Although the scientific definition of human impacts is important to our understanding, human perception and cultural attitudes to these problems are primary determinants of political action. The psychological and sociological literature of human attitudes to risk are reviewed. In a synthesis of the literature the importance of cultural bias and organizational interests are emphasized over the individual's psychological preferences in our responses to risk.
The Perception of Vulnerability and the Industrial System
It has been widely suggested that satellite pictures of the earth from space may have fundamentally changed human perceptions of the vulnerability of life on the planet (Clark, 1988). For example, the principal architect of the Montreal Protocol on Protection of the Ozone Layer writes:
Perhaps the most poignant image of our time is that of earth as seen by the space voyagers: a blue sphere, shimmering with life and light, alone and unique in the cosmos. From this perspective, the maps of geopolitics vanish, and the underlying interconnectedness of all the components of this extraordinary living system—animal, plant, water, land, and atmosphere—becomes strikingly evident(Benedick, 1991).
This vision of the earth as a fragile system of natural interdependence endangered by human activity is currently a popular one, particularly in the developed world. However, it has arisen as a result of satellite photographs. Early maps of a world surrounded by dragons remind us that the idea of the earth encapsulated in a hostile milieu dates back many centuries at least. Our response to the satellite images may be conditioned by our own accepted myths, perhaps including our memories of these early maps.
When we begin to explore these issues, we discover that the myth of the fragile earth is by no means universally accepted, even within our own culture.