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Dan ArielyBack to OpinionDan Ariely

Why do we care about the Gulf but not the oceans or the Amazon?

There are few topics that Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin agreed on, other than the cause for human apathy. So I suspect that both would be surprised – as I am — about the reaction to the BP oil spill.

If six months ago someone were to describe to me a tremendous oil spill and ask me to predict our collective reaction to it, I would have said that we would be highly interested in this disaster for a week or two and, after that short time, our interest would dwindle to “mildly interested.” After all, we (the public) appear only vaguely interested in a whole slew of environmental issues. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest, for example, has been going on for decades. Since 1970 we’ve managed to destroy about 600,000 square miles, but we’re so used to these kinds of statistics that no one seems to care much.

The Amazon River

So, why is it that we care so much more about the BP oil spill than about what happens on a daily basis in the Amazon? Here’s what we know about human caring and compassion. First and foremost, it is based on our emotions rather than our reasoning. Joseph Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.”  Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the masses I will never act, but if I look at the one I will.” In oil spill terms: We see pelicans and turtles mired and dying in oil, and we want to cry. We hear about families who have had their homes ruined and their livelihoods horribly affected or even destroyed, and we sympathize with their helplessness and want to do something to help them recover.  Our compassion isn’t necessarily proportional to the magnitude of the catastrophe. It depends on how much of our emotion is invoked.

Perhaps I’m mistaken about human apathy, but it is also possible that there are particular features of the BP oil spill that influence how much we care, and that if these features were different, we would care substantially less, even if the magnitude of the disaster were the same.

Here are a few characteristics that might differentiate the BP oil spill from the destruction of the Amazon. First, it is a singular event with a precise beginning. Second, while the tragedy was ongoing (and we are not yet sure if it has ended or not) it seemed to become more desperate by the day. Third, we have a single organization that we can villainize. In contrast, in the Amazon, there are many organizations and individuals at fault, both in the countries where deforestation is occurring and abroad. And fourth, the Gulf is so much closer to home (at least for Americans).

The BP oil spill is, of course, a hugely devastating tragedy. At this stage, we don’t fully understand the magnitude of its consequences, which will likely last for decades. At the same time, it might be worthwhile to take this moment in history as an opportunity – when our caring about this tragedy is still high – to reflect on our larger relationship with the oceans, and the apathy with which we generally greet the less dramatic, but perhaps equally devastating, environmental consequences of overfishing and “everyday pollution.”

I suspect that, because our abuse of the oceans is commonly the result of many small steps by many people, we fail to become enraged with either the process or the outcomes. But we should. And we should do our best to take better care of our oceans, and not only when the pollution is caused by a single large, easily villainized organization.

Maybe this is another chance to make sure we don’t waste a really good crisis (for a related missed opportunity, see financial crisis). Maybe it is time to look more broadly at our interactions with the oceans and make this a better long-term relationship. And maybe we need to do this while we still care, and before our interest in the oceans dissipates.


  • Dmajor

    Dan, I speak the same language as Gulf people. I can (& do) drive down to the Gulf. I *know* about Amazon, but my heart’s in NOLA.

  • AJ

    I would say there’s a strong element of ‘it’s on our doorstep’ almost forcing people to care about it.

    If a dog takes a crap a mile away, I couldn’t care less. If it does it on my street, I get irritated. If it comes into my house and takes a crap on my bed, I go bananas.

    I’m sure that people who live near the Amazon care hugely about what happens there, so asking why “we” don’t care about it assumes a local standpoint on the oil spill anyway.

  • Aimee

    I’ve been sending money to charities protecting the Amazon for years now and doing everything else in my power as a low-middle class person from far away in Ohio to change the situation. This makes me wonder why it’s assumed that people don’t care and where they’re getting their bad information from. When new disasters strike in our “backyard” they take precedence, but that doesn’t mean that anyone has forgotten the Amazon.

  • S. Lincoln

    Some of us have been very concerned about the fall of the Amazon rainforest. I have signed every environmental petition to protect it for years now. I also know that the statistics say that if the Amazon rainforest continues to fall at the current rate it will be completely gone by 2033. I have also kept up on what that means to our planet. People are also ignoring the fact that we currently have large oil spills going on in Australia and the Red Sea. You are correct, we must all pay attention to ALL environmental destruction going on all over the world because in the long term it will affect all our lives. Please continue to spread articles and news on these issues! I for one, will re-post them to as many places as possible!

  • Peter

    Let’s be perfectly clear about this: “We” are not destroying the Amazon. Brazil is. Not too long ago President Lula said that the “gringos” will have to pay up if they want to protect the Amazon. So, yes we do care that the Amazon is being destroyed, but unfortunately sovereignty gets in the way of us doing anything.

  • Christine

    It is sad that even the environment brings out comments of prejudice.

  • Frank

    If it was ExxonMobil, Chevron or Gulf you can be sure it wouldn’t be such a big deal but since BP isn’t American…

  • Why do we care more about the Gulf than the Amazon? | RSS Lens

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  • Andrei

    As sad as it may sound, the fourth reason alone is the most important: if a similar spill has occurred elsewhere, much farther from US shores, from white sands of Pensacola and Louisiana shrimp farms, there’d never bee the same level of resonance, especially among Americans.

    And another sad truth is that this spill won’t really make it any different for the Amazon rain forests.

  • Eniac

    @Peter, whoa so much bullshit. Brazil is NOT destroying the Amazon, it IS doing it’s best to protect it, and it IS illegal do deforest it. But do you have any idea how BIG that forest is? It’s almost half the country, and there’s even more outside of Brazil. IT IS HARD to protect form illegal activities, which doesn’t mean it’s not BEING protected.

  • Terri Holley

    There are many people in the US, including myself, who care deeply about the destruction of the rain forest and have done everything within their power to prevent further action within or against it. What affects any aspect of our earth affects us all and I am deeply concerned about the depletion there. But unfortunately most in the US who do care are powerless to do much more than write letters of protest to governments and corporations involved or donate to organizations trying to protect it. We cannot directly affect legislation of those countries allowing the abuses or take a physical stand there. But we can here and I do. In fact, Mr.Ariely, as a gulf coast resident in Pensacola, Florida, I am horrified by this tragedy and the losses we have sustained and heartened by the response. I pray that it signifies an awakening movement and understanding of the importance of protecting every inch of our planet from nations or multi national corporations who would destroy it for profit.

  • david ropeik

    Professor Ariely,
    You guess at the characteristics that make the oil spill particularly emotional valent. There are science-based literatures in risk perception that can remove most of the guess work. They identify specific characteristics of risks that make them more or less “scary”. Catastrophic risks (Gulf oil spill) evoke more concern than chronic ones (Amazon). See
    There is much more about what we know, and don’t have to guess at, about the psychology of risk perception in the book I sent you, “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”. If you choose to comment on risk perception in the future, perhaps you might find it helpful.

  • Sushma Bhateley

    Americans have alway been very territorial. This is in our backyard, hence the uproar. Also most Americans have never been out of the country. It’s the ‘haven’t seen it, so it doesn’t matter’ mentality. It is the very reason why in any disaster overseas, here they will report EVERY TIME for example 303 people were killed AND 5 Americans. It has always galled me.

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  • William Zaffer

    NIgeria has been pollutee big time and no one cares. Of course we drive our cars for our lifestyles and hey China and India are buying them up big time so just the downside of needing oil. I wonder what the real war over oil will look like? I am to the point to not watch the news and live as green as possible. I tell people to have less children of only one or two and we should be spreading that message to other countries. Of course religions will not allow common sense. Add urban sprawl sickness menatality which is just more energy intensive and the recipe for needing oil is obvious. Oh, my next car when able hopfully will be an American made plug in electric and using solar to recharge it at home. I also live closer in town and try not to use my car as often or long distance but feel why should I when most people do not give a horses ass. I can go to church and live in denial and say God has a plan. That fairy tale does not fly with me.

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