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Thanks to cultivation of a slackline hobby, I have been recently spending sunny afternoons in one of the Cape Town parks, amongst suburban dog-walkers, young parents and their offspring. It all does seem rather idyllic, but have no doubt, the activity can frequently turn unpleasant. This is thanks to the dog walkers, or in fact a specific category of them – those who don’t poop-scoop. I don’t blame dogs – dog does what dog has to do, and park’s lawn is as good a dog toilet as I could imagine. But if you are a social being, and if you decide to cohabit with an animal in your urban jungle pad, you should be aware of the consequences – one of which is the need to scoop. You scoop not because there is a by-law (there is), you scoop because you respect thy neighbour.

Right… unpleasantness aside, what’s the point of this story? The point is, that to me, the poop-ignorer’s behaviour is an essence of the system of values that largely shapes our (society’s) attitudes towards fellow man, environment and such global challenges as climate change. Let me explain.

Firstly, why do you think people do not clean up after their dogs in a public park, where there are hundreds of strolling people and frolicking children? Because they do not notice? No. Trust me. They watch their dog do it, and then walk away. Because they have no idea what the consequences are for someone who steps in? How couldn’t they? They would not want to have their shoes soiled, would they? (Let me digress here – the consequences of stepping into dog’s do are not dire. It’s temporary inconvenience and unpleasantness. I won’t go as far as to suggest that there are some health and safety issues to individuals or general public. There are none, or very very minimal). Because they have a gagging reflex? Perhaps, but, then why do they expect everyone else not to have it? I think they do not scoop because they cannot be bothered, because they are not concerned about other people there, because it is “below them” to do such a lowly thing as cleaning after their dog. Because they are arrogant people who at heart do not have any sense of community, compassion or respect to other people (if at other occasions they show these characteristics, I believe it is just for show). That’s why.

Problem is that these are intelligent, well educated, wealthy people (we are talking a rather affluent neighbourhood here). They most likely occupy leading positions in the society – they are managers, directors, maybe academics, maybe CEOs, or perhaps mid-level politicians. Even if they actually do not fill these roles, then still – they are the middle class (at least income-wise) – representing the position in the society that the less fortunate multitudes most likely aspire to. What if the poop-ignorers uphold the system of values presented in the park in the rest of their life and in their jobs too?

Now, I came across a study that tackles values and motivation in the decision making process. Fascinating read. Apparently each of us subscribes to a set of intrinsic and extrinsic values. Extrinsic values focus on reputation, power, image and money. Our extrinsic values require other people’s approbation for our own sense of well-being. In the meantime, intrinsic values focus on being comfortable with yourself and who you are. They are about being embedded in your family, your community, among your friends, and not needing approval from other people in order to demonstrate to yourself that you are worth something. Everyone’s system of values falls somewhere in between these extremes, and the values and life-goals at the opposing ends of the spectrum are as follows:

affiliation and self acceptance vs conformity, image and popularity (need of acceptance from others)
community feeling (make world better place) vs financial success (make one’s life more pleasant)
benevolence (loyalty, honesty, responsibility) vs achievement (ambition, success)
universalism (equality, unity) vs power (wealth, dominance, authority)

The study, commissioned by WWF, is most likely one-sided and somewhat skewed. But in your honest opinion, aren’t the above intuitive? Of course one can find exceptions. Perhaps there are extremely ambitious people, driven by desire to be financially successful, who are really truly compassionate and want to make the world a better place, and as soon as they make the proverbial million, they will happily distribute it amongst the needy, and use the power they wield to transform the society to be more equal and egalitarian. It seems, however, that this is not the behaviour prevailing in the society.

Coming back to the environmental/climate change issues, there are linkages between the values we adopt and environmental attitudes. For example, values of power and achievement are associated with viewing humans as consumers of, rather than part of, nature. The consequence is that people with strong intrinsic value are less concerned about how environmental damage affects other humans, children, future generations and non-human life. Where these self-enhancing values promote concern about ecological damage, this concern is limited to an egotistic consideration of how such damage might affect one personally. Additionally, a focus on extrinsic life-goals is associated with a higher ecological and carbon footprint due to choices of what one drives, where one lives and what one eats. Also, extrinsic-focused people are less likely to save, recycle and reuse. Interestingly, people’s values affect their preferences and support for climate-change related policies: “Support for national and international climate policies was strongly associated with pro-egalitarian values, while opposition was associated with anti-egalitarian, pro-individualist and pro-hierarchist values. More, these value commitments were stronger predictors than either political party identification or ideology” ( Leiserowitz, 2006). Well, this might be changing, depending on the social environment, and source of “financial success”: one can easily imagine ambitious upcoming entrepreneurs supporting climate change adaptation and mitigation policy because it opens new avenues for achieving financial benefits.

So, in general, the extrinsic values do not have much environmental “cred”. Yet as a society we promote them. Financial success, image, popularity etc. is what dominates the “positive” side of the media. The imperative of economic growth is an absolute, and financially successful, ambitious, dominating people run our banks and industries. They run our countries. Our education systems are no more about knowledge, they are about pass rates.

No wonder the nature per-se is no longer a part of climate change or environmental discourse. We do not talk any more about the need to protect the environment for its own sake. People with strong extrinsic values who make decisions, on whom the workings of the world depend on, do not understand this language. They usually live isolated from itchy, dusty, smelly nature, and it does not affect them personally apart from the time when (to borrow from and paraphrase Terry Pratchett) their Range Rover overrun a duiker. They see nature only through numbers in revenue column, be it political, or monetary. We’ve created a system where natural environment has to have a measurable value. Value to us, humans. We justify protecting a species not by the fact that it is an amazing product of evolution/creation*, but because it may one day bring a cure to cancer. In our world, ecosystems no longer function. They provide services. As George Monbiot funnily notices: “Hills, forests, rivers: these are terribly out-dated terms. They are now called green infrastructure. Biodiversity and habitats? We now call them asset classes in an ecosystems market”. The ecosystem has to serve us. Because we, as a society, have unconditionally adopted extrinsic values. An even the most passionate green extremists subscribe to such approach, for they know that while they benevolently argue about the non-monetary value of ecosystems, the ambitious are pillaging them for financial rewards.

Let’s think about ourselves: what values do we subscribe to? What values will our children subscribe to? Perhaps it’s the time we pick up some poo.

*whatever your preference

One Response to “Scoop the poop”

  1. Willem Stefaan Conradie

    Thanks Piotr. Great article. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to respond, I was having problems with my login. What you discuss seems to me to be the crux of the matter (the issues of climate change and environmental degradation); our inaction (or whatever else it should be referred to as) stems to a large extent from our view of one another, sentience more broadly and nature in general. Not a pleasant thought.