Why do people engage with environmentally damaging behaviours in full knowledge of the consequences?
To quote Greta Thunberg, ‘our house is on fire’. Our house being the Earth, and the fire being environmental destruction continually wreaking havoc with our planet – be that air pollution, increased temperatures or the endless waste filling our seas and slowly piling up across the earth. The situation is dire. But – to prolong the house analogy – instead of jumping out of bed and throwing everything we can in an effort to extinguish the blaze, it would seem that many people are instead choosing simply to wave a tea towel at the fire alarm, or half-heartedly throw mugs of water at the flames. Some people are ignoring the fire completely, preferring to sit on the sofa and distract themselves, whilst others are even arguing the fire doesn’t exist. But, why is this? Why is it that a large percentage of our society are not taking the necessary steps to protect our planet from a climate apocalypse?
Studies have clearly shown that it isn’t because people don’t understand what’s at stake. Climate change was seen as the biggest threat to humanity in a poll of 26 countries conducted by the Pew Research Centre, and in the UK 74% of people either agreed or strongly agreed that ‘the world faces a climate emergency’ and that ‘global warming will soon become extremely dangerous without a big cut in emissions’. But clearly, thinking does not always translate into action.
It’s old news in the sustainability sphere that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way an individual can reduce their negative impact on the planet. But, while veganism is undoubtedly growing (an estimated 1.6% of the population in the UK follow a plant-based diet), the vast majority of people continue to eat either meat, dairy or both. Socio-economic challenges aside, are there psychological reasons why people continue to consume products that they know are bad for the environment? This question was assessed in part by psychologists Bastian and Loughan in their paper ‘Resolving the Meat Paradox’. Although the ‘meat paradox’ is focused on the conflict people feel between eating meat and harming animals, it could easily be applied to environmental destruction, too. If the same principles are applied, Bastian and Loughan’s theory would state that people who eat meat whilst simultaneously having a concern for the environment experience cognitive dissonance, and ‘seek to justify these self-serving behaviors so as to protect their own interests’ – interests being taste and ease of diet, among others. Justification can come in multiple forms, one being the rescinding of responsibility. Following social norms, such as the traditional Sunday Roast, or a standard hangover bacon sandwich, are straightforward ways in which people practise their reduction of responsibility and thus convince themselves that their individual dietary choices are not part of, or responsible for, the impacts of meat eating on our environment. This is only part of the problem, though: additional studies reveal that men feel social pressure to eat meat, creating an additional barrier to reducing or eliminating consumption.
But there is more to environmental destruction than meat – a whole host of other damaging behaviours exist; the ‘meat paradox’ could easily be the ‘fast fashion paradox’ or ‘holidaying abroad via plane paradox’. But, what happens when people don’t just try to justify environmentally their environmentally damaging behaviours, but fundamentally misunderstand them?
The ‘mental model’ is a term used to describe someone’s thought processes or understanding of the world around them. Their ‘mental model’ in turn shapes their behaviour, reactions and decision making. Mental models are usually an accumulation of previous experiences, intuition and facts – but often incomplete facts. In terms of climate change, people will have existing mental models which have built up over their lifetime; this may not seem like a problem – but when it results in confirmation bias (where people choose to only absorb information that fits their existing mental model) it can prove almost impossible for new information that contradicts what someone thinks to be true to be processed and acted upon. A good example of a common mental model relating to climate change is derived from the ozone layer. The hole in the ozone layer (caused by a separate environmental problem) was extensively covered by the media; as a result, ozone mental models were constructed. However, this established ozone mental model has become conflated with climate change – many people believing that, for example, the hole in the ozone layer is causing global warming by allowing more solar radiation into the biosphere and thus heating the planet. This is incorrect and can lead people to supporting initiatives that do not tackle the real causes of global warming, such as reducing their carbon emissions. Our mind is playing a trick – thinking it’s tackling addressing a problem, when really the problem is being misunderstood.
But even if our minds manage to correctly understand climate change, people can find that they face yet another mental hurdle – eco anxiety. In her book ‘environmental melancholia’, Dr Lertzman explores the difficulty people face in overcoming and acting upon their feelings related to climate change – often, it is not a lack of concern that restricts people taking action, but a feeling of being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, mixed with feelings of conflict. Lertzman draws on the experience of people who live in areas that have seen some form of environmental degradation as a result of industrialisation – these people are nostalgic for the days before, for example, local water sources were polluted whilst equally recognising the benefits of the industrialisation that caused the damage, and concurrently feeling as if they can’t do anything about it anyway. This feeling of being disabled by strong emotions linked to climate change is also explored in a 2017 Report, ‘Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance’, in which Dr Howard S Kurtzman believes that human responses to climate change (such as fear, fatalism, conflict avoidance, helplessness) are preventing effective and appropriate responses to climate change. The overwhelming and complex nature of environmental damage and our climate crisis is metaphorically paralysing – often people don’t know where to begin, so instead do nothing at all.
But some people don’t just misunderstand or feel overwhelmed climate change – they actively deny its existence, adamantly ignoring or discrediting science and evidence. Al Gore hit the nail on the head as to why: climate change is an inconvenient truth, and as a reaction to this inconvenience, people choose to pretend it isn’t really happening. Perhaps this is in response to the abovementioned eco-anxiety – instead of dealing with the emotions produced by climate change, people find it easier to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t real. However, a 2014 article concluded that climate denial, in the USA at least, is a three pronged ideological choice, based on:
- Defending short term economic gains from polluting industries;
- A conservative and libertarian belief that government should be small, practise ‘laissez-faire’ politics and keep regulation to a minimum; and
- A belief in maintaining the ‘American way of life’ including the freedom to consume as one pleases and grow material prosperity.
In this case, climate denial is just the other side of the emotional response coin – a fear originating in climate change but instead concerned with the potential for loss of autonomy and freedom as a result of catastrophe-mitigating action.
Our minds are complex and there are a myriad of reasons why people may or may not choose to act when it comes to Climate Change; only a fraction have been touched on in this piece. However, taking action is now a necessity – putting up mental blocks on the truth or deciding that someone else can take responsibility just isn’t going to cut it. Taking a reusable shopping bag to tesco doesn’t offset the environmental cost of the steak inside it, or ignoring the carbon impact a long haul flight isn’t going to stop the emissions entering the atmosphere. Whichever way your brain is tricking you into believing that climate change isn’t your fight, or something you have any power over, it is now more important than ever to recognise the truth. Our minds have been playing games, but as time goes on and we inch closer to climate disaster, we have no choice but to start winning.