Pollution as a consequence of distance

Only two very short decades after ordinary – ‘all too ordinary’ – people shot, gassed, or oversaw the shooting and gassing of other human beings in a mind-bending example of mass inhumanity, a social psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram was conducting an experiment on authority and obedience which would frightfully echo the examples set by the concentration camps across Europe.

Milgram’s experiment measured how willingly participants obeyed the instructions of authority figures. Following the ‘scientists’, ostensibly ‘ordinary and respectable’ participants administered electric shocks to ‘learners’ on the other side of the wall, whose presence was affirmed only by the sound of their yells. The shocks eventually increased to levels which would have been fatal had they been real, with participants requiring no encouragement from the  authority figures beyond the insipid formula `no permanent damage to the tissue will be caused.’

Milgram argued cruelty is not a product of humans per se (as these were quite ‘normal and respectable’ people), but human relationships. In Obedience to Authority, he wrote,

While cruelty correlates but poorly with the personal characteristics of its perpetrators, it correlates very strongly indeed with the relationship of authority and subordination.

Unsurprisingly, one of Milgram’s findings was the inverse relationship between readiness to cruelty and proximity to the victim of this cruelty. When a causal link is established and obvious, so is the responsibility for the pain. When subjects were told to force the patient’s hand onto a plate through which an electric shock would be administered, only 30% fulfilled the command to the experiment’s end. When, instead, the order was to manipulate some levers at a desk, obedience rose to 40%. Significantly, when the victims were hidden behind a wall and only the screams were audible, the number of participants prepared to ‘get the job done’ rose to 62.5%. When the sound was turned off, the percentage only rose to 65%, suggesting we feel mostly through the eyes. The greater the physical and psychical distance from the victim, the easier it is to be cruel. Milgram’s conclusion is simple and convincing,

Any force or event that is placed between the subject and the consequences of shocking the victim, will lead to a reduction of strain on the participant and thus lessen disobedience. In modern society others often stand between us and the final destructive act to which we contribute.


The insights derived from Milgram’s experiment are not limited to the Holocaust; they have a lot to say about our treatment of the environment.

By all metrics, the global ecological crisis is worsening. With so many causes vying for attention, one stands out, particularly in relation to Milgram’s experiments. The causal links which would – under optimal circumstances – connect our actions with their consequences, are broken. And this is all done in the name of efficiency and the rational organisation of our society.

Consider kerbside waste collection. At every stage in the process from beginning to end, house to hole, there is disconnect between subjects and objects, actors and institutions, actions and consequences. Residential waste is kept in a bin outside where the sights & sounds of rubbish can be muted. A human collects it, but their engagement is with a screen, levers, and mechanics; as the rubbish is collected by a robotic arm and emptied into a separate cabin. The ‘contents’ are then ‘processed’ by machines before reaching their destination at a ‘landfill’. All of this is entirely unproblematic when viewed from a rational and bureaucratic perspective. Nobody wants rubbish polluting their kitchen for over a week, and it makes sense to use machines when hundreds of tonnes of rubbish requires collecting. But, none of this is without consequence. We have ‘solved’ the ‘problem’ of household waste, but in such as way that has extirpated the link between actions and their consequences.

Despite the obvious consequences of our wasteful consumerism, there is no moral dilemma here, everything is hidden before it has the chance of becoming noticed. You’re not contributing to the sickening of the planet, you’re just ‘putting something in a bin’. Save your moral opprobrium for the true guilty parties – multinational mining companies, or those who throw their rubbish out of their car windows, onto sidewalks, or into local waterways – even if the only difference, ultimately, is how long the journey is for the trash to poison the environment. Dumping your rubbish isn’t wrong at all, it’s only wrong if you do it where we can see it.

It appears that everyone believes (or, at least acts as if they believe) responsibility for pollution lies somewhere else. Citizens defer to governments, governments defer to corporations, and corporations defer to consumers (who are also citizens). By and large, this crude sketch remains true, true to the point that our society is characterised by a type of ‘free-floating responsibility’ where, because the final responsibility technically always lies elsewhere, it lies everywhere, and thus, nowhere.

Few people would pour toxic sludge in a river, but will gladly (or begrudgingly, which doesn’t change the fact) purchase products from a company which does, thus tacitly endorsing an action they would otherwise find reprehensible. We know our iphones are built under slave labour conditions, that critical electric components exploit Congolese child labour, and that all plastics are basically poison to every proximate landscape and animal. Yet, here we are, buying our iphones in plastic packaging. We simply don’t feel responsible. After all, we aren’t enslaving people or exploiting children, we are ‘just buying a phone’.

The psychologically obvious phenomenon – that it is easier to commit cruelty when we are spared witnessing the outcome of our choices – holds as true for the participants of Milgram’s experiments as it does for us when we throw away our rubbish or buy caged eggs. The pangs of conscience have been eased, but the suffering continues, reminding us that ignorance is not the same as innocence.

Alienation is the contemporary curse. The links between production and consumption have been broken. We buy food but cannot speak of its origin, its quality, or its age. We buy clothes, appliances, construction materials, chemicals, and electronics, but again, we can say nothing of where they were made (other than “China”), the lives of those who made them, the care involved, or the quality of the product. Significantly, we perpetuate so many cruelties along the way because we are simply ignorant of the ramifications of our choices. It is a function of the system: alienation is encoded into the blueprint of our global economy. The links between my actions and their consequences, myself and others, production and my consumption; they have been severed. The result is a world that is wonderfully efficient and organised, but miserably dislocated.

While the chasm of ignorance between our actions and their consequence facilitates cruelty, and while our subscription to rational structures of organisation which dominate our lives might assuage self-criticism and reflection, the solution, as Keats believed, lies with imagination. Once we begin to imagine the consequences of our actions, we cannot help but begin to feel responsible, and once we begin to feel responsible, we will begin to act in the way that such responsibility demands.

It’s certainly easier to buy electronics without thinking about where the minerals were sourced, and to throw plastic in the bin without imagining where it goes, but just because it is easy, does not mean it is right.

Following Milgram, pollution is largely determined by psychological & physical distance. To the extent we can begin living, growing, buying, and disposing locally; and participating in the production of objects of our consumption, we will similarly begin to cancel the impacts of distance. We may find ourselves living in a world where, upon finding we do not like the consequences, will begin changing our actions.

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