Why Are Environmental Problems Hard To Address?

It’s Earth Day again, are you ready to celebrate? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses a few of the unique reasons environmental problems can be so hard to change.

Humans relationship with the environment is a funny thing. Polls show that the majority of people everywhere value the environment and are concerned about the environmental destruction that humans are causing on the earth (Bell 2011). It would seem that everyone is in agreement; the earth is important and we should protect it. But then why are many environmental problems only getting worse?

But First, Let’s Keep Things in Perspective

Before I answer that question, let’s do a reality check. In many ways, the environment is better today than it was just a few decades ago. This is especially true in the United States and Western Europe. For instance, in the U.S. the environmental movement successfully pressured government officials into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. While some problems like the loss of biodiversity and global warming continue to worsen, it is important to keep things in perspective and not throw our hands up in defeat. Alright, now let’s get back to it.

Why Environmental Problems are Hard

Humans are remarkable creatures that can use their intelligence and technology to break the laws of nature and live unsustainably forever. The previous sentence is what sociologist call an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that people use to make sense of the world. This specific ideology is what sociologists Catton and Dunlap (1978) and scholars from other disciplines call the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP). Simply put, the HEP asserts that humans are not a part of nature, but above nature.

The idea that humans are beyond the control of nature was instrumental to the formation of modern society, all of the scientific disciplines, and to all of the technological innovations that humans have made in the last two millennia. Until very recently in human history, nature was perceived to either be an unending cornucopia of natural resources or as a god forsaken wild wasteland that needed to be tamed by humans.

Today, we are quickly coming to the realization that humans are not able to break the laws of nature and that technology can only delay the inevitable if we continue to live unsustainably. Dunlap (2008) has argued that sociology (and every other scientific discipline) needs to update the key ideas and theories of the field to root out any inaccurate assumptions based on the HEP. Dunlap and others believe that a New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) is what is needed for humans to live in accordance with the laws of nature.The NEP as an ideology would argue that, “humans are one of a great many species in this ecosystem. They must abide by the laws of nature and live sustainably within the ecological constraints of nature.”

Environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity loss are hard to address because so many of our social systems are built on top of the HEP ideology. For instance, let’s look at the economy. As Marx (1978) argued capitalism is built on a set of contradictions that ultimately cannot be out run. Case in point, capitalist economies have to grow to survive.

In a capitalist system the national economy has to grow. Each year if the national economy fails to grow we call that a recession and if it dramatically fails to grow we call that a depression. Seemingly every successful politician ascends to office by promising that they will, “grow the economy,” and, “create jobs.” However, what is the economy if not a system that extracts natural resources to convert them into goods that people need and want? Economic growth then ultimately requires that we extract ever more resources from the earth, which is obviously unsustainable.

The reason it is hard to address environmental problems is doing so would require us to fundamentally rethink almost all of our social institutions. However, human history is full of stories of societies making fundamental changes that until they happened seemed unthinkable. Over the last few decades we have witnessed the people in countries all over the world successfully pressure their governments to protect the environment. Environmental problems are hard, even intractable some times, but that is no reason to through our hands up in defeat.

After all humans are a remarkable highly intelligent technologically advanced species. Today we are working so hard to live above the laws of nature and outrun the consequences. Imagine what we could do if we worked half as hard to live under the laws of nature.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of another example of how the HEP ideology has influenced a situation becoming an environmental problem.
  2. How could our economy adjust so that we didn’t need it to constantly grow? Or put more simply, what would a sustainable economy look like in your home country?
  3. Do you see individuals applying the HEP ideology to their own personal choices? For instance, driving a gas guzzling car, eating a meat heavy diet, or having a lot of children all create negative environmental impacts, but yet people continue to do these things. Can the HEP ideology help us understand these choices?
  4. What are some other reasons that environmental problems are hard to address? Explain your answers and select reasons that were not discussed in this essay.


  • Bell, Michael Mayerfeld. 2011. An Invitation to Environmental Sociology. Fourth Edition. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Catton Jr, William R. and Riley E. Dunlap. 1978. “Environmental Sociology: A New Paradigm.” The American Sociologist 41–49.
  • Dunlap, Riley E. 2008. “The New Environmental Paradigm Scale: From Marginality to Worldwide Use.” The Journal of Environmental Education 40(1):3–18.
  • Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd Revised & enlarged edition. edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.