Research suggests that a pervasive cultural philosophy is fueling
an unwitting march toward global environmental Armageddon.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."
-- POGO --
Walt Kelly's celebrated
cartoon opossum

More bad news for earthlings. Despite decades of struggle against unbridled exploitation of the planet's natural resources, many scientists say an inescapable environmental doomsday looms menacingly on the horizon.

"It's not a question of whether it will happen, or when it will happen," said Bill Kilbourne, a marketing professor at Sam Houston State University who has been conducting interdisciplinary research in environmental sociology. "It's simply the fact that, sooner or later, it will happen."

An eventual disaster, Kilbourne said, is virtually guaranteed by the accelerating growth of the world's population and rising rates of consumption. As these two factors progress unchecked, ultimately, he said, "we will run out of stuff."

Though the demise of Earth, as we know it, could be hundreds of years away, Kilbourne and his research team are not wasting time pointing fingers. For while it's easy to assign blame for specific environmental travesties -- single out polluters, identify failed legislation, chastise policy makers and decry public apathy -- the real fault, the professor says, lies much deeper in the public psyche. It has to do with a system of values and beliefs highly esteemed in Western cultures and rooted in the very philosophies that define our political and economic heritage. Underlying all of this is the controversial notion that our celebrated pursuit for life, liberty and domestic tranquillity is wreaking havoc on the environment.

"The things we now see as ecological damage and destruction are things that, of course, nobody wished to happen," Kilbourne explained. "Yet, with each of us pursuing our own individual interests, we inevitably make other things happen."

Yet the problem is not any specific thing," said the professor, "it is the way we think about everything."

It is this complex social and cultural phenomenon that Kilbourne's research is trying to unravel.


If blame were to be assessed for the current dilemma, Kilbourne said, the finger would have to stretch way back to the 17th century when the great minds of the Enlightenment era were formulating philosophies that pervade our culture today. Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, and John Locke were among those who laid the groundwork for the Western world's emergence as a capitalistic society.

During this period, there was a fundamental shift in the nature of property. Prior to the Enlightenment, property was perceived as essentially communal, said Kilbourne.

"Even though you had possession of something, it didn't give you exclusivity over it."

The notion of private property changed everything. That concept was advanced by John Locke in his theory of possessive individualism. According to the theory, because individuals are free men, in possession of themselves, whatever they attach their labors to becomes their property by virtue of their labor.

"The abuse of private property we now have comes directly from Locke," said Kilbourne. "This is the notion, 'If I own it, I can do with it as I choose. What's mine, is mine and you have no rights to it.'"

"What we fail to recognize in our conception of property now," he added, "is that Locke's world is no more."

Yet a primary role of government in today's capitalist societies is the protection of individual property rights. The intended result, Kilbourne said, is a free enterprise society in which individual maximization of self interests results in the greatest good for everybody. This notion was defined by 18th century economist Adam Smith, who used the analogy of an ubiquitous invisible hand guiding our destiny.

"What we are finding out," Kilbourne said, "is that it doesn't work that way. The invisible hand has become an invisible foot whose force is becoming heavier and heavier. That's how we get ozone depletion. Each of us exercising our preference for cool air. We maximize our own satisfaction there, but when you sum it up, we end up with a collective result that no one desires."

In the early 60s, with the emergence of the environmental movement, the world became mindful of the perils of unchecked environmental degradation. This awareness prompted government to intervene, establishing new laws and regulations aimed at curbing the assault on the world's limited resources. And while some measure of success has been realized by tougher laws and improved technologies, Kilbourne said, there has been no effort to address the root of the problem which is anchored in the political ideologies of the culture.

That philosophy -- propagated in the Enlightenment, embraced by Western democracies, shaped by technology, and reinforced by economic prosperity -- is at the heart of Kilbourne's current research. It is called the dominant social paradigm.


The dominant social paradigm, or model, is comprised of three basic principles Kilbourne describes as "so fundamental that they are never questioned" by those who embrace them. Those ideas, in a nutshell, encompass:

Kilbourne hypothesizes that the more an individual embraces the dominant social paradigm, the less concerned that individual is about the environment. He further argues, that when individuals accepting this model become concerned about the environment, they may aggravate the problem by seeking solutions within the model -- i.e. high tech, high growth, political reform.

So, in other words, the road to environmental disaster may well be paved with good intentions.

"Thus far, it's been true in every country (involved in the research) with no exceptions," said the professor.

To prove his point, Kilbourne and his research associates are conducting a preliminary study measuring attitudes in 13 countries practicing a diverse range of Western-style democracy -- Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, Spain, Slovakia, The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway and the United States.

What he has discovered are two distinct groups among the target countries differentiated, not only by their degree of allegiance to the dominant social paradigm, but also by the extent to which their governments lean toward more socialist forms of democracy.

Those survey participants displaying a great deal of faith in the paradigm, Kilbourne said, "tend to be dyed-in-the-wool capitalists who prefer market solutions to political solutions." The fact that their countries tend to be less environmentally sensitive, the professor said, is related to this attitude.

On the other hand, the study shows that countries whose citizens tend to reject or distrust the paradigm, demonstrate more concern for the environment. These survey participants, representing the more socialist democracies, tend to have a great confidence in their governments, Kilbourne said.

"They are willing to give up economic growth, they are more willing to have political change when necessary and they don't want high technology solutions."

New Zealand, for example, leads all countries surveyed, having the highest ecological concern and the lowest commitment to the dominant social paradigm.

The aim of Kilbourne's research is to define the problem. If his hypothesis is proven, then the traditional approach to tackling environmental problems can only fail, he said, because the problems will be addressed from within the paradigm. Those solutions, he said, only perpetuate the problem, keeping the planet on a collision course with disaster.

The Earth's salvation, Kilbourne said, lies in the people's ability to effect a profound and fundamental transformation of the political and economic system. That change can come, he said, once the defects in dominant social paradigm are realized.


Scientific advances in the 20th century have produced an unprecedented faith in the ability of technology to solve problems. This faith lies at the core of what Kilbourne calls "The Bigger Hammer Solution," his nickname for one of the three pillars of the dominant social paradigm.

"If you have a problem, get a bigger hammer," he summarized. "The fact that it was the hammer that caused the problem in the first place doesn't bother anybody."

But higher technology is not always a viable solution, he said. More sophisticated technology could prove detrimental in cases where lower technological solutions are appropriate.

For instance, a company building a factory in a third world country should utilize labor-intensive technology rather than something like robotics, he said. Such a factory, employing more people, would stimulate economic growth in an area that needs it, whereas a robotic facility would have the opposite effect, exhausting the country's resources and increasing the gap between rich and poor, both nationally and internationally.

Though, in the long run, an automated factory may be less expensive to operate, Kilbourne said, the greater good would be served by the alternative choice of "appropriate technology."

A decision to value the environmental and socio-economic benefits of a more expensive and technologically less advanced solution would stand in direct contradiction of the "techno-fix" predilection prevalent in the dominant social paradigm.


Every election year political candidates -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- promise to create "more and better jobs" for their constituencies. Unemployment, poverty, and even crime is blamed on depressed economic conditions that can be remedied by that all-powerful panacea -- economic growth.

The idea that economic development strengthens the community and benefits each and every citizen is a central theme in business and politics and another major tenet of the dominant social paradigm.

"Capitalism, by definition, requires growth and simultaneously exerts a centripetal force on the flow of capital," Kilbourne said. "This virtually guarantees that the dominant nations will stay rich and the peripheral nations will stay poor."

What this philosophical mandate to grow in perpetuity lacks, however, is any ecological perspective.

"The simple rule is, you cannot have infinite growth in a finite system. Mathematically," he said, "it just doesn't add up."

The environmentally responsible alternative to the infinite growth solution lies in a zero growth economic model, said Kilbourne.

Though radically different from the current economic system, the zero growth economic model, introduced in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill, has been argued for over 100 years. The model calls for a steady state society where material growth is kept in balance, but individual development is allowed.

This revolutionary -- and according to Kilbourne, necessary -- solution is the antithesis of the traditional economic directive embraced by the paradigm.


The first red flag of the environmental movement was Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," which portrayed a dismal vision of the future, a devastated world where industry and technology ran amuck with no regard for environmental consequences. This eerily prophetic tome was to become the manifesto of the environmental movement, spurring a pronounced hue and cry for new laws prohibiting the unchecked assault on the environment.

In the decades since Carson's book, the environment has become a political hot potato. While politicians are quick to proclaim their heart-felt concern for all things environmental, meaningful legislation, Kilbourne pointed out, has been slow to follow.

Even though the United States has some of the strongest environmental laws in the world, he said, these laws are, to a large extent, smoke and mirrors, and, for the most part, remain hopelessly under enforced.

"A law is only as good as your willingness and capacity to enforce it," Kilbourne said. "The Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with enforcing those laws, has been, since its beginning, under staffed and under funded. You have a handful of people regulating tens of thousands of industries. They were set up to fail to begin with."

"If Bob Dole wins his bid for the presidency in November, it is likely the EPA will be scrapped altogether," he added. "Protection of the chicken coop will be turned over to the foxes."

Somewhere therein lies the problem with political reformism, the other leg of the dominant social paradigm Kilbourne calls "Same Game, New Faces."

The concept of political reformism is a cornerstone of Western political ideology. It is the belief that problems can be solved through legislation and the electoral process.

"If you don't like what they are doing, just vote them out and vote somebody else in," Kilbourne summarized. "Of course, what happens is the person who comes in right after them does the same thing."

Kilbourne argues that change cannot come through the political process, because the whole idea of discursive democracy has disappeared. In our economic system, the citizenry has evolved into a population of consumers and, in the process, he said, lost its identity as citizens and, except by default, the ability to govern itself.

"The scale and structure of society has changed as a result of the tack we took on economic growth," Kilbourne said. "Consequently, every decision becomes a consumer decision. The role of citizen, in which we are supposed to decide what constitutes the good life and what are the things we should be shooting for, has disappeared. All that is left is this consumer mentality that says, 'if I just satisfy my own personal preferences, everybody will come out ahead.'"

The possibility of this happening was not overlooked by the country's founding fathers, Kilbourne said. In the formative years of the nation, there was a great deal of concern with the industrial system. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison argued very strongly against bringing industrialism to the United States.

"They wanted an agrarian society, because they believed that was the only society that actually produced citizens who were capable of governing themselves," Kilbourne explained. "Industry, they thought, produced malignant, useless people. It was dehumanizing and part of what they lost was their ability to govern."

Adam Smith, the patron saint of economics, made the same argument about the division of labor.

Unfortunately, their fears have been realized in a modern society where only half of the electorate participate in the election process, said the professor.

The cure for this ineffectual democracy, and possibly the first step away from reliance on the dominant social paradigm, Kilbourne said, would be to transform the political process so that people feel like they have a voice in government. One way this might be accomplished is through proportional representation, he said.

"The current government is a winner-take-all system in which a candidate can take office with a majority of the vote. This always leaves a minority underrepresented," he explained.

Under proportional representation, as currently practiced in Germany, if a party's candidates earn five percent of the vote, they get five percent of the seats in parliament.

Such a fundamental political change, Kilbourne said, would give environmentally concerned citizens a stronger voice in the political process and allow realistic and enforceable legislative solutions to environmental problems. Such revolutionary change, he said, would fall outside of the paradigm's simplistic political reform solution, and be the first step toward a move away from the paradigm's stranglehold on society.


While many of the aspects of Kilbourne's research have been tossed around academia for years, he believes his work is the first to take an interdisciplinary approach, including work from political science, economics, ethics, ecology and technological theory.

"My purpose has been to integrate these disciplines to better understand the implications and impacts of mass production and consumption oriented societies on the natural environment," he said.

His work has earned him accolades from his colleagues at Sam Houston State University where he received the 1996 Excellence in Research Award.

His interest in ecology, he said, was a natural extension of his marketing research on the philosophical implications of mass consumption. His earlier studies examined how individuals obtain identity from the products they consume and the affects of over consumption.

Though controversial -- he was once warned that he would never succeed in academics if he studied these topics -- this research, he said, has rejuvenated his interest in academics.

His passion is evident when discussing his current project, which he hopes to parlay into a grant to fund an even larger study on what he perceives as one of the single most important issues facing the planet.

"Until we get people aware, assuming we are right, that the problem does exist in the dominant social paradigm, then nothing else makes a difference," Kilbourne said.

"My objective is simply to convince people that this is a problem. This is a multi-generational task, and one I have no illusions of completing in my lifetime."


For more information, contact Phillip Rollfing at 409-294-1837 or e-mail

Sept. 24, 1996