Interview: author Tom Oliver on individualism and climate change

Tom Oliver is a professor of applied ecology at the University of Reading and published his first book: ‘The Self Delusion: How You Are Connected to Everyone Else and Why That Matters,‘ earlier this year.

Oliver outlines his argument that although this illusion of individualism has helped us to survive as a species so far, to tackle the big global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution we must see beyond this mindset and understand the connections between us.

Why do you think a connection to nature is so important? 

There is lots of new research in the field of environmental psychology showing that when people feel connected to nature they tend to have more environmental behaviours, they tend to recycle more, buy sustainability, reduce their carbon footprint, volunteer for environmental causes.

There is a clear link between our environmental psychology and our concrete behaviours.

The big driver of the global environmental problems that we face is our huge unsustainable consumption.

At the moment, a lot of people are focusing on solutions at the level of institutions, for example, implementing a carbon tax.

These are essential tools but are not necessarily sufficient to address the crisis. We need to go to the core and address the demand, we need to tap into individual attitudes and behaviours

There’s a big movement in conservation away from traditional ideas to get people to protect species for their intrinsic value and instead to focus more on the instrumental relationship humans have with nature where we quantify natural capital and ecosystem services.

The danger of this is that if you just follow that completely, you’re not addressing demand in any way, you’re just optimising a dwindling supply of resources and making sure the landscape can deliver these things, water quality, air quality, biodiversity.

By framing nature as capital and the things it does for us as services, that language moves us further from nature being part of our identity.

We need to be more aware of our relationship with nature and not just treat it in an instrumental sense.

Do you think we can resolve climate change in a capitalist society when the focus is on individual consumption?

I wouldn’t say that capitalism can’t work, but as we’ve become an increasingly globalised society and the value chain between something we buy and the ultimate impact has become much longer and more difficult to check, pressures on the environment have become much worse.

For example, I wouldn’t keep battery chickens in my garden, but I might go to a café and order poached eggs that are from battery farmed chickens.

It’s difficult to know the impact because the whole supply chain is so complex and it’s easy to turn a blind eye and say it’s the responsibility of the café owner, but they might say it’s the supplier’s responsibility and the supplier might say I’m just producing these eggs because people are ordering them.

That’s a real issue, as our economies have become globalised, you’d hope we would have a legal or moral system that has also become globalised.

The responsibility is so diffused in these long value chains and we haven’t found a way to deal with that.

In a global society, it’s difficult to identify who the cheats are when there are thousands of steps between buying the product and the impact

We need to readdress the balance.

I don’t think it’s about abolishing the self and getting rid of capitalism, it’s about thinking about the connections we have and our sense of responsibility as a wider community and as an ecosystem.

You discuss that with the inevitable climate migration, societies may help those in their communities but push away people that are outside. Why do you think humans respond will respond in this way? 

It’s a very topical subject, we are very short-sighted in terms of our ability to see some of the things that are happening now and extrapolate forwards to future scenarios of environmental change and crucially how our attitudes and values can affect the outcome.

I think we should be having much more open debates about the impact on human migration and how we respond to that as a society, not just thinking about that now but in 20 years time.

When societies face disaster they tend to just protect their in-group and have more antagonism with their outgroup, we see that now with the rise of nationalism, building walls etc.

It doesn’t take much to see that the migration we see today is just a trickle of people compared to what we may see in 10/15 years as whole areas become uninhabitable.

In a globalised world, when we face environmental challenges it’s not a sensible solution to close borders and work as an isolated entity, there is no such thing.

You write that we have a small window to change our mindset and move away from this individualistic approach. Are you hopeful?

I think we are at a crossroads, there is a growing awareness of the science behind our connectedness.

School climate strikes are a great example.

But even though there is growing ecological consciousness and a growing nuanced understanding of the changes and how we might address them, you also have the whole economic system which is locked in like a juggernaut moving in its own direction of increased individuality.

Personally I’m quite an optimistic person and although we are locked into certain environmental impacts for sure I think as we start to understand these better we can increase collective responsibility rather than driving populist right-wing movements.

Not that everything will be rosy, it will be severe in terms of environmental shock but I think we can harness this shock towards a more collective pathway.

The book is available to buy here: 

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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Pippa Neill

Pippa Neill

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