Psychological Reactions Boomsters Versus Doomsters

Most people are familiar with the outlines to these problems, but reactions to confronting them are a psychological issue that is rarely addressed. As you read the previous material, did you feel some inkling of fear or despair? Did you scan the material, thinking to yourself that you already knew it? Did you find yourself growing irritated or frustrated? Were you feeling overwhelmed? Or did you wonder what any of this has to do with you? These reactions are important because they mediate how we understand problems and what we are willing to do about them.

One way reactions differ is basic optimism versus pessimism. You might have read the above material and felt growing hopelessness, whereas others might have read it thinking that although the picture seems gloomy, surely the creative spirit of human beings will enable us to invent and adopt solutions to solve our problems. These two views have been called the "doomster" and "boomster" responses (Bailey, 1993).

Such reactions demonstrate the important role that psychology plays in discussions about environmental problems. The boomster view (also called the "cornucopian view") was exemplified by Simon (1981; Simon & Kahn, 1984), an economist who argued that population growth is good because people eventually produce more than they consume. Human beings are not limited by the carrying capacity of an ecosystem, he argued, because unlike other animals, humans have the intelligence to redesign their habitat by inventing technology. Therefore, human ingenuity is likely to produce technological solutions that will solve problems in ways we cannot imagine at present. As resources are depleted, their market costs will begin to rise, slowing use and encouraging alternative technologies to develop. Human beings are (as in the title of Simon's book) "the ultimate resource." The free market will allow human ingenuity to flourish, and therefore human products and human well-being will continue to boom.

Although the boomster view remains a minority one, it is worth taking seriously because of its psychological implications. Boomsters argue that a headline-hungry media that needs to create bad news in order to assure public attention, sufficient Nielsen ratings, and advertising budgets, has exaggerated environmental problems. For example, despite graphic television pictures of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 showing oil-drenched wildlife and blackened beaches, and suggesting that Prince William Sound was hopelessly contaminated, Bailey (1993) argued that U.S. surface water quality improved since 1960. He cited examples, such as Lake Erie along with other waterways, that were cleaned up because of pollution control measures. Similarly, U.S. air quality has improved since 1970, as has air in cities around the world where the average per capita income surpasses $4,000-$5,000. Boomsters argue that as capital wealth accumulates, countries can afford better pollution control measures. Further, as humans depleted resources, they developed alternative technologies, such as the use of iron to replace bronze in 700 B.C., and optic fibers to replace copper in the 1980s.

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg (2001) also argued that things are getting better, not worsening. Life expectancy has increased, infant mortality is declining, and human prosperity has improved overall. Acknowledging that starvation, poverty, and pollution represent real challenges, Lomborg argued that although "being overly optimistic is not without costs . . . being too pessimistic also carries a hefty price tag [italics in original]. If we do not believe in the future, we will become more apathetic, indifferent and scared—hiding within ourselves. And even if we choose to fight for the planet it will very probably be as part of a project that is born not of reasonable analysis but of increasing fear" (p. 351). Lomborg wrote that scientists and environmental groups have exaggerated or even falsified information about global environmental problems, which is exactly what many scientists and review committees have accused him of doing (Revkin, 2003; Union of Concerned Scientists, 2002).

In light of public anxiety about environmental issues, one would expect the boomster view to become quite popular, because it would relieve discomfort about an uncertain future. Yet both Simon and Lomborg bemoaned the fact the public has steadily increased its endorsement of the doomster view over the last few decades. Public opinion polls show a continuous rising of concern about environmental issues, surging membership in national environmental organizations, and soaring donations to environmental causes.

How, then, do boomsters explain the popularity of the alternative doomster vision? In addition to the irresponsible muckraking of the media, Bailey suggested that doomsters speak to some deep psychological, even religious, needs of the public. Doomsters, he argued, are the modern-day versions of the fire-and-brimstone preachers of previous centuries. While describing the coming environmental hell in graphic detail, they scare their audience with dreadful prophecies, then promise salvation through conversion to a new ecological worldview. Boom-sters also see environmentalists' concerns about social justice and inequities in distribution of wealth as only the most current version of the Marxist vision of a world collapsing because of evil capitalism. A secular society that has lost the psychological services of the church still has deep-seated needs to be saved by somebody, and the environmentalists dish out a very successful version of apocalyptic visions with moral imperatives. In contrast, boomsters suffer the problem of having only the status quo to offer.

As psychologists, we find this debate intriguing because it demonstrates that perceptions of, and responses to, information about the environment depend on psychological needs. Boomsters and doomsters argue their cases with numbers and data, but obviously their conclusions are based on more than "facts"—they are also based on assumptions and values. The invocation of religious needs to explain environmental attitudes explains the counterintuitive reality that most people are willing to take a more pessimistic viewpoint, even though a more optimistic one would make them feel better. This explanation also implicates the role of the press in affecting beliefs, forcing us to consider how information is presented to us, what assumptions we carry to it, and how we construct conclusions. Whatever else the boomster position does, it makes a good case for the importance of psychology as an environmental science. We will discuss both the informational and spiritual dimensions of environmental concern in the following chapters as we examine more fully the ways in which people perceive and believe messages about environmental problems, and how they respond to them.

As the majority, doomsters show variations on their basic theme of pessimism, and do not always agree with each other, especially with respect to solutions. Some suggest that our problems can only be solved by massive governmental regulations, whereas others argue that only transformation of our deepest spiritual values will extricate us. Disagreement over solutions is inevitable, but giving up on them altogether is one risk of the doomster position. Lomborg had a good point: The complete "gloom and doom" picture can lead us to conclude there is no hope for warding off environmental catastrophes. The problems seem too huge, too complex, and too expensive for human beings to manage, and government control seems as unlikely as spiritual trans formation. In light of inevitable collapse, the best way of coping would seemingly be to ignore these issues, as their damaging effects will occur regardless of understanding or efforts to delay them. Thus, many people assume that the only thing they can do is to live the best they can in the present, and try not to worry about a dismal future.

Whether one takes a boomster or a doomster reaction depends on one's assumptions about the future, and the future, of course, has not yet happened. Therefore, no one can say which one is more correct; instead, both are guesses. Arguments about specific data on particular environmental threats usually evolve to the conclusion that the past is not a sure guide for the future. For example, doomsters would say that even though technology has bailed us out so far, we cannot know that it will always do so. Boomsters would say that just because some resources are running out and pollution is accumulating, an as-yet un-imagined human ingenuity will surely solve these problems.

These predictions about the future are contradictory and both cannot be totally true at the same time. Our guess is that something in each view is partially correct. That is, although environmental difficulties are grave, some aspects can be and have been addressed by human effort. In any case, we propose that while pessimism may be understandable, and may even be inevitable, it is also unaffordable if it leads us to ignore ecological threats. Allowing ourselves the luxury of slipping into despair is to bet against the future of our children and perhaps against all the life systems on the planet. As Kates (1994) put it, "Hope is simply a necessity if we as a species, now conscious of the improbable and extraordinary journey taken by life in the universe, are to survive" (p. 122).

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Responses

  • susan whitney
    How are boomsters important?
    6 years ago

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