If you feel bad about the environment, go green – Advice Eating

I was once filled with youthful optimism about the power of psychology to solve environmental problems. After all, problems such as climate change, air and water pollution, deforestation and the depletion of natural resources are almost entirely the responsibility of humans. As an expert on the way people feel, think, and behave, I argued that we could use psychology to understand, prevent, and “treat” environmental problems.

Now I’m more pessimistic about the fate of our environment based on what I know about the psychology of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Honestly, the social and psychological forces that drive it derogatory behavior (Behaviour that harms the natural environment) appear far more powerful than the motivating forces environmentally conscious behavior (environmentally friendly behavior).

The gap between environmental awareness and behavior

In a class I teach, students complete an environmental awareness activity. Their scores consistently show high levels of concern about a variety of environmental issues, including climate change and its associated impacts. In the following week they carry out a comprehensive inventory of their personal sustainability behavior. Almost all of them do poorly despite their high level of environmental awareness.

Psychologists call it that worry-behavior gap. Correlation studies find only low correlations between environmental awareness and environmental behavior. Typically these correlations are between 0.17 and 0.19. Small correlations like this suggest that environmental concerns are a relatively weak predictor of pro-environmental behavior. Of course, if your environmental awareness is very high and an important part of your identity, the relationship will be much stronger.

Source: Shawn M Burn

The problem: barriers to environmentally friendly behavior

The gap between concern and behavior is not so mysterious when you consider the many barriers to pro-environmental behavior. These include:

  • Barriers to competing attitudes. Convenience, cost and pleasure often trump people’s pro-environmental attitudes and lead to derogatory behavior. For example, some people love the comfort of their SUV and their daily coffee in disposable cups. People on a budget may choose products based on cost rather than how “green” they are. Others rely on single-use plastics for their convenience.
  • habit barriers. Derogatory behavioral habits have become established and new, environmentally friendly ones are difficult to establish. We’re used to mindlessly going about our routines. At first it’s hard to remember to do things differently, like bring your own bags to market or not throw all your trash in a bin.
  • ignorance barriers. People aren’t always aware that their behavior is derogatory, or they don’t know how to behave in an environmentally friendly way. Due to a lack of environmental education, many environmentally conscious people do not know what they are contributing to environmental problems and what they can do about it.
  • barriers of social norms. Many people find it difficult to act in an environmentally friendly manner without the support of family, friends or culture. For example, in some political circles, climate change denial is a social norm. Switching to a plant-based diet or reducing meat consumption reduces our carbon footprint, but many of my students say this is not socially acceptable among their families and friends.
  • set barriers. Our pro-environmental behavior is influenced by the environment and whether it enables green behavior. For example, is composting and recycling possible where you live? Are compostable take-away containers offered? Do local restaurants offer plant-based options? Are there recycling bins at your workplace?

Psychologists have developed antidotes to these barriers. In theory we have many solutions, but in practice we lack the support we need to develop them and implement them on a large scale.

Shawn M. Burn

Source: Shawn M Burn

The Problem: The Current Bias (And Other Bias)

Sustainable action requires future-oriented thinking. It’s about playing the “long game” to guarantee your future and the future of the children in your life. But people tend to focus on what’s right in front of them, the “here and now.” You exhibit them bias present and choose the pejorative behavior with its instant rewards over the green behavior with results they can’t see right away. Likewise, they won’t make the change if they don’t like the solution (solution aversion), and if they want to make something bad enough, they ignore the environmental consequences (affect heuristics). Ironically, the rewards of our pejorative behavior are often trivial and short-term (like the convenience of single-use plastics), but we prioritize these minor present-day benefits over long-term cumulative costs and sustainability.

Shawn M. Burn

Source: Shawn M Burn

The problem: Perceived lack of control

A perceived lack of control is another common reason for inaction. Environmental problems often result from the cumulative actions of many people, groups and organizations. As a result, individuals often feel that what they are doing is irrelevant, a “drop in the bucket”, and they do not feel responsible. This perceived lack of control and its corollaries of helplessness, passivity, and diffusion of responsibility feed our inaction.

Shawn M. Burn

Source: Shawn M Burn

The problem: selfishness & social traps

People tend to be selfish and this explains some degrading behavior. Individuals, corporations, groups and/or governments may choose to treat shared environmental resources (Commons) in a way that serves the public interest and ensures sustainability. Conversely, they may choose to behave selfishly and exploit or degrade the commons for short-term benefit. When confronted with it social dilemma, people often choose the latter, more selfish option. They reap all the benefits of their derogatory behavior while the costs are borne by all who share the commons. They also argue that if other Commons users are acting selfishly, they might as well be doing the same. Unfortunately, if many common shareholders act selfishly, the resource is certain to be mined or destroyed (we call this a social trap).

Shawn M. Burn

Source: Shawn M Burn

Where is this taking us?

Despite my cynicism, I think we must remain hopeful and nurture the hope of others through our actions. Instead of making trivial excuses, we can educate and empower ourselves to take personal and political action for environmental sustainability (and educate our children).

There are many things individuals can do to reduce environmental problems, including applying bottom-up pressure on business and policymakers. History is full of examples where the cumulative efforts of individuals and groups brought about important changes, even when those in power resisted.

From my point of view, there is definitely no hope for a sustainable future if individuals stop making an effort. Tasting gives us hope and also a clear conscience when dire warnings arrive. When the kids in your life grow up experiencing poor environmental quality, scarcity of resources, and climate change and its wrath, at least you can honestly say you tried, and maybe they won’t blame you for it.

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