not just a wild fabrication of an alarmist scientific community. Most Americans even support government intervention to restrict auto emissions and are in favor of increased government spending on the development of more sustainable environmental technologies. Why then has apathy become instinct in this country? Why is there a disconnect between the numbers reported in polls and the number of Americans willing to act to create a more balanced relationship between humans and the environment?
Apathy is often explained away as mere ignorance, and ignorance is certainly alive and well. As a student, I am all too familiar with the deathly silence that sweeps through a classroom when a professor asks that students comment on international events (Darfur? Bangla…huh? I have a seven-page essay due in 12 hours. Who has the time to worry about that?). As a future elementary school teacher, I also am familiar with the lack of time dedicated to environmental issues in the classroom. Our elementary school children—the ones who will be most affected by changes in the environment—are indeed being left behind. We are teaching them their multiplication tables and the parts of a sentence but often leaving out how important it is to recycle waste and conserve energy. Our children are our greatest resource, and like most other resources, we are giving little thought to their future. Our current consumption rates certainly seem to suggest that we are bent on having the next generation rely on state-issued respirators by the age of 50 and being sold their daily water by private companies. An end to apathy begins by realizing the importance of encouraging children to internalize good environmental habits from a young age so that they can later fix the problems we are so thoughtlessly leaving behind.
Not to say that the whole of the educational system neglects environmental issues. There are some proactive teachers and students out there that are coming up with inventive ways to promote environmental awareness (here are some examples). But achieving the level of awareness needed to rid the masses of apathy requires more than the concern of a select number of schools. There is little doubt that the environmental apathy of the federal government is contributing to the indifferent eco-attitude of Corporate America and the average citizen. In order to effect long-lasting and widespread change, a cohesive national government system that makes environmental issues a priority by funding research on alternative energy resources and using subsidies to reinforce eco-friendly practices/destabilize corporations that carelessly pollute is needed. Does our current government meet these requirements? The majority of American people would argue that it does not. (It did once. In Florida, I think.) Still, some local government officials are taking a more proactive role in creating “greener” cities. The fact that most people are reacting positively to these citywide changes is a testament to how deeply government attitudes influence the attitudes of the general population.
So, if apathy is born of ignorance and perpetuated by the poor prioritizing desicions of government officials, then what can individuals do to overcome apathy in a culture that encourages this indifference? The first step to any successful detox is to acknowledge the problem (Hello, my name is America. I am a hyperconsumer of resources). Step 2: Use the uniquely human gift of self-reflection to make conscious decisions that reduce the human impact on the environment. Step 3: Encourage others (government officials, neighbors, meat-eaters, the family pet) to do the same. Taking these (oversimplified) steps is far more difficult than it sounds. But the alternative is to let good ol’ American apathy drag us away. And we must not be dragged down, America, or we will drown in our destruction.